Working title: Rainbow Rain - (c) 2014 Daniel Grant Art - All Rights Reserved
Like almost all of my friends, I was born on Mars. I left as soon as I could. No one stays on Mars. There’s no atmosphere, no water. It’s just a dead rock hanging in the sky. To celebrate my twentieth year of life in the dust, I signed an employment contract with the only company crazy enough to try terraforming an entire planet. To get there, we traveled more than three parsecs at half light-speed. There was no return ticket… and I didn’t want one. I took a hyber-sleep transport to a new terraforming colony on a small planet circling Epsilon Eridani. More than twenty years passed in the galaxy while we flew, but I felt nothing. No dreams. Not even the cold crept in. My body was frozen and my mind was simply gone.
When I left for the colony, business was great and the pay was astronomical. I’d be making ten times what I could have on Mars. Most of the work was automated – the mining droids just needed minding. Sometimes they’d encounter problems they couldn’t solve. No one could have known how much would be lost during the trip. We’d learned many years ago that a single human can’t be trusted to monitor a ship full of reefer sleepers, as the frozen passengers were called by the ground crews. Two people living in a small ship for years was no better. Murders became commonplace and whole ships were lost in the early days of colonization. No one talked about it much anymore. We all quietly depended on the ship’s integrated artificial intelligence to deliver us safely to our new home.
During the twenty sol-normal years that passed as we sailed through space to the Eridani system, the colony’s government collapsed. What had once been a stable and highly efficient colony with more than five thousand citizens disintegrated in less than a single year. The company had assumed that they’d be able to control their employees through an inflexible set of mandates and policies that left the planet’s colonists with little freedom in their professional or private lives. No one in the company had fully considered the psychological effect of knowing that leaving Eridani was absolutely impossible. Lacking any experience even remotely similar, the company’s executives simply could not imagine the withering isolation that comes with being imprisoned on an alien world. When we initially signed our contracts, we knew that we’d never leave. But actually being marooned. On Eridani. Nothing could have prepared us for it. The oppressively unavoidable feeling of isolation and dislocation was pervasive. While Eridani was an excellent choice for atmospheric creation and global terraforming, it was nothing like Mars. Even the workers from Earth found themselves missing the permanently polluted ocean shores of their massively overpopulated home planet. Eridani’s gravity was fractionally less than Mars, which was lesser still than Earth’s. The lighter gravity allowed for mining operations to penetrate hundreds of kilometers under the planet’s skin. Everyone enjoyed the freedom of being able to float and glide about by wearing a small anti-graviton lift pack. Eridani was beautiful in its own way. Multitudes of jagged and starkly lined peaks were the primary remains of the planet’s previously violent geological upheavals. Lit by a brilliantly white star much smaller than our own, daybreak on Eridani would bring beautiful showers of ionized particles dancing down from the mists constantly erupting from our atmosphere creation towers. The children called the particles rainbow rain.
The company was correct when they assumed that the alien beauty of Eridani would amaze and entertain their employees for many years. How could it not? A significant propensity towards exploration was absolutely a requirement of every colonist the company selected to send to Eridani. What the company failed to project was the nearly unstoppable force of human adaptation. The company’s psycho-social statistical projections indicated that any minor upwellings of discord within the employees would be easily subsumed under the pervasive culture of Eridani, a culture that had been strongly imprinted in the minds of the first colonists and maintained ever since as an essential maxim of survival. No one on Eridani could ever escape – even for a moment – from the reality that we were all irreversibly dependent on each other for our survival. Signs constantly reminding us that “No one walks alone on Eridani” could be found everywhere in the colony, an incessant reminder that dissonance and discord would not and could not be tolerated. The company’s psycho-analytical review teams projected that permanent social stability in the colony would depend on the constant maintenance of this idea of interdependence. The company made one horrifically unfortunate mistake in their projections. They utterly failed to accurately evaluate the persistently disruptive effects of placing a small group of individuals in such complete isolation from the rest of humanity.
Projected socio-cultural behavior maps were generated long in advance of the colony’s initial founding. The company expected to be able to maintain a consistently efficient workforce indefinitely. They saw no reason why the colony’s rigid legal structure would not be able to withstand any issue encountered on the remote planet. While the company sponsored a “citizen’s review board” to provide the colonists with at least an air of democracy, in reality everyone knew that the company’s directors were fully autonomous dictators with absolutely no accountability. In the end, the company’s foolish assumptions and vastly misguided socio-economic projections proved to be lethally flawed.
While I was being defrosted from my long hibernation, our transport ship automatically settled itself into a stable orbit around Eridani. Our chief staff members were scarce as rumors of communication issues floated around the lower chambers of the ship. It was not a pleasant way to reanimate into the world of the living again. It felt like awaking to a lingering dream, one in which it’s completely uncertain whether you’re still sleeping or just starting to wake. We spent weeks waiting and patiently orbiting the planet while we found ourselves completely ignored by the residents of our new home. We’d expected a party – transport ships only arrived once every few years. Instead we found nothing more than a bleak stillness that set all of us on edge.
Lacking any signal of life from the surface, it was decided that a landing party should be sent to the surface to look for survivors or at least evidence of what had happened to the colony. Volunteers were needed and I joined up immediately. Anything to get out of the ship… Mars has been anciently old and utterly devoid of any life for so long it seemed impossible that anything could ever thrive there again. Even the water on Mars was old, mined from enormous deposits buried impossibly deep under the surface and inexorably infused with countless minerals from its long imprisonment.
But the ship was a tomb. Without the hopefully still functioning habitat modules on the planet’s surface, we would not last more than a few months before the ship’s systems would be permanently exhausted. It was enormously expensive to accelerate our ship and all of its associated cargo up to speed during our voyage from Mars. It would have been inconceivable to have included additional supplies and materials to sustain the ship’s life support subsystems for years after our arrival in the Eridani system. Lacking any clear plan or direction, we filled a single transport with all the supplies we could fit in. No one knew what to expect – the company had never lost an entire colony before. It just seemed impossible that everyone could have died. It was too much for any of us to accept.
Our descent was routine. Eridani still lacked an atmosphere of any significance, despite the efforts of the terraforming towers that had been running continuously for decades. We arrived at a small dock overlooking a remote tower. No one greeted us. There were no parties, no excited colonists pushing drinks into our hands and eagerly evaluating the newest members of their society. We found a world filled with efficiently functioning machines, but with no occupants. Nothing evidenced their previous existence other than the silently functioning machinery feeding the tower’s constant belching of oxygen enriched, chemically balanced and beautifully life-giving air. These machines were designed to last thousands of years. They needed little human intervention to monitor their production. No tools were left strewn about, perhaps indicating an unexpected threat or some massive but as yet unexplained calamity. All of the auxiliary equipment was neatly stored away as if the previous residents had been planning their departure for some time. It would have been easier to have found chaos and destruction. Arriving to find such perfect emptiness of vacancy was much too unnerving for us all.
The colors of Eridani were almost overwhelming in their alien beauty. There were thirteen of us in the exploratory party. Some of us were brave and sure of their ability to counter any danger we might face. Others were more cautious. Those were the ones that lived, in the end. As for the rest… they never had a chance. I never fit into any category. After landing we set out to explore the area surrounding the tower. It looked like no one had been around in more years than any of us wanted to imagine. We took a vote and elected to wait in the shuttle until the dawn when we’d be able to explore farther away from the tower.
We set out as soon as the first light broke over the Eridani’s horizon. We explored the areas surrounding the tower but found nothing. We traversed the surface in a grid pattern, each team responsible for scouring their segments and expected to report back absolutely anything that might have indicated what had happened to Eridani’s population. An alien landscape surrounded us, lit in shockingly strong hues that were almost violent in contrast to the drably muted tones of Mars. While we’d been frozen for many years on our journey, it seemed only a few weeks had passed in our personal subjective time. In between that darkened void of missing time we’d been transported, thrown across the dark recesses of space by strapping ourselves to an enormous atomically-fired rocket. The new landscape that greeted us on Eridani was as foreign to us as Mars had been to the first colonists from Earth who arrived there more than six hundred years ago. We were miniscule in relation to the immensely alien nature of Eridani. Nothing here was familiar, nothing was known to us. We might as well have been babies teetering on the verge of their first steps, staring in wonder at their new world of elevated perspective. No training could ever have prepared us to be lost on an empty world with only the mockingly efficient terraforming machinery surrounding us. No one snapped immediately. I’ll give them credit for that. Weaker spirits might have crumbled immediately upon realizing the frighteningly obviously implications of our initial search of the grounds surrounding the terraforming factory. We appeared to be alone on Eridani. No other explanation could be conceived to explain the absolutely abandoned factory, a location that should have been overflowing with technicians and support personnel, all eagerly attending to the machines’ needs and tirelessly adjusting, measuring and monitoring the factory’s sole product – breathable air.
I lead my recon group across the sections we’d designated as beta 4, 5 and 6. To call our search unremarkable would have been annoyingly pointless. We walked, which is to say that we traversed the search area with great ease. The robotically assisted suits we wore artificially enhanced our natural muscles, allowing us to travel efficiently across Eridani’s surface without needing to stop and rest. Anti-graviton boosters were saved for more important missions, as we had no idea if we’d ever be able to recharge them. Shades of insanely vivid violets and rich aquamarines were everywhere, constantly reminding us that neither the Earth’s sickly, ochre-tinged green nor the anciently exhausted red of Mars could be found here. Rarely did we find any equipment in disarray – almost all of the supply containers were safely stored. There was just nothing to indicate that there’d been an emergency or a horrible tragedy that would have explained the desolation we found in every corner of our search.
We regrouped and after weighing our bleak options, elected to travel to the sky city some three thousand meters above Eridani’s surface. Eridani’s lighter gravity allowed the early colonists to suspend huge platforms high in the sky, away from the transiently, geologically unstable surface. While tectonic activity was rare on the surface, even a single large incident could rend large sections of the planet’s surface much more violently than on Earth. Some of the customized experimental machinery that the earliest colonists brought with them needed to be maintained in nearly vibrationless facilities. While that would have been nearly impossible even on Mars, Eridani’s thermally stable upper atmosphere, thin as a single strand of nano-filament, was an ideal location. These platforms were surrounded by enormous spheres of carbonite glass, allowing for appropriately pressurized atmospheres to be maintained within the confines of the spheres. The carbonite glass had transiently prismatic properties that caused some of the incoming light to be refracted in beautifully chaotic patterns across the cities. The light persisted even though no one was left to witness its graceful dance.
Thousands of people should have been living in the cities. Only empty streets and abandoned buildings surrounded us. Nothing had been abandoned hastily. There was no destruction, no scattered belongings to indicate that everyone had been forced to leave in a panic. No bodies, no blood, no hidden notes from the final survivors containing clues to the loss that occurred. The totally isolating and oppressively tidy appearance of the empty city froze us with its mute absence of anything remotely human. None of the colonists had been selected because they lacked humanity’s formidable survival instinct. All of the colonists were mentally robust individualists who’d been dealing with harsh environments and remote locations for most, if not all of their lives. One or two of them might have broken under the intense isolation of Eridani. But not all of them. They would not just lie down and give up. Absent any indication of a calamity or massive disaster, no one in our party could conceive a single cohesive theory as to why all the colony’s residents had disappeared.
As we prepared to travel back to the planet’s surface and the safety of our shuttle, we found them. Or they found us. After all that’s passed since then, I wish we’d not been so determined. But who can blame us? We did exactly what they expected us to do. We followed the company’s rules and obeyed the emergency search directives. We had no reason to think that we were being hunted. As the Eridani night descended on us, we were captured. They surrounded us as we approached the tube transport that would have taken us back to the surface. They outnumbered us but there was no need for a fight. We wouldn’t have fired on them. We couldn’t – it was inconceivable. We were all too shocked to realize the danger we were in. We’d been hoping to find someone still alive who might have been able to help us understand how the colony fell. None of us wanted to inherit a dead world, populated with silent machinery and empty cities in the sky. Looking back now, I realize how wrong we were. After learning the truth of Eridani, arriving to a tomb world would have been a paradise that we would have gladly embraced and cherished.
We were armed of course – collimated xenon masers were never intended to be used against another human being, but they were quite effective. The first Mars Revolution that occurred barely one hundred years after the first settlers arrived there from Earth had taught us that trying to ban lethal weapons on interplanetary transports was utterly ineffective. Lacking traditional arms, the colonists modified equipment for new uses that no one had had previously realized would be possible. Water extractors were enhanced to become horrific weapons of death by near-instant dehydration. Robotic mining droids were reprogrammed to fire upon any moving object without hesitation. Heavy lift platforms were converted to drop from the sky without warning, crushing anything underneath them into the hopelessly blood-stained Martian dust.
The colonists quickly surrounded us as we prepared to board the city-to-ground transport tube. Armed with bizarre makeshift weapons, some of which seemed to be more for show than for effect, the raiding party clearly had no intention of allowing us to board the tube. No one spoke – there was no need for threats. We all knew how far away we were from any help. The most alert of the raiders gathered up our weapons which we silently relinquished. Some of the other colonists seemed strangely distracted, as if they could no longer consistently focus their attention on the situation. They appeared to be relatively healthy but their clothing was tattered and mismatched, as if they’d all thrown their closets into a huge pile and then each person had grabbed a handful of whatever they could find to wear. Some stood with angry faces and hardened eyes, not belying their true feelings to anyone. Others were sad, lacking the conviction of a person certain that their actions are truly necessary. Still others smiled maddeningly, as if they alone possessed the knowledge of a secret so immense and integral to our survival that they dared not share it with anyone at all.
Quickly and with no explanation, we were led away from the transport tube and through the empty streets. The apparent leaders of the raiding party walked ahead of us, rarely bothering to glance behind and verify our acquiescence to their silent demand of obedience. Others walked with and amongst us, almost as if they believed themselves to be our friends or companions. The oppressive silence continued with our party remaining mute and the colonists apparently so sure of their victory that they elected to lead us to our destination without any fear of revolt. After a short while we found ourselves entering a large building, apparently previously used as a workshop for repairing some of the service robots that tended to many of the mundane tasks around the colony. Racks of parts extended deep into the building and on oversized worktables the remains of many projects lay scattered, as if their creators had found themselves too bored to complete any single repair. Behind one of the back tables sat an ordinary female colonist, distinct from the others only by virtue of the enormous shock of brilliantly red hair that cascaded down in front of her lowered head. As we approached, she looked up and smiled. It was not a smile of welcome or even acknowledgment. It was a smile of ownership, a cruel sneer that belied a spirit that was no longer capable of feeling anything at all. She gave us no name and we didn’t ask for one. To have denied that she was clearly the tyrant of this deserted city would have been impossible. Her bizarrely twisted energy struck out at us as we approached and she slowly glanced over the newest residents of her dying colony. No one could escape the chill of her gaze – it stole into us like an icy frost that pierces deep into your mind, slowly rendering your will mutable to her strategies.
“Do you know why you’re here?” was all that she asked of us. No one responded – none of us had any idea what had happened at the colony. She proceeded to enlighten us. “There was a… shifting of the tides. The company didn’t stick us out here so far from Earth just for fun. They were working on a… project. Not the kind of project that you’d want in your backyard. We’d all heard the rumors, the suspicions. The company thought they could keep it all under wraps. They were idiots. Once we all knew, it was over in only two days. We took over the entire colony. All of the company administrators were killed. We did not leave a single one… ack. You must think us monsters of the highest order. I assure you, we are not. They – the company – they were the murderers. We didn’t sign up for their insane plan. They knew… they knew what they were doing.”
“Doing!” I shouted. “Doing what? What the hell happened here?” My voice broke at the end. I was half way to insane with panic. I could wait any longer for her answers.
“The company’s researchers found a way to reach back in time, if only in theory. They had no way of being sure it was an accurate theory. If it was, it would have been the most valuable tool in all of history. Imagine! Being able to travel to any time and witness the events that occurred! You can see how they might have become obsessed with the idea…” she drifted off, staring away with a look of warped wonderment at the sheer magnitude of the idea. “The company knew it couldn’t possibly test its prototype anywhere within the Sol system. It was just too dangerous – they had no idea if the process of viewing past events would damage the space-time continuum. But here on Eridani? Well hell, we’re light-years from Earth and even if the entire colony is lost, who will ever know the truth? Don’t you get it? The company never cared about us! We’re nothing, less than nothing to them. When they first tested their damn machine, we could all have been torn to shreds from the inside out by gamma radiation. Or all of Eridani might have been instantly de-existed. Not killed. Oh no. Much worse – none of us would have ever existed. Just… erased. All the way back to our births. Canceled out. With no warning. Don’t you see! They’re the monsters! Not us. We didn’t ask for this. They lied to us! We all came here expecting… well perhaps not expecting to be safe, but not for this. Not to be so… miniscule. So utterly irrelevant to the Company’s plans.”
“So? Did they succeed? Eridani’s still here, so you didn’t all disappear.” I said.
“Succeed? What is success? Not atomizing over five thousand souls for no reason?” She answered. “Oh yes, they succeeded, if that’s what you want to call it. The time viewer works. It doesn’t, apparently, damage space-time. But the way it works… well… it’s not exactly perfected just yet.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Either it works, or it doesn’t!”
“Not exactly. But you’ll find out soon enough.” As she smiled cruelly, I realized that I was no better off with her than I would have been with the company. Both of them had no intention of doing anything other than using me until I was as spent as the Martian soil I’d left behind forever.
We were lead out the room and directed to a makeshift holding cell down the hall. Our cell was small and dirty. It looked like it was the previous home of countless discarded food storage seal-vac bags and the corroded, destitute dredges of equipment far past any hope of serviceability. Thin glimmers of Eridani’s bizarre sunlight found their way to us through the soot-encrusted windows that adorned one of our walls. The smells of our cage were acrid in their age, leaving us with a sense of isolating separation from anything that might have lived on this planet. No one spoke. There was nothing to say. Nothing could have prepared us for being captured by the people we’d come to save.
Eventually one of the colonists came for us. Only one of us was taken – a young man from Mars’ outer colonies, his skin forever burnt beyond a dark umber by years of a childhood spent outside of the primary colonies’ majestically purple ultraviolet shielding. I don’t even really recall his name anymore. He could have been my brother, but when they took him, no one moved. We offered no resistance. Am I ashamed to admit this? Not at all. We were marooned. There were no rules to govern our situation, no translucent grey slate upon which to review the collected wisdom of our expedition’s sponsors. We never saw him again, not alive.
More were taken. None returned. After the third, we all knew that we were not going to be released. Whether we were to be rendered into food for the remaining colonists or set loose to asphyxiate on the surface of Eridani was not relevant. There was no source of hope for any of us.
Weeks passed in our cell and nothing happened. Our routine became centered on meal times and occasional word games we played to stave off the incessant boredom of our days devoid of even the bizarre light cast by Eridani’s sun. We began to wonder if we’d be forgotten, abandoned to rot away in our cell and eventually merge into the faceless concrete walls surrounding us. Some of us began to lose ourselves to the monotony of our seemingly endless captivity. Then one day, perhaps weeks or months after we’d been moved to the holding cell, they came for us.
“It’s time…” is all our captor had to say. None of knew what she meant. If we had, we might have all taken our own lives to avoid the horror we were to be thrust into. But we couldn’t have known. No one could have imagined that another seemingly human being could impose such a trial on another. Perhaps the years the first colonists spent on Eridani had changed them, modified them somehow in some utterly unnatural way until there was no trace of empathy left. Perhaps they just had nothing left, no hope, no dreams of a better future, no reason to ever again be concerned with the fate of another. Speculation was impossible. We were faced with monsters, frightfully empty creatures who’d been stripped of everything that makes a person whole. Many of us had been born on Mars or the outer colonies, sharing our birthplaces with our captors. Our shared origins were meaningless to them – they seemed incapable of remembering that they once lived in a society under the rule of law and governed at least by the most basic tenants of human civilization and a shared appreciation for fundamental human dignity. Monsters evoke fear and a desire to escape their terrible grasp. These people, even if they still deserved such a moniker, were far more empty than a monster. They appeared to have no emotions left at all. Perhaps in wake of their extended absence from anything remotely familiar, something fundamental to their perception of morality had been lost. I could spend years speculating on their motivations, only to find myself arriving at the inescapable conclusion that there was simply nothing to evaluate, no deeply hidden motivation that failed to present itself. This conclusion frightens me more than anything, more than the clearly erroneous idea that our continued existence held any interest for them.
We were taken one by one from the cell. Almost no one was ever returned. Those few that survived their first encounter with the colonist’s experiment refused to speak of what they’d seen. They returned to us… different. Changed in some horrendously fundamental manner that was incomprehensible to us. We tried in vain to extract even the smallest bit of information that might prepare us, but they could not communicate. It was as if they were not even in our presence. The shells of their bodies returned to sleep and eat, but never again to live as they once had. They had no focus, no ability to say in the present moment and to speak with us about their experiences. They would constantly drift off into the vast recesses of their own minds, lost in contemplation of events of which we had no knowledge. No fire burned behind their eyes, no spark of life lit their faces or animated their bodies. They seemed devoid of absolutely everything, as if their strength and vitality had been viciously drained and collected for some other use. Then one day, my time came.
“We’re ready for you” said our captor, the apparent leader of the colonist’s band of torturers, while she cast a brilliantly unconcerned gaze in my direction. “Ready for what?” I asked, but I received no response. I was led out of the cell by a team of six heavily armed colonists. Any chance of revolt, insurrection or resistance was clearly impossible. I might have succeed against one or two of them in hand to hand combat, but never six at once. I knew that physical resistance would only hasten my death. Despite the horror of our confinement, I was not yet lost to despair. I still wanted to know what we were to do, what insane plan the colonists had formulated for us. I had no hope of survival, yet I was not yet ready to become a mere experiment. I had not given up everything and come so far across the galaxy to have my life end in ignobility. I needed to know. I needed to face my tormentors with strength and resolve. It was all I had left and I knew that I was not capable of relinquishing my life without knowing why I was to be sacrificed. Nothing else was left for me, no hope of freedom, no glimmer of escape back to the relative safety of my Martian home.
Out of the cell and down the narrow hallway we traveled, my escorts flanking me like a phalanx of mutinous companions. No one spoke and I resisted my intense desire to question my captors. I expected no response to my entreaties, if I’d even been able to have voiced my questions. The colonists were cold, hard and utterly devoid of any emotion. It was as if they’d lost something during their time on Eridani, as if they’d become mere shells of their former selves, driven forward solely by a singular goal with no ability to think or reason beyond their own sickeningly twisted goals. Had they all vaporized instantly into ghosts, nothing would have changed. These were not people any more, not humans, not even alive. They were more than robotic in their motions, goose-stepping along at a perfectly synchronized pace and never falling out of formation for even the briefest of instants.
I was let down a seemingly endless series of unmarked corridors and hallways, snaking our way under the center of the first and primary colony on Eridani, apparently without any direction or destination. Or so it seemed to me at the time. After almost an hour of traversing the labyrinthine network of adjoining and intersecting passageways, we arrived at an enormous set of heavily reinforced doors, towering almost forty feet above our heads. The doors were unremarkable other than their gargantuan size, diametrically opposed to our meager forms before them. A single logo was emblazoned in the center of each door, stating simply “Restricted Access” and “No Entry Without Authorization”. I didn’t want to know what lay beyond the doors. After my guards paused, I asked “What now?” but I received no response. I might as well have been an ant, staring up at a thumb coming to crush me into oblivion. My relevance just did not exist. I was less than a human, less even than a valuable test subject to be experimented upon and then discarded when my utility had ceased.
One of the guards, apparently the leader of the group, approached the doors and gazed upward expectantly. Within a few seconds of his approach, the doors cracked open with a grinding sound so deep I felt it more in my gut than with my ears. It was as if a hundred tons of metal were being shoved aside by a giant. The doors gave no evidence of their supports, no gleam of metal to indicate where they were actuated. They simply parted, revealing an interior chamber clutter with a great mass of equipment, some clearly medical in nature and others stubbornly refusing to give any indication of their function. My role in the colony was to have been as an electromechanical and pneumatic specialist, servicing the deeply intricate mechanisms that had been erected many years ago to begin the process of transforming Eridani’s atmosphere into an environment suitable for human inhabitance. Nothing I saw in the chamber was familiar to me. I was faced with a myriad array of devices and machines that were utterly foreign to me. The technology I was unlike any I’d found in all my years working on Mars. It was clearly many decades in beyond anything we’d had access to on Mars, if not hundreds of years in advance of our Martian resources.
I was led in frightful silence to the middle of the room, if a space larger than a small auditorium can be described as a room. None of my guards spoke as they broke away from me, leaving me facing the apparent leader of the surviving colonists, the same woman who’d executed our capture with such passionless fortitude up on the sky city level of the colony. Wordlessly, she directed me to a large reclining chair adorned with a motley selection of pads and cushions that had been haphazardly affixed in an apparent attempt to provide some level of comfort to the chair’s occupants. I almost expected blood stains or even pieces of flesh that had been rendered from the previous victims of this hopelessly insane director of the remaining colonists. Seeing such clear evidence of physical torture might even have been easier for me. Knowing that my body would fail and that the pain would have had to end, eventually, would have been simpler, cleaner somehow. As least there would have been an end to anticipate, a final release beyond which I could be free. But she was to give me no such solace. Her intentions for me were far beyond the flesh. She intended to stretch my mind, twist and bend it in horrendous ways, inflicting a form of pain previously unknown to humanity. I knew nothing of this upon my arrival to the enormous laboratory. But she knew. Oh how she knew. She herself had attempted to take a short journey through the time viewer soon after the colonists has routed and killed all of the company’s loyal employees. At that time, most of the critical control equipment that regulated the distance in time that one could “see”, if seeing is an accurate word to describe something that occurred solely in the mind of the subject of the experiment. Her journey had only been a few days back in time, allowing her to witness, or experience, the events directly proceeding the colonist’s revolution against the company. She’d wanted to see if anything could have been done to have reduced the heavy losses the colonists sustained when they took Eridani by force. Instead she discovered why the company’s experiment was still not complete.
No simple window on time was opened by the experimental equipment that the company had erected here on Eridani. Unlike the ancient and crude “moving pictures” created on Earth many thousands of years ago and still available for viewing in the MWR, the Martian World Repository which contained documentation and records going back to before the Earth’s surface was rendered virtually inhabitable, this experiment didn’t open a magical window in space through which past events could be viewed. This was not a projected image, not a wormhole punching through the fabric of space-time and allowing us to safely observe times long since passed. Even with all that we’d discovered as a species, we’d not come even close to being able to generate enough energy to safely pinch together two pieces of the Universe. If we’d had, there would have been no need for us to have been turned in to corpse-sicles to survive our long journey to Eridani. We’d have simply teleported ourselves from Mars, arriving instantly at our destination as if we’d just walked through a door into another room. No one had ever postulated any theory that would allow for such mind-bendingly powerful manipulation of space and time. While it had been proven to be possible to complete such a feat, the energy involved was so great as to render the task impossible without a massive and revolutionarily enormous discovery of a new source of energy in an amazingly concentrated form, a breakthrough that was still many thousands of years in advance of our currently technological capacities.
The ancient scientists on Earth and their later counterparts on Mars had long speculated that it might be possible to send consciousness back in time to observe past events from a purely non-physical perspective. Previous experiments, originally deemed to be utterly fruitless and hopelessly speculative, had eventually revealed that the human mind, the consciousness that pervades each of our existences, existed in a semi-aligned state of quantum flux, at times directly intersecting with the physical reality of our bodies while consistently remaining stubbornly unwilling to be isolated into a single field, particle or wave function. Indeed, the very basis of our reality, the bizarrely foreign and seemingly non-unified interactions and relationships of sub-atomic particles, appeared to hold the secret to consciousness’ attraction and union with the spark of physical life than animated all of us. No scientist had ever established a definitely causal relationship between the arising of consciousness and its corresponding effect, namely the ability for a physical being to live and thrive. But over time and against all of the prior canons of assumptions that had formed the basis of our understanding of why life was possible at all, scientists at first and eventually other researchers and academics had firmly established an understanding that consciousness was and remains to be a non-local and wholly pervasive aspect of every aspect of the physical universe. Indeed, the puzzle of why particles and wave functions would seem to resolve themselves to a single location or frequency only upon direct observation could only be resolved by establishing consciousness as the first mover in the Universe. The implications of this theory were vast and wholly incompatible with the long held prior assumption that physical life leads naturally and inevitably to the establishment of consciousness and later, self-awareness. To say that awareness came first and lead directly to the arising of life in the forms that we understood it was equally as incomprehensible to earlier scientists as was the amazingly old notion that the Earth was a flat disk of matter floating in space, a theory long held by the ancients living on Earth.
We were all aware of this most basic premise of our modern scientific knowledge. However none of us could have ever expected that someone would have found a way to exploit the mind’s primacy in the levels of existence we all experienced and understood. The colonist’s bizarre brand of perversion, their grandiose dreams of perfecting the company’s initially experimental mechanism for thrusting a mind backwards in time, even against the desires of the subjects of their experiments, was not what we expected to find on Eridani. To say that the remaining colonists had become less than human in their cruelty was as appropriate as describing a mound of dirt as a gigantic mountain with peaks reaching far beyond the clouds. Initially, none of the colonists had dared to try the company’s apparatus on themselves. After they overthrew the company’s government and took control of the planet, they spent almost a year reviewing the detailed records the company had maintained, attempting to understand all of the prerequisites necessary for running a successful trial of the time viewer. The colonists were clearly insane but they were not stupid. They had no interest in powering up the viewer without understanding what its abilities entailed. Few remained in their ranks who were capable of understanding the highly intricate processes involved in successfully establishing a stable link to a past time. Almost all of the company’s scientists had been killed in the initial uprising, primarily because the revolting colonists had no idea of the real purpose for which Eridani had been settled. If they had, they would not have been so hasty in their slaughter of anyone who dared to stand against them. I doubt the colonists had been possessed of the ability to have thought so far into the future to have foreseen the consequences of murdering virtually all of the colony’s scientific staff. Perhaps it was just as well that they did. If they’d spared any significant number of the scientists working on the viewer, I suspect they would have used any means necessary to have forced them to divulge the details of the viewer’s correct mode of operation. Lacking such assistance, the colonists had spent most of their time awaiting our arrival poring over the research notes that had been left in the colony’s database, painstakingly attempting to understand the requisite steps necessary to activate the viewer and maintain its stable operation without damage. Because of the massive size of the viewer, only one had been constructed on Eridani and the remaining colonists had no interest in accidently destroying the only significant resource they had at their disposal.
The viewer’s energy was provided by conversion of the planet’s geothermal energy into electrical power. Conversion units buried deep in Eridani’s crust soaked up the latent heat from the planet’s core and transformed the raw energy into clean electricity in massive quantities. The time viewer consumed so much electricity that it was impossible to sustain a stable link indefinitely. Instead of maintaining continuous operations, the viewer ran off of an enormous bank of ionic batteries, drawing down the collected energy of the entire battery bank in only a few hours. Refilling the batteries required at least a day of downtime, resulting in an experiment that could only be run a couple of times a week at the most. The company had been working on alternative sources of high capacity electrical energy, including a long-term plan to erect a small nuclear fusion plant located on the far side of the planet, safely out of range of the colony’s primary living centers. None of these plans were ever seen to completion due to the revolution and resulting disarray. The massive electrical requirements of the viewer were channeled into the mechanism via a vast series of cables that stretched in all directions away from the core of the viewer. So numerous were the cables that when seen from a distance the viewer resembled nothing more closely than an overgrown artificial arachnid, comfortably resting at the center of its mechanical web. The viewer itself was not evil in its design and it was not cruel in its function. It was neutral, supporting neither the positive nor the negative possibilities of its abilities. The viewer was unconcerned with the fate of those strapped into its metal arms. Its purpose was set, its function was hardwired and its use was governed solely by a group of individuals who’d somehow become utterly lost and stripped of all that had previously granted them humility in the face of their crimes and empathy for the fate of the others under their control.
Into the cold embrace of this monstrous spider I was to be entrusted and I had little doubt that my captors were unconcerned with the possibility of an unexpected failure of the apparatus. If I became trapped, lost in deep time and forever separated from my body, the shell of flesh I once occupied would have been cast aside without a second thought. If such a calamity were to have occurred, would I even have been mourned? Few knew of my plight on Eridani. We’d had no way of contacting the company back on Mars to report the colony’s overthrow. The colonists had complete destroyed all of the long range satellite communication links that had previously been feeding regular reports on the colony’s progress back to the company’s headquarters. None of this was known at the time we embarked on our flight through the stars to Eridani. The revolution had occurred during our transport and our ship was never designed to reverse course or to make a return trip from Eridani to Mars. Simply gathering sufficient nuclear fuel to power our fusion engines had represented an enormous expense for the company. That was why our trip to Eridani could only be a one way ticket. We’d all known this before we departed, but we were expecting to arrive in an established colony that was fully operational and ready to welcome us. No one in the company had ever spoken about even the remotest possibility of the colony failing. The company was the largest employer on Mars by a huge margin – they enjoyed enormous profitability from their centuries-old practice of remotely mining asteroids for raw materials. For lack of a better phrase, every single resident of Mars simply considered the company to be far too big to fail in any endeavor it sought to undertake. So entrenched in Martian politics and business was the company that they’d essentially become a quasi-governmental agency, wielding enormous influence over the Martian government and its people.
But here on Eridani, the company offered no such protection. While their reach was fast, Eridani was simply too remote, too isolated in the all-encompassing vacuum of space. No rescue mission would be mounted. No one would be arriving in a secondary transport to investigate why we’d failed to report back to the headquarters in many weeks. To have said we were marooned on Eridani would have been to imply that there was something, anything at all that was familiar or known to us. But there was nothing. Eridani was an alien to us as anything any of us had ever experienced.
“Sit” was all my captor said. Her face was a brutally cold mask of indifference, either failing to offer even a hint of the humanity that had once filled her, or simply revealing her totally lack of concern with anyone else, perhaps not even her own fate. A catastrophic failure of the time viewer might have subjected her and all of our other captors in the lab to enormous risk from radiation, electrocution, or some other fate as yet unknown to any of us. Yet she remained in the chamber, personally overseeing my placement into the viewer as if she did not trust any of her fellow revolutionists to accomplish a successful activation of the machine. Lacking any other option and devoid of any hope of survival or safety, I relented to her command and placed myself in the chair. It was cold like the first glimmer of light shining through the edge of a horizon overlooking a vast wilderness of ice. There was no padding, no headrest, no place to settle into. This was not a chair designed for reading on a warm summer afternoon. This was a chair of pain, a place victims were placed before they were to be experimented upon. No blood was present, no remnants of shattered limbs. No evidence was present to indicate the fate of the others who’d sat here before me. I knew their pain had not been of the flesh but rather of their minds, a slow rendering of their consciousness as it was played out through the anciently vast reaches of time they were thrown across.
The chair embraced me. It enfolded me into its arachnid arms and held me tight as I prepared to be torn, shredded and pulled out of my fleshly home. After I settled into position, feeling even more alone than a lab rat who knows somehow that their utility has ceased and they are scheduled for execution, the clamps were fastened. Made of metal and desolately cold, the metal bindings slowly unfolded from the recesses of the chair like the venomous fangs of a deadly snake, capturing me into their grasp with alien precision. The clamps had no concern for my fate. The chair showed no interest in what was to come next. Devoid of life, the chair was unaware of its purpose. It completed its tasks exactingly and with painfully slow precision. Only a short thump indicated that the process of securing me into the chair was complete.
I’d expected something more, somehow. Perhaps a buzzer or a beep, an auditory or visual signal that the chair had successfully captured another victim and was ready to devour them. The oppressive silence was unnerving and left me utterly desolate. While humanity had spent thousands of years exploiting animals for scientific experiments, that work had always been under the guise of a presumed separation between humans and their animals. Never mind that humans had long since been classified and categorized as occupying a place in the animalia kingdom. We’d long since rationalized away our connection to the animals we saw as so much less valuable than our own species. Living in our heads as we’d done for so many generations, almost all of us had become disconnected from ourselves, from our natural world and from all of the living beings we lorded over with such pitiful abandon. Steadfastly refusing to entertain even the briefest notion that we might still remain deeply connected to all the other animals in our home world and obscenely blinded by our own technological superiority, humankind had long since cast itself as demigods, capable of transforming entire planets to suit our needs and blithely believing that our intellectual superiority was more than sufficient to excuse our many ecological sins. We’d lost our home planet that way, transforming a once richly green and vibrantly alive planet into a sickly shell of its former glory, rampaging over our home as if the destruction we wrought was somehow excusable, if not even necessary or perhaps at the limit of our collective reason, allowable due to our massive overconsumption of the Earth’s natural resources. By the time we awoke as a culture to the irreparable damage the ancients had inflicted upon our natural home, we’d long since moved past the point of have any hope of repairing the damage we’d caused. Perhaps this utter callousness to the consequences of our actions had become a genetically pervasive attitude. No one on Mars behaved in such a manner. There was simply no option on that red rock of desolate death. Our very survival on Mars was utterly dependent on our conservation of the incredibly limited resources we had at our disposal. I’m assumed with the foolishness of a child too young to possibly understand loss or death that the colonists on Eridani would have been possessed of the same Martian sensibility of the fundamentally and inexorably necessary nature of our interdependence. But they were not. No such notion seemed to be viable in the minds of the remaining colonists of Eridani. Instead they’d devolved into a semi-opaque mentality of individual survival and they appeared to have been stripped of any ability to understand that their continued existence was not and had never been separate from the fate of their companions in this desert of purple light and bleak mountains of black night. Alone they were, captured and captivated by their singular purpose, a goal that served to unite and divide them equally and permanently.
Perhaps if I’d been perceived by my captors as an animal, they might have afforded me more comfort or even a modicum of dignity as I was ensnared in their frighteningly precise machinery. But no such comfort was to come. No concern was evident on the faces of my tormentors. Not even a glimpse of mercy or even concern for the successful testing of the time viewer seemed to alight and take root in the abysmal depths of the glazed over and intensively passive eyes that surveyed my captured and limp body as I sat in the machine.
“Begin the initialization sequences” was the order from the leader of the colonists. She received no response to her order other than the mechanical and tacitly compliant movements of the test equipment personnel. Slowly they filtered out of the room, moving like a steady stream of ants, devoid of any individual thought or a will of their own. Circuits became energized with enormous voltage differentials, creating deeply disturbing low-frequency harmonic resonances that sounded like slow rending of massively thick metal bars giving way to an unstoppable force. As each circuit became fully energized and its associated capacitive relays filled with countless numbers of runaway electrons, the room became filled with a horrendous symphony of prepared electrical conduits waiting to discharge their collected energy, sounding most like a flock of starved birds fighting and pecking at each other in an orgy of violence as they competed for a bit of food too small to help more than one or two of them. Chirps, squeals and sharp crackles filled the room, extruding frequencies so high that most were likely unheard by any of the colonists. Deep below the piercing whines and razor-hard clicks of energized circuits was the low rumble of additional electrical energy filling the last of the capacitors that provided the initially massive discharge of energy necessary to initialize the viewer, a sound akin to a thousand-strong herd of now the extinct elephants that once roamed the fertile plains of our home world. The cacophony of sounds were so amazingly overwhelming and invasive I almost began to wish for the sweet relief of the silence that would surely come when my eardrums finally ruptured, overcome by the intense sonic energy bombarding them from all sides. It seemed at times that the sound was not just around me but inside my very body, reverberating through every cell and echoing deep into my bones. Slowly the machines filled, each relay thudding as its associated energy capacity was met and it could hold no more electricity, each capacitor threatening to spill their load of concentrated energy like a dam holding back countless millions of gallons of water but slowly, inevitably, giving way under the immense strain it’s been placed under.
Still I wished for relief, for some shield from the overwhelmingly intense noise that seemed to fill not just the room but myself as well, drowning me and rushing over my head like a tidal wave of unstoppable sonic resonance. Finally as the last circuits were filled and could hold no more energy, the world-crushing sounds that surrounded me began to fade and I could once again open my eyes without the fear that my retinas would be torn from me by the very force of the sounds bombarding and attacking me. As I looked around the now almost empty laboratory, no visual indication existed of the outrageously enormous amount of energy that surrounded me. No warning signs flashed, no alarms sounded, none of the machinery evinced any indication of their fully energized circuits. A visitor to the lab at that moment would have found a room of stillness and quiet, an ambiance so very diametrically opposed to the violent fury that was about to be unleased against a selected section of the room that one could not possibly be expected to even be able to conceive of the amount of energy that would be released in an instance of time so short it was measured in a scale normally reserved for measuring the amount of time needed for a single electron to perform an orbit of its entrapping atomic nucleus. Into this oblique wall of silence, standing at the edge of a precipice so massive my mind refused to even consider its own ability to consider its magnitude, my chair slowly began to move towards the center of the room. Painfully slowly, inching along like an ancient snail too decrepit to even attempt a more rapid pace, I was drawn towards the test area in the center of the room. Seconds passed, lapsed, passed again. Nothing could stop the inexorable treading of my chair with me as its passive and captured prey. Beyond all hope and devoid of the strength to even consider what might happen to my mind as I was to be dropped into a cavern of time so deep no instruments had yet been invented to measure it, I relented to my fate and prepared for my life to end.
As I approached closer to the center of the test area, a sudden spark erupted, glowing white hot and searing my eyes with its intensity. But the spark did not dissipate like a bolt of lightning striking the ground and then retreating. Instead the spark began to grow and shift as I stared into its depths, dancing like a companion bot who’s circuitry has become hopelessly corrupt, spinning and gyrating like a mad beast contained only by the invisible magnetic fields that surrounded and entrapped its enormous energy, concentrating its force into a single line of electricity that stretched from floor to ceiling. It was into this maddeningly alive spark of enormous electrical differential that I was to be thrust, passing through the maelstrom of energy supposedly without damage. Little hope did I hold for my body or my life as I resolutely examined the lightning bolt I was about to enter.
The distance the chair would need to cover was not great. I could have walked the entire distance while holding my breath with little effort. But at the maddeningly slow pace my gleaming ochre tinged captor was set to travel, arriving at the center of the test chamber took far too long for me to bear. I thought of a million regrets as I was inched towards the vibrantly surging and dizzyingly intricate convolution of entrapped electrical differential. But none of my ideas of how I could have avoided such a fate served to comfort me. How could I have known? Impossible. Would I have turned back if I'd had any way of knowing what would befall us upon our arrival at Eridani? Of course. The sickly, half-dead green of Earth or the massively ancient and horrifically cratered face of Mars would be a welcome sight at this point. But I was not there, not standing at the edge of the massive bathtub of rotting and decaying ocean that was all that was left of Earth's formerly deep blue green waters. To smell its stench again, to gaze out over the vast expanse of dead water, polluted with countless trillions of microscopic bits of refuse and home to only the most outrageously hearty life imaginable, for this bitterly paralyzing mix of the odors of decay and stagnation, would to have been free of the grasp of this infinitely uncaring metal chair.
But I was not there, nor could I ever return. I was trapped, even more helpless than a fly entangled in a spider's web. I'd been betrayed by my fellow flies, given up as an offering to a cataclysmically powerful new god, one who's power extended far beyond the constantly undulating spark that cleaved the laboratory in half, separating the captor from its prey, warm and glowing light from wretched and abysmal death, and indeed perhaps even the present moment of time for the unimaginably vast reaches of the past.
As I approached, painstakingly slowly, the arc of electricity began to change, slowly growing before me as if it intended to form a mouth, opening wide to devour me. But instead of a gaping maw, an animalistic gorge of mindless consumption, the arc of bottled lighting began to change as I approached, swirling together to form a sphere. Not a perfect sphere. Edges undulated and folding back upon themselves, aquiline layers of entrapped electrical potential consuming themselves over and over again, engorged on their own power and cyclically reinforcing the layers below in a madcap system with no discernable origin or genesis. No patterns could be found, but still images emerged, faces of friends long left behind as I’d sailed through the stars, places I’d once known and times so long lost and so far behind me now that to even consider that I’d ever walked down their lonesome paths seemed a dream so hideously impossible that to even consider what I was seeing seemed the greatest madness of all. How could this be? How could I be seeing, or perhaps just envisioning, such places and events? Was I already hopeless insane? Lost into the abject terror of anticipation, horrifically engulfed in my complete inability to even comprehend or understand what it was that I was about to be thrust into, or through? My thoughts attacked me as I was relentlessly dragged across the expanse of the room, a journey that occurred both painstakingly slowly in objective time but which might as well have been played out across centuries, eons of time. Anticipation of dread, not of death or dismemberment or a simple transition into the void of darkness that surely must come for everyone when it is their time to leave their body. A dread so cold and fluid that no concepts have yet been imagined. This was my mind as I approached the sphere of warped timescape into which my captor had elected to sacrifice me. I thought perhaps that I’d already descended into complete madness, lost to the terror of what I imagined that I might face upon reaching the edge of the sphere.
The chair slowed as I finally approached the final transition towards my inevitable doom. Ratcheting to a pace now so infinitesimally tiny in each step that I could have been outpaced by an ant, I was left to dangle on the edge of infinity, staring into the depths of the sphere of liquid lighting trapped but not contained, forever restricted but constantly appearing to be just a moment from erupting into a cataclysmically enormous wave of destruction so violent that surely the entire violetscape of Eridani would be split and cast to the solar winds like so much dust, scattered and ejected into the deep frost of space. Perhaps that would have been preferable to my eventual fate. If only I’d known what awaited me within the edges of the sphere of non-death, a transition to a place of such unimaginably insane contradiction that only through journeying far beyond all the limits the human mind could possibly withstand could I understand why all of my fellow reefersleepers had been returned to us so violently, inalterable changed and so completely unable to relate to our, supposedly shared reality or communicate anything of any utility to us regarding what they’d seen and where they’d been.
Finally the chair stopped, leaving me suspended at a gap of such immense distance and space that to even contemplate where I hung would have been a feat of mental agility that not even God could have completed. I did not even consider asking my twisted and fundamentally inhuman captors why I was to be held over this chasm, dangling as a lure, bait for a cataclysmic deity of such fierce desires that no person would ever have even dreamed in their most that such endless gorging on human minds could ever satisfy. “Prepare for final engagement” came the voice of the my scarlet scarecrow, cast across the room from her bellowing lungs but reaching me as if in a delusion, leaving me wondering if she had actually spoken or if I was simply imagining that the final resolution of my journey might be at hand.
Upon her orders, the bevy of technicians scurried about, feet shuffling upon the immensely thick layers of concrete that supported the enormous weight of the machine. Despite the soul-cracking violent sounds of electricity being rent against itself in front of me, I could hear their steps, slowly plodding like an army of possessed wraiths, intent only on carrying out their leader’s orders with no thought for the consequences of what they were intending to thrust me into, or rather through. New and even more bizarre sounds accosted my ears as the machine was accelerated towards its final state of engagement. Now the faces immerged again from the sphere, so many that I could not count their myriad numbers. Many I recognized, friends and lovers, childhood playmates and antagonists with which I’d never resolved our disputes. They regarded me with cold precision, not gazes of knowing or even acknowledgement, simply aware of my presence or apparently aware with no real regard for my current state of peril. Were they even real or just the twisted imaginings of my mind so bent with fear that I’d started to unravel and unwind like a rubber band ball being crushed in a twenty ton hydraulic press? This I was never able to determine with any certainty. Certainly I saw them, aware of their presence a mere foot or two before my reposed form. Whether they were simply ghostly incarnations of another world, another universe in which all possibilities intertwine and wrap back around again upon themselves in an endless cycle of effect and cause, quantum interactions with no regard for linear time or even the need for justification, arising separately and uniquely while still somehow interdependent upon each other for their own existence was of little relevance or value to me. That they existed and taunted me was sufficient. I regarded them. They regarded in return, engaging me with their eyes and encapsulating a truth, a deep knowledge that I could never know, sacrosanct in their calm and incapable of delineating their purpose in any way that could have been meaningful for any who might regard them.
How long I drifted in this netherworld of anticipation, awaiting my final plunge into the depths of the sphere was virtually meaningless when compared to my fate. I might have floated in this state of partial awareness, humming and vibrating with the thoughts of what might be held within the sphere to such an extent that my thoughts themselves would have been sufficient to finally fulfill my captor’s apparent intention – to cast me off of the world of form and into the infinity of possibility in which any event no matter how fantastic or impossible would indeed play out, a universe of form merging and dancing with all that we considered to be irrelevant to the normal field of possible arrangement of matter considered to be normal or at least probable.
Finally the sphere reached its full engagement and the faces vanished in an instant so disconnected from time that it might as well not have occurred at all. The folds settled into a final pattern, a kaleidoscope of colors so brilliantly rendered before my eyes that to even attempt to remember or imagine them would have been nonsensical in the extreme. More than colors, they represented the very fabric of creation itself played out before me, interweaving patterns of such geometric complexity that a battalion of mathematicians would have been required to undertake a study of the fractal intensity of their logic and reasoning for assembly.
Almost as suddenly as the patterns had emerged, they coalesced into a flat wall, darkness deeper than a starless night, a darkness so deep that describing it as the absence of light would have been meaningless. This was not the mere absence of light but rather its final extinguishing, light captured and buried beneath so many layers of opaqueness that it held no hope of any final escape, light so lost from itself that it no longer considered its continued existence to be possible.