The Danger Zone – Part VIII

Previous part.  Start from the beginning.

The vehicle raced forward, and I couldn’t hold back a scream as we slammed into that shimmering pocket of air.  With a flash, we were through – and on the other side, another massive shipping facility, bright lights illuminating the metal grated floor over which we flew.  I spun around, and watched the other vehicles re-entering the real world behind us.  One of the last convoy trucks still had thin tentacles clinging to it, trying to drag the machine back through the portal, but they were no match for the massive engine once the tires had the traction of the grated floor.  Further and further into our world the tentacles stretched, until one last spray of gunfire, this barrage coming from a new group of men standing next to the open portal, severed them and left them flopping around the floor.

Once all of the vehicles were through, the portal closed with a loud buzzing.  We came to a rolling stop, and Kurt hopped out of the vehicle even before it had ceased moving.  I waited for the tires to stop before following him, my heart still pounding in my chest.

Kurt stalked over to another man, this one standing well back from the action.  He was dressed in a suit and tie instead of military fatigues, and he seemed to be slouching, lacking the military posture of the other men around him.  “Report,” he said in a tired tone to Kurt.

“We lost one of the escort vehicles and four of the convoy trucks,” Kurt replied.  “I’d estimate fourteen casualties.”

The man rubbed his face with one hand.  “Still better than our average, I suppose,” he sighed.  “All right.  Get me the info for the families of those men.  I’ll make sure their death benefits get paid out.”

As Kurt stalked off, the man turned to me.  “Ah, and you must be the academic,” he said, trying and failing to put on a smile of interest.  “How was your first trip through subspace?  Looking forward to the return voyage?”

I couldn’t suppress a shudder at the idea, and the man let out a mirthless laugh.  “What were those things?” I asked.  “Where do they come from?  Why are they attacking?”

He shrugged one shoulder.  “No one knows,” he said.  “And frankly, no one really cares.  We certainly can’t study them – look.”  He pointed over behind me, and I turned and gazed back at the portal.  The severed tentacles, stretched across the metal grates, were letting off clouds of thick gray smoke.  As I watched, they broke apart, leaving nothing but faint greasy marks behind on the ground.  The smoke drifted apart and dissipated before it had gone more than five feet.

“The things can’t survive on our world,” the man explained.  “At least, as far as we know – we’re not going to tempt fate by leaving one of these portals open.  After all, they didn’t attack us at first either.”

I opened my mouth, but I had no response, no words to adequately sum up what I had just experienced.  The man took advantage of my silence to lean forward, his words taking on a steely tone.  “You will not write about what you’ve seen,” he hissed.  “You will not share any information about these creatures, about what they do to us.  You will instead write about how subspace is inhospitable, slow to cross, filled with natural dangers – but no sign of life.  You will write this up, and explain how Actinide is doing the best job it can with the challenge.  Is this clear?”

I nodded, unable to meet his unblinking gaze.  The man held his intense pose for a moment longer, and then relaxed, slumping back and rubbing one hand through his thinning hair.  “Christ, I hate this job,” he muttered, talking to himself more than to me.  “Anyway, you’re dismissed.  Get out of here.  And know that if you print anything about what you really saw, we’ll deny everything.”

I hurried away, heading for the distant exit.  I passed several fortified positions, bristling with heavy machine guns and cannons, all pointed towards the deactivated portal.  My thoughts were jumbled, and I felt as though I hadn’t slept in a month.  But one thing was clear.  Subspace was not going to be the answer to our society’s problems.  The incredible advance was a hollow lie.

Thanks for sticking with this massive story until the end!  I promise, the next few updates will be more manageable.

The Danger Zone – Part VII

Previous part.  Start from the beginning.

As we turned to head back to our vehicle, however, my ears caught another one of those thin wails, barely on the edge of hearing.  Kurt drew his sidearm, while Bradley brought his rifle up to his shoulder.  A moment later, I remembered that I had been given a pistol, and I fumbled to pull it out of the holster on my belt.

Just as I got the weapon free, the wail intensified, and I saw movement breaking through the clouds off to one side.  The mercenaries raised their weapons, and the many-limbed monster died in a hail of bullets before it was fully through the clouds.  But we could already see more of those thin tentacles reaching down as its fellows followed.

“Lights!” Kurt roared over his shoulder at the convoy.  The spotlights mounted on the vehicles clicked on, and bright beams of light struggled to cut through the hazy twilight.  But as they increased our vision, we could see thousands more tentacles dropping down, all around us.

The other drivers were also beginning to emerge from their vehicles, guns at the ready, but Kurt waved one hand at them, signing that they should stay in their vehicles.  “Be ready for the portal!” he shouted.  “We can’t hold them off forever – we need to be ready to move through the portal when it opens!”

I wasn’t sure that we would make it that long.  The men were being more selective with their shots, aiming for the large clusters of unequal-sized eyes that would drop down at the heart of the writhing tentacles, but the stream of monsters seemed to be unending.  They were coming at us from all directions.  I couldn’t even tell from which direction we’d come – the shifting sand had already obscured the tire tracks of the convoy.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement above one of the delivery trucks.  I let out a wordless shout, pointing up at the nightmare of a spider that was falling out of the clouds, but no one else was paying attention to me.  I grabbed at the gun strapped to my hip, managed to free it.  I raised it up, both hands shaking as I tried to keep the surprisingly heavy pistol steady.

I pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.  Idiot!  The safety!  I flicked at the switch until it clicked, and then once again raised the weapon.  I did my best to sight down the trembling barrel at the monster as it began to wrap its tentacles around the truck.

Bang!  Bang!  The gun leapt in my hands with each loud report, but the monster jerked and shuddered.  I pulled the trigger twice more, and the creature’s largest eye, in the center of the coils of tentacles, exploded into a mass of ruined ichor.  The creature fell, bouncing off the top of the truck and landing only feet away from me.  I stared in horror as it thrashed in its death coils.

A loud scream broke my concentration.  One of the soldiers from the back vehicle had climbed out, and was now caught in the grip of several tentacles.  I forced my eyes away as, with a disturbingly wet ripping sound, the tentacles pulled him apart.  I raised my pistol again, sighting down the barrel at another one of the beasts that was drawing close.

In between my shots, however, I heard a new sound – one that I had never thought would be so welcome.  As the crackling, buzzing noise increased, I saw a large mirror shimmer into existence, twenty or thirty feet from the lead Humvee.

“Back to the vehicles!” Kurt roared.  “Double the suppressing fire!  Give them everything!”  The thumping of gunfire increased as we all sprinted back towards the oversized transports.

I reached our Humvee, but struggled to get up the high first step into the back cabin.  Kurt’s arms tightened around my collar, and I felt myself literally lifted and thrown into the backseat.  Kurt was less than a second behind me, slamming the door shut behind him as he leapt in.  “Go!” he shouted, slamming a hand down on our driver’s shoulder…

To be concluded…

The Danger Zone – Part VI

Previous part.  Start from the beginning.

The shape slammed into the lead Humvee, knocking it sideways and sending it rolling through the drifts of sand.  Kurt didn’t even pause, sending a steady stream of lead towards the monstrosity of a creature that had attacked.  My eyes, however, were following the wreck of the Humvee, now a shattered and dented mass lying in the dip between two sand drifts.  The impact had reduced it to a nearly unrecognizable ball of metal.

Kurt’s assault rifle had run out of ammunition, and he was spewing a steady stream of loud curses as he struggled to reload in the bouncing vehicle.  The gunner on top of our Humvee had managed to drag the heavy mounted machine gun onto the new target, however, and the monster in front of us let out a thin, almost inaudible wail as the new stream of high-velocity rounds tore through it.  I caught an impression of flailing tentacles, a jagged, gnashing beak, and far too many eyes of all different sizes, all smashed together into a roiling mass.  An instant later, however, the heavy bullets shredded it into pulp.

Still letting out that thin scream, the monster landed in the sand, its death spasms rolling it off the side of the convoy.  With the path ahead of us clear, the driver didn’t hesitate to slam the gas pedal all the way to the floor, and we leapt forward.

The soldier riding shotgun in the passenger seat looked down at the computer screen mounted in the central panel of the Humvee.  “Beacon’s just ahead,” he announced.  “One thousand feet.  Eight hundred.  Six hundred.  Four hundred.  Two hundred.”

The driver slammed on the brakes, and I clutched at my seat belt as the vehicle skidded sideways for several feet before coming to a stop.  My wide eyes saw that, of the dozen delivery trucks that had originally entered the portal with us, only eight were still with us.  The rear Humvee was still with us as well, but I could see smoke emerging from under its hood and with the front wheels twisted at an awkward angle.  Several of the large delivery trucks were spotted with what looked like burn marks, and one of them had a large tear in the metal siding.

Kurt reached behind the seat, into the trunk area of our Humvee, and pulled out a briefcase.  Hauling it over the seat and into his lap, he popped the side door and leapt out of the vehicle.  Bradley, on my other side, followed suit.  Not sure what to do, but not wanting to be left alone in the vehicle, I hurried to follow them.

The gray sand that made up the surface of subspace was very light, and small clouds of it swirled around my feet as I landed outside the Humvee.  A few of the grains reached my mouth and nose, making me cough.  They were gritty in my throat, but tasteless.

I turned towards the other mercenaries.  Kurt was kneeling down on the sand, the briefcase lying open in front of him.  Inside was some sort of computer machinery, with which he was fiddling.  Bradley was standing next to him, his alert and worried eyes on the dark clouds around us and his hands tight on his assault rifle.

I moved towards Kurt, trying to peer over his shoulder in the dim half-light.  The computer screen inside the briefcase appeared to be running some sort of program.  “What is that?” I asked.

“We need to send a signal to the other side, so that we can get a portal out of here,” he replied.  “They can’t just leave the portal constantly open; you’ve seen the kind of things that are out here.  So we open a miniature portal, just big enough to send a radio signal through, to let them know that we’re at their endpoint.”

The computer beeped.  “How long is it going to take?” I asked, looking around nervously, my eyes on the sky.  The low, oppressive clouds gave the entire world a claustrophobic feel, as if a great weight was hovering just above us.  There could be an entire army of those monsters, hiding in or above the clouds, and we would never know – until they swooped below to attack.

Kurt straightened up, brushing the ubiquitous sand from his fatigues.  “Signal’s sent,” he said.  “Should just be a few minutes now.”

Getting towards the end – promise!

The Danger Zone – Part V

Previous part.  Start from the beginning.

The roaring of our vehicle’s powerful engine jumped an octave, and I felt the visceral thrill of acceleration throw me back into the hard seat.  Spinning around to stare out the back, I could see the larger cargo trucks shaking back and forth as they lumbered to keep up.  The featureless, identical hills of gray sand, however, seemed to stretch on forever, offering no clue as to our increased speed.

At first, it seemed as though Kurt’s plan was working; I could see the darker smudge among the hazy clouds, the origin of the attacking misty tentacles, receding into the background behind us.  But the smile of relief had barely appeared on my face before it was whisked away as I glanced forward again and saw more splotches darkening the clouds ahead.

I finally found my voice.  “But I thought that subspace was empty!” I said in disbelief.  “I thought that nothing could live here!  Nothing could survive!”

Kurt had pulled his gun back inside the vehicle to avoid losing it as we had picked up speed, but he kept his window open, casting suspicious glances towards the clouds.  “Oh, there are things here, all right,” he growled.  “Don’t know if you’d call it living, though.  Seems that they just want to attack, far as we’ve seen.”

“You encounter these things regularly?”  I stared up at the sky, my eyes wide, struggling to keep a handle on the situation.

The only response I received from Kurt was a short nod, but the soldier riding shotgun in the front, who had remained quiet for the entire ride so far, finally opened his mouth.  “And they’re getting worse,” he added darkly.

Shifting in my seat to lean forward, between the two front seats, I turned to him.  “Worse?”

The soldier didn’t turn back towards me, didn’t even tear his glance away from the window, but he opened his mouth to reply.  “Been doing these runs since the beginning,” he grunted.  “First few runs were completely clear.  Fifth run was when we first saw them – they attacked just as we reached the end, so some of us could escape.  Still destroyed half our convoy; we weren’t prepared or armed at all.”

The man adjusted the position of the rifle on his lap slightly.  I watched his knuckles turn white as he gripped the weapon.  “Now, they attack every run, and more of them each time,” he went on.  “We tried lights, klaxons, different times, different routes – nothing made any difference.  The whole place looks exactly the same, and there’s no way of navigating save our guidance systems.  So now all we can do is try to outrun the bastards and hope for the best.  And I don’t know how much longer our luck will hold.”

Despite this fatalistic viewpoint, we seemed to be doing all right – for the moment.  The engines of our convoy were roaring as we hurtled over the sand, splashing through the crests of dunes, but the dark shapes in the clouds seemed to be keeping their distance.  “Three minutes to beacon,” the soldier in the driver’s seat commented, his voice terse.

The commander merely grunted again, turning his gaze back to the skies, but Bradley risked a quick smile at me.  “Not so bad of a run,” he said.  “We ought to make it the rest of the run without any-”

Bradley’s words were cut off, and the rest of my senses momentarily overwhelmed, as a gigantic shape suddenly swept down across the road in front of us…

To be continued…

The Danger Zone, Part IV

Previous part.  Start from the beginning.

I stared out the windows at subspace.  I felt as though we were in the Sahara at night; we were surrounded by dunes of sand, while the sky overhead was a dull black.  The dunes seemed dimly lit, hazily visible, but I could see no outcrops or breaks in the rolling sand.  “On guard against what?” I asked.  “Why are we so armed and armored?”

Kurt grunted sourly and didn’t reply, staring out the window, but the soldier on the other side of me gently nudged me.  “Listen, traveling out here is dangerous,” he said, his tone much more congenital than Kurt.  “There’s things out there.  And they don’t like us being here.”

I turned to face the other man.  Despite the combat fatigues, sidearm strapped to his leg, and heavy rifle laid across his lap, he looked surprisingly young, his face clean shaven in contrast to Kurt’s rough stubble.  “Things?  Have you seen them?” I asked.

“Bradley,” the young soldier offered, holding out his hand.  “And yeah, they’ve tried to hit us a few times.  Personally, I think they’re attracted to the engine noise.  Hey, looks like the convoy’s all through – you might want to hold on to something.”

I looked up.  Indeed, all of the vehicles had now passed through the the portal, and were moving across the gray sand, their tires sinking in slightly.  “Got the exit beacon,” the pilot commented in front of us.

“Then let’s get going!” Kurt ordered.  The driver nodded, and his foot slammed down on the accelerator.
Despite Bradley’s warning, I was thrown back in my seat as the convoy vehicles leapt forward, rapidly accelerating until the dunes outside were blurred and sprays of sand were being thrown up by tires.

“Fifteen minutes to the beacon,” the driver announced, his voice nearly a yell to be heard above the roar of the engine.  Kurt grunted in acknowledgement, although his sour expression didn’t change as he stared out the window.

I turned back to Bradley.  “What sort of creatures are out there?” I asked.  I had never heard of anything being alive in subspace; all accounts made it out to be barren and deserted.  Yet the preparations and weapons carried by these soldies painted a very different picture.

Bradley opened his mouth, but couldn’t seem to find the words for a minute.  “They’re just alien,” he said finally, shuddering a little.  “Monsters.  Not like anything on Earth.  They come in groups, so we don’t-”

The radio mounted in our Humvee buzzed into life, cutting Bradley off.  “Contact!” it squawked.  “Left side, coming in fast!”

Kurt roared wordlessly, raising his rifle to point out the open window.  I stared over his shoulder, trying to see what was coming.  At first, I could see nothing out of the ordinary beside the rolling gray sand dunes.  As Kurt raised his weapon, however, I could see a darker, indistinct shape approaching, above the dunes.  It looked like a bank of very thick fog, rolling in towards the convoy.

As I stared, darker shapes solidified inside the fog, reaching forward.  My eyes went wide.  The shapes were resolving themselves into massive tentacles!  They appeared partly amorphous, wobbling slightly as though made from jelly.  Kurt’s rifle barked, the staccato of automatic gunfire shattering the silence.  The tentacles burst apart into shredded chunks.  But already, more of them were emerging from the fog.

Kurt’s rifle wasn’t alone.  The other men in the convoy turned their own weapons on the fog.  The higher-pitched pops of rifles were joined by the heavier thudding of the mounted machine guns on the Humvee turrets, each round tearing through multiple tentacles.  Yet still they poured out of the fog.

“Faster!” Kurt roared at the driver as he shifted to a new target.  “We can’t win!  We need to get to the beacon!”

Continued in Part V. Yes, there are a lot of chapters.

The Danger Zone, Part III

Continued from Part II.  Start at the beginning.

The discovery of subspace began, as so many great breakthroughs do, with a tragedy.  At the end of the twenty-first century, with space exploration experiencing a massive resurgence in popularity, research teams around the world, both public and private, were racing to develop the next generation of zero-atmosphere engines for interplanetary flight.  Most of the public institutions were pursuing more reasonable upgrades to current rockets, such as reusable, refillable booster stages, lighter and more compact fuel, and more efficient shuttle designs.  The private research groups, however, were free to chase down stranger long shots – which may partly explain why, on one sunny morning, a research complex in Massachusetts exploded in a blast that radiated out for twenty miles and turned the ground to molten glass.

This tragedy attracted widespread media attention, of course, but Actinide, the company that had been funding the research facility, managed to remain stubbornly close-mouthed and avoid detailing too much information in the investigative probes from government review boards.  Less than five years later, they announced that they had discovered a new method of travel, crossing thousands of miles in mere minutes by traversing across an alternate dimension.

Actinide didn’t file any patents, and over the next few years the company managed to keep the details of its discovery fairly secret through a combination of corporate counter-espionage, bribes, and the occasional rumored industrial sabotage of a rival that was getting too close to developing their own version of subspace travel.  Scientists made fruitless complaints about the poor research environment, other shipping companies went bankrupt, and Actinide quickly gained a near-monopoly in the interplanetary shipping market.  Yet somehow, they still seemed plagued by delays and issues with their subspace systems.

This is where I came in.  Sure, I was a pure-hearted academic on the inside, but I knew the advantage of good marketing, and sold myself to Actinide as an expert who might be able to help streamline their process.  I had suspected for a long time that they had issues, and their request for me to accompany a cargo shipment proved my suspicions correct.

My credentials weren’t falsified, of course; aside from the researchers working behind gag orders for Actinide itself, I probably knew more about subspace than anyone else.  The principles were remarkably similar to something out of a science fiction tale; gates at fixed locations used very high pulses of energy to form a temporary tunnel through the fabric of reality, creating an entrance and exit.  The convoy would travel through subspace between these two portal points; rough data suggested that a meter in subspace corresponded to approximately 4 kilometers in our dimension.

It had taken several seconds as the crackling of stray bolts of energy grounding themselves around the portal intensified, but I could now see that the giant ring was filled with a shimmering haze.  I could hear a faint crackling noise radiating out from the portal, like the noise around a bug zapper on a warm June night.  A loud buzzer sounded, and with a jerk, the vehicles dropped into gear and began rolling forward.  I stared over the shoulders of the bulky men in the front seat, watching with wide eyes as the Humvee in front of us vanished into that haze, growing obscured as though entering thick fog.  We were close behind, nearly bumper to bumper, and I tried not to hold my breath as we passed through the portal.

I had been expecting some sort of sensation, some sort of tingling or prickling, but I felt nothing.  Kurt, sitting next to me, poked me with an elbow.  “On guard,” he growled.  “We’re in it now.  No relaxing until we’re through.”

The Danger Zone, Part II

Continued from Part I.

My brow furrowed.  “Wait.  Fool’s errand?  Is this dangerous?”  I uneasily remembered the massive stack of legal documents given to me by the Actinide lawyers, all of which required my initials.

This comment produced a couple of short, humorless laughs from the men working around me.  The commander’s lips didn’t even twitch, however.  “Ever handle a gun before?” he asked.

I briefly thought about mentioning that I had tried out for javelin in undergrad, but decided that it wouldn’t be of any use.  “Never,” I replied honestly.  As soon as the word was out of my mouth, a pistol was thrust into my hands.

“Easy,” the commander told me.  “Point it at the enemy and pull the trigger.  If it runs out, well, you’re probably dead by that point anyway.”

“Enemy?” I repeated, feeling totally lost.  But before I could get a reply, a loud whistle sounded from somewhere in the recesses of the massive hangar, and the men around me seemed to double their movements.

The commander’s hand landed firmly on my shoulder.  “The portal’s about to open,” he announced.  “Time to move.”

With the commander forcibly leading me from behind, I approached the convoy.  Only as I drew closer did I get a true sense for how large – and heavily armored – these vehicles were.  Half a dozen massive delivery trucks made up the heart of the convoy, but a pair of heavily armed Humvees were at the front, closest to the portal, and a third brought up the rear.  All three escort vehicles sported rotary turrets on top, soldiers running final checks on the oversized guns mounted in them.  I also noticed that the tires on all of the vehicles were oversized, at least three feet in diameter, and seemed to be covered in some sort of gritty sand.  I wanted to stop, to ask questions about these details, but the commander pushed me onward.  It soon became clear that my destination was the second Humvee, just behind the front-runner.

“This seems a little heavily armed for just a transport, don’t you think?” I managed to shout above the noise as the commander pushed me up and into the back seat.  “And by the way, I don’t think I caught your name!”

The man glared at me as he climbed up into the seat behind me, pulling the door shut, but I forced myself to keep eye contact.  “Kurt,” he told me shortly.  “And trust me, this isn’t enough weaponry.”  I wanted to ask more, but a loud hissing cut me off.  I glanced forward, past the burly and rough-shaven man filling every inch of the driver’s seat, and watched, around the front vehicle ahead of us, as the portal opened.

The Danger Zone, Part I

Steam hissed through pipes around the massive platform, struggling to cool the air as the last vehicles of the convoy pulled into position.  The gloom of the gigantic chamber gave the impression of everlasting night, despite the struggling halogen bulbs far overhead.  Men in camouflage uniforms were rushing around.  They walked with a sense of self-importance that went beyond the sidearms strapped to their waists, and in many cases the larger and heavier-looking weapons slung over shoulders or across the back.

Standing in the midst of this activity, I did my best to stay out of the way.  Men with chiseled faces and stern frowns were double-checking a hundred different things on the heavy vehicles; tire pressure, ammunition loading belts, piston pressure gauges, ammunition reservoirs, and other systems that I couldn’t even name.  I couldn’t recall another time when I had felt so out of place.

A week ago, I recalled, I hadn’t been this nervous.  Indeed, I had been ecstatic – I was, as far as I could find, the very first researcher to be given permission to ride along on a subspace transport convoy.  Or, as the mercenaries I interviewed called it, the “danger zone.”

As an academic researcher, fieldwork was always highly coveted, and subspace was the Holy Grail – an entirely new dimension, only recently discovered and still barely understood.  Private interests, namely the Actinide Shipping Corporation, had been quick to purchase patents on the access machinery, and they now held absolute control over what passed through subspace, using the rapid transportation to rapidly grow into one of the most powerful companies in existence.

Of course, the one commodity that Actinide couldn’t control was information, and rumors quickly spread about subspace.  Mysterious lifeforms, unusual materials, and strange messages were all claimed to exist inside subspace.  Some anonymous sources even insisted on the internet that entire ecosystems existed inside this dimension, disturbing and unusual beyond our wildest imaginations.  Nothing was verified, of course, and the Actinide Shipping Corporation regularly issued blanket denials to all such rumors.  If anything, however, this only increased their prevalence.

It didn’t help that Actinide chose to offer relatively few subspace transport options, usually citing the cost of activating portals as the main reason.  They also hired some of the toughest mercenaries in known space, battle-hardened men and women who seemed more likely to be found in a war zone than working for an import/export company.  These men were fearless, emotionless, and, as I had found in my attempts to gather more information about subspace, unwilling to break the terms of their non-disclosure agreements.  But now, I would finally have the chance to see what I had been questing after!

My mental monologue was interrupted by my name, ringing out in a gravelly voice over the sounds of mechanical adjustments.  I turned, and found myself face to face with a tall and imposing man.  I guessed that he had to be in at least his sixties from the gray in his hair and the deep-set lines on his face, but his head was still buzzed and he carried himself like a trained killer.  Several stripes decorated each shoulder, and he was clearly in charge.  He glared down at me as he approached, regarding me much the way that one would regard a particularly unpleasant insect that was about to encounter the heel of a boot.

“You’re the nerd,” he said.  It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes, I’m a graduate researcher at MIT, working on possible practical applications for subspace travel in regards to-” I began, but the man clearly wasn’t interested.  A short wave of his hand cut me off.

“You’re a goddamn bureaucratic nuisance, is what you are,” he interrupted.  “And you sure as shit don’t know much about subspace, or you’d never have volunteered to go on this fool’s errand.”