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 my head and left a gaping hole where my soul had been life. 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whenever the gate cycled open and we were briefly connected with the rest of the universe—even if it was all months out of date—and then I followed Atlas’s local streams when the gate was closed, which was the vast majority of the time.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 archaeological mecca. Even though the natives had been extinct for millions of years, humans had only discovered a handful of planets with intelligent 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 archaeologists, about how the weird geometry favored in the alien’s 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. “Xeno-anthropologist, 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 in 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 are 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…”
[“Dead Waits Dreaming” by Larry Correia is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, coming soon!]
Gerrold Mason turned over, and for a moment he thought he had seen red hair. Red hair with subtle threads of black and brown running through it, like a dark rainbow that portended not the sun breaking through the clouds, but the clouds’ triumph over all that was bright.
It was an omen. He should have recognized it for what it was.
Then the red hair disappeared. Just like it always did. Though now he saw a flash of lighter red, this shade stitched through with bright threads of blonde, as if a confused painter had seen father and mother and remained unsure which parent’s hair color should rule.
Then he was alone. Alone in the dark, in the deep black inkwell of a wormhole and hearing a single voice, over and over: “Do you love me?”
The voice changed, becoming deeper, smoother. The voice of Gerrold’s lone shipmate.
“How are you feeling today?”
Trixie. Her voice had exactly the qualities determined to be most soothing to those who needed assistance of a—what was it the Company basketmen called it?—“mental and spiritual nature.”
Gerrold hated it. Hated the voice, hated her. But it wasn’t like he had a choice. Trixie had come with the trip. At first he had been thrilled with the upgrade, until he realized she wasn’t just there to help him, but to keep an eye on him. To make sure he didn’t implode.
He was lucky he still had a job, he supposed. The Company didn’t like publicity.
“How are you feeling today?”
He looked over at her. She had light hair—probably because of some long-running research study that showed headcases were less likely to snap in the presence of a blonde—and was fairly attractive without being sexual. The perfect companion on a long trip: calming, helpful.
“Are we there?” said Gerrold, though he knew they had to be, or at least that they had to be close. Trixie wouldn’t have started yammering if they weren’t.
“We’re on approach.”
“Three hours, give or take.” She smiled in exactly the right way to show she was just an aw shucks kinda gal, and not the typical stick-up-my-butt shrink he could have been saddled with. Like Gerrold should note she gave an approximate time value rather than exact information and appreciate that fact.
Trixie blinked, and her image flickered for the barest fraction of a second. Even with long periods in hypersleep, the trip had been long enough that Gerrold had grown to recognize the flicker as a signal that she was changing tacks with him. Evidently she had realized he was not interested in talking about his feelings—
(shades of red and brown shades of red and blond and Do you love me?)—and had shifted protocols: trying to get him to open up another way.
“Would you like me to open up a com-link to Shane?” she asked.
That took Gerrold aback. She’d never offered that. For a second he almost smiled, almost looked at the floating holo by his bed as a person rather than a collection of photons. Then he realized she must have just downloaded new protocols while he slept.
Humans dream—computers uplink and run systems checks, he thought. She’s not a friend, just Trixie 2.1. Just some Company software keeping watch over Company hardware.
“What time is it? Where Shane is?”
“It’s…” (again that minute flash as her image responded to the query) “…5:40 a.m. in Middleton.”
Gerrold shook his head. “Let him sleep.”
He ached to put the call through. He wanted to see Shane. He hadn’t seen the boy for months, not in the flesh, and the last com-link had gone… badly. But he didn’t want to wake the kid up. He was still dealing with things. Still processing the loss.
“When are they coming back?” That was Shane’s favorite question. “When are Mommy and Dalia coming back?” And no matter how many times, no matter how many different ways Gerrold tried to explain it—ways that all boiled down to never—Shane never seemed to understand.
“What about God?” he would ask. And Gerrold had no answer. Because while it was easy to talk about God when you were in church and surrounded by happy people and nothing bad was happening, it was a lot harder to believe when you had just been told why there would be no possibility of an open-casket funeral for your wife or daughter.
(“Do you love me?”)
Even worse was the fact that Shane didn’t understand why Gerrold hadn’t come home. Even though that reason was even simpler: poverty. Iago once said, “Poor and content is rich, and rich enough.” Which to Gerrold was proof either that Shakespeare was an ass, or that Iago had no children. Because while poverty could be bearable, poverty with children could not.
So when the Company called not ten minutes after the news, Gerrold said yes. Even though it meant he wouldn’t be coming Earthside. Even though he knew it was just a way of keeping him—and, by extension, the Company—out of the public eye.
Even though it meant not seeing Shane. Not holding, not touching him.
Because they were paying him double wages, and hazard pay. And if he didn’t come back at all, they’d triple those rates, and all of it would go into a trust for Shane.
When Gerrold was young and single, just a blaster doing micro-jumps to Sol-based shops that needed some kind of attention, he wouldn’t have worried about poverty. He could sleep in his spacer, or just on the couch of a friend. Even when he was a bit older, money didn’t matter so much to him.
But when Dalia came… it all changed. He held her in his arms, and felt the most intense love blossoming within him. Even what he felt for his wife wasn’t the same, because what he held in his arms depended on him, truly and utterly. And with that understanding came the realization that below the love that now throbbed like bright life-blood through his mind and heart, there was something else. Something darker.
[“A Darklight Call’d on the Long Last Night of the Soul” by Michaelbrent Collings is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, coming soon!]
Be wary of silence, because it only means that machinations are going on behind the curtain. Here are the rest of the contributors to SPACE ELDRITCH II, which should be invading your dreams by the end of the month.
D.J. Butler, another veteran of the first SPACE ELDRITCH volume, is a lawyer by training, but he’s been writing speculative fiction for all audiences since 2010. His Mormon steampunk novel City of the Saints was shortlisted for the 2012 Whitney Awards. His forthcoming novel, Crecheling, is a YA post-apocalyptic adventure that’s awesome. His contribution to SEII is “Seed,” and might not be safe for work (depending on where you work).
David J. West, another returning contributor to the first SPACE ELDRITCH, writes adventure in all its forms: historic, fantastic, and science-fic. His first novel is Heroes of the Fallen, and his next novel, Bless the Child, is coming soon. His story for SEII is “The Queen in Darkness.”
Larry Correia is the New York Times bestselling author of the Monster Hunter International series, the award winning Grimnoir Chronicles trilogy (Hard Magic, Spellbound, and Warbound), and the military thrillers Dead Six and Swords of Exodus, all available from Baen Books. He has also written novellas and the novel Into the Storm for Privateer Press set in their Warmachine universe, and published over a dozen short stories in various anthologies. Larry was a Campbell finalist for best new writer in 2011, a Verlanger finalist for best novel in France, and has won two Audie Awards for best audiobook. His story for SEII is “Dead Waits Dreaming.”
Eric James Stone is a Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominee, and winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, and has had stories published in Year’s Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and Kevin J. Anderson’s Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues. Over two dozen of his tales can be found in his collection Rejiggering the Thingamajig and Other Stories. In addition to his day job as a website programmer, Eric is an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. His story for SEII is “The Humans in the Walls.”
Steve Diamond runs Elitist Book Reviews, which was nominated for the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. He has published several short stories, and has several more pieces of short fiction forthcoming through Skull Island eXpeditions in the Warmachine universe. His story for SEII is “Within the Walls.”
Howard Tayler is the writer and illustrator behind Schlock Mercenary, the Hugo-nominated science fiction comic strip. Howard is also featured on the Parsec award-winning and Hugo-nominated “Writing Excuses” podcast, a weekly ’cast for genre-fiction writers. His contribution to SEII, set in the same universe as his story in the first SPACE ELDRITCH, is “Fall of the Runewrought.”
Are you salivating yet?
Sorry to announce that there will be no Arcane III — at least, not for the foreseeable future. Both of the first two anthologies are solid, enjoyable work that I’m fiercely proud of (without foundation, as I didn’t actually write any of those incredible stories), but sales have been sluggish; at the current rate, even the first volume is years away from breaking even.
However, to assuage your sorrow, remember that Space Eldritch II: The Haunted Stars is due for release in early autumn, and there are other projects coming together that should give you that exciting little tingle at the base of your spine.
Yes, there will be a sequel volume to SPACE ELDRITCH (currently, though tentatively, entitled SPACE ELDRITCH II: THE HAUNTED STARS), and several contributors have already finished their stories. Allow me to introduce them, won’t you?
Steven L. Peck is the author of The Scholar of Moab, which won the Association of Mormon Letters award for best novel published in 2011, and A Short Stay in Hell, a short novel which still gives me nightmares. His story for SEII is “Plague Ship.”
Michael R. Collings, HWA Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of over 100 books (ranging from horror novels to epic poetry to seminal studies of Stephen King), returns to SEII with a follow-up to his contribution to the first SPACE ELDRITCH. Prepare yourself for “Space Opera: Episode Two–The Great Old One Strikes Back.”
Michaelbrent Collings, son of Michael R. Collings above, is a screenwriter and #1 Amazon bestselling horror and thriller novelist who writes at a stupendous velocity; his second novel released this year (unless I missed one) is Strangers. He brings to SEII a charming little family drama called “A Darklight Call’d on the Long Last Night of the Soul.”
Robert J. Defendi, another veteran of the first SPACE ELDRITCH, is a past winner of Writers of the Future and a game designer. His story, set in the same universe as his first SPACE ELDRITCH contribution, is “The Implant.”
Nathan Shumate (hey, that’s me!) instigated SPACE ELDRITCH and its second volume, and edits the Arcane anthology series available on this site. His story is “Full Dark.”
And that is merely the beginning…
[Don’t know what all the hoopla is about? You owe it to yourself to check out SPACE ELDRITCH here!]