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This story was originally published in Space Eldritch II: The Haunted Stars by Cold Fusion Media, edited by Nathan Shumate, in 2013.

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, I dreamed of the stars. When I was a man, the stars stole my dreams.

A man who cannot dream becomes nothing but an empty shell, but the thing about empty shells, there’s nothing left inside to corrupt. Space ate my dreams, tore them right out of my head and left a gaping hole where my soul had been living. My life ended a long time ago.

Which is why I was the only one who survived.

“What happened on Atlas?”

The question woke me up. It didn’t matter. As usual my sleep was empty. I wasn’t missing anything good.

“Please, Mr. Chang, we have to know what happened on Atlas.”

The desperate voice was coming out of the blank wall of my tiny cell. They thought I’d been exposed to a potential alien biohazard so I’d remained in quarantine. My clothing had been burned and my body had been scrubbed, attached to tubes and machines to be monitored in every way possible, isolated from the world of flesh and imprisoned in a totally sterile environment.

The precautions wouldn’t do them any good.

My words came out raspy and weak. “I don’t know.”

“The survivor’s awake. He’s talking!” She forgot to turn off the intercom. “Get the captain. Hurry.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re onboard the Alert in orbit over Atlas. You’re safe now. Please, Mr. Chang, we need you to try and remember what happened to your colony.”

I remembered, but remembering and understanding were two different things.

It began with a news report.

I didn’t know at the time that this particular blurb would mark the beginning of the end of the world but I followed a lot of news. Useless talking heads, pundits, bloggers, hoaxers, malcontents, and a handful of actual experts, millions of channels streaming in from two hundred solar systems and downloaded in the few seconds whenever the gate cycled open and we were briefly connected with the rest of the universe—even if it was all months out of date—and then I followed Atlas’ local streams when the gate was closed, which was the vast majority of the time.

Galaxy, system, world, or local, I followed it. War, politics, business, science, sports, entertainment, it didn’t matter. I had nothing else to do, so I listened as other people actually did. I was a pensioner, a useless parasite on the system, popping crazy pills and streaming feeds. On more pragmatic or desperate colonies they would have recycled me. On Atlas, I wasted away in my apartment and filled my brain with other people’s lives.

The local blurb had been an update on the Dark Side Dig, commemorating the sixteenth anniversary of the discovery of the ancient ruins that had changed Atlas from a backwoods mining colony to an archeological mecca. Even though the natives had been extinct for millions of years, humans had only discovered a handful of planets with life so far, so it had been a big deal, even if the odd winged cucumbers depicted in their carvings had been relative primitives compared to some of the species we’d found on other worlds.

The Dig’s science team had found a new chamber to crack open. They’d dubbed it the Temple.

It should have pissed me off, because that was supposed to have been my job before a quirk of interstellar travel had ripped out all the creative parts of my mind and left me a useless, drug addled husk, but anger just got in the way of my news addiction, so I kept listening. The report closed with an interview, just some puffery with one of the newly arrived archeologists, about how the weird geometry favored in the alien architecture had given a few of them nightmares.

Nightmares . . . I would have killed for a nightmare.

Captain Hartono brought up the hologram. It showed a nearly skeletal man sitting on a slab, arms wrapped around his knees, rocking back and forth, slowly muttering to himself. “What do we have on the survivor?”

“All colonists’ DNA is on file. His name is Leland Chang, contract transfer from Calhoun, been on Atlas for fifteen years.” As Dr. Riady spoke, all of the pertinent tabs came up on the edge of the hologram.

The captain opened the career data. “Xenoanthropologist, supposed to be brilliant.” He went back to the holo. “The guy looks awful.”

“Malnutrition and dehydration mostly. The servitors found some other minor injuries, but no serious trauma.”

“I listened in while the drop team lifted him out, lots of crazy babbling. Whatever happened down there drove him batshit insane. I need you to get his head straight fast.”

“I don’t know if that’ll be possible.”

“Make it possible, Doc. The evidence the drop teams have recovered so far doesn’t make any sense. Command needs to know who did this and he’s our only witness.”

“I’m afraid Chang wouldn’t have made a very credible witness even before whatever happened down there.”

Hartono brought up the medical history tab. He swore under his breath. “Keziah’s Disorder? That poor bastard . . .”

“It’s extremely rare.”

“Thank God for that,” the captain muttered. “It doesn’t matter. Get him talking. I don’t care what you have to do. We need information and we need it now. Crack him and do a memory lift if you need to.”

“That’s not exactly ethical, sir.”

“At the last gate cycle, Atlas was a thriving colony. Thirty days later, it’s back online, we cycle through and somehow six hundred thousand colonists have gone missing and we don’t know why. So right now I don’t particularly give a shit about ethics.”

“I can’t memory lift an innocent man, Captain,” Riady stammered. “That’s—”

“There’s no messages, no recordings, no notes, no vids. Nothing. Every AI on the planet is crashed. We’ve got ghost ships in orbit with their systems scrubbed. The forensic evidence doesn’t make sense. There’s battle damage, but no invaders. Over half a million humans vanished in thirty days, Doctor, and the only living thing we’ve found more advanced than a house plant is your survivor.”

“Give me a chance,” she begged.

Hartono frowned. They were stuck for now anyway. “The next available gate cycle isn’t for two days. You’ve got one.”

I was an artist once. I could take raw materials and scrape and twist them into beauty. I can still understand the fundamental techniques, but it turns out that when you are incapable of dreaming, you are incapable of creating. You can no longer reach your full potential.

What a blessing that turned out to be.

Before Atlas became a galactic tourist attraction—witness the wonder of an ancient alien civilization—it was simply the boring second planet in the Chameleon 110913-773444 system. When I got the contract offer the 26-hour days and 1.02% standard gravity made it sound pretty nice. The downside was the average temperature of 120 C combined with the 300 kilometer an hour winds made most of the planet a giant sandblaster. There was one colony and it was mostly underground, so Atlas wasn’t exactly a draw for the outdoorsy types.

The contract specified that I would be studying the ancient inhabitants, using my expertise to reconstruct their culture. It takes a certain kind of mind to be able to imagine an alien lifestyle. I signed on. I severed my existing contract on Calhoun and embarked on a great adventure. Of course I did. This was a scholar’s dream job.

Unless your scholar can no longer dream, because then he can’t keep a job.

Star travel is relatively safe, considering that your frail body is being hurled across the universe through an in-between space that mankind barely comprehends, using math which shouldn’t work, yet somehow does. Since our brains didn’t evolve in a fashion that could handle the strange physics of null space, hypersleep was invented. They advertise that hypersleep was so that humans could travel between gates in complete comfort. Go to sleep in one system, wake up in another one on the opposite end of the Milky Way. No problem, and you especially don’t have to worry about any of those pesky psychoses that all the early interstellar travelers developed.

Except that hypersleep isn’t really sleep, and there’s nothing hyper about it. That’s just creative marketing. I used to be able to appreciate that sort of thing. Your body isn’t sleeping, it’s artificially shut down until it is one faint electrical impulse away from death. Space travelers are placed into a chemical coma and frozen. Everybody knows this, but nobody who has to go through it likes to dwell on it. After all, it was statistically extremely safe—the advertisements said so—and when you get decanted you are ready to experience life on an exciting new world.

The first humans who traveled between gates are all dead now. Back then we didn’t understand that entering REM sleep while your body was in null space was a one way ticket to crazy town. We still don’t know why it happens, we just know that it does. So now they practically turn you into a corpse, freeze your brain, and artificially pump nanobots through your arteries, all to keep your mind safely blank while you’re flying through the space between the walls.

By extremely safe, they mean that hypersleep accidents are one in a billion. Those are excellent odds.

I should have stayed on Calhoun and played the lottery.

Dr. Riady studied the holo. The survivor’s vitals were decent. Not bad considering what he must have gone through, though it appeared that he hadn’t been in the best physical health to begin with. She brought up another screen. Long term poor dental hygiene, skeletal degradation, muscle mass, and cardiovascular consistent with a sedentary lifestyle, and the active scans were showing that he was going through severe withdrawal symptoms from the psychotropic cocktail he’d been on for the last fifteen years.

“How did you survive?” she muttered. Atlas had a small defense force, mostly made up of veterans of the Zealand Conflict, now retired from the military. Those were genetically modified, nano-enhanced super soldiers who’d fought through one of the worst guerilla wars in history, yet somehow they were missing, and an unemployed, mentally ill couch potato had lived. “Why you and not them?”

When she went back to the first display, she found Leland Chang staring directly into the monitor. “I know modesty is an outdated concept, but may I have some clothing?”

“Oh, my apologies, Mr. Chang. I’ll have a servitor bring you some. We didn’t intend to make you uncomfortable.”

“Thank you . . . And who are you?”

“I’m Dr. Riady, medical officer of the Alert.” He seemed rather lucid, probably due to the stimulants she’d administered. Dr. Riady decided to push forward before he descended into another incoherent funk. “I know you’ve been through a lot, but I have some questions.”

“Why?” Chang went back to staring at his hands. “You won’t believe me anyway.”

“I have to believe you. I’ve seen your medical history. I know you have no imagination to speak of, so I doubt you’d be able to lie to me very convincingly anyway.”

“That’s a cruel way to put it.”

“But factually true.” She didn’t mention that the room’s biometric scanners also made an excellent lie detector of sorts. “Let me level with you, Mr. Chang. Our captain is extremely concerned, and I have no doubt that when we’re able to send a burst back to Command, they will be even more so.”

Chang looked up, suddenly desperate. “Don’t send a message. You can’t cycle the gate.”


“It might spread.”

What might spread?”

“The truth.”

One in a billion . . . Sounds like a lot until you realize just how many humans are traversing the stars. Keziah’s Disorder, they call it, named after the first poor sucker who came out of hypersleep screaming about ambivalent squid gods and bleeding from his ears, mind all buggered up from daring to dream in null space.

You see, the dead aren’t supposed to dream. It violates the rules.

The greatest medical minds of the galaxy were fascinated by Keziah. Dreaming in hypersleep had done something to his brain. It turns out that your organs begin failing after only a few months without REM sleep, so he was crazy and dying. The scientists jumped on this one. First off, dreaming while in hypersleep was technically impossible. Second, doctors love that technically impossible shit. And third, the space lines really wanted this thing cured before the news scared off too many potential colonists. Drugs forced Keziah’s brain through all the stages of sleep and saved his physical body. The doctors gave each other awards. Colonists kept on paying for temporary death.

But the treatment couldn’t make Keziah dream. Since science had never found a mammal that didn’t dream, they couldn’t realize just how important that process actually was, how every single bit of goodness in life was attached to it.

A year later Keziah stepped in front of a train.

Forty years after that, I was trapped in a metal tube, hurtling through space, dead but dreaming.

“Can you draw the graffiti symbols you saw for me, Mr. Chang?”

“I can try.” One of the servitors in the quarantine room hovered over and handed her patient a stylus. Chang took it and began writing. “My memory is fine, but I can tell you now that I won’t be able to convey everything. I had a friend who said their writing had nuance . . . I doubt I’ll be able to do it justice.”

“Because of your condition?”

“Something like that.”

Dr. Riady tapped her finger on the projection. “Enlarge.” She’d never seen anything like the strange letters before. They looked like gibberish to her. Making sure the intercom was off, she addressed the Alert’s AI. “Emma, can you read that?”

“The symbols are similar to those recorded by the Dark Side Dig archeological teams. I will translate. Processing.”

Chang’s hand-drawn symbols floated before her. Gradually the strange runes twisted into familiar words.

“Translation complete, however I estimate with only 87% accuracy.”

From His dark house in the mighty city beneath the sands beneath the winds, He offers freedom to the living children of the pillars of heaven. The day has come to heed the call of dreams.

When you’re paranoid and prone to sudden fits of violent rage, you don’t collect many friends.

Thomerson was one of the few people who still came to visit me. It was probably because he felt guilty. He was a linguist, and we’d worked together deciphering the Calhoun pyramid. He’d been the one to recommend me for the Dark Side Dig contract. We’d even made the trip together. I believe his was far more pleasant.

He sat on the edge of the couch, like he was scared he’d get his pants dirty. My settlement from the space line had paid for the apartment, my treatments, and anything else I might conceivably want for the rest of my life, if I could be bothered to want anything, but I wasn’t much for decorating. Or cleaning . . . Or much else really.

“You should open your windows more, Leland. You’ve got a marvelous view here.”

I humored him. “Fine.” The covers automatically lifted. My apartment building was suspended from the side of the main chasm. It kept us out of the wind, and we could see most of the undercity from here, as well as a long sliver of howling red sky.

“When’s the last time you went outside?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. A few weeks.”

“I could arrange a day pass to the Dig for you.” Thomerson was fat, so his leaning forward conspiratorially just looked awkward. “I can even get you into the Temple. It’s pretty exciting stuff. They think it might even finally answer the big question.”

“What killed off all the Atlanteans?”

“I wish you wouldn’t call them that. It makes them sound like a joke.”

“I don’t make jokes.”

“I know. Never mind. But listen, Leland, this is big. All this time we’ve been trying to reconstruct how they actually lived. There’s been glimmers of a religious philosophy here and there in their art, but nothing like this. They’re calling it the Temple, cathedral, whatever, but it really is.”

Fifteen years ago, that would have been incredibly exciting. “And?”

“This isn’t just their religion, but this is their version of a doomsday cult. This is the newest construction we’ve ever found. It dates to the end. They were on their way out and they knew it. You know how hard their alphabet is to translate, so much nuance . . .” Thomerson sighed wistfully. “But this reeks of desperation. We never knew if they had an afterlife myth like most of humanity’s various cultures, but they did! They were looking for a way out, just like primitive man.”

“Fascinating,” I lied.

“I know, right? We’ve seen that they had a god figure, we’ve seen it over and over again, but this is the first time that we’ve found an opposite. Obviously human social mores don’t translate, but consider it a devil figure if you will. They knew their species was going extinct so they were making a proverbial deal with their devil.”

The only reason that I hadn’t killed myself yet was because part of me was terrified that what I’d seen in null space was real, and I was too afraid to find out for sure. “I’ll pass on the day trip.”

“They were as frightened by the mysteries of death as primitive man. The carvings said that this devil came to their entire species, appearing in their dreams and making them an offer . . .”

Even winged cucumbers had dreams . . . “Wonderful . . . It’s getting late. Maybe you should—”

But Thomerson wasn’t listening. He was still talking, staring off into space. Almost like he’d forgotten I was there at all. “They took his offer . . . Imagine that? An offer that an entire civilization couldn’t refuse. They were a rather metaphysical lot, believing in spirit worlds nearly as much as they believed in the real world. They still believed in magic, and perhaps that’s why their science lagged behind . . . Regardless, they accepted the devil’s deal. The word they used translates to the Great Becoming . . . and upon his will the world became undone.


Thomerson stood up suddenly and then shuddered, like he’d begun to swoon. Flushed, he placed one fat hand on his fat cheek. “I’m sorry. I was feeling a bit dizzy. Forgive me, Leland. I’ve not been sleeping well.”

I escorted him to the door. “Yeah, I’ve heard on the feeds that’s been a problem out there lately. Something about the background noise keeping people awake at the Dig.”

He collected his hat and cloak. “Yes. There’s been some accidents. Tired workers and whatnot.”

“Well, be careful then.” I steered him out, then closed the door behind him. “Full secure.” The locks sealed. My paranoia temporarily mollified, I walked back into my apartment. “Close view.” The covers began dropping.

But not before I noticed something black and hairy, pressed against the bottom of the glass, watching me. At first I thought it was a monkey, with a face like an ugly baby, but it had the shimmering wings of a fly, and in the brief moment our gaze met, its mouth moved like it was trying to say something, with a mouth filled with all too human teeth, and then it was covered.

I rubbed my eyes. “Open view.”

The monkey-fly-man-baby was gone.

I went into the bathroom and took another pill.

“Come inside, Doctor. I just got word Drop Team 2 just entered the lower levels of the city. I’m waiting for their report.”

She entered the captain’s chamber and saluted. “The survivor’s been speaking freely, Sir.”

“So what’s the verdict?” Captain Hartono didn’t need to ask; he could already tell by her haggard expression that she hadn’t gotten anything good, but he needed it spoken out loud so her recommendation could be recorded by the ship’s AI. If the Atlas event was the opening act of a new war or first contact with an unknown species, then Hartono was going to cover his ass as best as possible in case it all went sideways and Command needed somebody to hang.

Riady stopped in front of his desk. “I’m afraid I can’t make sense of the survivor’s story . . .”


She gave him a look that said do I have to?

Hartono addressed the Alert’s AI. “Emma, stop recording. This is now a private conversation.”

“Yes, Captain.” The AI gave the audible response for Riady’s benefit. “Recording stopped.”

Riady was a veteran and had been a combat medic during the bloody Zealand Conflict. Being genetically modified, she was as close to human physical perfection as possible, and had been decorated for valor against the vicious alien Martor. So, frankly, it unnerved Hartono to see her frightened.

“Have a seat.” He nodded and a chair rose up through the floor. “What is it, Doctor?”

Riady sat uncomfortably. “Chang is talking, but . . .” She rubbed her face in her hands and sighed. “I sort of wish he wasn’t.”

“Send me the transcripts.”

She blinked. “Done.”

They took him a moment to process. “This description can’t be right. There are no residual signatures showing any ships coming into the system. We’ve checked the whole city, but there’s not a bit of DNA down there that doesn’t belong to a colonist of record. It couldn’t have been alien.”

“That’s the thing, Captain . . . I don’t think it was alien.”

Hartono’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not liking your other option.”

There was a flash transmission behind one of his eyes. A drop team had found something on the bottom level. Open live feed. Public.

The hologram appeared on his desk between them, obviously being reconstructed in three dimensions from multiple helmet cams. It was a mangled body, or perhaps bodies . . . It was hard to tell. Hartono willed the hologram to rotate slowly. “What is that thing?”

The AI answered, having only needed a fraction of a second to review every cataloged organism in the universe. “The physical structures match no known entity.”

“I want samples,” Hartono said.

The drop team had already taken one. A strand of DNA appeared floating in the holo, listed as a partial match.

Martin, Eliza J.—Atlas Colonist.

Chamberlain, Harold R.—Atlas Colonist.

Geist, Terron I.—Atlas Colonist.

Names continued to scroll by. Dozens of them.

Hartono killed the feed. Riady had unconsciously reached into her uniform, pulled out a small silver crucifix, and was fingering it nervously. He hadn’t known she was religious.

“Emma, begin recording.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Doctor Riady, what is your medical recommendation for the lone Atlas survivor?”

“Since I’m unable to gain any meaningful intel through interviews with Leland Chang, I recommend that we perform a memory lift immediately. Let the record show that the medical officer is fully aware this procedure may prove fatal to the subject.”

Alert command concurs with this recommendation. Expedite.”

While the gate was closed I was limited to Atlas local feeds. Considering it was the apocalypse, you’d have thought it would have been more obvious, but my fellow colonists simply blundered toward their inevitable Great Becoming. Nobody realized that the story about the alarming increase in sleep disorders was truly that important. The Atlas Sleep Clinic blamed it on the harmonics from the wind.

I didn’t go out much, but I wasn’t a complete hermit. I knew most of my neighbors by name and was always as polite to them as social obligations demanded. There was a shopping mall beneath my building and I went there whenever my food dispenser told me it was nearly empty.

I’d lost track of how many days it had been since I’d last been outside. The first thing I noticed was that Atlas City Public Works was slacking. Normally the corridors were tidy, but I saw litter, and even abandoned sacks of trash left in corners. I’d not read about any labor strikes. Then I recoiled as a large black bug landed on my lips. I swatted it away, and it buzzed off angrily. Odd. Insect pests had inevitably followed man across the stars, but normally they were kept under tight control in a sealed colony. This wasn’t the wretched undercity.

The usually busy market was remarkably dead. There were a few people standing listlessly on corners, as if unsure of what they were waiting for. I saw only a handful of shoppers, and they seemed almost furtive, keeping their heads down and shoving products into their carts, almost like they didn’t even care what they were hoarding. There was a teenager leaning next to my destination’s entrance, seemingly staring off into space, obliviously listening to music and watching a holo on the inside of his glasses. I went inside.

“I’ve come for my order. I’m Leland Chang from the two hundred and sixteenth level.”

The girl didn’t respond. She was focused on the screen in front of her. I thought this was a typical lazy employee, ignoring customers while she watched funny videos, but when I leaned over the counter the screen was blank. “Hello . . .” I waved my hand in front of the clerk’s face. “Hello.”

She blinked rapidly. “Huh? Sorry. I’m really tired. I’ve not been sleeping good.”

“I take pills for that.” The clerk handed me the compressed box of protein sludge. When food has no flavor, you simply purchase whatever keeps you alive. “Thank you.”

When I walked back outside I noticed that the power light on the teenager’s glasses was off. He was engrossed in absolutely nothing. A large black fly was walking around, unnoticed, on his pimply face.

The servitors had secured Leland Chang to the slab.

“What’re you doing to me?” He sounded more resigned than afraid.

Dr. Riady reasoned that she might as well be truthful. “We’re going to make an electronic imprint of your long term memory.”

“I’m familiar with the process. I keep up on all the science reports . . . It’ll probably kill me, won’t it?”

“I’m going to do my very best to make sure that doesn’t happen, Mr. Chang.”

“I don’t mind, Doctor . . . I’ve only got one last request.”

“What’s that?”

“If this works, if you’re able to see into my brain and record what’s there, please, no matter what, don’t look at the dreams I had in null space . . . It’s for your own good.”

The news changed over the next week. There were fewer and fewer blog posts. Social media was unusually quiet. The pundits were extra angry and dimwitted. The ADF had been called up for an unspecified reason. The talking heads pontificated that it was related to the sudden increase in property crime. A riot had broken out in the undercity but it was contained. There had been a rash of accidental deaths at the Dark Side Dig. Compared to all of this, the fact that the Sleep Clinic was overwhelmed was hardly a footnote.

The news was my anchor. I needed other people going about their lives so my lack of one was palatable. I did not like this.

Needing stimulus, I opened the window covers. The sky today was a brilliant red as mile long tornados battled above the chasm. Far below, a large fire had broken out in the city, and it was surrounded by flashing red and blue lights. I was more upset that this event hadn’t even made the news than the actual reality of the event.

Flies began landing on the window, great black, hairy things. Dozens at first, and then hundreds of them. I closed the cover.

“Emma, I need to make a statement for the record.”

“Confirmed, Captain.”

“Dr. Riady has completed the memory lift of the patient, Leland Chang. The data is currently being analyzed. The gate will cycle in one hour and then the Alert will return home to report. As of this time our investigation into the cause of the Atlas incident remains inconclusive. I regret to say that our memory lift proved to be too much for Mr. Chang in his weakened condition and he has gone into a vegetative state. He’s been placed in stasis in preparation for hypersleep. I’m fully aware that taking someone with Keziah’s Disorder into null space may be considered torture under the Durban Accords, but I believe the urgency of our mission outweighs this so I have overruled Dr. Riady’s protests.”

Captain Hartono rubbed his temples. He had a splitting headache. It was getting hard to think and even harder to make good decisions, but none of them had gotten much sleep since they’d arrived.

The noise had come from the hall of my apartment. It had been loud enough to wake me from my drug induced slumber. It had trailed off before I’d come fully awake. Had it been a scream? An animal howl? A little bit of both?

I asked my apartment building’s AI what had made the sound. It began to answer. Then it froze, gave me an error message, and had to reboot. It came back a moment later and said that there had been no sound and nothing was wrong.

Logic said to stay in bed, perhaps call the authorities. I am no longer capable of curiosity, so I could not even blame that base instinct, but for whatever reason, I got up, went to my security door, and listened through the port.

I heard grunting. And squishing.

I took another pill and went back to bed.

By the next morning the news feeds had grown . . . odd.

Most of the local stations were offline. Only a handful remained, and those were the larger affiliates with more staff. I watched as one of the news reader beautiful people rambled incoherently about the beauty of tentacles, before vomiting blood all over the news desk. She began drawing in the blood with her finger before the feed was cut. We are experiencing technical difficulties.

The independent sources and some of the bloggers kept on, though many of those had become garbled. The written ones struggled as well, and one popular author’s feed, now filled with typos, complained that typing was difficult once your fingers began growing together.

I opened the window to the real world and watched the fall of Atlas. There were more fires in the streets below, as well as the occasional bright flash of a particle weapon. Vehicles were overturned and I could watch the people dance about them like ants.

There were still clouds of flies clustered on my window. Only now I noticed a single, greasy handprint, undeniably human, pressed there, on the outside of the glass on the 216th floor.

The Alert was prepared for the gate to open. The crew had already been placed in stasis. Captain Hartono and Dr. Riady would be the last to enter hypersleep, and after that control of the ship would be turned over to Emma until they cycled into their home system in a few months.

Dr. Riady checked on the stasis tank holding the body of Leland Chang one last time. He appeared as dead as any other space traveler, but she knew it was an illusion. Unlike the rest of them, his mind would be totally open to the sanity-breaking horrors of null space.

What would be left of this man on the other side? What did it matter, the Captain had argued, one man’s sanity versus six hundred thousand presumed dead? Command needed answers, and they’d get them, even if they had to dismantle the only survivor down to his individual molecules.

Sweet dreams, Mr. Chang.

There was no more news. No feeds. No brainless chatter. The silence was deafening.

I was nearly out of meds. I called the treatment center but only got their automated message system. Even their AI would not respond.

I would have to go outside.

You do not need an imagination to be frightened. I still experience fear. Self-preservation is the most basic of all human instincts. I really did not want to go outside.

But it was preferable to remembering null space and the dreams of the dead.

The hall was empty. Some of the other apartment doors were open. The rooms inside were a mess, but I didn’t see anyone alive. Mrs. Garcia was on her couch, pistol in her lap, brains all over the wall. In Mrs. Johansen’s apartment there was something odd stuck to the ceiling. At first I thought it was a green and grey sleeping bag, but it was a cocoon, made of a material like unto mucus.

The lift still came when called, which was good, because I didn’t think my legs could handle the stairs.

The apartment’s lobby was empty. It was the first time in fifteen years that I’d not seen another human being inside of it. The room was filthy. The air scrubbers were off. There was a wet black trail through the red dust, at first I thought it was oil, but it had a greenish tint to it. Following the trail with my eyes, I came to a steaming pile of dead skin and regurgitated bones.

The main doors were made of glass. On the other side was chaos.

The streets were filled with trash. There had to be a crack in the dome because red grit coated everything at ground level. Clouds of insects were swarming, hopping and flying, skittering about in the shadows.

Opening the doors, I stepped into the end.

The environmental systems were failing. The air tasted like metal. It was terribly hot.

There were . . . people . . . in the market. Hunched, lurching about, their bodies covered in rags that had been clothing so recently. They paid me no heed. A hulking man brushed by, not even noticing me. He kept his head down, hat concealing his face, but I saw the puckering green hole where his ear had been, and then he went down an alley where some others had gathered, feasting on the guts of a stray dog.

Focus. The nearest pharmaceutical dispensary was only a block away.

I made it half that distance before I came upon the Black Man.

He was waiting on the sidewalk. His featureless head swiveled toward me, watching without eyes.

The Black Man wasn’t part of the chaos. He was above it. He’d seen it before.

He saw me and knew that I was different.

You do not participate in the Great Becoming?

I turned back toward my apartment, walking quickly.


The Black Man followed.

Beneath the red winds, beneath the sands of Rhonoth-dur, the temple of undoing beckons. You alone decline this invitation?

I began to run.

The Black Man continued walking after me.

Unable to meet your full potential, you are broken. You have gazed upon the grandeur of the Between and have wilted. Your dreams of unmaking are not for my world. To another master they must fly.

I reached the glass doors of my building. Recognizing I belonged there, they slid open to save me.

Delicious screams.

“Help! Wait!”

“Let us in!”

There were three children running up the sidewalk from the opposite direction, terrified, reaching for me with tears streaming down their faces. There was a shadow behind them, shambling. My eyes tracked up toward the incomprehensible mass of hungry, twisted meat that was pursuing them.

Tentacles wrapped around the last child’s ankles. He sprawled into the street, and was sucked back to be consumed.

I held the door open. “Hurry!”

The first child, a girl no more than ten, got past me. The next, a boy probably six or seven, ran up, and I placed my hand on the back of his head as he passed to push him to safety.

My fingers touched hard chitin.

I snatched my hand away. Beneath his patchy blond hair, the back half of his skull was a slimy black and red plate.

He looked up at me with wide goat pupil eyes.

I shoved him back into the street and forced the door closed.

The girl was inside, watching me, emotionless, as the tentacle horror dragged the boy away.

The Black Man stood outside the door.

This world is mine. You have been claimed by another.

I went back to the lift as the girl squatted in the lobby and began to draw intricate designs in the slime.

The lift doors opened. The Black Man was inside waiting.

I stepped inside and called for 216. We started up.

This world is mine, priest of another. We do not share. Your dreams of unmaking must serve another.

A few seconds later we reached my floor. I stumbled into the hall in a swarm of flies. The Black Man did not follow. Mrs. Johansen’s cocoon had burst open. Something had slid beneath her couch and was breathing wetly. Mrs. Garcia’s body was gone, but her bloody footsteps went to the wall and simply disappeared.

I went inside my apartment. The Black Man was waiting, standing in front of my window, watching Atlas be cleansed.

We do not share worlds. This one is mine. It has always been mine. We do not share priests. You have been marked by another. Return to He who has anointed you and awaken him from his slumber. Awaken him with your visions, so that the worlds he has claimed may hear his call.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

Die again. And Dream.

The Alert cycled through the Mars gate without incident. Within seconds AIs had exchanged vast swaths of information. Curiously, Emma was unable to send certain bits of information because her database had somehow become corrupted.

By the time the first of the Alert’s crew began to thaw from hypersleep, a fleet of ships had been dispatched to Atlas to continue the investigation.

Dr. Riady, being genetically enhanced, was the first to shake off the stasis effects. She summoned a basin of water, splashed some on her face, and stared at her reflection in the mirror. As a side effect of near physical perfection, it was extremely unusual to find a pimple on her forehead. It was even more unusual that when scratched at and squeezed, to have a tiny insect pop out and fly away . . .

“Emma, is there a bug in my chambers?”

“No, Doctor. I do not detect anything of the sort.”

She shook her head, blamed the hallucination on the aftereffects of the hypersleep drugs, splashed some more water on her face, and got back to work. She had a crew to decant.

Within the last of those stasis tanks, deep within the Alert’s quarantine, Leland Chang’s eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids, as his broken mind relived visions of tormented ancient gods, trapped between the walls of reality, so vivid and imaginative that they could wake the dead.

Far beneath the ocean of the human home world, something began to stir.

And the sixteen billion humans spread across several planets, moons, and orbitals around Earth did not even realize that this was the beginning of the end.

THE THEME of this anthology was Lovecraft in space, so I was excited to try something new. I don’t get to write straight-up horror very often. I use a lot of Lovecraftian elements in my Monster Hunter series, but that’s more about heroes having adventures and shooting cosmic horrors in the face, than well-spoken New Englanders telling each other scary stories in the dark. Lovecraft excelled at creating a feeling of creeping doom. He wrote about academics in an age where reason and science was supposedly going to banish religion and superstition, only their quest to know the unknowable was inevitably doomed. That’s the vibe I was trying to achieve with this one.

I also share a birthday with H.P. Lovecraft and Ron Paul, which probably explains a lot about me.

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