XXXVII

This is a story of discovery.

Growing up we were taught how more than 80% of the ocean remained completely unexplored by mankind, and that less than 10% of all marine life had been identified. Almost inconceivable just how little we knew about the world lurking beneath the surface.

But the curiosity of man, and humans being humans, we just couldn’t leave well enough alone. The next great “space race” playground for those with more money than morals. Billions of dollars spent traversing the deepest darkest crevasses seeking a groundbreaking oceanic discovery. And money, obviously.

Looking back it began with a specific sequence of minor, largely ignored, tremors in the southern Atlantic. Then in the mid Pacific a ring of undocumented, long dormant, submarine volcanoes roared to life for the first time in millennia, triggering massive ash fallout and widespread tsunamis along the eastern seaboard of the Americas and throughout most of south-east Asia.

Far from the seasonal environmental disruption resulting from the spiralling climate crisis that humanity had long become numb towards, this event would catch the attention of the entire globe. And with good reason.

This isn’t a story of what we found, it’s a story of what found us.

Off.A short story in 12 small parts.

VIII

The shock wave rippled through their camp site, and several hours earlier than they were anticipating. The plan had always been to be further from the impact site, but communication delays had hindered them before their egress had even begun.

By the time they got out they knew they were unlikely to get as much distance as desired, still they had pushed on long enough to ensure they’d be safe, and they were.

While they were all now awake, it would still be hours before they would know if it had worked, and to what extent. Only then could they return.

XXII

EMBARGOED – DO NOT PUBLISH

For release 30 January, NOON

INFINITE HORIZONS MISSION PARAMETERS UPDATE

Command operations centre, Tx – A target system, LS25-8/6, containing viable destination planets has been confirmed. The system was initially detected 6 weeks ago during the systematic re-evaluation of existing data by the recently upgraded ‘Planetoid Identification Network’.

The news of the discovery has been transmitted to the crew, and will be received in time for the next routine system check on day 9,500.

In a change from the original mission plan, the full crew will remain in suspension until a yet to be determined time, and the minor course corrections will be left to Atkins while she undertakes the system checks.

We will not be fielding any additional questions at this time.

Ends.

XI

They landed on April 7, just before dawn. There had been no warning, no hint at all that this was coming. We weren’t prepared, but they were. Coming in from the south-east was the last thing any of us were anticipating.

Since then they’ve moved swiftly along the coast as far west as Texas, and north towards Georgia. They’ve seized control of 5 states, with their efforts currently concentrated on making it to the makeshift capital in Chicago.

III

A sunlit afternoon, my younger self chasing a familiar yet distant face through the tall grass overlooking the sea. This feels like a memory, but I know that it’s not. I dream so rarely that it’s usually easy to tell when my mind has escaped reality.

Right now in this moment I’m about 12. I haven’t actually been 12 for decades. And possibly I haven’t felt this free for just as long.

Nothing seems to matter, no consequences, no expectations, no judgement. There are other people around, they don’t see us or simply don’t care, it doesn’t matter which. Relaxed, free, comfortable, all the things missing from everyday life.

VI

Reaching the corner Miles, the self designated leader, went first. What he found was a whole lot of nothing, he motioned for the rest to follow him.

They had no other choice, the elevator had closed and there were no controls to call it back again.

Rounding the corner they were greeted by more corridor, devoid of all features aside from a pair of flickering fluorescent lights about half way down that provided intermittent illumination.

IV

Their nightly routine was always the same.

“Sam, it’s time to go to sleep, lights out…”,

“But Mum,” he protested, “I don’t like the darkness, I’m afraid of the monster in the closet”,

It was always the same reason, like a recording being played back repetitively for comedic effect. The response of Sam’s mother too was always the same.

“Sam, we’ve been over this, there are no monsters in your closet, I promise. You’re perfectly safe in bed.”

Sitting bolt upright, arms crossed, Sam would never back down. The resulting compromise was always to leave the night light on.

The soft yellow glow of the night light was just right, and as always its presence ended the nightly battle peacefully.

Even better yet, it perfectly masked the pair of glowing yellow eyes that belonged to the creature Sam’s parents kept under his bed.

I

He stood in the centre of his 37th floor apartment gazing out at the Japanese city. Surrounded by a small crowd of faceless bodies, he had no idea why or how he had gotten to be there.

What appeared to be a nuclear power plant in the distance was spewing purple lightning into the sky. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Something clearly was not right.

The building began to quiver as the light show intensified, slowly but steadily building to a violent shake. The tone and pitch of the buildings rumble suddenly changed, dramatic, like cutting into a harp with a chainsaw.

Floor to ceiling plate glass windows exploded outwards as the ceiling began to crumble. The tower collapsing in on itself, debris enveloping a final pulse of the distant light show. No pain was felt, just darkness.

He awoke in a cold sweat. 3:21am. Wednesday.

XXI

Before them stood a wall of screens with a single command console located off to the left hand side of the room. They appeared to be displaying surveillance feeds. The video quality was grainy and monochrome, this room had been here for years. A hundred windows into a hundred different worlds.

“254,” Miles bluntly observed, “It’s a grid, A1 through P16. 256 screens, but C7 and G13 seem to be off.”

From the entry the source of the feeds wasn’t immediately clear, nor was it obvious who was being monitored. Were these commercial security feeds? Finance? Government?

Moving closer to see that each had a counter increasing rapidly in the top right hand corner. But counting up from what? It wasn’t counting seconds, maybe milliseconds? With no other dates or times visible, the group initially assumed the feeds were live.

That assumption was wrong, well, half wrong. To this point David hadn’t said anything to anyone aside from the brief – forced – introductions when they’d entered the tunnels a few hours earlier.

From towards the back of the group David finally spoke up, slowly gesturing to the screens in the upper right hand corner.

“That… I. I think that’s me…”

V

Upon arrival they sat, impatiently, in the van as the gates to the compound slowly opened. The journey had been slow, in the same way a long afternoon at work is slow, although in reality it had only taken a little over an hour.

There was still an uncomfortable feeling lingering within the group, unsure if they had been successful. Sure, they heard – and felt – the blast, but the haste with which they had left meant that the charge hadn’t been set in the location that had originally been planned.

It would likely be a couple of days before they knew for certain if it had worked.