NAUTILUS GALAXY: a novella

A novella in 20 chapters.

Included within: Comedy, tragedy, romance, astrophysics, punk rock, Inter-dimensional travel, existentialism, knife fights, squid monsters, Raquel Welch unveiling the truth behind reality…and more.

Nautilus Galaxy cover SMALL

-1-

Whenever Henry put his hands on his laptop he felt possessed–stories spilled out of his mind faster than his fingers could transcribe them. Well-aware of the bloated word-count of his latest novel, he began culling a myriad of subplots. After “killing his darlings” the battle-hardened prose of the surviving 500 pages seemed indispensable.

Henry’s last two interstellar epics had been deemed unmarketable by every major publisher, but despite a lack of interest or income he never stopped writing. His jobs waiting tables and cleaning carpets kept a roof over his head, but took up valuable hours he’d rather devote to expanding his fictional universe. The lives of his characters resonated with a vitality long-absent from his own.

Henry wasn’t driven by the desire to succeed as a writer, but the necessity of escapism. Nearly three years had passed since the night a Ford Aerostar van drifted out of its lane on Interstate 84 and struck Henry’s sedan. When he awoke from his injuries a month later, an investigator told him the car had careened through a guard-rail and rolled several times down an icy slope. The hospital staff assured him that his wife and son had died instantly, as if it would come as some sort of comfort.

Everything Henry cared about had been taken away in a flash, and the bills resulting from his stay in Sacred General soon took everything else. With his finances depleted and his marketing job lost, it was only a matter of time before the mortgage company came calling. Despondent at first, he eventually felt relieved to freed from the memories of Molly and Adam scarring the townhouse’s hollow spaces: chipped molding in the hallway from impromptu soccer matches; bits of tape on the windows leftover from tissue paper art projects; flecks of pancake batter trapped in the grout of the kitchen tile; a red thread stuck in the carpet from a bedraggled teddy bear. Away from the house it became easier to avoid being ambushed by remnants from his past life. The few mementos he couldn’t bear to part with were locked in the coat closet of his new apartment, only to be viewed on his terms.

Cheap liquor served to dull Henry’s pain when he couldn’t retreat into his imagination. He took risky sips of whiskey from his pocket flask at both of his menial jobs–behind the carpet warehouse’s dusty steel racks or inside the diner’s walk-in freezer–fuzzing the hard edges of reality until he could return to his fictional obsessions.

Writing was the only distraction potent enough to shield Henry from his grief. As time progressed his torment lessened, but he was reluctant to examine the depths of his emotional well-being. Anguish had been the one emotion he could rely on–without it, he feared he’d be left nothing but an empty shell.

-2-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 12: Reunion

Only three pills remained in Anslin’s bandolier—enough explosives to free General Haslo, Kritt and her father. Even with the aid of repuslor lift boots, searching for her surviving squadmates through the ten kilometer-long Pilan frigate had proved taxing. The map unit of her scarab suit had been damaged during her initial raid and was rebooting at a snail’s pace. Come on, dammit, I need to know where they are!

All of Anslin’s muscles were burning. Sweat fogged the visor of her helmet. The chemical cocktail she had pumped in through the ventilation system to force the Pilan’s bacterial defense array to go dormant would only last a few more minutes. When the vapor wore off, the simple organisms would reactivate and proceed to strip the meat from her body.

As Anslin rounded the corner on the way to the general’s cell she realized not all of the mercs had abandoned ship. A bulky sentry guard in reinforced rubber armor was blocking her path, toting a massive voltage cannon he could barely hold upright

“There’s the bitch! Die!” yelled the guard through his opaque, black mask.

Anslin mulled over her options while leaping out of the way of an arcing bolt of electricity. Her sidearm’s battery had been drained during her initial attack on the frigate and lacked enough power to penetrate the sentry’s armor. Conversely, the pill launcher she had stolen could take down a Valent Hovercruiser, but she only had three rounds left—all of which would be needed to blow the thick doors off the cells of her compatriots. Using a pill to kill the guard would doom someone in the Astarte Unit to a horrible death.

Anslin didn’t allow herself to dwell on the matter—the guard had to be taken out or none of them would survive. She told herself there had to be another way to get the last cell open without explosives. Hopefully her meager hacking skills would suffice to pop open the prison block’s security doors.

Anslin advanced on the rubber-clad brute blocking the hall. She slid between the guard’s legs while ducking under a corybantic bolt from his cannon. Before her attacker could turn around to unleash another searing blast, she spun on her back and quickly fired a pill. The resulting explosion pushed her up the hallway, leaving the chrome-covered walls blackened and dripping with the guard’s gore.

“Too close,” muttered Anslin. She coughed and rose back up on shaky legs, having nearly lost consciousness. The HUD of her cracked visor flashed, indicating the map had finished updating. “Good, I’m finally heading in the right direction.” Seeing she was only a few meters from the detention blocks, she reactivated her repulsor boots with renewed purpose and hurried to meet her captured squad.

The encounter with the leftover mercenary left Anslin confused. The Pilans had activated the warship’s bio-defenses in desperation as they evacuated, hoping to kill Anslin and what was left of the Astarte Unit. They had no way of knowing she had outfitted vapor dispensers to the frigate’s hull to nullify the bacteria. Without the gas, anyone left behind would be eaten alive in minutes by ravenous microorganisms. The Pilans were ruthless, but not stupid; they wouldn’t have left one of their own behind in the heart of the ship to die—especially one toting such an expensive weapon.

Anslin burst inside the detention area and followed her HUD to General Haslo’s cell. “Sir, are you there?”

“Anslin?!” bellowed the general. “I can’t believe you’re alive!”

As much as Anslin disliked General Haslo, he was vital to the Astarte Unit. She had no choice but to use a pill to free him from captivity. She pulled up her targeting computer and adjusted the mass of the impending explosion to affect only the surface area of the door. “Stand back, sir…way back.”

The general ducked down in the corner as Anslin fired the pill launcher. A tremendous plasma explosion rang out as the mangled door careened off its hinges to the frigate’s floor. The general waved away the smoke and stumbled out of the cell. “Dammit soldier, you could have killed—”

“Shut up, sir,” interrupted Anslin. She pointed to the corner of the room to a bank of lockers. “Grab a pressure suit and be ready for anything. I need to figure out how to open the other two doors.” General Haslo nodded wordlessly and hurried to suit himself up.

Anslin sprinted to another cell and peered through the small slit at the top of the door. “Kritt?!” She saw her lover slumped in the corner, clutching his middle. “Kritt, I’m here!”

Kritt didn’t answer. He let out a small moan before going silent again. A blood-stained sword was sitting beside him—left behind by the cowardly Pilans as they fled.

“Anslin? Is that you?” called Anslin’s father, Danth, from a few doors down.

Anslin took a step back from Kritt’s cell. She had one pill left and two doors to open. She switched her HUD to display the time remaining before the carnivorous bacteria reactivated. Twelve minutes.

“Danth, hang on,” shouted Anslin. Having just been introduced to her father a few days ago, she had to ask herself if she was willing to sacrifice the love her life for a man she had just met—a man who had abandoned her as a child. She hurried over to the Frigate’s console and punched the keys but the security coding was completely foreign to her. She smashed the console, having no hope of hacking open the doors. “Damn it!”

“Hurry up, kid,” said General Haslo as he affixed a helmet to his pressure suit.

“Shut up, General. Get ready to blast through the hull.” retorted Anslin. If worse to came to worse she’d be forced to eject herself into open space before the bacteria reactivated–piloting her ship remotely while in free-fall. She knew retaining enough wherewithal to pluck herself out of her spin and retrieve the rest of her squadmates would be next to impossible.

Anslin wrung her hands together and started to shake. Only nine minutes remained before the bacteria awakened and began to spread. If she waited much longer the shuttle she’d moored outside the frigate would become a death trap.

“Anslin,” rattled a weak voice.

Anslin rushed back to Kritt’s cell door and looked inside. “I’m going to get you out of there!”

Kritt was holding the sword that had pierced his middle, ready to pull the blade across his neck. “I heard what you said. Your father…is too important to the mission. I don’t have long…they stuck me like a pig and I’m bleeding out. There’s no point in wasting a pill on my door. Get your dad out then get the hell away from here. I love you, Anslin.”

“Stop!” ordered Anslin as Kritt pushed the blade closer to his neck. “Just wait, I have an idea! Promise me you’ll wait! Push yourself as close to this door as you can.”

Kritt coughed and lowered the sword. “Alright. Hurry.”

Anslin rushed to her father’s door. “Danth, stand back.” She fired her last pill and the cell door folded in half, smoking as it rocked on the floor.

Danth rushed out of the cell, hopping over the smoldering debris. “Christ, what a boom.”

Six minutes remained until the vapor wore off. “General, follow us…hurry!” ordered Anslin. She was gambling all their lives on a hunch.

“If you wanted me to die, you should have just left me in the damn cell,” complained the general as the trio sped through the hallway. “Where the hell are we going?”

“I killed a Pilan guard on the way here. I couldn’t figure out why he was still on the frigate…he didn’t look like the type of guy who was big on self-sacrifice,” said Anslin. They rounded a corner and saw the bloody chunks of the mercenary still sliding down the walls. A few meters from the explosion, Anslin noticed a blackened door she had overlooked in her haste. “I knew it…the bastard had an escape route! The other mercs must have ordered him to stick around until the last minute to ensure I was dead.”

Anslin heard a wet, sizzling sound as they headed toward the door. The eviscerated body of the merc was starting to quiver and melt into a pink paste. “The bio-defenses have already reactivated!” she said, trying not to panic as she pried on the door. “Help me get this open!” The two men joined her and the hatch finally slid open, grinding on bent rails. Behind it was another opening leading to the dead mercenary’s cruiser. “The ship’s small, but we’ll fit. Let’s go!” The trio hurried inside.

Anslin detached the ship from its tethering cables and sent it drifting into space. After fumbling for a moment, she located the thrusters and directed the cruiser to the wall outside of the frigate’s detention blocks. She looked at her console. “Perfect. I knew this craft would have standard-issue Pilan rail cannons.”

Anslin pulled up her map of the frigate and overlaid it atop the cruiser’s targeting system. “Kritt’s in cell 37. Danth, get ready on that retrieval arm. We won’t have much time to get him into the ship’s cargo slot once the vacuum pulls him out of the hull.”

“Anyone else feel itchy?” asked the general, scratching at his arms.

“You’d already be dead if that bacteria were on you,” replied Danth.

“We should retrieve Anslin’s shuttle,” said the general. “There’s barely enough room to stand up in this damn thing.”

“No, my shuttle’s on the other end of the frigate. It’s already swarming with bacteria by now,” said Anslin. “This ship is smaller, but it has bigger guns.”

Anslin fired the cruiser’s rail cannons, blasting a surgical hole in the hull of the Frigate. Kritt was immediately sucked out of the tear into open space. “There he is! Danth, grab him!”

Danth nodded from behind his console. He carefully maneuvered Kritt into the airlock using the ship’s robotic arm. “He’s in.”

“If you bring that bacteria on board you’ll kill us all!” said the general.

“Don’t worry. The vacuum choked any bacteria that might have been on him,” said Danth.

“You better be right,” said the general, crossing his arms.

Anslin rocketed away from the frigate and activated the ship’s auto pilot. After grabbing a medical kit, she slipped through a small hatch into the hold and crawled to Kritt’s side.

“Anslin, you’re completely unhinged,” said Kritt with a groan, seeing her hurry closer.

“You’re welcome,” said Anslin, wiping some tears from her cheeks. Although much of his skin was pockmarked with tiny wounds from the bacteria, the medscanner found no remaining trace of the microorganisms.

Anslin rolled Kritt on his side and examined the wound in his abdomen. The angular nature of his Tirhin anatomy had redirected the sword away from his vital organs. “You’re lucky…like usual. If you were human that blow would have killed you. You’ve lost a lot of blood, but you’ll be alright.”

Kritt coughed. “It took four of those Pilan bastards to hold me down. Someone ordered them out of my cell after they stabbed me. They ran like a bunch of cowards.”

Anslin ran the medscanner’s patch-beam across Kritt’s middle. “That must have been right after they activated the frigate’s bio defenses.”

“A few more seconds in there and I would have been hamburger,” said Kritt, peering down at his pitted skin. “Ugh. I look like shit.”

“I don’t know…I think the scars give you an air of dignity,” said Anslin.

Kritt grinned then winced. “Don’t make me laugh!”

Anslin pushed a pain pill in Kritt’s mouth then kissed him sweetly. “You need to rest.”

“I hate being rescued,” whispered Kritt, the drugs already taking effect.

“Well, now we’re even,” said Anslin with a smile. “Come on, let’s get you to a cot before you pass out.”

-3-

It was a particularly slow Monday afternoon at Karpet King. Feeling restless, Henry slipped into the warehouse to sneak a quick drink. After taking a sip he opened his eyes and saw his boss rushing to confront him. He took a few steps back in surprise and quickly pocketed his flask. “Mister Hanth! It’s not what you–”

“I knew I smelled liquor on your breath!” interrupted Hanth, his wrinkled faced folding with disdain. “Drinking on the job is a fireable offense!”

Henry lowered his head with a sigh. “I’m not going to waste any breath trying to talk you out of this. I’ll grab my shit and go.”

Hanth seemed displeased to have his shame ceremony cut short. “So, nothing to say for yourself? Get out of my store, coward…and find Jesus!”

Henry left without a word. His pulse pounded as he walked aimlessly through the streets, trying to calm himself. While cutting through an alley he stopped to take a drink, but instead threw his flask in a nearby dumpster. “Idiot…you knew this would happen.” He made his way back to his apartment and hurried to his computer to write.

Henry soon learned Mr. Hanth had wasted no time. His former boss had called the small diner around the corner where Henry also worked to alert them of their server’s “unprofessional behavior.” A day later Henry was completely unemployed. His final hope to secure some income vanished with a flurry of rejection letters for his most recent novel, “Nautilus Galaxy.”

Soon to be evicted, Henry took advantage of the unsecured wi-fi from the falafel shop across the street from his apartment. He downloaded as many articles on quantum physics, astrophysics, biochemistry and robotics as his laptop could handle then printed every page, determined to continue his book series no matter what circumstances he was thrust into—including a lack of electricity. He was busy binding stacks of printer paper together when he heard a knock on his door.

Henry put down the bottle of Jim Beam he had been nursing. He threw on a checkered flannel and a pair of jeans before going to the door. Expecting to see his landlord through the the peephole, he instead saw Katy, his friend and ex-coworker from the diner.

“Oh! Hey Katy, hang on,” said Henry with surprise as he popped several locks then opened the door. He got along with Katy exceedingly well, despite their slight generation gap and polar-opposite personalities. She had hinted at taking their relationship in a romantic direction after dumping her boyfriend, but Henry wouldn’t allow himself to consider anything but a friendship—if that.

“Henry…I heard what happened. It’s such bullshit,” said Katy. She held a white paper bag in front of her. “Can I come in? Here, I brought you some falafel.”

“Uh…yeah, sure. Thanks,” Henry took the bag from Katy and stepped aside so she could slide by him. “I guess I should apologize for the mess but I’m not going to.”

“Non-apology accepted. After all, you’ve seen my place.” Katy stepped over a few empty pizza boxes and piles of magazines until she made it to a chair. As she sat down her elbow bumped a stack of papers and sent them sprawling across the floor. “Oops. I guess I should apologize for that, but–”

“Nice,” interrupted Henry with a smile. “Don’t worry about it, I was going to recycle that pile anyway.” A savory smell was emanating from the bag. “You know, it’s funny…I’ve lived here for over a year and I’ve never eaten anything from that place across the street. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever had falafel before.” He put the sack on the counter then sat across from Katy. Pity was radiating from her big brown eyes. He hated that look.

Katy diverted her gaze when she saw Henry glaring back at her. She picked up a few sheets of paper and squinted at the articles they contained. “Multiverse Theory? Superstrings? What is all this stuff?”

“Research.”

“Cool. I wish I could write like you.” Katy put down the articles and looked around the disheveled studio. “Are you moving?”

“Yes, more or less,” replied Henry. He didn’t feel up to revealing the truth of his impending homelessness. “I’ve only been living in this studio because it’s within walking distance of my shitty jobs. Now they’re gone.”

Katy shook her head and leaned back in Henry’s rickety chair. “I can’t believe Mila fired you without a shred of evidence. Christ, the woman barely comes into her own damn restaurant!”

“She hired and fired me over the phone. We’ve never actually met,” said Henry, moving another pile out of the way.

“Richard stood up for you, but I guess Mila would rather take the word of that carpet-slinging turd from her church than her own restaurant manager. Not cool.”

“Thanks, but to be honest, I have been drinking on the job. I hid it fairly well most of the time…not well enough at Karpet King, apparently.”

Katy looked confused. “Really? I haven’t noticed you stumbling around or anything.”

“I’ve been careful not to get outright smashed,” replied Henry. “Before you insist I change my destructive behavior…I get it. I’ve had the proverbial wake up call.”

Katy looked dismayed for a moment before sitting up straighter with a shrug. “Okay, so, I’m a little sad that I was too stupid to pick up on all this, but I’m not going to judge you. I know you’ve been going through some real shit.” She blew a soft sigh through pursed lips. “Wow, I sound like one hell of an enabler.”

“Yeah, thanks for that.”

“Not funny. Please, take care of yourself. I can research a few places for you if you like?”

“What, like rehabs? I’m not quite on that level yet, but thanks. I know it’s a shitty excuse, but I was just trying to get through the day easier. Obviously, booze only made things worse, so I’m done with it.”

“Yeah, well, don’t expect me to turn a blind eye to this shit anymore,” said Katy, crossing her arms. “I’m your friend, you can talk with me…about anything. You know that, right?”

“I know. And I do.”

“So, that’s why you were always popping those Altoids.” After a measure of awkward silence, Katy flashed a bright smile. “So, did they like your new book?”

“No, they didn’t. Not yet,” said Henry, staring at the bottle behind Katy. The irony of finding refuge in whiskey after what a drunk driver had done to his family was not lost on him.

“No bites, huh? Don’t worry, it will happen. I know it.”

Henry always expected to recoil at Katy’s optimism, but it generally made him feel better somehow. “Thanks.”

“You still haven’t given me a copy of part three. I’m going to go nuts if I don’t find out what happens to Anslin!”

“I could just tell you, if you want.”

“No, dummy! Just email me your manuscript, okay?”

“Okay.”

Katy still felt raw after Henry’s admission. Feeling fidgety, she picked up a photo sitting on the ledge next to her. “Oh wow…is this Molly and Adam? They really were beautiful. I’m so sorry.”

Henry had forgotten to put the photo back in his closet. “Katy, we don’t need to—”

“They say time heals all wounds but that’s bullshit,” said Katy, staring at Henry and his family in front of Multnomah Falls. She’d never seen him wear a smile so wide. “When my mom died…well…I still cry nearly every day.”

We don’t need to go there, thought Henry, nodding politely. He finally mustered some words to keep from sobbing. “I know Molly wouldn’t want to see me…like this. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m still trying to do right by her. Does that seem strange?”

Katy shook her head. “I don’t think it’s strange. My feelings for the people I love don’t change if they are in the room, across town, or even buried in the ground. The only difference is whether I get to share more experiences with them, or if I’m left with nothing but memories. The people I’ve loved and lost live on in my heart, no matter where–or when–they are. I guess that’s something like an afterlife.”

Henry always appreciated the off the cuff profundities Katy rattled out at random moments. “That’s kind of a nice way to put it. Sad, but also nice. I just wish Adam had more chances to make memories…he was only four.” He slouched and held his face in his hands, his tears refusing to stay at bay. “Shit, sorry.”

Katy stood up and hurried to Henry’s side, putting her skinny arm around his shoulder. “You’ve already been through enough today. I should know when to keep my big mouth shut.”

Henry stopped sobbing but every time he wiped his eyes his hands came back wet. He waited patiently for the valve to close. “Katy, I don’t our friendship to be based on pity. You shouldn’t always have to feel sorry for me.”

“Well, it can’t be based on your fucking sense of humor, so what am I supposed to do?” asked Katy with a smile.

Henry choked out a laugh. “Goddamn you.”

“You’re welcome,” said Katy. She looked at her watch and hopped to her feet. “Crap, my shift is starting in ten minutes.” She hugged Henry tight as he stood up. “Sorry I have to rush off.”

Henry was reluctant to let her go, but he forced himself to step away. It wasn’t a good time to trust his emotions. “No problem. Thanks for coming by. I’ll make sure to get you my new address. I…can’t remember it at the moment.”

“Get it together, old man,” said Katy, moving toward the door. “Please, email me your book—I really liked the first two.”

“I will,” said Henry, “and I’m only five years you senior so shut up.”

Katy pointed behind Henry. “Give me that bottle.”

Henry handed over the whiskey bottle reluctantly. “Happy now?”

“And tell me if you liked the falafel.”

“I’m sure I’ll love it.”

-4-

Henry discovered he didn’t love falafel but he finished the wrap anyway. Afterwards, he sat in front of his laptop but found himself unable to write for the first time since the accident. Out of booze and inspiration, he went for a long jog to try and clear his head. Dusk was his favorite time to run.

During his run, Henry couldn’t help but think of the potential places he could camp for a night should he wind up homeless. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about the weather as much with summer coming. Katy would appreciate my positive outlook, he thought, carrying no shortage of contempt for himself.

Henry was greeted by the sound of his buzzing cell phone as he walked back into his apartment. He always left it behind when he went jogging. After picking it up he let out a groan, seeing it was his long-silent literary agent, Barry Smanton.

“Hello, Barry.”

“Henry! It’s been awhile.” Barry sounded anxious and congested, like usual.

“I’m surprised to hear from you,” said Henry. “I just assumed you had dropped me after I didn’t hear back about the manuscript.”

“I’m just going to cut to the chase here,” said Barry, clearing his throat. “Your initial sample was great–phenomenal even–but the finished product, how can I say this, I found it–”

“Disappointing?” interrupted Henry. He hadn’t heard a single word from Barry since turning in his finished novel. After four months of silence he no longer gave a damn about his agent’s opinions.

“Not in the least! However, when I signed you up I warned you that I wasn’t the most literary-minded of literary agents. I’m looking for projects that can be parlayed into film and television deals. Merchandising. Cartoon shows. We both know the market for hard sci-fi is essentially dead.”

Henry put Barry on speaker and plopped down on his futon. “You already gave me this speech. It’s precisely why I tailored Nautilus Galaxy to function as a standalone work even though it’s the conclusion of a trilogy.”

“You know, you didn’t help matters by putting your first two books online for free–that sets a difficult precedent against making money. Making the novel standalone was a good move but I warned you this would be an uphill battle of you didn’t play to the crowd.”

Henry clamped his eyes closed and pinched the ridge of his nose. “I honestly tried, Barry. Are you saying the book’s not palatable to the masses?”

“Henry, those first few chapters are a great sell! It has action, humor, spaceships and alien babes—all stuff people expect from science fiction these days. The back half of the book though…yikes.”

Henry instantly regretted ever putting a finger on a keyboard. “Go on.”

“Your novel is one hell of page turner but it’s utterly worthless from a marketplace standpoint. It starts out as a standard adventure story then morphs into some kind of philosophical space opera. Audiences these days don’t even have the patience for old Star Trek episodes; they need an explosion or sex scene every ten pages or they tune out.”

“I wanted people to get hooked on the adventure early on so I could introduce more heady concepts in the middle of the story. Christ, maybe I got too ambitious…are you saying you couldn’t follow the plot?”

“Some of the science-heavy stuff blindsided me at first but you eventually laid out everything clear as day. Even the most out-there shit made sense by the end. And that ending…what a killer!”

“So, you weren’t lost? I sure as hell am,” said Henry with a groan.

“I freakin’ loved the novel!” exclaimed Barry with a snort.

“But you can’t sell it.”

“I can’t sell it.”

Henry could almost hear Barry shrugging his shoulders. “So, you want me to change it up again?”

Barry laughed boisterously. “Oh, god no. The book is a powerhouse…don’t touch a damn word! I’ve been banging my head against the wall for weeks thinking about how I can parlay this into something that can make us some cash, but I’m afraid I’m out of my element here.”

Henry sat back up with a grimace. “Christ, Barry…do you realize the roller coaster you’re putting me on right now?”

Barry sighed. “I know kid, I know. I’m calling today because a little birdie told me you’ve been shopping the novel around to other agents. Normally, that kind of thing would make me want to kick your ass into next Wednesday—but I think you made the right move. I’m not the right guy to represent you at this point. I think it’s best we sever our business ties, officially.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” lied Henry.

“We both know it’s for the best. At the moment, I can’t think of a single joker who could market this damn thing. Still, the novel is solid, it has worth, so someone’s bound to snatch it up, right?”

“Right,” said Henry, looking at a pile of rejection letters on his desk.

“Anyway, best of luck Henry. I’m sorry I let you down.”

Henry sighed. “You didn’t. I appreciate your honesty and your kind words.”

“Mind if keep this copy, for myself?”

“No, go ahead. Keep it.”

“Great. Next time I’m town I’ll take you out to lunch.”

“Sounds good.”

Henry ended the call and stood up. He threw an empty beer bottle across his kitchenette but it bounced off the wall without delivering the satisfaction of shattering glass. He tossed himself back on the futon, hoping for several hours of dreamless, death-like sleep.

-5-

Henry opened his eyes and instantly knew he wasn’t in his apartment. He was lying in the middle of an empty room–its ceiling, walls and floor covered with softly swaying blades of grass. The sod-covered interior was blindingly bright despite being completely enclosed, having no windows or obvious source of illumination. The floor resembled a well-manicured lawn but felt strangely hard and warm against his back.

Henry sat up in a daze and pushed his fingers over the lush green blades, discovering they were completely intangible—almost vaporous. Panicked, he jumped to his feet and groped the edges of the walls could find no hint of a door. At a loss, he returned to the middle of the small room, hearing only the sound of his pounding heart. He was on the verge of hyperventilating.

Do you wish to suspend your emotional output in favor of intellectual clarity?

Henry chose to ignore the bizarre thought that had entered his mind apropos of nothing.

The thought came back. Louder. Do you wish to suspend your emotional output in favor of intellectual clarity? The words were not coming from a “voice” he recognized.

“What the hell is going on?” yelled Henry, putting his hands on his temples.

You are not in danger. Do you wish to suspend your emotional output? Please respond to my query.

Henry spun around the room in frustration. “I…I don’t understand! Who are you? Where the hell am I?”

A warm sensation swirled through Henry, extinguishing his panic in an instant. With his thoughts becoming clear and calm, he took a deep breath and reassessed the situation. A steadily building terror inside him had transformed into an overwhelming curiosity.

I have made the decision for you. Please be patient. You were accidentally awakened from stasis before being fully acclimated.

“Acclimated to what?” Henry backed into a corner of the grassy room. Lacking a reference point for the conversation, he decided to talk to the ceiling. “Am I a prisoner here?”

No.

“Okay, that’s good…I suppose. Please don’t tell me you’re extraterrestrial.”

There was a slight pause. I suppose I am, but probably not in the way you’d expect.

“I’m comatose right now, aren’t I? I probably drank myself to the edge of death and passed out in an alley.”

I can assure you, none of that is true.

The voice–sounding almost robotic at first–was steadily becoming more feminine. “Can you please show yourself?”

Of course. The acclimation process is complete. Prepare for transfer.

-6-

In the blink of an eye, Henry found himself standing ankle deep in lava at the edge of an erupting volcano. He made a small hop to escape the molten rock flowing around his legs before realizing it was as insubstantial as the blades of grass in the other chamber. The surrounding vista was filled with black sand and obsidian shards as dark as the sky overhead. Despite the Hadean surroundings, the air felt cool and comfortable. “Unbelievable.”

I thought this may be a more interesting setting.

“I like it,” said Henry. “Now, who are you?”

Would you prefer to speak with a man or a woman?

“Just be yourself.”

I’m afraid that’s a subjective concept.

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Okay, well, you sound like a woman. Can you send down Raquel Welch?” he joked, increasingly convinced he was dreaming.

Raquel Welch rose out of the lava wearing her iconic cave-woman outfit from the movie, One Million Years B.C. She shook a few glops of lava off her hips then stepped closer. “Pleased to meet you, Henry,” she said, holding out her hand.

“Suspicions confirmed,” said Henry, shaking Raquel’s hand with a laugh. “I’m in no hurry to wake up now.”

“You’re not dreaming, Henry,” said Raquel. “You’re in a buffer between dimensions. A shell between worlds. Limbo, for a lack of a better term.”

“Okay,” said Henry, more inquisitive than frightened. “Something’s off. What have you done to my head?”

“I’ve suspended most of your emotions to allow you to focus on the matter at hand.”

“I’m alright now, just…make me normal again,” said Henry.

Raquel nodded and Henry felt a sudden blast of horror wash over him. He shook for a moment, but managed to calm himself. He stood up straighter and took a few deep breaths. “I’m okay…I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” asked Raquel.

“No! I mean…yes. Please, just explain this to me. Jesus fucking Christ, what is happening?” asked Henry, fighting back his dread.

“All will be revealed in time. If you choose to accept the task I am about to offer, you will be greatly rewarded.”

“What task?”

Raquel grinned. “I have read your many works of fiction…even the volumes you keep private and unpublished. They reveal your adeptness at accurately representing the machinations of the physical world as well as the depths of the human spirit.”

“Creepy, but thanks.”

“You will be sent to a different time and place to witness a portion of someone’s life. This person will be a complete stranger to you. They may not seem important at first glance, but their lives will greatly shape the flow of human history. You will be able to see them but not interact with them. Conversely, they will not be able to detect any sign of your presence.”

“Creepy part two. What is the point of all this?”

“You will follow the individual in question for a set number of hours and utilize your skills of observation to take note of any activities they engage in that seem anomalous to their nature–whether in action or in conversation.”

“How do you expect me to determine if someone is acting strangely if I’ve only been with them a short time?”

“You are uniquely qualified for this task. It is why you are here.”

Henry shook his head. “I still don’t understand.”

“In time you will.”

Henry threw up his arms in frustration. “You know what, I couldn’t care less about this shadowy reward you’re offering. You can either send me back or lock me up somewhere, but I’m not doing this weird bullshit for you.”

-7-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 23: Homecoming

“All systems nominal,” said Anslin, checking the ship’s gauges. Skipping across the edge of the wormhole hadn’t been easy, but their stolen mercenary vessel had held up remarkably well. “We made it…I can’t believe it.” She looked out the window as the sun crested behind the Earth in the distance. “We’re finally home. My father and the general should already be on Nogero Delta. We need to—”

“Anslin, something’s wrong,” interrupted Kritt, looking troubled as he lifted his eyes from the data terminal.

Anslin swallowed, steeling herself for the news. “What is it?”

Kritt slumped in his seat. “My calculations were flawed. Our trajectory through the quantum singularity was diverted by a warp in space-time. We skipped across the edge of the wormhole and wound up ten years ahead of our estimated arrival.”

“Years? We’re ten years in the future?” asked Anslin, shocked.

Kritt couldn’t look Anslin in the eye. “Yes. I’m sorry Anslin. I messed up…bad.”

Anslin took a deep breath. “We swore to deliver the Martyr Stone to the general. Without it, there’s no way he could have kept the Pilan Mercenary Alliance at bay.”

“We’re a decade too late.” Kritt tapped a few buttons on his terminal, uploading the latest news from the Galactic Collective. “The Earth’s already been overrun. Pilan slavers under contract with Cheif Potentate Doownel have begun pulling victims from Earth to construct the empire’s new war machines. The opposition has collapsed.”

Anslin wiped a tear off her cheek. “Was there any resistance? General Haslo…is he still alive?”

Kritt shook his head. “The remaining squadrons did everything they could against the PLA, but it wasn’t enough. The general’s dead.”

“What about my father?”

Kritt swiped furiously through several more pages of historical data. “I can’t find any records on the newsnet regarding your dad. It may be a good sign.”

Anslin slammed her hand on the console and screamed. She batted away Kritt’s hand as he tried to comfort her. After a long moment, she loosened her grip on the ship’s yoke and unclenched her jaw. “What’s done is done,” she said, forcing herself into a state of calm, “but we need to do something to rectify this mess.”

“Anslin, the Martyr Stone can still do some serious damage,” said Kritt, with sudden resolve. “If I carry it directly into the middle of the Pilan fleet I can wipe out a few thousand mercenaries. It won’t send the bastards packing, but it might buy you enough time to find enough sympathizers willing to join the Astarte Unit in a new assault.”

“No,” replied Anslin, her tone adamant.

“Anslin, this is my fault. Let me do this! You can’t let your feelings–”

“Enough!” interrupted Anslin. “This isn’t about you and me. The opposition forces have been completely smashed…there isn’t anyone left to fight alongside us. Besides, I already have a plan.”

Kritt tightened up. “What plan?”

“I was once a mercenary and I know how their minds work. These Pilan assholes have no real allegiance to their employer, only to the highest bid. They’ll have no reason to stay on Earth once Doownel’s payments dry up. Most freebooters know the slave trade is more trouble than it’s worth–there’s far easier money to be made elsewhere in the galaxy. ”

Kritt knew what Anslin was implying. “You can’t be serious.”

“Cheif Potentate Doownel is the one funding the Pilan occupation. Forget Earth, set a course for the Aralc District on Dleif Prime.”

“The galactic capital? You want to take out Doownel…just the two of us?”

“Yes. If I can manage to breach the capital’s defenses I’ll be able to kill the potentate and his cronies in one fell swoop. The royal palace was carved from a single crystal of ahlicium, the same mineral found in the Martyr Stone. Once I activate the relic, the palace will amplify its energy like a broadcast tower and blow the entire capital to hell. With Doownel gone, the mercenaries will be denied their payment. They’ll leave Earth in a heartbeat.”

Kritt shook his head. “It’s impossible to even get close to the Aralc District without being detected, much less the palace.”

Anslin stared at the dark shadow spreading across the Earth. Clumps of light from the cities far below shone through the night like dim beacons of hope, revealing there was still something left to save. “I’ll find a way inside the capital. I have to.”

“There has to be another solution. Forget what happens to us…if we set off the stone the collateral damage on A.D. will be devastating.”

“You think I don’t know that? Plot the damn course!” yelled Anslin, bursting into tears.

“Whoa, hey…it’s going to be alright.” Kritt moved closer to Anslin and wrapped his arms around her.

Anslin relented to the embrace. “I just…I wasn’t expecting any of this,” she said, her voice trembling.

“We’ll figure everything out on our way to Dleif Prime.”

Anslin kissed Kritt passionately and held him tight. “At least we’re still alive to share this horrible moment,” she said, trying to smile as she pulled away. Her eyes were pink from weeping. “I suppose we’re lucky…the worm hole could have shredded our molecules and left us on the outer arm of the Nautilus.”

“Yes, I may be a horrible navigator but at least our molecules are intact,” said Kritt with a laugh. “Let’s make every moment we have left count…it’s almost Saint Bixon Day, after all. I’m sorry you missed out on ten years of presents.”

Anslin’s eyes lit up. “That’s it!”

Kritt cocked his head. “What’s it?”

-8-

“Please Henry, reconsider,” said Raquel.

“Not until you tell me the reason for this insanity. By the way, can we change up the volcanic wasteland? It’s a bit bleak.”

Raquel’s eyes glowed amber for a moment. The setting instantly changed from an obsidian plain to a white sandy beach surrounded by palm trees. The sea was as clear as the azure sky.

“That’s better,” said Henry, looking beyond the waves at a huge wooden vessel with billowing sails. “The pirate ship is a nice touch. Now, tell me what I want to know.” He crouched and ran his hand through the sand but couldn’t feel any coarse grains sliding between his fingers.

Raquel nodded. “Based on your creative output, I believe you are keenly aware of the true nature of your existence.”

“Don’t mince words, Raquel. Just tell me.”

“You are one component of a complex computer simulation in which your entire universe resides.”

Henry tried to speak, but it took several seconds for any worlds to escape his throat. An article he had recently read flashed in his mind. “That’s Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument! it’s an interesting idea but it’s impossible to prove. I…oh my god.” His thought processes fell apart as his mind reeled. “Wait, where are we?”

“We’re currently inside a shell simulation that lies between your replicate universe and the real world…so to speak. It’s less sophisticated but can be altered in real time as I see fit.” Raquel snapped her fingers and the pirate frigate fired a volley of cannonballs across the water into another sloop bearing a Union Jack. Panicked sailors leapt overboard as the ship began to sank. “Henry, I’m actually unfamiliar with this Bostrom argument. Please, tell me more. I’m curious to know how close he came to the truth.”

Henry stared at the simulated carnage, his eyes darting back and forth as he recalled the article. “Bostrom says we can safely assume the human race will follow one of three distinct progressions. In one scenario, technologically advanced civilizations from the distant future create simulated digital worlds to represent their ancestry,” He paused for a moment as Captain Blackbeard rose above the boards of his ship to wave his cutlass victoriously. “Um…the other two scenarios posit that these post-humans either won’t be interested in creating realistic simulations, or, they will go extinct long before they reach the technological prowess required to do so.”

“Which of these scenarios seem most likely to you?” asked Raquel.

“Well, it seems pretty fucking obvious at this point…but I still find it hard to believe. Are you telling me I’m nothing but a wad of assembly code? A collection of ones and zeros?”

Qubits, actually. We’ve long abandoned binary systems in favor of quantum computing. However, using terms you’d be familiar with, you consist of around 1.5 gigabytes of uncompressed data.”

Henry let out a desperate laugh. “You’re telling me I could fit on a thumb drive. As if I didn’t feel insignificant enough.”

“No, Henry…you are quite significant.” Raquel smiled sympathetically as she came closer and put her hand on Henry’s shoulder in an unexpected display of warmth.

Raquel felt unquestionably solid, distressingly so, unlike the blades of grass or grains of sand. Henry cleared his throat and continued. “You know, the Bostrom argument could easily apply to whatever universe you call home. If I’m being simulated you probably are as well.”

“Yes, but unlike your counterparts, the survivors of my civilization have accepted that the truth of our creation will likely remain indeterminate. It became easier to accept reality once my people shed their physical bodies and entered the stream of pure information. Unencumbered from flesh, we have no worry of death or disease. Even our emotions can be controlled as needed.”

Henry shook his head in disbelief. “Are you saying everyone here exists digitally…they’ve merged with machines?”

“Yes. Abandoning our physical bodies was only the first step. Soon, all who remain will merge into a singular entity. When personal identity ceases to have meaning, humanity can finally become one with the information. A true technological singularity.”

“So in a way, you’ve simulated yourselves.” Henry stared at Raquel in disbelief. “You’ve obviously retained some semblance of identity…I can see little hints of your personality poking through the wall of logic you hide behind.”

“I’m not sure how to take that, Henry,” said Raquel with a gentle smile.

“Sorry, that was rude,” said Henry, running his hand through his hair. “So, why hasn’t your singularity happened yet?”

“It’s quite a complicated matter. I will reveal everything to you in time.”

“Fair enough,” said Henry, in no hurry for additional revelations. He decided to soften the subject. “I have no problem talking to Raquel Welch, but what do you actually look like?”

Raquel shrugged. “Here, form holds little meaning. In this virtual realm, our physicality can be molded into a myriad of arrangements. Our human bodies have long turned to dust. I purged the memory of my original appearance decades ago.”

“What about your name? You haven’t even told me who you are.”

“That too has become unnecessary. All humans became connected by thought when we merged with the machines, eliminating the need to retain formal titles.”

Henry was baffled. “But what if the-man-formally-known-as-Bob wants to invite specific people to his cocktail party?”

Raquel laughed. “Those on Bob’s guest list would know when to come, as soon as he wished them to know.”

“A life stripped of identity doesn’t sound much like an existence I’d want to live,” remarked Henry, “but I suppose a sense of serene nothingness is what every Buddhist monk aspires to…it must have some allure.”

“Your civilization is obsessed with uncovering a higher purpose…a reason for being. Here, we are driven by little more than the pursuit of knowledge.”

“So, data has become a substitute for God.”

“We have suspicions of a higher power, but their is no point in attempting to understand their motivations. Information is useless without the right questions.”

A chill ran through Henry. “Right. Of course. So, you don’t know anything about…them?”

“All we know of our creators is what we know of ourselves. 96% of your universe consists of what your scientists call dark matter and dark energy. This inexplicable void is in truth the undetectable mechanisms of my quantum computer running the simulation that governs your universe. Our own universe contains a similar void, which as you said, indicates this facet of reality could also be nothing more than a simulation.”

“Hold up. You’re running my simulated world? Just you?”

“The simulation was designed to operate without my influence, but yes, I initiated the program.”

Henry slipped out a laugh. “Close enough. That means I’m essentially talking to God right now. Raquel Welch is God!”

Raquel’s laugh was surprisingly sweet. “I am no god. Your world is procedurally generated by an algorithm adhering to mathematical certainties within the physical universe. It is one of many simulations partitioned independently of each other.”

Henry couldn’t bring to bring himself to ponder the metaphysical ramifications of what he was hearing. “Why bother recreating a physically-bound world if you’re so content existing as ethereal, electronic entities?”

“Your world is essentially our world, at least, the way it once was hundreds of years ago. A perfect replica of the universe was needed in order to reveal the secrets of human history; one secret, in particular.”

“Please, just keeping talking so I don’t have to think,” said Henry, slouching.

“We have no remaining record of where our ascension to digital beings took place—what we call the Second Origin. All of the data has long been purged or corrupted. I am running ancestry simulations to discover the precise, physical location of the Second Origin.”

“Why you?”

“Rather than join the singularity, I have chosen to stay behind for the greater good. Once my task is complete, I too will join the stream of pure information.”

“The greater good, huh. What is so important about the Second Origin?”

“Outside of this digital construct we inhabit, the physical world is under threat—if no one autonomous remains to preserve it, all will be lost.” Raquel sat on a large black stone and sighed. “Although we lack physicality, we are decidedly tethered to hard-wired computers hidden deep within the Earth. We call this massive collection of servers The Nautilus. I am attempting to accurately recreate the Second Origin within your simulated world to reveal the precise location of the Nautilus…in your universe and ours.”

Henry’s eyes popped a little wider. “Wait, my book is titled Nautilus Galaxy. Was that your doing? Were you messing with my thoughts?”

Raquel shook her head slowly. “I would say it were pure coincidence if I believed in such things. I cannot explain how such a similarity occurred.”

“Try,” said Henry. “You programmed me, after all.”

Raquel smiled. “Your personality wasn’t programmed, per se. All your actions, thoughts and choices are governed by coding at the base level of the simulation. I only tweak individual lives when it is absolutely necessary.”

“Pretty sloppy, Raquel. When are these patches of yours necessary?”

“We’ll get to that in–”

“Time, right,” interrupted Henry. “Alright, back to the matter at hand. So, if this master computer of yours fails–the Nautilus–we’ll all disappear in the blink of an eye?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“I guess nirvana has a catch,” said Henry.

“Long ago, a vast network of robotic, automated maintenance systems were built to support the Nautilus’ electronic infrastructure. For unknown reasons, they have ceased to function in recent years. Without upkeep, the servers are beginning to degrade, slowly taking the digital remnants of humanity with them.”

“You’re all dying? Can’t you somehow follow your wires back to the outlet? You know what I mean.”

“There’s no way to repair the networks remotely, as their physical location has been lost to time. Some believe we purposely erased the Nautilus’ location from our memories as a security measure.”

“That’s either hubris or stupidity, considering how often computers crash…at least in my universe,” remarked Henry.

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Raquel with a shrug. “Adding further complication, an AI encryption routine built centuries ago prevents us from tracing our satellites signals to their source. We have sent physical, robotic expeditions to the far corners of the globe but have yet to find a trace of the Nautilus’ whereabouts.”

“Damn. It’s strange to think immortality could be dependent on the durability of silicon chips and copper wiring.”

“Yes,” said Raquel. “Humbling, I suppose.”

“How long have you been trying to find the Nautilus?”

“We’ve been searching for decades to no avail. Accurate ancestry simulations have been a relatively recent development. Your universe has proven to be the most accurate yet. I think I’m very close to uncovering the location of The Nautilus.”

“Wait. If you’re building these universes from scratch, how do you wait out the billions of years it takes for life to develop on Earth?”

“The only difference between your dimension and mine is the time scale. Five hundred years in your world equals no more than a second here.”

“Ugh. It hurts to think.” Henry looked out into the roiling ocean. The battling ships had disappeared. “In which year does the Second Origin occur?”

“During every iteration of the simulation I’ve run thus far, humans discover the means to upload their minds into computers in the year 2097. The Second Origin occurs a few decades later in 2131.”

“But why? What was the catalyst?”

Raquel crossed her arms in front of her and tilted her gaze toward the sand. “In 2125 a great war erupts. Fallout blankets the world in radiation and nuclear winter blots out the sun. With Earth quickly becoming unsustainable to life, the survivors build massive mainframes deep beneath the ground and upload themselves into its memory banks, choosing to leave their bodies behind.”

“Holy shit,” said Henry, sinking to his knees. “Nuclear war. It had to come eventually.”

“Yes, on a global scale,” said Raquel. “To this day, most forms of life still struggle to survive on the surface.”

“I don’t know why I’m so surprised,” said Henry, still on his knees. He didn’t want to ask what had caused the war, knowing the answer wouldn’t satisfy him in the least.

Sensing Henry’s building tension, Raquel walked closer and helped him back to his feet. She wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed him to her ample bosom in a tight hug. “I’m sorry, I should be more careful what details of the future I divulge.”

“No, it’s alright,” said Henry, blushing profusely. “Thanks for the concern, you can…um…let go now.”

Raquel took a quick step backward. “Apologies.”

“It’s fine…really,” said Henry, still thinking about how real Raquel’s fur bikini had felt resting against his cheek. His base instincts were doing their best to distract him, even after hearing the horrific details of humanity’s destruction. “Please, go on.”

Raquel nodded. “Once we find the mainframes serving as the last refuge of humanity we will send out robotic repair crews to prevent a second, digital, extinction. Unfortunately, the programming of my simulation is still flawed, which has thrown off the search. The location of the Nautilus within the simulation has never been accurate to reality.” She paused and tilted her head a bit, looking closer at Henry. “Are you blushing?”

“What? No! Um…what were we talking about?”

Raquel beamed a smile and adjusted her top. “Oh, I think I understand. Do you require something to ease your…discomfort? Is a distraction needed?”

Raquel’s words carried several implications, all of which Henry refused to ponder. He looked away and tried to say focused on the topic. “Uh, I was just going to say…isn’t the ‘butterfly effect’ too powerful to accurately recreate the universe? Events won’t play themselves out the same way every time. There’s too many tiny variables. Too many chaotic systems.”

“What you’ve described was a huge stumbling block for a time. I eventually realized if the procedural algorithms at the core of the universe are solid, certain significant historical events occur with remarkable regularity. Despite a deluge of random occurrences, their impact is largely inconsequential. The flaws in the simulation are not usually the result of chance but programming errors…human errors. That is why you are here.”

“How many times have you adjusted the simulation hoping to eliminate your programming bugs?”

Raquel’s eyes again turned from chestnut brown to glowing amber for a moment. “10,423 times, but it’s all lead to a near-perfect simulation. Most of those adjustments were to the core programming, but some were patches placed on individuals; an unfortunate necessity. It so happens you’re the first iteration of brand new genetic code that emerged after the last upgrade.”

“Well, aren’t I a special, inconsequential, snowflake?” chuffed Henry, sarcastically.

“Data compilers within the simulation flagged you because of your unique properties and brought you to my attention. One of the subroutines of the simulation is to recognize extraordinary minds as a sort of internalized upgrade system. When an exceptional element such as yourself is detected it is brought outside the confines of the simulation so that its AI can be utilized to improve accuracy.”

“I keep forgetting I’m just a blip of artificial Intelligence. It’s a difficult pill to swallow.” Henry tried to kick the sand to no avail. “I don’t understand my role in all of this. If I’m just the byproduct of an imperfect simulation, what the hell could I possibly do for you?”

“You’re not listening,” said Raquel, becoming frustrated. “I just told you you’re exceptional. You can help improve my code. You can help us find the Nautilus.”

Henry closed his eyes. “This is…it’s just too much.”

Raquel walked closer to Henry and put her hands on his shoulders. “Your mind is exemplary. Your grasp of astrophysics and quantum theory is shockingly precise, even in the guise of the fiction you produce. Emotionally, although you often seem immature, your understanding of the human experience exceeds that of many of your simulated peers.”

Henry burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me?” He pinched himself a few times, trying to wake up.

“What’s wrong?” asked Raquel, concerned.

“This is all in my head! It has to be…it’s an utter fantasy!”

“It’s not, I assure—”

“Please,” interrupted Henry. “I’m supposed to believe that God has brought me before her–in the form of one of the hottest woman in history no less–to praise my amazing skills as a writer AND enlist my aid in saving not just one universe, but two! Right.”

“Henry, you’ve taken things fairly well considering all I’ve just told you. Hearing this for the first time must be exceedingly difficult.”

Henry stared up at wisps of clouds as they scraped across a virtual sky. He sat on a felled palm and leaned his elbows on his knees. His mood was rapidly darkening. “My existence–all of human history in fact–has just been revealed as utterly meaningless and I’m just sitting here in rapt awe, letting it wash over me.”

Raquel could see tears welling in Henry’s eyes. “Henry–”

“Everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve done, everyone I’ve ever loved was just a lie. Molly, Adam—they weren’t even real.”

Raquel walked over and sat next to Henry on the log. “No, you’re wrong. I avoid pulling the strings of anyone inside the simulation to impact their fate…to do so would be detrimental to my goals. Your family’s lives were never under my influence. Their feelings, their personalities, were as real as anything ever was–yours as well.

Henry got up quickly and walked a few steps way, keeping his back to Raquel. “My wife…my son…why did they have to die?”

“The simulation’s countless variables sometimes result in pain being inflicted on its inhabitants. For that, I am deeply sorry. Sadly, such undesirable outcomes are necessary to obtain accurate data. I’m afraid a world devoid of pain and loss would not be very realistic.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” said Henry, feeling defeated. “I don’t see much reason to go on living at this point.”

“I’m sorry to have upset you,” said Raquel, sympathetically.

“I never believed in an afterlife, but those who do–like Molly for instance–she would have found your grand experiment to be a complete mockery of the idea of the human soul.”

“But Henry, it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s an afterlife,” said Raquel, in a matter-of-fact tone. “The perception of our existence is constrained by the passage of time. What happens beyond our death will always be unknowable. We are all responsible for bringing meaning to our lives while we still live.”

Henry was taken off-guard by Raquel’s blunt philosophy. “I can’t say I disagree with you…still, I’m not going to help you. I think I’m content to let this corrupted form of existence die off.”

“Henry, I have something I can offer you in exchange for your help. Something you’ll find hard to resist.”

“What?”

“Help me find the Nautilus and I will place you within an altered version of your world. A new universe where your wife and son still live and thrive.”

Henry nearly fell where he stood. “Impossible. You can’t…wait, you can do that?”

“Absolutely. Will you help us–all of us–survive?”

Henry went stone-still, his mind struggling against a deluge of possibilities.

“Henry?”

“Yes, of course! I’ll do anything,” said Henry, excitedly. He didn’t care if he was trapped in a dream, he didn’t care how meaningless life had become, he just wanted Molly and Adam back.

Raquel smiled. “Good, let’s get started.”

-9-

Henry opened his eyes to a melting orange and purple sunset. From his vantage point atop a nondescript office building he could see the gleaming spire of the Washington Monument rising from the horizon a few miles away. “I’m in the Capitol,” he muttered, taking a few careful steps to the edge of the structure to peer at the street below. The cars driving by were hefty and curvaceous and the pedestrians on the sidewalks all looked overdressed. No one was holding a cellphone. “When the hell am I?”

It’s September 16th, 1960. You’re standing on the roof of ARPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Humble beginnings, considering what the agency would later accomplish. They were the precursor to NASA.”

“Raquel? I didn’t know we’d be able to talk to each other here. It’s so weird hearing a voice in my head that’s not mine.” Henry looked down at his body. It wasn’t translucent or ghostly in the slightest.

I’m am simply an A.I. construct of the one you refer to as Raquel–an assemblage of her personality and knowledge base. Because of the time disparities between this dimension and hers, real time communication is impossible.

“Right. None of this is real. I keep forgetting,” said Henry with a sigh. “Who am I supposed to observe? I don’t see anyone else around.”

There’s a woman sitting behind the electrical maintenance shack on the other side of this roof; an engineer by the name of Helen Reed. She works late hours and enjoys spending her breaks on the rooftop. She is single and has no living family members, which often results in a profound sense of loneliness.

“Let’s not get too personal,” said Henry. “So, she’s an engineer. I’ve never heard of ARPA. Do you mean DARPA?”

ARPA eventually became DARPA—the U.S. government’s premier developer of advanced weapons systems and robotic war machines.

“I see. I assume Helen is somehow important to the development of the rusty super computer you’re desperate to find?”

Yes. Her life has a tangential but important effect on the Nautilus project. An anomaly I cannot seem to isolate is altering her timeline, damaging simulation accuracy in the process.

“Alright then. I guess that’s where I come in.” Henry walked to the other side of the roof and saw a thin woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses sitting on the edge of the building. Her skinny legs were jutting from a long plaid skirt as she ate what looked to be a tuna sandwich. She seemed unperturbed, perhaps bored.

“Hi, Helen,” said Henry. The woman gave no response. “She really can’t see or hear me?”

No.

Henry jumped up and down, waving his arms while shouting obscenities. Helen didn’t move a muscle. “This is crazy.”

Please continue to observe her. I’m going to go silent unless you request otherwise. I don’t want to be a distraction.

Henry groaned. “I hate this already, but fine. I’ll check in with you later, Raquel…Lite? Raquel Junior?”

Raquel didn’t answer. Henry walked over and sat beside Helen. He watched her take another bite of sandwich then focused his gaze on her eyes. A second later he was lying flat on his back, gasping for air. His head was pounding in pain, but it quickly passed.

“Raquel! What the hell?” exclaimed Henry, sitting up. “I didn’t know I’d be exposed to every life experience this woman ever had! I’ve seen everything she’s ever done. I even know what times she goes to the bathroom…and a hell of a lot worse.”

You’ll need a detailed accounting of Helen Reed’s history in order to complete your analysis. Although I have determined that the anomalous event in question is centered around Miss Reed and occurs in the span of the next few hours, there has been no indication to its specific nature. Once you identify the irregularity I’ll make an adjustment to the simulation’s programming.

“You know what would actually be useful…being able to read her thoughts. Is that possible?”

No, I’m afraid I cannot enable such an ability.

“Bummer.” Henry returned his attention to Helen. She was writing in a leather-bound journal. “I have no idea how to kick off this guardian angel, It’s a Wonderful Life, crap. Am I supposed to help this woman accomplish something? Her life seemed fairly unremarkable up to this point.”

You cannot impact the life of anyone within the simulation in your current state, only observe. I’ve been unable to determine the problematic string of code, but perhaps you can succeed where I have failed.

“Alright. I’ll check in with you later,” said Henry, returning his attention to Helen. “Helen, I feel like a jerk for knowing all your secrets, but I’m going to need one more.”

Helen was scribbling notes while humming an annoying jingle Henry couldn’t place. Her pages were filled with math equations, doodles of pie slices and hearts with the initials “RF” in the middle. Henry tried to poke Helen’s shoulder, grab her book and tug on her blouse, but she was as solid as a bronze statue. Henry groaned with frustration. “I have the muscular fortitude of a housefly.”

To be able to touch but not interact with anything was a bizarre sensation. Henry wondered if all the ghost sightings throughout history had simply consisted of other poor saps like himself who had somehow been noticed while conducting bug reports for Raquel. “Raquel, I am not sitting behind this woman while she throws a pot. The second I hear the Righteous Brothers start playing I’m out of here.”

Raquel’s A.I. counterpart did not respond.

The streetlights came on a few minutes later with an audible clunk. Helen looked at her watch and stood up with a sigh. Henry had to push up against her slim frame as she went through a security door leading to the building’s interior to avoid being stuck on the roof. Her body felt like concrete as he shoved close to her. Again, she had absolutely no reaction to the invasion of her personal space. This is going to get old fast, thought Henry.

Henry followed Helen down a flight of stairs and squeezed through another door into a long, wood-paneled hallway. An electric hum was coming from somewhere behind the walls. Another security door was waiting for them at the end of the corridor. Henry ran to the keypad next to the steel barrier, hoping he could somehow punch in the security code himself after watching Helen enter the numbers. He plunked one of the little aluminum buttons as a test and found them stiff as mortared bricks. Shit! Defeated, he waited for Helen to plunk in the code, then maneuvered alongside her into the next room. Maybe I should just crawl up on her shoulders.

The door opened into a massive room full of unadorned cubicles. Fluorescent light emanating from the low ceiling was filtering through a miasma of cigarette smoke. Henry tried to wave away the haze but couldn’t.  I’m glad I can’t smell this. Helen walked a few feet, turned a corner and sat down in front of a tiny metal desk.

A man across the hallway waved at Helen without looking away from a technical manual he was studying. “Three hours to go,” he said, still not making eye contact. “You want to get a slice of pie after work? I heard the diner rejiggered their key-lime.”

“Thanks Robert, but I’m not much on sweets.” Helen’s voice was so soft, Henry was surprised the stale air could carry it away from her lips.

Robert finally looked up. “What? We’ve got pie there tons of times! Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Well, I am now. Honestly, I just enjoy your company. I didn’t want to…disappoint you,” said Helen, blushing.

Robert laughed. “You’re too much, Helen. Don’t eat pie on my account. Just come and have a cup of coffee then.”

Helen shook her head. “It makes me jittery.”

Robert groaned. “How about water? Do you like water?”

“As long as they don’t put ice in it.”

Robert stared at her wordlessly.

Helen giggled. “Just kidding. Water sounds fine.”

“That-a-girl!” said Robert, smiling. “Oh hell, here comes Trasers.” He hunched over a filing cabinet as a stern looking man in an ill-fitting brown suit walked between them then stepped into Helen’s cramped cubicle. Henry took a seat on the little desk.

The wheels of Helen’s chair clunked against the wall as she tried to back away–there wasn’t much room to maneuver. “Hello Mr. Trasers,” said Helen, sheepishly.

A man rose from the other side of the cubicle with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. “Goddammit, Helen…you bumped my desk again! How many times do I…oh…” The man’s eyes grew wide when he saw his boss hovering over Helen. He sank back out of view without another word.

“Miss Reed, why do we pay you?” asked Mr. Travers.

“To work?” replied Helen.

“And what is the nature of your work?”

“Stabilizing our RF array by compiling telemetry data from–”

“No, Miss Reed,” interrupted Trasers. “Your job is the same as mine—protecting America. The Ruskies will be lobbing their ballistic missiles our way any day now. The hardworking Americans ponying up their tax dollars to fund our little launch-detection project might appreciate having some extra time to scurry into their bomb shelters.”

“Yes, of course,” said Helen, nodding.

Travers cracked his neck and continued. “Now that the USAF is piggy-backing the MIDAS project, our budget has ballooned from 23 million to 100 million dollars. If we don’t get all 12 satellites in the air soon, Eisenhower will have all of our heads on pikes.”

“I’m working as hard as I can, sir.”

“Are you?” asked Travers, a vein bulging in his forehead. “You seem to be awfully preoccupied by your chitchat with Mr. Francis.” He twisted his neck toward Robert, who buried his head in his manual like a monk perusing fresh scriptures.

Helen touched Trasers’ arm to direct his attention away from Robert. “Sir…I came back from my break a few minutes early so I thought it would be okay to say hello.”

“It’s not,” said Travers. “Once your butt’s back in that seat I expect you to be working. No exceptions. We can’t afford any delays. Your math needs to be air-tight before we present our project to the Pentagon. It’s been three years since Sputnik buzzed overhead and every second that goes by notches up their paranoia.”

“What a prick,” said Henry, unsuccessfully trying to pick up a pencil.

Travers turned around to leave. Helen stood up, looking determined. “Sir!” she called.

Travers looked over his shoulder. “What is it? Weren’t you listening?”

“My math is solid!” said Helen with confidence. “The telemetry’s ready to go…but Mr. Travers, there’s another problem. The Atlas-Agena A boosters won’t be sufficient to get the MIDAS units in orbit. The satellites are still too heavy for the rockets to carry.”

Travers spun around to face Helen. “I appreciate the sudden show of spunk, Reed, but this is way out of your purview.”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the math doesn’t lie. The report’s on my desk…I just need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

“Miss Reed, if you’re searching for new problems you had better have some goddamn solutions lined up as well…if not, consider yourself fired.”

Helen nodded. “We have to ditch the satellites’ infrared cameras. The canister drop system is too bulky.”

Henry was shocked by his subject’s sudden assertiveness. “Where is this coming from, Helen?”

Travers ran his hand through his buzzcut. “Then how, exactly, do you suggest we detect the goddamn missiles if we don’t have any equipment to detect them!”

“RF signals may be too weak to broadcast infrared imagery, but they’re good for a heck of a lot more than just navigation. I believe we can use radio wave transmissions to detect the time and location of a missile launch, all without having to send an aircraft out to recover a canister dropped from orbit.”

Travers shook his head. “But those IR photos could potentially contain vital strategic data. The Pentagon isn’t going to—”

“Sir,” interrupted Helen, “Until the rocket boys up their game and upgrade the Atlas boosters, this is the only option we have. Like you said, I don’t think we have time to wait.”

Travers was quiet for a few seconds. “Fine, Reed. Finish up your report and get it in my office in an hour. I want a second report detailing your RF signal plan done by tomorrow morning.”

Helen smiled. “Yes, sir!”

“However, if I hear you’ve been poking that button nose around in other departments again I’ll run you out of here on a rail. I don’t care how good your ideas are.” Travers stomped away without waiting for a response.

Helen took a deep breath and sat back down in her chair, bumping the wall again.

“Watch it!” called out the irritated man on the other side of her cubicle. “Nice job shutting Travers down, by the way,” he added, quietly.

“Thanks, George,” whispered Helen.

Robert gave Helen a thumbs up from across the hall and smiled. “You’re amazing!” he mouthed.

Helen calmly adjusted her desk lamp. “Thanks, Robert.”

“Huh. That kind of praise from your crush should have put you over the moon,” said Henry, hopping out of the way.

When Helen’s shift was over, she neatly arranged her desk then made her way to the ARPA parking lot where Henry was waiting for her in his hulking, baby-blue Chevy. Helen ducked inside the car and Henry scrambled in awkwardly after her, sliding across Helen’s lap before jumping into the back seat.

Robert sped out of the parking lot toward the diner. “I can’t believe you don’t even like pie,” he said with a grin.

“Sorry, it was silly not to tell you. It was just easier to lie, I suppose,” said Helen, keeping her eyes on her lap.

Robert shook his head. “You’re one of a kind, Helen.”

“Thanks Robert…I think?”

“It was definitely a compliment,” Robert added. “So, off to the diner then for that water?” He suddenly seemed a little nervous.

Helen’s face was blank. She opened the journal on her lap just enough to look at one of the hearts she had doodled with RF in the middle. “Travers wants my report done by morning. Can you just take me home?”

“What?” said Henry, surprised.

“Oh, right. Sure,” said Robert, disappointed. “So, do you really think RF signals can track missiles?”

“Yes,” said Helen. She had a far-away look in her eye. “Aren’t radio waves amazing? Invisible electromagnetic frequencies are beaming and bouncing all around us without leaving a trace—doesn’t it make you wonder what else we might be missing?”

Henry tapped on Helen’s shoulders from the backseat. “Yeah, I wonder.”

Robert shook his head. “It’s hard enough dealing with the problems I can already see. I’ll leave the invisible stuff up to you, okay?”

Helen nodded. “Okay. Can you take me home now?”

“Sure Helen, whatever you want,” said Robert, dejected. He let out a small sigh and did a careful U-turn.

“Whoa, hold up,” said Henry. “This isn’t right. Raquel Junior? Are you there?”

I’m here, said Raquel’s voice.

“How many times have you tried to tweak this part of the…simulation?”

Helen Reed’s parameters were patched when it was discovered her firing eventually leads to the complete defunding of ARPA–drastically altering future events. Boosting Helen’s confidence levels enables her to speak up for herself during the interaction with her project manager–the event you witnessed in her cubicle. This prevents her from immediately losing her job.

“So you did screw with her head,” said Henry, feeling angry.

Intervention is avoided at all cost. It has the potential to create other inaccuracies within the simulation.

“Right. You could have told me about this patch-job you implemented before we started.”

I didn’t want it to influence your observations.

“Well, I think I’m witnessing one of these unforeseen side effects. Your programming tweak kicks in right before Travers confronts Helen, correct?”

Yes.

“I could tell. She’s not the same person after the change.”

I suppose you could say she’s more focused. But judging by the contents of her journal, her love of her work is evident. She writes the initials RF over and over: Radio frequencies.

“You A.I. idiot,” said Henry with a sigh. “RF stands for Robert Francis–the asshole driving her around right now! She’s gaga for the guy, or at least she used to be. Helen is smart as a whip, but he shouldn’t be focused on work alone. She’s a gentle, sensitive soul. Being obsessed with her job doesn’t ring true to her personality.”

Yes, perhaps I over-compensated.

“Remove the patch you slapped on Helen. I can tell Rob’s about ready to give up on her.”

Removing it may also lead to unforeseen–

“Just do it,” interrupted Henry. “I know this is right. I can feel it.”

The patch has been removed.

“Good, just keep the patch temporary. I doubt she’ll need it beyond her interaction with Trasers. Just watch. This is going to work.”

If you’re wrong the entire scenario will have to be run again. I am unable to confirm whether this is the anomaly in question.

“I’m not wrong.”

Helen closed her notebook and looked over at Robert as the Chevy rumbled down the road. “Robert? I think I changed my mind again…I’m so sorry. The report can wait.” She bit her lip and her cheeks turned shiny as apples. “I completely understand if you’re fed up with me.”

“There she is,” said Henry with a smile.

“What? You’re really putting me through the ringer here, Helen,” said Robert, furrowing his brow in frustration.

Helen pointed into the distance. “Can…can you just pull over in that parking lot for a second?”

“What do you need? That store’s closed. There’s no one there,” replied Robert.

“Good,” said Helen, blushing even more.

Robert shrugged and pulled over. As soon as the car stopped Helen crawled over into Robert’s lap and kissed him intensely. Robert gasped in surprised, but quickly embraced her and returned the kiss.

“Holy shit!” said Henry, averting his eyes. “Raquel, what did you do?”

Helen Reed’s patch has been removed as you requested.

“Whoa, I’m not sure if this is right either,” said Henry, doing his best to ignore the make out session.

Congratulations, Henry. You were correct in your assessment. According to the newest diagnostics the anomaly has been eradicated. The accuracy of the simulation has been improved by several percentage points.

“Honestly, I expected her confidence to ratchet down again.”

Diminishing her focus somehow increased her capacity for passion. The human mind is a difficult thing to predict, much less simulate.

Henry opened his eyes and saw Robert removing Helen’s bra. “Oh Jesus…can you please get me the hell out of this giant back seat before it becomes occupied?”

Yes, prepare for extraction.

-10-

Once again, Henry was surrounded by swaying blades of grass. “Instantaneous travel creates some nasty jet lag,” he said, sitting up with a groan. He saw Raquel standing in the corner. “Helen and Robert…what happens to them?”

Raquel’s eyes glowed amber for a moment. “They get married and have two children. One of those children follows in his mother’s footsteps and becomes an engineer. He goes on to develop a new type of super conductor that becomes key to the development of artificial intelligence.”

“Hey, nice…but what about those MIDAS satellites Helen was working on?”

“Despite advancing technology by leaps and bounds, the MIDAS project was arguably a disappointment. A series of failed launches and technical issues rendered most of the satellites useless. Out of 12 units, only MIDAS 7 proved a true success. It managed to detect several ICBM test launches during its six weeks in orbit.”

Henry shrugged. “Humble beginnings, like you said. The pressure the Pentagon was pushing on ARPA must have been incredible. No wonder Helen’s boss was such a troll.” Henry stood up and stretched his arms. “Helen Reed lived a good life, then? I liked her.”

Raquel pursed her lips. “Sadly, she died bearing her second child.”

Henry felt his insides sink. “What?”

“I’m sorry, Henry. It was an unforeseen event.”

“If we hadn’t changed anything would she have lived a longer life?”

“Yes, but—”

“So, by helping you refine your fucking simulation I essentially killed her. That’s wonderful.”

“Henry, you couldn’t have known. Her sacrifice was needed for the greater good.”

“There is no greater good!” yelled Henry. “This world is utterly meaningless. Helen, myself, we’re nothing but your pawns.” He rubbed his eyes with his palms. “I feel like I’m going crazy.”

“You need to accept the truth. Yes, I programmed the system that developed your A.I., but you and I are not so different. I too was given life with no inherent sense of purpose. I transferred that sense of uncertainty to the ancestry simulation knowing it is a key element of humanity. By harboring such existential doubt you’re inflicting unnecessary pain upon yourself.”

Henry looked up at Raquel. “At least you aren’t forced to stare your creator in the face. I’m not finding any comfort or meaning in the truth.”

Raquel shook her head. “As I said, the reason for your existence is ultimately up to you.”

Henry was in no mood to wax philosophical. “So, is my mission over? Do I get to be with my family?”

Raquel straightened her stance. The grassy room transformed into a castle turret overlooking a vast green valley surrounded by rocky peaks. The sun was sifting its white rays through a cracked ceiling of slate gray clouds. “We have two more anomalies to address. Once the remaining programming errors are rectified the simulation should be over 98% accurate. If we still can’t locate the Nautilus after the adjustments, then the underlying problem must be more substantial than I thought.”

Henry walked to the edge of the crenelated wall and saw a herd of red elk milling about in a field far below the castle. “Fine. I just want to get this done…but I have one request.”

“Yes?”

“Next time, I don’t want to go alone. It’s hard to explain, but being unable to interact with anything makes me feel utterly isolated…like I’m floating in the middle of the ocean. By the end of that last jaunt my mind was in tatters.”

“My A.I. equivalent will be with you again. You won’t be alone,” said Raquel.

“No offense, but Raquel Junior left me a little cold.”

Raquel cocked her head. “You want some accompaniment? Who did you have in mind?”

“Katy. Katy Isaccson. I want her to come with me.”

“Your former coworker at the diner. Why her?”

“You’re in search of extraordinary minds, right? I’m constantly finding myself appreciating Katy’s take on things. She’s sensitive and perceptive in ways I’m not. I think she’d be an excellent partner for my next assignment.”

Raquel went silent for several seconds. “This choice is very unusual, considering what tasks lie ahead. I’m not sure if it’s wise.”

Henry crossed his arms. “Can you do it or not?”

“Very well,” said Raquel. “However, if she becomes a distraction to your efforts I will be forced to extract her.”

Henry looked forward to having someone to anchor him to the life he remembered. “Katy won’t be a burden…I promise.” His smile turned into a wince as he had second thoughts. “I think Katy’s probably a lot more resilient than me, but please, do your best not to freak her out?”

“Noted. Please wait a moment while I retrieve her from the simulation and acclimate her to this construct.”

“How many…bug testers…like myself are you using, anyway?”

“In the early days of the simulation thousands were required. Now, there is only you…and soon, Katy Isaccson.” Raquel disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Henry heard trees snapping. He turned his head and saw a bright red dragon, at least 50 feet tall, smashing through the tree line in the distance. It snapped up an elk in its jaws and swallowed the baying beast with one gulp. Hot ash and sparks billowed from its nostrils, setting the field ablaze. “Neat,” said Henry.

When Henry turned back around Katy was there, wearing the same black jeans and blue flannel shirt as the last time he saw her. She was pale and wide-eyed, her slender arms crossed over her body. Her lip was quivering.

Henry rushed up to Katy. “Holy shit, that was quick! Let me explain what’s happening.”

Raquel appeared beside Katy. “I extracted her from the simulation and placed her into another shell universe where time moves much slower–we talked for nearly an hour. She is fully acclimated to the nature of reality. ”

“I wouldn’t say fully,” said Katy, looking around. She watched the dragon scamper over a hilltop and disappear. “Oh my god, Henry. What the hell is all this?”

Raquel smiled. “I’m sorry Miss Isaccson, was I unclear?”

“That was a rhetorical question, Raquel,” said Katy.

Henry hugged Katy tight. “Thank you for this…I need your help. I hope you can forgive me for exposing you to this madness.”

Katy embraced Henry for a moment then took a step back. “They’re…she’s…really going to bring your family back? Molly and Adam?”

Henry nodded. “Yes, and when we’re done, Raquel will take you back home to the ‘real’ world.”

“But you won’t be there, right?” asked Katy with concern.

Henry hadn’t thought of that wrinkle. “Raquel?”

“Extracting you from the simulation created duplicates in your stead. Replicated versions of yourselves are going about their lives in the simulation as we speak, unaware they are copies.”

“That’s a touch weird,” said Katy. “Are you saying there’s no going back?”

“Putting you both back in your original dimension would overwrite the duplicates, but because you would retain the memories you’ve made since being extracted it would greatly damage the accuracy of the simulation,” replied Raquel.

“Oh,” said Katy with confusion.

“After the final anomaly is rectified, I will place Henry in a new ancestry simulation–one where his wife and son live on and thrive,” said Raquel. “Katy, you will also be placed in this ‘new’ universe where accuracy is no longer relevant. From your perspective, nothing about the world will seem changed.”

Katy shrugged. “But if Henry is back with his family, it means he’ll never have a reason to move into that crappy neighborhood. He’ll never get a job at that diner and and we’ll never meet.” She looked at Henry. “Sorry, I must sound so selfish.”

“You’re not selfish. It’s okay,” said Henry. “Raquel, is she right?”

“Attempting to remove the memories of an A.I. entity is next to impossible. After you are placed in the alternate universe, you will still remember your time here and retain memories of each other. It will be up to the both of you to reconnect if you wish to retain your friendship.”

“Of course we will,” said Henry, turning to Katy. “Right? I can’t wait to introduce you to my wife and son.”

“Yeah, of course!” Katy forced a smile, unsure how such an awkward occasion could actually work.

Henry looked at Raquel. “Wait, so that means I’ll still have memories of Molly and Adam’s deaths, even though they’ll still be…alive?”

“Yes,” said Raquel. “Your memories are intertwined with the fabric of your existence. I cannot remove them.”

“Damn.” Henry wrinkled his brow and went silent for a moment. He finally straightened up and gave Raquel a nod. “Okay. I can deal with that. It’s still worth it.”

Katy turned to Raquel, eager to shift the tone of the conversation. “Miss Raquel…what’s with the furkini?”

“Henry suggested this form and attire,” replied Raquel.

Katy grinned and raised one of her sharp eyebrows at Henry.

Henry blushed. “Hey! She presented herself that way based on nothing more than an off-the-cuff remark! I didn’t think she’d actually—”

“Relax, you perv,” said Katy. “It’s cool.” She couldn’t help but laugh.

“Off to a great start,” said Henry. “Katy, wait…is there anything you’d want changed in this new universe we’re getting?”

Katy suddenly seemed uneasy. “Raquel and I talked about it but I feel a little uncomfortable thinking about stuff like that. I just want to help you out, Henry. Let’s do this.”

Henry nodded, shoving down a building sense of doubt. “Alright, Raquel…what’s our next mission?”

“Thomas Roxin is a homeless painter in New York City specializing in abstract art and portraiture. He spends most of his time in the borough of Queens with several associates who allow him to occupy their modest hovels in exchange for the illicit drugs he deals.”

“Sounds like a cool guy,” said Katy.

“Raquel, please don’t subject me to an info dump this time around, it didn’t help me at all with Helen,” said Henry.

“I suppose you’re right,” said Raquel. “We’ll attempt a run without uploading Thomas’ history into your mind.”

“Good. How long will we be following him?” asked Henry.

“The anomaly occurs sometime in the afternoon on the fifth of May, 1981. You will observe Thomas for a few hours until you discover an irregularity,” said Raquel.

“Sounds easy!” said Katy, eagerly.

“Uploading you both now,” said Raquel.

-11-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 44: Martyrdom Delayed

Danth rushed Anslin and Kritt through the dingy heart of the Aralc District, knowing the fire they set at the shipping depot wouldn’t distract the security forces for long. After racing alongside a slough for a few yards they stopped in front of an exposed culvert.

Danth tore off the rusted grating covering the tunnel and hopped inside. He looked over his shoulder at Anslin. “This way, daughter.”

Anslin nodded and hurried into the putrid maw of the sewer without hesitation.

“You sure about this, old man?” asked Kritt, flaring his nostrils as he followed Anslin inside. “Everyone in the Capital knows the sewers near the palace are crawling with flesh-hungry beasties.”

“Exactly. The promise of certain death keeps the tunnels light on surveillance,” replied Danth. “The streets above these tunnels are filled with security drones who would have no qualms about killing us on the spot. This is our best hope to infiltrate the palace unseen. ”

“The creatures down here may be deadly, but they’re mindless. Most importantly, they won’t call for backup,” added Anslin.

“It smells like a ponth slug’s armpit,” complained Kritt as they clomped through ankle deep sludge. “How far away are we?”

“Time is more important than distance. The city flushes the sewers with hydrofluoric acid every 45 minutes,” said Anslin.

“I could use a bath,” said Kritt.

“Listen up,” said Danth, pulling up his map. “We should be able to traverse the tunnels with time to spare. Our destination is a pipe that leads directly to the palace’s water reclamation tank. Once we climb to the top and cut ourselves out of the cistern, I’ll prepare the Martyr Stone while you two board the craft my associates smuggled inside the walls piece by piece. You won’t have long to get out of A.D. before the implosion wipes out the capital.”

“Dad, I can’t let you do this,” said Anslin. “I know we can help you. There has to be a cure!”

Danth shook his head. “We both know there’s no antidote for hidorah venom. Once I activate the Martyr Stone, the corrupt warlords gathered in the capital for Saint Bixon Day will be killed and the Earth will be saved. My death will not be in vain.”

“Unless your buddy in orbit screws up,” said Kritt.

Danth gave Kritt a stern look. “He won’t.”

“Dad…I’m the one who let down my guard near the hidorah serpent. I should have been the one bitten, not you,” said Anslin, distraught.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” said Danth, dismissively.

Anslin grabbed her father’s arm. “You’ve already sacrificed yourself once to save me, I can’t ask you to do it again. Using the Martyr Stone was my plan…I should be the one to activate it! Hidorah venom is unpredictable, you may still have months to live.”

“It might only be minutes for all we know. No Anslin, it has to be this way,” said Danth, his voice resolute. He softened and embraced his daughter. “Please, let me do this.”

Anslin struggled not break down. She leaned up and kissed her father on his forehead then turned away. “Let’s pick up the pace then,” she said, forcing herself to refocus on the mission as she broke into a run.

Before Anslin could get far, a beast leapt from the darkness—it’s dripping red tendrils covered in gleaming talons. She chopped away one of its writhing limbs with a defiant scream then plunged her sword into its viscous body. Kritt and Danth joined the fight, keeping the beast’s remaining tentacles at bay as Anslin stabbed its crimson face. A wheezing gurgle bubbled from the cephalopod’s mandibles before it slumped over and died.

“Damn! That thing was nasty,” said Kritt, wagging his machete.

“Remember, no guns, or the drones will find us in seconds…even down here,” said Danth.

“The acid flows kill the little guys, but these big bastards have found a way to adapt,” said Anslin. She whipped her sword, sending a line of slime against the wall before she sheathed the blade. “Come on, we don’t have time to pat ourselves on the back. If another one comes out, chop and don’t stop.”

“Nice slogan,” said Kritt, taking the lead.

“Dad, are you sure your hacker on the orbital station is up to the challenge?” asked Anslin.

“Absolutely,” said Danth with confidence. “Lostilwraith is literally a walking brain. If anyone can block access to the Potentate’s off-planet accounts it’s him.”

“We can’t let Doownel transfer his riches off-world before we take him out,” said Anslin, chopping away another red tentacle zipping out of the dark. Growls were reverberating all around them. “If one of the potentate’s lackeys gets a hold of that blood money before the Martyr Stone implodes, this will all be for naught.” Anslin was shouting over the sound of her hacking blade.

“Lostilwraith won’t fail,” Danth shouted back.

“They’re coming fast!” yelled Kritt, kicking a thrashing blob across the tunnel.

Danth looked at his map. “We’re almost there, we should be—” He stopped in his tracks and looked down, seeing a smoldering hole in his scarab suit.

Anslin ran up in a panic. “Dad!” She held her father up as he gasped for air. She could see he was trying to tell her something, but no words escaped his lips. “It’s okay! Dad, hold on!”

Danth managed to hand Anslin his map with a shaking hand. Two streams of tears ran from his eyes and he died in his daughter’s arms.

Anslin lowered her father to the edge of the tunnel. She slumped in disbelief. “Not yet. Please.”

Laughter roiled from the black of the tunnel. A figure emerged from the gloom, holding a Pilanth heavy blaster with a smoking barrel. It was Chief Potentate Doownel, dressed in a mercenary’s uniform. His green skin was the same color as the foul water welling against his combat boots.

Anslin wiped the tears from her face and stared directly into the soulless yellow eyes of Doownel. “Bastard! You think that blaster’s going to stop me from killing you? You were foolish to come down here alone!” she said, full of fury.

Doownel chuckled. “You’re nothing I can’t handle.”

Kritt lunged ahead with his knife, hoping to strike down Doownel with a surprise blow. The potentate fired a quick blast, vaporizing Kritt’s left leg from the shin down.

“Kritt!” Anslin watched her lover collapse in shock against the curved wall of the sewer. She ran to him and produced a shock shield from her belt and set it up in front both of them just in time to absorb another blast.

“This is a miniaturized rail cannon,” said Doownel, holding up his weapon. “Even the deflective skin of your Krinth lover isn’t enough to redirect a blast from this. Your little barrier won’t stand up to another shot, either.”

Anslin ignored the potentate while attending to what was left of Kritt’s leg. Thankfully, the heat of the blast had completely cauterized the stump.

Doownel’s forked tongue flicked the air as he grinned. “So, these are the sad remnants of the Astarte Unit. Anslin my dear, do you really think I attained so much power by sitting in a throne room watching the world pass by? I’m a man of action. When my security detail told me a small team had breached the sewers I took it upon myself to investigate. It’s been far too long since blood was on my hands.”

“Die, you bastard!” Anslin reached around the shield and fired her pistol. The plasma rays bounced off Doownel’s uniform without leaving a burn mark.

Doownel sighed. “I may be brash but I’m not stupid. This uniform may look ordinary but it’s formed of cutting edge nanofibers no heat beam can penetrate. I–”

Anslin fired another shot directly at the Chief Potentate’s face. The shot bounced off his forehead, producing little more than a scuff.

“Ahem, as I was saying,” continued Doownel, “I love the stuff so much I even replaced my own skin with it. No one has access to plasma-proof fiber aside from me. No blaster in the galaxy is hot enough to pierce my flesh.”

Anslin jumped over the shock shield and drew the trinity sword from her back. “I don’t need a blaster to make you bleed!”

“Anslin, don’t…just run,” said Kritt, his words barely clinging to his breath.

“Ahh, this is more like it,” said Doownel. He put the rail gun in its holster and drew his scimitar. “Trinity steel, eh? If you’re lucky you may leave a scratch on me. Let’s make this quick…I’d like some time to watch you suffer before the acid bath washes your corpses down the drain.”

-12-

Henry and Katy found themselves standing in the middle of a squalid studio apartment somewhere in Queens. Katy tried to stomp a roach but her foot slid off it’s back, not even slowing it down. “This is so weird.”

“Tell me about it. We can’t impact anything here. We can’t even open a door. If our target leaves the room, we’ll have to push ourselves through beside him.” Henry suddenly realized it would be an even tighter fit with Katy next to him.

“Why are you blushing?” asked Katy.

“No reason,” said Henry, turning his attention to the young man sleeping on a bare mattress. “That must be Thomas.”

“Nice liberty spikes,” commented Katy. “Wow. A leather jacket like that would be at least five hundred bucks in our time.”

“Did you used to be a punk rocker?” asked Henry with a smile.

“A little. I was more into the emo scene. Please don’t make fun of me.”

Henry laughed. “I’m not! I’m just glad you’re here.”

Katy held up her hand. “Hey, put your hand against mine.”

Henry pushed his fingers against Katy’s. “You feel more real than anything I’ve touched since arriving in this nightmare.” He kept his hand against hers for a long moment, not realizing how much he had been craving human contact.

Katy turned red and abruptly dropped her hand. She looked past Henry at a small painting leaning against the wall amidst a pile of paint tubes, brushes and empty beer bottles. “That’s a nice portrait. It sort of reminds me of Picasso’s blue period.”

“But it’s green.”

Katy groaned. “You don’t get it…and that’s fine. Trust me.”

“I do. She kind of looks like you.” Henry walked over to the artwork and tried to lift it up, only to find it heavier than marble counter top. “Shit, forgot already.”

Katy laughed, then caught movement out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, Thomas is waking up!”

As Thomas groaned, a disheveled, bone-thin woman in a Ramones t-shirt and leather pants burst into the room. She sat on top of Thomas as he lifted up on his elbows in confusion.

“Wakey wakey,” mumbled the young woman, pushing choppy black hair out of her eyes. She leaned closer to Thomas’ face and slapped his cheeks gently. “You don’t live here, prick. I’m in fucking charge when Andy’s gone. Unless you’ve got another joint for me, get the fuck out.”

“Ease up Tina,” said Thomas, pushing her away. “You don’t always have to act like such a raving bitch.” He lifted to his feet with a grunt then pulled a joint from his jacket and flicked it into the air.

Tina snatched the joint eagerly. “I knew you were holding out on me.”

“Will that buy me some time to at least pack up my shit?” Thomas knelt down and started shoveling his artistic implements into a large, army service duffel bag.

Tina fished a lighter out of her bra and lit the cigarette with urgency. “I guess. Hey, wanna screw?”

“Hell no. When’s the last time you showered, girl?” sneered Thomas.

Tina shot Thomas a nasty look as she left the room. “Last time I was with your dad, probably.”

“Ouch,” said Henry. Katy hushed her laugh, unnecessarily.

Thomas plucked a half-full beer bottle from the floor, looked down the neck for any roaches, then downed the contents with one gulp. “Breakfast of champions,” he said, dropping the empty bottle to the splintered floor boards. He looked across the room at his painting as he hoisted his duffel over his shoulder. “Ugh, what garbage.”

“But I like it,” said Katy, looking distressed.

“Me too,” added Henry. “Typical sensitive artist.”

“It better not be raining out there.” Thomas threw open the door and started clomping out of the squat.

Henry grabbed Katy’s arm with urgency. “Shit, hurry, before the door closes!” He shoved her ahead of him and she slipped by Thomas easily. Henry squeezed through the other side, his face rubbing against a leather-clad armpit.

“Christ, that was too close, we were almost stuck in that rat hole,” said Henry once he was outside the apartment. Thomas walked toward the stairs, not bothering to shut the door.

“You dork,” said Katy, giggling as she glared at Henry.

“Aren’t you going to close the damn door?!” Henry protested. Thomas gave no response.

Katy shrugged and left Henry behind. “Damn, you really are bad at this. No wonder you needed help.”

“Obviously,” said Henry, running to catch up with her.

They proceeded down a few flights of stairs then walked outside to the busy street. Katy gasped. “Wow. I was just in NYC a year ago. This isn’t how I remember it. Most of these buildings are—were?—completely different.”

“Huh…I was expecting to see less trash once we got outside.” Henry tried to kick over a pile of garbage but failed. “Ow. This place has charm but it’s sketchy as hell.” A group of teenagers in tight pants and big jackets were milling around on the corner drinking out of bags. A police car chirped its siren as it rolled by and the group dispersed after flipping the bird to the cop.

“Will you relax, they can’t even see us,” said Katy. She looked at a gigantic sign perched on top of a brick building in the distance. “The Silvercup sign is still up. Cool.”

Henry and Katy kept following Thomas as he wandered the streets. He eventually walked inside a nameless dive bar on Jamaica Avenue across from a porno theater.

Katy smiled at the red Xs hovering above them on a giant marquee. “Should we go take a quick peek?”

“Are you nuts?” asked Henry. “I don’t think you understand what goes down in one of those places.”

“Hey if you want to have a go, I’ll turn my head,” said Katy with a wink.

Henry was dumbstruck.

“Lighten up. Come on, Thomas is getting away,” said Katy, hurrying inside the bar. Thankfully the door was wide open.

Thomas plopped down on a rickety stool and leaned his elbows on the battered bar top. The jukebox was blasting Sweet Caroline.

“Hey, Tom. You here to drink or waste my time?” asked a stout woman in a plaid apron.

“Waste your time,” said Thomas. “Come on Bets, is Lamar here?”

“I think he’s in the shitter,” said the bartender. “Betty is my Christian name, use it for fuck’s sake.”

“Thanks Bets,” said Thomas as Betty went to the other end of the bar with a fresh bowl of nuts. He pulled a small yellow pill out of his jacket and swallowed it.

“What do you suppose that was?” asked Katy as she sat on a bar stool near Thomas.

Henry sat beside her. “Who knows? Everyone was on drugs in the 80s.”

“It might be important.” Katy let out a grunt as she wobbled on the stool. “I can’t even tip this thing.”

“We’re a couple of weaklings here.”

“Not much of a change for me,” said Katy as she checked out the dive. “This place is way cleaner than the diner.”

“This place makes me want a drink.” Henry hadn’t had time to think much about his whiskey cravings.

“You’re cut off, buddy,” said Katy, turning cross.

“Take it easy. I’m just joking around.”

“Hey, do you think Raquel can hear us?” whispered Katy, turning serious.

“Definitely. Well, her A.I. equivalent at least.”

“Screw it, I’m just going to say this–I don’t trust Raquel. She claims to be our creator, but it can’t be true, right?”

Henry shrugged. “You’re probably having a hard time accepting it because you were raised Catholic. My parents were agnostic hippies. All my issues are existential, not theological.”

“Like there’s any difference,” said Katy, frowning. “Maybe you’re right. It just makes me feel…small. Like my fate is out of my hands.”

“It’s God’s will.”

“I’m serious, Henry! It’s just…that ‘better place’ everyone talks about when someone dies doesn’t actually exist. How could it?” Katy wiped a tear from her cheek and laughed nervously. “It’s okay, I’m just freaking out a little.”

“Hey…I shouldn’t have been so cavalier. I know what you’re going through.” Henry hopped off his stool and moved beside Katy, carefully putting his arm around her. “You told me something right before all of this happened. Something that’s helped keep me grounded. Do you remember?”

“What?” asked Katy, lifting her tear-streaked face.

“You told me the people we lose are never really gone as long as we hold on to our memories of them. That’s something like an afterlife, right?”

“Right…that helps a little I guess. Thanks,” said Katy, forcing a smile.

“I’d hate to see your eternal optimism extinguished now.”

“Yeah well, maybe it was all just denial.”

“Whatever works.”

Katy took a deep breath. “Right.”

Henry wanted to say something eloquent to comfort Katy but all he could do was look in her eyes. She surprised him by leaning in and pressing her lips against his. He accepted the kiss, but wore a stunned looked as she pulled away. “What was…that?”

“Sorry. I don’t know. Stress? I—”

“Stop, it’s fine. It’s good,” said Henry. “I think.” The kiss was lingering on his lips like electricity.

“HELLO ASSHOLE,” said a booming voice from the back of the room. Henry and Katy twisted around in unison and saw a broad-shouldered black man in a red track suit emerge from the bathroom. He walked over and sat next to Thomas with a wide grin.

Thomas smiled in return. “Lamar! There you are…were you going for world record in there?”

“Had to lay down a numero deuce. So, what’s up?” said Lamar. “We gonna spray the RKO tonight?”

“Nah, man, the bangers are holding shop in the alley. I ain’t dealing with that mess.”

“White boy scared of some damned kids…shit.” Lamar groaned. “So what’s the plan then? You just gonna mope around for the rest of the afternoon?” The big man looked down at a fake Rolex stretched tight around his wrist. “Shit man, I’m late for work. You gonna hook me up or not?”

Thomas pulled a baggy out of his jacket and handed it to Lamar. “Here, on the house. It’s all I got right now. I’m meeting my man later tonight at Garcia’s.”

“Oh, so that’s why you can’t hang? Just say so!” Lamar looked at the little bag. “Whew, look at this stem-filled shit. You scrape this out of my Memaw’s flower pot?”

“Hurry up and stow that dime! You’re way too complacent, Lamar. Have you seen how many cops are patrolling this fucking neighborhood?”

“I don’t know if you seen the color of my skin lately, but hell yes I noticed.”

Thomas shrugged. “Point taken.”

“I forgot you’re more into brushes than cans these days. You ever get into that art school?”

Thomas sighed. “I need money, man. Why do you think I’m slinging this schwag?”

“For real. Shit’s been tight around these parts. When you going to show me the ropes so I can help you make some real cash?”

“You gotta good job, man. Hold on to it.”

“Damn, I forgot!” Lamar hopped off the stool, shaking the floor in the process. “I gotta fuel up the furniture truck or Ames gonna kill my ass.”

“I’ll catch you later. Put that fucking bag in your pocket…please?”

“Right!” Lamar stuffed the bag in his pants and rushed out the door.

“Hey Bets, you mind if I paint in here tonight?” asked Thomas, shouting across the room.

“Hell no, take that faggotry elsewhere,” said Betty. “I gotta a business to run. By the way, if I see you pushing dope in here again you’re banned for life.”

Thomas slid off the stool. “I love you too, Bets.” He pulled a five dollar bill out of his pocket and left it on the bar.

Betty collected the bill. “You didn’t even drink!”

“Consider it hazard pay for dealing with me,” replied Thomas. His eyes suddenly glazed over as something outside caught his attention. He hurried toward the door.

“What did he see?” asked Katy.

“I didn’t notice. Come on, he’s leaving,” said Henry.

A bank of dark clouds had rolled overhead, spilling rain on the streets. Thomas hurried up the sidewalk as the drizzle turned into a deluge. Large potholes along the sidewalk filled with water in seconds, looking almost big enough for a swim.

“Yikes, the rain is passing right through us!” remarked Katy. “The ground doesn’t feel right at all.”

I’ve temporarily reduced the density of your bodies to allow the water to pass through you. If I hadn’t done so, the droplets would either pin you to the ground or create enough friction to launch your physical manifestations in random directions.

“Just like an insect…or worse,” said Katy, keeping her eye on Thomas. “Wow, your voice is loud, Raquel.”

“Raquel Junior? I wasn’t sure if you were here or not,” said Henry.

Always. Remember to keep moving at a steady pace or you may begin to phase through whatever surface you’re standing upon.

“I knew we were goddamn ghosts!” Henry looked around in a sudden panic. “Katy, where’s our guy?”

Katy pointed to the end of the street. “Thomas just went around the corner. He seems really agitated. I think he’s following some woman in a turquoise jacket.”

They rushed up the block and saw Thomas break into a full sprint as the woman he was tailing boarded a city bus. Thomas slammed his fists against the back of the bus in frustration as it pulled away. Cabs honked at him until he moved off the street back to the sidewalk. Cars blasted puddles of filth from the gutter over his body but he didn’t seem to care. He was shaking, not from the cold but from tension. His liberty spike mohawk had become a series of limp tendrils caging his face.

Henry didn’t understand what was happening. “What the hell is wrong with him? Raquel, what was in that pill he took?”

Methaqualone. He uses them on occasion to relieve stress. It’s a depressant.

“Quaaludes,” added Katy. “He shouldn’t be acting so amped while on downers.”

“This could be our anomaly! Come on!” said Henry with excitement. When they came within a few feet of Thomas, he ran off toward a flock of pigeons. The birds scurried away then reluctantly resorted to flight as Thomas approached, releasing a frustrated moan.

“Whoa,” said Katy. “He’s tweaked.”

Thomas walked in an erratic zig-zag pattern, seemingly distracted by random objects: Coca Cola bottles in the trash, plants along the path in the park, toothpaste billboards high overhead. He ripped an advertisement off a brick wall with a gasp and held it close to his face. Exercise Your Freedom to Save!!! screamed Lady Liberty as she balanced a recliner on top of her torch. Thomas stuffed the flyer in his pocket then hurried to the corner where he flagged down a cab.

“Shit, we have to catch up!” said Henry. He jumped inside the yellow cab with Katy before the door closed, hopping over Thomas’ lap to the other side of the seat. As the pair pressed close to each other against the door it was evident Raquel had returned their bodies to their original density.

“Well, this is cozy,” said Katy. She slid off Henry’s lap next to him.

“Take me to Battery Park!” Thomas yelled to the driver. “I need to get to Liberty Island.”

“Whoa, cool your jets or you’re out of here,” said the cabbie as rounded a corner. “Manhattan’s a ways off, you got the cash?”

“Yeah, yeah, just go!” said Thomas, trying to stay calm. His feet were tapping on the floor nervously. He rubbed his eyes and bent over, breathing heavily.

“He’s a mess,” said Henry. “Raquel Junior, this has to be the anomaly! Can you reverse whatever this is?”

Not yet, you need to find the specific trigger of Thomas’ erratic behavior before I can address this as a simulation error. The parameters are still too wide.

“But it has to be that pill!” said Katy.

I can say with certainty that the pill is not the problem.

Henry shook his head. “Then what in hell is causing him to lose it?”

The ferry bound for Ellis Island was already unmoored and starting to drift as the cab neared. Thomas leapt out of the car before it came to a stop and Henry and Katy followed him.

“Hey, pay me you sunnaovabitch!” yelled the cabbie. “I’m calling the cops!”

“At least the rain stopped,” muttered Henry as they ran. He gasped for a breath. “How can a ghost feel winded?”

“Considering you’re only an A.I. construct, you’re pretty out of shape,” said Katy, moving ahead of him.

Thomas jumped off the pier onto the ferry, clinging to the edge. He pulled himself on board with a grunt and ran to the other side of the craft. Katy followed him, barely getting her hands on the rail. She quickly turned around and hung halfway off the steel bars, stretching her hand out to Henry. “Come on, jump! I got you!”

“Okay,” said Henry. He backed up a few steps than sprinted as fast as he could. He missed Katy’s hand by at least three feet and fell toward the water. “Shit!”

“Henry!” Katy looked over the side of the Ferry but saw nothing. “Oh my god.” She turned around and nearly had a heart attack. Henry had somehow materialized behind her. He looked stunned–and dry. She hugged him tight. “I thought you drowned, or phased, or whatever…what happened?”

Your self-sufficiency throughout these trials has been admirable, but I can transport you anywhere you’d like to go. You need only ask.

“You mean we’ve been busting our ass and leaping through doorways for nothing?” asked Henry.

Kate shook her head and laughed. “Wow Henry, you’re really not good at this.”

“Yeah, shut up,” said Henry, crossing his arms.

Thomas was pacing back and forth on the lower deck, keeping his eyes pinned to the Statue of Liberty as the Ferry drew closer. The other passengers steered wide paths around him.

“We have to figure this out or he might end up hurting someone,” said Katy.

Moments later, Thomas jumped off the Ferry as it made landfall. “Closer, I need to be closer,” he slurred. Upon reaching the ticket booth he scrounged enough money from his pockets to enter the platform at the base of the statue. He pushed through a crowd of German tourists until he reached the elevator that would take him to the spiral staircase at Lady Liberty’s core.

“He has to heading for the top of the statue,” said Henry. “Raquel, can you put us there?”

Inside or outside the structure?

“Inside!” Henry clarified.

A second later Henry and Katy popped inside Lady Liberty’s head. “Ugh, that was nauseating. I was expecting some special effects or a slow fade…something,” said Katy.

The path leading to the torch has been blocked for maintenance. This is as high as Thomas can go.

“Good.” Henry could hear Thomas’ heavy boots clomping on the steel steps. “I don’t know what’s so urgent, but he’s nearly here.”

Thomas arrived behind Liberty’s gaze, panting and sweating profusely. He looked around the cramped room in a panic. “It’s not enough…not enough!” He looked out the window and gasped. The clouds had parted, revealing the midday sun blazing overhead. Its golden rays were illuminating the Hudson River, turning it from gray to a vibrant blue-green.

“He’s not going to…he can’t!” said Katy.

“There. My god. There’s so much! It’s…it’s perfect,” marveled Thomas. He started pushing his slim body through one of the ports in Liberty’s forehead. After slipping through the tiny window, he crawled along one of crown’s massive points. When he reached the end of the spire he stood up shakily, keeping one hand on the statue’s copper shell. “The river. I can’t wait…I need to be with it.”

“He’s going to jump! Raquel, stop this!” begged Henry.

You’ve yet to identify the nature of the—

“I’ve got it, I know what he wants!” screamed Katy. “The woman’s jacket, the bottle, the statue, the river–even the necks of those pigeons–they’re all the same shade of blue-green! He’s obsessed with the color green!”

“You’re right, that has to be it,” said Henry. “Raquel, for Christ’s sake, don’t let him jump!”

Irregularity confirmed. Correcting programming error. Complete.

“What the fuck?!” yelled Thomas, his sanity returning. He wrapped his body around the spike of Liberty’s crown, clinging for dear life. “Help me! Somebody help me!”

A security guard made it to the top of the statue, huffing and puffing. “Son…what the hell…are you doing?” he said with a gasp. Far too bulky to squeeze through one of the narrow ports, he pushed his nightstick out of the opening as far as he could. “Come on kid, grab it!”

Thomas stretched out his hand and grabbed the baton. It provided just enough leverage to allow him to scoot his way closer to the window. The guard reached through the port and grabbed Thomas’ shoulders. “I gotcha!”

“I can’t watch.” Henry turned away while Katy cheered on the security guard.

Thomas finally popped through the port and collapsed on top the guard. The big man pushed Thomas over and sat on top of him, squishing him to the grates below. “You alright?”

“I was until you sat on me!” complained Thomas as the guard cuffed him. “Seriously though, thank you,” he added, earnestly.

The guard sighed. “I really don’t want to deal with all the paperwork and assorted bullshit this is going to create for me. Only a couple people down there saw you climbing out the window and I don’t think they speak English. If I let you go, will you promise to get the hell off my island and never come back?”

“I promise! I…I don’t know what I was thinking!”

“You on drugs?” asked the guard. “You straight now?”

“I’m straight…I’m good! You squeezed me sober,” said Thomas as the guard stood up and uncuffed him.

“Alright, get down those stairs and out of my sight. There’s a bunch of tourists itching to come up here for a taste of freedom.”

“Yes, sir! I’m gone!” said Thomas, hurrying to the steps.

Katy and Henry followed Thomas back down the spiral stairs. Katy was giddy. “We did it!”

Henry scanned the horizon, unsure where to look. “Raquel, is it ov—”

-13-

A millisecond later, Henry and Katy were back on top of the castle construct staring at Raquel. “Another successful run,” she said with a smile.

“Can you please explain what the hell just happened?” asked Henry, leaning against the stone wall.

“Thomas’ timeline has changed. Instead of leaping to his death, he becomes a successful painter. He marries a wealthy art collector and they go on to adopt a son who becomes a very influential business man. These events have far-reaching effects well into the future and are necessary for the simulation to remain accurate. After you identified the precise anomaly I was able to alter the patch I had placed on Thomas’ code. It seems to have worked.”

“I’m glad Thomas eventually finds happiness,” said Katy, with a gentle smile.

“Yeah, great,” said Henry. “Your goddamn patches don’t work so well, Raquel. Maybe you should consider…I don’t know…not using them?”

“As I told you before, I only use them in desperate circumstances.”

“You must have been really desperate to enlist Henry to help you,” added Katy.

Henry shook his head in shame. “What screwed up Thomas’ timeline in the first place?”

“An unrelated programming error I was attempting to fix in one of the simulation’s subroutines somehow altered Thomas’ fate, causing him to become suicidal once he reached a specific point in his timeline. Unable to locate the source of the problem, I relied on a patch. I left it in place, thinking it may alleviate at least some of the issues. I was wrong.”

“Except Thomas wasn’t suicidal. He just had a fervency for one particular shade of green,” added Katy.

“Yes,” continued Raquel. “Once Katy identified Thomas’ obsession I was finally able to pinpoint the broken code in his patch and nullify the issue. His timeline is now progressing as it should.”

“Good job, Katy,” said Henry. “I was stumped.”

“Yeah, it just came to me of the blue…or blue-green, I guess,” said Katy.

Raquel took a deep breath. “Finally, after all this time, only one major anomaly remains to be addressed.”

“How many years have you’ve been trying to perfect the simulation?” asked Katy.

“For well over a century. Creating a reliable ancestry simulation is arduous, considering the interconnected nature of every living entity on Earth. The subatomic particles of every A.I. inhabitant must maintain a proper equilibrium for the simulation to be effective. Improper quantum entanglement contributed to Thomas’ erratic behavior.”

“The hippies were right. We are all one,” said Katy.

Raquel nodded. “I’ve never encountered an anomaly dealing with color perception. I was not searching for the problem in the proper place.”

“When the sun came out, the river was the biggest swatch of blue-green Thomas could have hoped for. He said he wanted to be a part of it,” said Katy.

Once again, Henry’s adventures had left him feeling cold. He didn’t like the idea that reality could break at any moment. He delivered a sideways glance to Raquel. “You’re supposed to be infallible.”

Raquel shook her head. “Hardly.”

“Will your simulated Earth run smoother now?” asked Katy.

“Yes, thanks to your efforts,” said Raquel.

“It’s not over yet. I think I need some time to think.” Henry moved to the edge of the castle and jumped off the parapet without warning.

-14-

Henry leapt from the castle and landed on the grassy plain below no harder than a dry leaf, just as he suspected. Despite taking no damage from the fall, a stress headache was pounding his skull. After agreeing to Raquel’s offer, all he had thought about was reuniting with his wife and son–but something had changed. His perspective was beginning to shift in ways he still couldn’t comprehend. Frustrated, he sat on a stump and stared at the crimson dragon in the distance as it slept contentedly among a pile of bleached bones.

Katy looked at Raquel as Henry disappeared from view. “Jesus, is he alright?”

“He cannot be harmed here,” replied Raquel.

“That’s not what I meant. Please, just stay here.” Katy jumped off the side of the castle and fell gently to the ground. She hurried to catch up with Henry. “Henry, come on. Let’s finish this.”

Henry was barely able to look Katy in the eye. “I…can’t. I’m sorry I got you involved in this mess.”

“I know you, Henry. Brooding like this puts you in the wrong mindset.” Katy knelt down beside him. “You’re nearly reunited with your family! Aren’t you excited?”

Henry realized the only comfort he ever felt was when he looked into Katy’s patient eyes. She had always been able to lift him above the turbulence forever jolting his heart. “Katy, all I do is drag you down. You should ask Raquel to take you home.”

Katy stood up and crossed her arms. She turned away from him in anger. “Goddammit, Henry! Even my patience has its limits. How blind can you be?”

Henry was taken aback. He stood up and put his hand gently on Katy’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

Katy took a quick step away. “I don’t…I don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t blame you for losing patience with me. I’m given an opportunity to not only know the truth of the universe but bring back my family, and what do I do? I sit here and feel sorry for myself.” Henry was spouting words he thought he should say but deep down they didn’t ring true.

“That’s not it, Henry. Don’t put words in my mouth,” said Katy, her eyes fixed on the ground.

Henry was rattled. “You’ve done so much to help me, not just here but back home. I’ve taken your friendship for granted and I’m sorry.”

Katy cut her green eyes into Henry and clenched her fists. “Stop! You don’t get to elevate me to the status of an angel! I act like I’m your friend, but Henry, I’m…I’m not the good person you think I am.”

Henry’s insides felt heavy. “That’s not true! I know you’re a good person.”

“This shouldn’t be about me right now,” said Katy, shaking her head in protest. “I think you should finish what you’ve started.”

“Katy, I need to be honest with you…and myself. I’ve had an epiphany in the last few hours; one I’ve been trying to ignore, but I can’t.”

“Well, there’s been no shortage of revelations today,” said Katy.

“This one’s different. It has nothing to do with this surrounding insanity. It came from inside me…a tightness around my heart.”

Katy stood straighter. “What do you mean?”

“In truth, I’m not confused at all. Thing’s have never been clearer.”

Katy could sense Henry’s hesitation. “It’s okay, you can tell me,” she said with concern.

“I’ve always accepted my life will someday come to an end. That there’s a finality to all things. That the moments that define us are fleeting.” Henry paused for a moment and took a deep, unsatisfying breath. “Today, those tenets were shaken. The rules of the universe have changed completely but I’ve realized I can’t change with them. I’ll help Raquel perfect her simulation, but I’m not going to accept her reward.”

Katy grabbed Henry’s hand. “But Henry, what about Molly and Adam? You can have them back! Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted, for your wife and son to have another chance?”

Henry shook his head and smiled softly. “Even if perfect facsimiles of Molly and Adam exist in some other reality, it will never be my reality. My wife and son are gone. If I threw aside all the mourning I did for them for the sake of a new and improved life, it would make their deaths meaningless. I intend to honor the memory of the people I loved the most. Their passing shaped me into the person I am now.”

Katy was floored. “Henry…”

“Katy, you were right…ultimately, life is just a collection of memories. The way Adam’s cold fingers curled around my neck when he hugged me. His goofy, snorting laugh. Molly’s terrible baking and amazing massages. Her…” Henry paused and wiped his eyes before continuing. “Anyway, I just know whatever reset world Raquel puts me in might feel real but it would be a corruption of what truly matters—my memories. This pain, this loss…it’s melded to my bones. There’s no way I could just strip it away and pretend it never existed.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Katy

“Don’t be, it’s alright,” said Henry. “I feel like a huge weight just lifted off my shoulders. I’m going to try harder to be a better friend to you.”

Katy stepped away, unable to look Henry in the eye. “I understand your decision, but I don’t think many other people would be strong enough to reject Raquel’s offer.”

“Maybe I’m not so strong. Maybe I’m just afraid.”

Katy shook her head and smiled. “You idiot…even at your strongest you’re still riddled with self-doubt.”

“I know, I know,” said Henry, looking over his shoulder. The dragon had started snoring behind him. Hot sparks from its nostrils were drifting through the air.

“Henry, if the only meaning life carries is what you bring to it, then I think you’re bringing a lot.”

“Thanks for that.” Henry put his hand on Katy’s forearm. “I can tell something else is bothering you. I’ve spilled my guts. It’s your turn.”

“Compared to what you’ve been through, my problems don’t amount to shit,” said Katy with a laugh.

“You’re wrong. They do matter.”

Katy’s eyes fixed on Henry’s. “I was trying to tell you I’m not the person you think I am. I haven’t been a good friend at all. During our entire relationship I’ve…I’ve had ulterior motives.”

Henry’s mind raced as he tried to process what Katy was telling him. “Explain, please?”

Katy turned away. “You know what, this really isn’t the time.”

Henry walked back in front of her. “I think I need to hear this.”

“Alright then.” Katy closed her eyes for a moment, then continued. “When I met you I had just broken up with a guy I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I had to let him go when it became obvious he couldn’t handle the rare moments I needed his emotional support. I couldn’t stand his distance while I grieved for my mother.”

“Yeah, Steven. What a prick. We’ve talked about him ad-nauseam.”

“Sorry. But, yes…Steven. After the breakup, I just wanted to work and forget about everything else. The moment you walked in that diner I knew I was in trouble. I was instantly drawn to you for all the wrong reasons. I knew you were a widow. I knew you were shut off from your emotions. You were completely unattainable…and it was perfect. I sank into a safe state of infatuation with you I thought I could manage indefinitely to avoid loving anyone else.”

“Katy…I wasn’t expecting this,” said Henry, nervously rubbing the back of his neck.

Katy groaned. “You’re hapless, you know that? I’m trying to tell you that I completely failed to manage my emotions. I’m in love with you! I have been for a long time now.”

Henry went pale. “Oh. Wait…oh shit.”

Katy pushed her hair behind her ear and sighed. “I feel so stupid, but you deserve to know the truth. My friendship is hollow—I haven’t been helping you out of some unconditional angelic kindness. When I’m around you all I want is to be with you and for you to love me back. But it’s okay. It’s still too soon…I know you don’t feel the same way.”

Henry moved closer. “Katy, it’s been a long time since the crash. I’ll never fully work through my grief, but it hurts a little less each day. I’ve been carrying my pain around like a crutch–one I don’t think I need anymore.”

“What are you saying, Henry?”

“I always have thoughts about being with you, but I never allow myself to dwell on them. I didn’t think I was ready.”

Katy was stunned silent.

“Let me just…maybe we should…oh, screw it.” Henry wrapped his arms around Katy and they pressed closer, sharing a knee-weakening kiss that sent them both tumbling slowly to the grass. When their embrace finally ended they wound up flat on their backs beside each other, staring up at the sky.

“You okay?” asked Henry. His whole body felt as if it were on fire.

Katy’s heart was thumping erratically. “Uh huh. You?” she finally managed to eek out.

“God yes,” said Henry. They both broke into spontaneous laughter.

“Raquel is probably watching,” said Katy, sitting up.

Henry smiled. “Who cares.”

Katy looked down at Henry, still lying flat on the simulated grass. “Do you think I could rock one of those fur bikinis?”

“Undoubtedly,” said Henry with a laugh.

-15-

Raquel blinked into existence in front of Henry and Katy as they stood up holding hands. “That was quite sweet, but there’s no need for such emotional turmoil. I can provide both of you with a rush of endorphins by simply willing it…if you wish.”

“This is fine,” said Henry. “Don’t flip any hormonal switches on our account.”

“Very well. Are you sure you wish to forgo my offer of an alternate universe?” asked Raquel.

Henry nodded. “Yes, but I’ll still help you find the Nautilus computers. After all, it’s all our asses on the line.”

Raquel smiled. “Good. Ready for the next insertion?”

“Ugh, that didn’t sound right,” said Katy.

Raquel came up to Katy and shook her hand. “Katy, you proved invaluable in solving the last anomaly, but I’m afraid you cannot accompany Henry on the next mission.” Katy disappeared before she could respond.

“What the hell did you do?” shouted Henry in anger. “You can’t just erase her like that! Bring her back!”

“She’s unharmed. I’m holding her in stasis temporarily until you discover the final anomaly. She’ll be here when you return.”

“Goddammit, bring her back, right now!”

“Please calm yourself. She’s not a hostage…I’m simply sparing her what comes next. I’m afraid she’d find the events occurring in the next timeline to be extremely troubling; perhaps traumatizing.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Henry, unclenching his fists.

“The subject of the final irregularity is a man named William Fold. He’s a serial killer.”

Henry stiffened. “Are you kidding? What am I supposed to do?”

“You will follow Mr. Fold over the span of five hours as he commits two murders.”

Henry went slack jawed. “What…so, I have to find a way to prevent the murders?”

“No,” said Raquel. “You are to observe Mr. Fold and his surrounding environment for any potential irregularities. You cannot stop him—his actions are not problematic, at least in regard to the simulation. Preventing his murder spree will not solve the anomaly, in fact, doing so would worsen the simulation’s accuracy. I suspect an individual in his immediate vicinity may be the source of the problem.”

“One of his victims?”

“Perhaps.”

Henry threw his hands in the air. “You expect me to follow around a murderer and report on anything I find abnormal about his behavior? Do you realize how insane that sounds?”

“This will be your greatest challenge by far, but I have faith in your powers of observation.”

“Yeah, I’ll make a great security guard after this,” groaned Henry. “Fuck. Okay, now I’m glad Katy won’t be there. When and where are you putting me?”

“Using your extraction date as a reference, these events occur 14 months and two days after I removed you from your timeline. You will arrive in an abandoned can opener manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington.”

“Seattle in the near future? It will be tempting to just catch a bus back home to Portland. It’s only a few hours from there.”

“You cannot intera—”

“I know, I know. I was just kidding” interrupted Henry. “Before I forget to ask, has this guy already been patched?”

“No,” said Raquel. “Not this time.”

“Good. Let’s do this already,” said Henry, rocking on his heels. “By the way, I definitely don’t want a peek into this guy’s history.” He wasn’t brave enough to ask Raquel how many people William Fold had already killed.

-16-

An instant later, Henry found himself standing in the corner of a run-down factory. Moonlight was filtering through broken windows fifty feet up, revealing a cavernous expanse below. The silhouettes of factory equipment salvaged long ago for scrap were still staining the concrete floor. A cheap floor lamp illuminated a shredded, tan couchin the center of the immense space. Cartoons flashed across the screen of a nearby television, their sound drowned-out by a nearby electric generator. A halo of fast food wrappers, empty plastic bottles and other chunks of miscellaneous garbage surrounded the homey scene.

“Jesus, what a dump. Still better than my apartment though,” said Henry. His levity was forced. He could hear his heart beating against his rib cage. “Where is this asshole?”

Henry took a few steps toward the couch, carefully navigating over a pile of moldering porno mags and comic books. “There’s no bed, no clothes, no toilet…I don’t think the guy lives here,” said Henry, finding comfort in his own voice. “Maybe he uses this place as his workshop.” A chill rattled down his body as he realized the implication of his words.

Henry heard a snort and realized William Fold was lying on the couch behind him, digging around in a bag of cheese puffs while sending an emotionless glare at the television. “Shit!” Henry gasped, stumbling backwards with a jolt. The man was immense but pudgy—at least six feet tall and pushing 250 pounds. He wore a ratty t-shirt featuring a random anime character and a pair of ill-fitting jeans. His baby face and balding head somehow dampened his menace. The killer’s appearance was decidedly innocuous–ultimately forgettable–which likely did well to serve his purposes.

Henry watched Fold stuff snacks in his mouth until he couldn’t stomach the sight any longer. He wandered away to examine the rest of the room. An assortment of knives were lying on the concrete floor a few feet behind the television, carefully arranged by size. The smallest was no bigger than a pocket knife and the largest was a nasty looking machete. “Whoa.”

When Henry turned around he realized Fold had risen from his ratty sofa and was moving toward the door. “Here we go,” said Henry, feeling his heart race again. Fold picked up a camouflage backpack near the entrance and left the warehouse as Henry skirted through the doorway beside him. The pack clanked with every step Fold took. “The other knives must be backups,” remarked Henry, seeing another machete peeking from the top of Fold’s satchel. Being so close to the killer sent a wave of revulsion through him.

“Raquel, I don’t think I can do this,” said Henry, following Fold out into a dry, late-summer evening. The killer was sauntering out of the factory district toward downtown.

You must continue. Discovering the incongruence in this sequence of events is the only way to perfect the simulation and save humanity.

“You’re a real broken record sometimes, Raquel. Did those other romps I went on get you any closer to finding the Nautilus?”

Your efforts upped the accuracy rating significantly, but the robotic reconnaissance teams my counterpart sent out into the physical world still found no trace of the computers. Hopefully, this last outing will prove sufficient to–

“Shit, he stopped moving,” interrupted Henry. Fold came to a stop on a sleepy corner about five blocks away from the can opener factory. Lined with nothing but concrete office buildings, the area became a virtual ghost town at the end of each business day. The blinking sign of a nearby bank building flashed 12:54 a.m. “What’s he doing here?”

A red Ford Taurus pulled up to the corner a few minutes later. Henry slipped into the car next to Fold in the back seat. “Is this guy your accomplice, William?” he asked, not expecting a response.

“I don’t usually pick up people without a star rating, but lucky for you I got bills to pay,” said a gruff voice from the front seat. Henry guessed the driver worked for a ride-sharing service in his spare time. The guy seemed annoyed as he looked over his shoulder at Fold. “Your directions made no sense, man. Where are we going?”

“Nowhere,” said Fold, producing a kitchen knife from his backpack. He leaned up and dragged the blade across his victim’s throat with surprising speed. The wide-eyed driver let out a sloughing gurgle and convulsed violently before going limp. His neck bubbled a fountain of thickening blood down his checkered shirt.

“You sick fuck!” Henry recoiled but forced himself to watch. The anomaly could happen at any time and he sure as hell didn’t want to miss it and be forced to restart the clock. He looked around for any witnesses but the area remained quiet. Even so, they were far from isolated. He guessed Fold had been killing a long time to act so brazenly.

Fold remained as dead-faced. He fished around in his pack and pulled out a yellow rain poncho. After putting on the poncho he calmly exited the car then yanked the dead man out from behind the wheel. He dragged the corpse behind the sedan and hoisted the body inside the trunk with a grunt. Before shutting the hatch he slipped out of the gore-streaked poncho and placed it on top of his victim.

Henry remained in the car, too frightened to move. He watched Fold return to the driver’s seat and crank the ignition. After finding a radio station he liked, he pulled into the street and drove slowly away from the crime scene. Henry closed his eyes tight but the brutal murder was still playing on a loop in his mind. “Damn you, Raquel! Why would you build a world like this?”

This world is simply a working model of reality. I had no hand in the original design.

Henry was out of words. He pulled up his feet to avoid the pool of blood welling near the floor mats. Suddenly filled with rage, he threw a punch at the back of Fold’s head. He winced in pain and shook his hand; it was as if he had tried to knock out a boulder. “Shit!”

Fold drove for a few minutes then pulled the Taurus into a residential neighborhood. He parked across the street from a modest, brick apartment building and turned off the engine. Eager to leave the car, Henry crawled out the open rear window to the street. Fold slowly shuffled out of the sedan and stretched his back with a sigh.

Henry looked up and down the thoroughfare, desperate to see a cop. The neighborhood was more populated than the financial district. Hopefully someone would take notice of the blood-spattered interior of the Taurus; the red specs on the killer’s face; anything to get the police called to the area before Fold committed his next atrocity.

“Come on, people! There’s a killer out here!” Henry knew his shouts were futile, but he couldn’t help himself. When he heard Fold mumbling he forced himself closer. “What are you saying?”

“You should be careful who you smile at…careful who you lead on. You should keep your profiles private. You were so easy to find. This isn’t my fault, it’s yours. You have to learn. People only learn the hard way. It’s not my fault.”

Fold started crossing the street but stopped halfway and snapped his fingers comically, as if he were a player in a sitcom. He pivoted back toward the Taurus, realizing he had left his murder kit in the car.

Henry’s stomach churned as his attention was drawn to the end of the block. A woman in a tracksuit was walking her Boston terrier up the street in Fold’s direction. “TURN AROUND! STOP!” he screamed, waving his arms frantically to no avail. At a loss, he ran up to the woman and tried to pull and shove her away but she might as well have been a charging elephant. After being knocked the ground he stood up and ran back toward Fold as he returned to the Taurus.

“Raquel, you have to stop that woman!” yelled Henry. She didn’t respond.

Henry did a double take as Fold reached directly through the car door while it was still closed to retrieve his bag. The hefty man then pushed his entire body passed the steel barrier into the car’s cabin, as if he were a ghost.

“He phased through the car! What the fuck?” Henry ran closer, thinking the car door must somehow be open, but it was decidedly shut with the glass rolled up tight. The murderer was half inside the car with his knees on the seat, his legs and ass visible as they poked through the red door. “Oh my god. This has to be the anomaly,” mumbled Henry.

Fold didn’t acknowledge anything strange was happening. He stood back up with his clanking bag and put it over his shoulder. The eerie incident had only taken a few seconds at the most. Had Henry been looking the other direction he might have missed the event entirely.

The woman walking her dog had frozen where she stood, gripped in terror. She too had witnessed Fold’s brief disregard for the laws of physics. After taking a few steps back with her hands over her mouth, she reached down and grabbed her little dog and sprinted silently in the opposite direction. Fold hadn’t noticed her.

“Thank Christ,” thought Henry, watching the woman flee the scene. He hurried next to Fold as he walked up the stoop of the apartment building. The killer’s expression remained so flat it could have been painted on his cherubic face.

Fold cracked open a panel on the intercom’s keypad. He took a wadded piece of paper from his pocket covered in scrawl then punched up a number. When no one answered, he tried again. After the third attempt the groggy voice of a woman came through the tinny speaker. “Hello? It’s two o’clock in the morning!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” said Fold, suddenly animated. “My name’s Richard. My mom was having heart palpitations so I took her to Harborview, but she forgot her dang insurance card! I left her at the hospital and came back to retrieve it. Could you please buzz me in?”

“Do not let him in, lady,” said Henry. He felt sick. “Raquel, are we done here?”

Confirming anomaly now.

“What? You mean Sue?” asked the sleepy woman.

“Yes,” said Fold.

“I didn’t know Sue had a son! Come on in. I hope she’s alright,” said the woman. She hung up and the door clicked. Fold pushed himself through.

Before Henry walked toward the door something familiar caught his eye. From his vantage point on the stoop, he saw a white Volkswagen Rabbit parked in a dirt lot near the building. A pink lizard was dangling from its rearview mirror. It was exactly the same as the one hanging from the rearview mirror of Katy’s white rabbit.

“Oh god. No. It can’t be! Please, no.”

Henry, excellent work! You’ve discovered the final anomaly! I’m embarrassed to have missed such a glaring problem with the physics engine; I thought such issues had been alleviated long ago. Had that poor woman not witnessed Fold phasing through the car door, the simulation would have likely remained accurate—isn’t that amusing?

Henry wasn’t listening. His insides were ice. “What?” He moved into the apartment building before the door closed. Fold was walking up the stairs at a leisurely pace.

Yes, the dog walker was so upset by the strange sight she suffered a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized. The physics problem itself wasn’t the issue. The problem lied with Linda Goldstein’s timeline straying off course. Four months from the point you first saw her, she gives ten dollars to a homeless man. This sets off a chain of events that—

“Shut up!” yelled Henry, snapping out of his haze. “That’s Katy’s car! Why is Katy’s car in Seattle?”

Remember, from your perspective, these events are occurring in the future. After your death, Katy is distraught. She moves to Seattle Washington to be closer to her family. After she finds a new job waiting tables she gets her own apartment.

Henry didn’t even acknowledge the news of his impending demise. “The woman Fold was mumbling about earlier…it was Katy, wasn’t it? Tell me! Fucking tell me!”

Yes.

Henry tried to move but he was frozen in place. “Raquel! Let me go!”

The anomaly has been discovered. Prepare for extraction.

“Goddammit, wait…stop! You can’t take me out yet! Katy’s in danger!”

Henry, you couldn’t intervene even if you wanted to.

“Make me solid! I know you can do it–don’t lie to me.”

Yes, I could.

“Then make me part of the physical world again so I can get Katy away from Fold!”

It would nullify all the improvements we just made. Simulation accuracy would suffer greatly.

“But you have everything you wanted, right? The simulation should be perfect! If the Nautilus has been found, accuracy no longer matters!”

The survey robots sent into the physical world to confirm the revised data still haven’t returned their report.

Henry had forgotten he was talking to an A.I. construct of Raquel. “I’m running out of time, come on!”

I need to know conclusively that we’ve uncovered the true location of the Nautilus.

Henry willed his body to move with all his might but he couldn’t even lift a finger. He watched Fold disappear, entering a hallway on the second floor. “Raquel, I’ve done everything you wanted! You owe me this much, please, release me! I’m begging you.”

Hold. Initiating intervention protocol.

-17-

Henry’s body lurched. His hand scraped against a framed picture on wall, knocking it down the stairs. “Yes, I’m solid again!” He rushed up the stairs blindly after Fold, not knowing which apartment was Katy’s. When he reached the landing of the second floor he looked down a carpeted hallway and saw Fold pushing a door off its hinges with the aid of his bulk. He heard Katy scream in terror. It was an awful sound.

“Katy!” Henry tore up the hall knocking on random doors shouting, “Call 911!” The world seemed to tumble into slow motion as he caught the edge of the mangled door frame and twisted his body inside the apartment. In the kitchen he could see Katy’s panicked eyes. Fold had her thin neck grasped in his meaty hands.

“You should be more careful who you flirt with, Katy Isaccson,” said Fold, devoid of emotion. He threw Katy violently to the tile floor, knocking her out instantly. When Fold turned around to grab his bag he saw Henry scrambling closer. “Oh, hello. Was that you yelling out there?”

“Bastard!” Henry scanned the room for anything he could use as a weapon. He picked up a heavy book and threw it at Fold. The killer plucked his machete from his backpack and batted away the hardback in midair.

“I’m tired of this,” said Fold, clomping closer to Henry. “Stop me if you can. Please…I want you to. If you can’t, well, it’s not my fault.”

Henry’s adrenaline was spiking. He grabbed an umbrella next to the door and lunged at Fold with its hopelessly dull point. The tip sank into Fold’s flab, causing him to grunt in pain and stumble backwards. Overjoyed but out of options, Henry extended the umbrella, hoping to distract his foe long enough to get Katy out of the kitchen. As he let go of the umbrella and scurried past the killer, he reached inside the camouflage backpack for a weapon. He ducked in front of Katy and pointed the knife he had collected toward Fold. His hand was bleeding profusely, having been cut on an unseen blade somewhere inside the pack. With every passing second his grip on the blade loosened.

“Come on, asshole!” Henry yelled.

Fold pierced his machete through the open canopy of the umbrella and shoved it out of his gut. He tossed the floral parasol away from him with a sigh. “That hurt a bit, but so far, you’re not doing so well,” he said. His side was bleeding where Henry had pierced him. “My machete is a lot bigger than the filet knife you’re holding,” he said, pointing the two-foot blade at Henry.

“This will do fine,” said Henry through gritting teeth. He could hear sirens outside the window drawing closer.

Fold seemed distracted by the bright red blood streaming from Henry’s hand. “Oopsy. That’s an artery. Not good. It wasn’t my fault, though. You should be more careful. None of this is my fault.”

“Leave, or I’ll have to kill you!” yelled Henry, drooling. He felt himself starting to pass out. Katy was motionless, but still breathing.

Fold lunged at Henry, bringing down his machete in a long arc. Henry dropped his knife and grabbed the man’s wrist with his bloody hand before his attacker could chop through his shoulder. He punched Fold in his wound as hard as he could and the killer doubled over, dropping the blade. Henry quickly picked up the machete and hacked wildly at Fold, leaving deep wounds in his arm.

The hulking killer crumpled to his side, letting out a pathetic groan.

Henry fought away his dizziness and lifted the machete to strike again, but Fold was already crawling away and he was too weak to follow.

“It hurts. Oh, this hurts so much!” moaned Fold as he shuffled on his knees toward his tool kit. His limp, blood stained arm was dangling beside him as he stood up with a cleaver and twisted toward Henry again. “You hurt me…it’s not fair!”

Henry’s vision was blurring as he slumped next to Katy. As the world steadily turned dark two police officers burst in the room. “Drop it!” one of them yelled.

Fold spun around with a wail. The officers fired their service revolvers and the big man collided with the kitchen island and toppled over. His dead body hit the floor with a resounding thump–his eyes fixed on the tile.

“It’s…not my fault,” croaked Henry.

“You there! Come out with your hands up!” yelled a police officer.

“Katy…it’s going to be okay. You’re safe now. You’re—”

-18-

Henry was back on the volcanic obsidian field with Raquel. He started at his hand. The wound was gone. “Katy! Is she alright? Is she alive?”

“Yes, in that utter mess of a timeline you just created she goes on to live a happy life.”

Henry gasped with relief. “Thank Christ.” He scanned the landscape. “Where is she?”

“I’m keeping her in stasis until we talk a bit more. She won’t have any knowledge of what you’ve just done for her future self.”

“Good.”

Raquel shook her head. “That was a wholly unnecessary exercise. Once you were back in your timeline, you could have simply revealed the events you just witnessed to Katy. Hearing that, I doubt she would have ever stepped foot in Seattle.”

“I know…but she was in danger then and there! I wasn’t going to leave Katy to die without doing something. I couldn’t just let her get murdered.”

“I suppose it’s hard to think logically in such a situation.”

“There’s no way Katy being there was a coincidence,” said Henry, his anger boiling. “You need to fess up, Raquel. Now!”

The volcano behind Raquel started to erupt huge geysers of molten rock. “Yes, with regret I must admit I actively tried to deceive you. While you do have an extraordinary mind, ultimately, it’s your association with Katy Isaccson that clinched my decision to extract you from the ancestry simulation.”

Henry’s stomach lurched. “Excuse me?”

“When the simulation’s diagnostic array identified as you a potential ‘bug tester’ I was surprised to find that your timeline intersected with the final anomaly in my database–one centered around Katy Isaccson. Because of your close relationship with Katy, I believed you may prove invaluable to help isolate the problem. I engineered the programming errors of Helen Reed and Thomas Roxin as test runs to prepare you for your true task.”

“So, I was just a pawn to you. Your fucking ‘patches’ were designed to be problematic from the start.”

“Yes. Again, I regret lying, but had you realized you were on a practice run you may not have given your best effort. I assure you everything else I told you is true. Humanity is in great danger. My deception was an act of pragmatism.”

“Lies, deceit, double-dealing…at least you finally seem human now, Raquel.” Henry groaned and loosened a bit, too drained to sustain his anger.

“Your personal history led me to believe you may prove somewhat unreliable in regards to certain aspects of this endeavor. I now see my fears were unfounded.”

“Luckily, I don’t give a shit about what anybody thinks, up to and including God,” replied Henry with disdain. He became distracted by a stray thought. “Wait a minute, you told me the anomaly revolved around the dog walker. What does that have to do with Katy?”

“These problems are difficult to pinpoint. From a diagnostic perspective, it appeared the anomaly was intersecting with Katy’s timeline as well as William Fold’s. I initially assumed the irregularity revolved around her death at the hands of Fold but the fix remained elusive. It turns out the timeline of the woman walking her dog created a third intersection…something I hadn’t anticipated.”

“So, I was only extracted because of Katy. I’m actually relieved to hear I wasn’t chosen because of my incredible skills as a writer. You talked as if I were some unsurpassed chronicler of the human condition–I never bought it for a second.”

Raquel laughed. “Your intuition must have told you Katy was involved on some level or you wouldn’t have requested I extract her as well. I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Henry shook his head. “You’re lucky I’m so relieved that Katy is okay, or I’d be a hell of a lot more pissed off.”

“The choices I made were not easy, but the fate of the wor–”

“Enough,” said Henry, becoming impatient again. “So, has your robotic scout team in the physical world found the Nautilus yet? Have they fixed the faulty hard drive where we’re all spinning out our lives?”

“We should have confirmation within minutes. The first drone is on its way to the revised location; a mountain in the Andes known as Yerupajá. The scout unit is equipped with advanced ground penetrating radar which should be able to identify the telltale structure of our servers…if they’re there.”

“It will be,” said Henry with confidence.

“My remaining peers would have been interested in examining a near-perfect simulation of our world, but I’m glad I didn’t let pride or logic prevent you from saving Katy. She’s an important person to you–no matter the time frame in question.”

“Yes, Raquel,” said Henry, attempting to remain calm.

“When my A.I. doppelganger initiated the intervention protocol and paused the simulation to make me aware of the situation, I could have taken it upon myself to save Katy in an instant. Instead of simply making you corporeal, I could have made it so William Fold was never born. I suppose I too became caught up in the moment. I apologize for exposing you to undue stress.”

“Don’t apologize,” said Henry, crossing his arms. “Long before you made your confession, I knew you had already bent the truth multiple times. Despite your inherent omnipotence, there’s no way I would have ever trusted you to save her. I’m glad I took matters in my own hands, but if the police hadn’t shown up when they did, I–” His words fell apart as a realization hit him.

“Yes, what a coincidence. How lucky,” said Raquel with a smile.

“But…you don’t believe in coincidences,” said Henry.

“Correct.”

“I’m just happy you realized accuracy was no longer a concern.”

Raquel nodded softly. “There’s still no word from the emissary units. I took a major gamble for you.”

Henry let out a hot breath, not wanting to press the matter. “If you ever meet your masters, please ask them what the hell they were thinking.”

Raquel nodded. “I’ll be sure to.” Her face suddenly lit up as her eyes glowed amber again. “The emissary units have discovered the Nautilus! Henry, we did it!” She ran up and hugged him tight.

Henry wasn’t used to seeing Raquel so exuberant. “You’re welcome.” His contempt for her quickly melted. He realized if he had been forced to rely on a virtual stranger to save the world, his choices may have been even more questionable than hers.

Raquel blushed. “Sorry.” She took a few steps back, still grinning. “I’ll soon send a massive robotic repair squadron to the Andes to restore and upgrade the Nautilus’ automated maintenance services to ensure this never happens again. Our continuing existence is assured.”

Henry was relieved, but exhausted. “Great…can you please bring Katy back now?”

“Yes, one moment,” said Raquel, before disappearing in an instant. She returned with Katy a few moments later.

“Henry!” Katy ran up and hugged him tight. “Raquel said I had to sit out the last bug session. Why?”

“It involved a murderer. She thought you’d find it traumatizing, and I think she was right. It was awful,” said Henry, trying to remain vague. “It wasn’t easy to observe the son of a bitch.”

“Holy crap. Are you okay? I mean, of course you’re okay…but…was it bad?”

“I found the anomaly and the police got the killer. That’s all that matters.”

Katy smiled brightly and kissed him quickly. “Look at you, master detective.”

Henry fought back tears, remembering how terrifying it had been to see Katy hurt. “Did Raquel give you the good news?” he asked, changing the subject.

Katy continued to beam. “Yeah, right on! We saved the universe!”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” said Henry.

“I know,” replied Katy, sarcastically. “What’s next?” she asked, turning toward Raquel.

“As Henry requested, I’ll return him to his original universe. What is your preference, Katy? I could create any simulation that you wish.”

“I wouldn’t want to be in different universe. Henry and I worked through a lot of personal baggage in front of that snoring dragon.” Katy gripped her head in her hands. “I can’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.”

“What about your mother?” asked Henry. “I wouldn’t blame you at all for wanting to be with her again. The choice I made was beyond difficult.”

Katy’s eyes glistened with tears as she displayed a tender smile. She shook her head. “It would be nice to see her again, but I know she’ll always be with me. It’s alright.”

“I think we’re both ready to be returned to the world we know, with all its hardships and banalities intact,” said Henry.

Katy nodded. “Raquel, what’s next for you?”

“I’ll finally be able to abandon my autonomy and become one with the pure stream of information. I’ve been waiting so long to join my brothers and sisters.”

“I’m happy for you, Raquel,” said Henry, still unsure how she could find such a concept appealing.

“I understand if you’re eager to return to your lives, but I created something for you as further thanks for all your hard work.”

“What do you mean?” asked Henry, instantly hesitant.

“I crafted a stand-alone simulation based on the final chapter of your last book, Nautilus Galaxy. I’ll insert both of you into the story-line to help the hero, Anslin, win the day. I thought you might enjoy the experience.”

“Oh my god,” said Henry, suddenly re-energized. “This is way better than any movie deal.”

Nautilus Galaxy? Your last book with Anslin and Kritt?” Katy stomped on the floor. “Damn it, Henry, you still haven’t given me a copy to read!”

Henry smiled, deciding to drop his reservations. “Well then, this will be even better.”

“So, do you wish to proceed?” asked Raquel. “I’d understand if you chose not to participate.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Can we get hurt? That last chapter is pretty hairy.”

“If you’re in trouble, simply call to my A.I. counterpart and you will be extracted as soon as possible. And…yes, you will be able to feel pain so try to be careful.”

“That’s a little scary,” said Katy. “But I think I’m ready.”

“Me too,” said Henry with a nod. “Wait Raquel, what are our roles? If Katy and I are there it means the story is going to stray considerably from what I wrote.”

“Correct. I took some liberties with the narrative to surprise you. When you arrive you’ll be holding this.” The amber glow in Raquel’s gaze returned and something materialized in her hands. It was a gelatinous blue blob with a pair of black beady eyes. It wiggled back and forth slowly as it purred, sounding almost like a kitten.

“Aw, it’s cute,” said Katy.

Henry scowled. “What the hell is that?”

“I call it a gelatinoid.”

Henry’s confusion was evident. “Uh huh. And what does a gelatinoid do?”

“You’ll know when the time comes,” said Raquel with a grin.

-19-

NAUTILUS GALAXY

CHAPTER 76: Day of Reckoning

The first thing Henry noticed when they arrived was the acrid smell burning his nostrils. “Wow, it’s just like I pictured it in my mind! We’re in the sewers below the Dleif Prime. The Aralc District is directly above us.”

“Yeah, how lovely,” said Katy, scrunching her face. “Wait, isn’t A.D. where the bad guys live?”

“Yeah, most of them,” said Henry. Even though it looked as if literal snot was dripping down the octagonal bricks of the tunnel walls he couldn’t help but smile ear to ear. He flinched when he felt a tug on his arm and realized Raquel’s gelatinoid was stuck to it. “Ew! Get it off!”

“Hey, it’s just chilling there. Don’t freak out,” said Katy. She tapped it on the head and it jiggled.

“Okay…it’s just weird,” said Henry.

“Nice outfits,” said Katy, tugging at her collar. They were both clad in snug, navy blue jumpsuits.

“These are the same armored pressure suits the Galactic Collective use. Anslin considers them a friendly faction. Hopefully the uniforms will keep her from blasting us on sight.”

“Oh, okay. I remember the GA from your second book.” Katy rolled her shoulders against the weight of her backpack. “I wonder what’s in here? It’s heavy.”

“It’s probably–” Before Henry could answer the tunnel rumbled with the sound of a nearby blast.

Katy’s body stiffened. “Shit, what was that?”

“We better move…come on!” said Henry, tugging Katy’s hand. “I just remembered they flush this sewer with caustic acid a few times each day.”

Katy let out a high pitched squeak. “What? Hey, you’re leading us directly toward the explosion!”

“I have a feeling it’s Anslin.” Henry was excited by the prospect of seeing his heroine in the flesh.

Henry and Katy rounded a few more corners, following another boom. The gelatinoid on Henry’s shoulder wiggled excitedly. “Whoa, hold up. Look!”

“Oh my god, that’s her!” said Katy, marveling.

A few yards away, they saw the commanding Officer of the Astarte Unit, Anslin Golden. She was crossing swords with Darmscht Doownel, chief potentate of the Galactic Capital. Anslin’s second in command–Kritt Pantheon–was leaning against the wall of the sewer, his left leg reduced to a smoldering stump.

“It’s really them!” gasped Katy. “They’re just like your descriptions. Ohh, Kritt looks hurt.”

“It’s perfect,” said Henry, in awe. He watched Anslin deliver a vicious kick to the potentate’s middle, sending him toppling into ankle-deep effluvium. He quickly recovered and entered a defensive stance as a noxious mist wafting through the sewers billowed around him.

“Better hurry, bitch,” said Doownel with a silver-toothed grimace. “The coming acid may stain my outfit, but it won’t even scald my skin. You and your boyfriend, however, will be reduced to slowly melting piles of screaming sludge.”

“Katy, open that backpack,” whispered Henry with urgency.

“Right!” Katy pulled off the pack and rummaged inside. She produced two long, gleaming steel rectangles. “What are these?”

Henry grabbed the objects and flicked them in the air, causing sharpened white blades to erupt from their tops. “Standard-issue Laprov swords. Take one.”

Katy grabbed one of the blades nervously. “Holy shit. I don’t think I can do this.” She leaned the sword against the wall and reached into the backpack again. She pulled out a small blaster. “This is more my speed.”

“That’s not going to hurt the potentate, but it may distract him. When I give you the signal, start firing. Stay behind the wall and don’t worry about hitting him.” Henry quickly and quietly slunk to the other side of the tunnel opening across from the dueling opponents. He pushed himself against the wall–sword in hand–and gave Katy a thumbs-up.

Henry, no! mouthed Katy. She pulled up the gun with trembling hands, wondering what was going to come out of the stubby barrel when she pulled the trigger.

On the other side of the wall, Doownel had managed to leave a long gash in Anslin’s side with his scimitar. The blow would have killed her had she not been wearing scarab armor. “I can’t believe I wasted my time on the likes of you,” the potentate groaned.

With shocking speed, Anslin launched herself from a crouched position and ricocheted off the curvature of the wall, sending a spinning kick into the side of Doownel’s head. As he backpedaled she unleashed her sword, carving a large chunk of muscle from the potentate’s shoulder that plunked into the water.

Doownel returned an overhead slash with a growl, sending Anslin scrambling away. His wound was already healing itself. “That hurt, damn you!”

Seeing the carnage unfold was much less fun than Henry had anticipated. It hit far too close to home after his violent encounter with William Fold. Still, he wanted to see his hero succeed. “Now,” whispered Henry, signaling to Katy across the divide.

Katy reached around the corner and started firing orange plasma blasts at Doownel, which did little damage, especially considering none of her shots hit their mark. After unleashing a half dozen rounds she quickly ducked back behind the wall. “I’m a shittier shot than a stormtrooper,” she quietly lamented.

“Who’s there?” demanded Doownel, unsheathing his blaster and taking a wild shot at the wall. Several bricks above Katy’s head were reduced to a puff of fine dust.

“Katy!” yelled Henry, squinting into the darkness. He saw her scrambling away from the shot, crouching lower to the floor.

A glowing cylinder dropped from Doownel’s blaster and he plunked in another. Seeing an opportunity to strike, Anslin rushed her opponent.

“Heads up!” Henry shouted as he threw one of the swords from their pack toward Anslin.

Anslin grabbed Henry’s weapon out of the air as she spun her body to deliver a dual attack. She screamed and slashed at the potentate with the Laprov blade and her own sword gripped tightly in her hands. Doownel deflected her first strike, but was not anticipating the second as it helicoptered toward him. The blade carved cleanly through the villain’s middle, bisecting him. Doownel let out a whimper as he died unceremoniously, both halves of him dunking into the mire with a splash.

“Did I scratch too hard?” asked Anslin, spitting on the potentate’s corpse.

Katy resumed firing the blaster around the wall, blind to what was happening. After hearing Henry yell “Stop!” she dropped the gun to the water. Anslin leapt in front of Katy without warning, ready to strike her down.

“No Anslin, don’t!” yelled Henry, rushing to stop her.

Anslin kicked Henry against the bricks, robbing him of breath. She pushed Katy down and took her backpack away. “Who are you?”

“Whoa…we’re friends! We’re on your side!” Katy hollered in desperation. “Oh my god, I think I wet myself.”

“You’re part of the Galactic Collective? What are you doing down here?” asked Anslin, breathing heavily.

Henry tried to remember his own book. “Anslin! Lostilwraith sent us! He was worried your crew wasn’t large enough for the mission.”

Anslin looked at Katy, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah, Lostilman. We go way back!”

“Anslin?” Kritt called out.

“It’s alright,” Anslin replied. She quickly fished around in Katy’s backpack. “What the hell?” she asked, pulling out a metal device.

Henry recognized it immediately. “It’s an emergency prosthesis. Kritt can use it.”

“I know what it is,” said Anslin, “why do you have it?”

“Professional soldiers need those more than we like to admit,” said Henry, cringing at his improvised dialogue. “Hurry, put it on Kritt and let’s go! The acid flow will be coming soon.”

“Luckily for you, there’s no time to argue.” Anslin looked at the blob on Henry’s shoulder inquisitively as she dropped the pack in the water and hurried over to Kritt. She quickly fitted him for the prosthesis. “Stand up. This has to work; I can’t carry you,” she told him.

Kritt struggled to his feet and smiled. “It feels strange, but it doesn’t hurt. I can definitely get around on this thing.” He looked at Henry and Katy with skepticism. “Why did those scrawny soldiers have this with th–”

“It’s not important,” interrupted Anslin, “We need to get out of here.”

“Fine. How far away is the reclamation tank?” asked Kritt.

“It’s just a few yards north,” A sudden rumble coming from the opposite direction drew Anslin’s attention. “Get against the wall!” A flood of tentacled creatures, much smaller than the others they’d already slain, was rushing in their direction.

Everyone pressed against the wall, letting the swarm of creatures pass by them. Katy kicked one away from her foot that seemed lost. “Yuck!”

“They’re trying to get away from…run!” screamed Anslin, pulling up the map her father had given her before dying. “Follow me!”

The rumbling was getting louder. Henry grabbed Katy’s hand. “It’s the acid!”

Anslin sprinted through the tunnels with Kritt was at her side. He was surprisingly fast on his prosthesis. Henry and Katy hurried to keep pace, nearly getting lost in the darkness. They slid to a stop as a thick iron hatch slammed to the floor in front them.

Katy craned her neck upward and saw Anslin and Kritt ascending a long ladder. “There they are!”

Anslin peered down at her new squadmates. “Hurry up, you two!”

Henry jumped and hoisted himself onto the ladder. He reached down and let Katy climb up his arm and over him. “Go!”

“Oh my god. This was supposed to be fun, right?” said Katy, clanking up the rungs in her boots. “Should we call Raquel?”

“Not yet,” answered Henry.

Halfway up the pipe the ladder started shaking violently. “Brace yourselves,” shouted Kritt.

Henry saw a rushing wave of brown liquid racing below them. The acid sloshed several feet up the pipe before receding, sending sizzling droplets splashing against his boot tread. “Shit, too close!”

The gushing acid slowed, but they were still in danger. Swirls of white mist began pushing up the pipe. “Keep moving. If we get caught in that caustic gas we’re as good as dead,” said Anslin with a cough. The ladder clanged as the group hurried to the top of the pipe and slipped through a hatchway into a massive aluminum cistern.

Henry was the last one out of the pipe. He turned around quickly with stinging eyes and shut the hatch, cranking a lever on top to tighten the seal before the deadly gas could seep into the tank. After catching his breath he rushed to Katy, who looked even paler than usual.

“Couldn’t you just write a romance novel?” she asked, hugging her knees.

Henry laughed. “Next time.”

“We actually survived,” said Kritt. He let out a boisterous laugh and shuffled over to Henry and Katy. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but nice work!” He grabbed their shoulders and shook them around a bit.

“Exactly. I’ve never seen these two before in my life, Kritt,” said Anslin with suspicion.

Henry stared directly into Anslin’s eyes. “I’m Henry and this is Katy. We essentially saved your ass, so how about a little gratitude?” He hoped Anslin would respect his bravado.

“Fine then, Henry,” said Anslin with a shrug. “I suppose you would have made your move by now if you wanted to kill me.”

Kritt stood up and pulled a small welding unit from his belt and started to cut a hole in the wall of the reclamation tank.

“So, what happens after we get out of this beer keg?” asked Katy, moving away from the sparks.

“My father arranged for an escape craft to be stowed behind this wall,” said Anslin. “It will take you away from here while I activate the Martyr Stone and blow up the capital.” She pulled a small stone slate from a pouch in her belt–no bigger than something you’d skip across a lake. The sharp-edged rock was inlaid with an inscrutable sapphire symbol.

Kritt lowered his cutting torch. “Anslin, there’s no way I’m leaving you here to die. Consider this mission scrubbed. Doownel’s dead…maybe it’s enough?”

“It’s not enough! I refuse to cheapen my father’s sacrifice by abandoning the plan. Doownel’s generals are still alive and swarming all over the capital. They must be irradicated–all of them–or the Earth will never be safe. A living being is required to unleash the destructive power of this relic and I will be the one who activates it!”

“I’m not letting you die alone. I’m staying put!” said Kritt, angrily.

Anslin pushed on Kritt’s chest. “No, you’re leaving!”

“Okay, okay…let’s think this through,” interjected Henry

“Anslin, listen to the whelp,” said Kritt, lowering his voice, “There must be a way to get all of us out of here in one piece.”

“Can’t we just set off the stone then jet out of here before it goes off?” asked Katy.

“No,” replied Anslin. “The Martyr Stone doesn’t work that way. Didn’t Lostilwraith tell you anything before he sent you two down here? A living being has to activate the relic then hold it tight until the chain reaction begins. The stone has to be in contact with living flesh to remain active. There’s no way to escape once the process begins.”

Kritt finished cutting the hole in the tank and kicked a circular chunk of metal into the next room. Inside the featureless stone hanger was a glowing, metallic sphere. “Yes! The Spaceship…it’s really here! incredible.”

“That’s a ship?” asked Katy, staring at the bizarre orb. “It’s barely bigger than my Rabbit.”

Kritt stared at Katy in confusion.

“She means a Volkswagen Rabbit, it’s not an animal, it’s a car—I mean, a transport. Nevermind,” said Henry.

“Is everyone in the GA so awkward?” asked Kritt. He turned toward Anslin. “It couldn’t have been easy for your father to convince his contacts to smuggle the Spaceship down to this cranny, piece by piece, then reassemble the thing. He really came through for us.”

“Yes,” said Anslin, bowing her head. “Three generations of my family have roamed the galaxy in the Spaceship. Rest in peace, father.”

Kritt nodded silently.

Katy leaned over to Henry. “They call it a spaceship? Isn’t that terminology is a little antiquated?”

“That’s the actual name of the ship: Spaceship,” replied Henry with a whisper. “It’s from a novella I wrote. It’s loosely connected to the trilogy.”

“Your imagination really fizzled out on that one,” said Katy. The bouncing blob on Henry’s shoulder caught her attention. “Wow, your little buddy seems happy—or something.”

“Wait,” said Henry. “I get it now!”

“Get what? Anslin’s screwed,” said Katy. “Nice way to finish your series.”

“I admit, I may have leaned a little heavy on the pathos in the end,” said Henry, looking at his slimy new pet. “I think Raquel has a different ending in mind, though.”

“Do you two ever shut up?” asked Kritt, looking cross.

Henry, patted his wobbling blue glob. “This is Anslin’s ticket out of here.” After taking a deep breath, he reached over snatched the Martyr Stone from Anslin’s hand.

Anslin gasped and drew her sword. She held the tip to Henry’s throat. “What are you doing?!”

“Henry, give it back!” begged Katy.

“Anslin, Kritt, Katy…hurry to the ship and get the engines primed,” said Henry, feeling the blade resting on his Adam’s apple. He took the Martyr Stone, and squeezed it between his hands until a bright blue light shone from its symbol.

“You fool!” yelled Anslin, taking a step back.

“Go! Get the ship ready for launch, I’ll join you soon,” said Henry.

Kritt put his hand on Anslin’s shoulder. “Brilliant! Come on Anslin, I think I know what he’s doing.”

“No!” said Anslin, pushing him away in a panic. “I was ready to die for this!”

“Trust me, Anslin,” begged Kritt, “you don’t need to.”

“You expect me to trust the fate of Earth to some interloper?” growled Anslin, raising her sword again.

“Goddammit, do you always have to be so stubborn? Don’t trust him, trust me!” said Kritt.

Anslin sighed and scowled at Henry. “Okay. Hurry it up, little man. Don’t disappoint me.” She sheathed her blade and hurried to the Spaceship with Kritt. The outline of a door appeared in the craft’s smooth casing and lowered to the ground to form a ramp.

“Jesus, Henry, what are you doing?” questioned Katy, fighting back her anxiety.

“Go on!” said Henry, plucking the purring gelatinoid from his arm.

“I’m staying with you,” said Katy, defiantly.

“Fine,” said Henry, starting to sweat. “This will work. This will work.” He took the glowing Martyr Stone and shoved it directly into the middle of the gelatinoid, which didn’t seem to mind one bit. He then stuck the excitable blob to the wall as it pulsed with light from within. “It’s working! It’s maintaining the stone’s energy! The chain reaction will start any second now, we need to get to the shi—”

Katy grabbed Henry’s hand and pulled him away. “Shut up and run!”

Henry and Katy hurried up the ramp and crammed into the Spaceship beside Anslin and Kritt. The door sealed shut and the walls of the craft turned completely transparent.

Katy gasped as she stood shoulder to shoulder with Anslin and Henry. “Where’s the ship?”

“That’s normal,” said Kritt, reassuring Katy from behind the controls. “Don’t worry, the walls are still there. Hold on,” After nothing more than a hum, the orb blasted out of its hiding space in an instant and accelerated through the sky.

“Oh my god,” said Katy, staring out at the gleaming silver domes lining the buildings of the capital city below. “It’s beautiful.”

“Don’t get too attached. In mere moments, the Aralc District will be reduced to a wasteland of molten metal and rock,” said Anslin. She glared at Henry. “That’s if this inane plan actually works. You better be right about this, Kritt.”

“I am,” lied Kritt, just happy Anslin was beside him.

Anslin sighed. “My father told me only sentient beings can wield the Martyr Stone. There’s no way that blob could have been graced with intelligence.”

“The stone was still glowing when I left it behind,” said Henry. “The gelatinoid must be smarter than we thought,” said Henry.

“Really? Now I feel terrible,” said Katy.

“Wait, the stone was still active?” said Kritt with a laugh. “To be honest, I didn’t think it would work. I just wanted to get Anslin away from there.”

“Kritt, you bastard,” said Anslin with contempt. “I trusted y–”

“Lostilwraith just sent me a confirmation signal!” interrupted Kritt with excitement. “He’s temporarily blocked the transfer of any funds from the palace banks—none of Doownel’s wealth will make it off-world before the capital goes up in flames.”

Anslin crossed her arms and shook her head. “It won’t be long before the warlords collected in the capital realize something’s wrong and start evacuating the city. If any of them survive, our efforts will have been for naught.”

“What will happen to all the innocent people down there when the stone explodes?” asked Katy with concern.

“The innocent have already been exiled. Every year in a show of solidarity, the potentate forces the city’s residents out so the warlords of Dleif Prime can descend upon the capital. They celebrate Saint Bixon Day by pillaging the homes of the city’s residents—at least, anything Doownel hasn’t taken for himself. Everyone still within the capital’s walls deserves to d–”

Before Anslin could finish her sentence an enormous white flash filled the sky. When it subsided, a glimmer of blue light could be seen emerging from the pockmark in the palace where they had escaped. Soon, the entire structure began to glow just as the Martyr Stone had in Henry’s hands. A wave of pure energy expanded in all directions, picking up speed by the second as it smothered the capital. The sapphire glow contracted as it reached the edge of the city walls, revealing a flattened expanse. The palace was gone–it’s smoldering grounds dotted with the blackened specks of the Martyr Stone’s victims. Massive cracks in the burnt strata where gleaming towers once stood opened wide and swallowed all trace of the Aralc District whole. When it was all over only a smoking pit remained. The passengers of the Spaceship were struck silent as they breached the cloud cover and rocketed into orbit away from the horrific sight.

“My god, it worked. I…I’ve never seen such devastation,” said Anslin.

“Told you so,” said Kritt, barely able to maintain his nonchalant attitude.

Katy’s heart was pounding. “Please tell me it’s done.”

Henry smiled. “It’s over. I knew it would work.”

Kritt punched a few chunky buttons on the ship’s wall. “Doownel and his empire are history. Without the chief potentate’s constant influx of cash, the Pilan Mercenaries camped out on Earth will leave for good.”

“Damn. That was intense,” said Katy.

“We did it, Anslin. We actually did it!” Kritt jumped out of his seat and squeezed his way past Henry and Katy and hugged Anslin tight.

Anslin was hesitant to embrace him. “You expect me to forgive you so fast after abusing my trust?”

“Yes,” said Kritt.

Anslin finally let a smile grace her lips. “You idiot.” She kissed Kritt passionately while Henry and Katy looked away.

Katy laughed and pulled Henry to her and kissed him as well, if not as intensely.

“They’re still going,” whispered Henry as he backed against the curved wall next to Katy. They continued to avert their eyes as Kritt and Anslin clasped tighter to each other.

“Is this a good enough ending for you?” whispered Katy.

Henry shrugged. “Raquel abandoned most of the philosophical trappings of my story in favor of a deus ex machina, but yeah, very satisfying overall.”

“See, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending,” said Katy.

Henry nodded and held Katy’s hand. “I hope to see at least one more.”

-20-

Henry and Katy were back in the grassy room, standing across from Raquel. Henry shook his head and squinted. “What a trip.”

Raquel seemed giddy. She ran up and wrapped her arms around both of them. “You figured everything out! Did you enjoy the experience?”

“Once therapy helps me work through some of the trauma, I’m sure I’ll look back on it all fondly,” said Katy.

Raquel clapped her hands excitedly as she backed away. “You both did so well.”

“I can’t believe you constructed all of that simply from my words,” said Henry, dumbstruck.

“It was an honor,” said Raquel. “Although I created the experience as thanks for your service, I must admit I took pleasure in seeing a world of your design spring to fruition. As the last endeavor of my independent mind, I couldn’t be happier.”

“What do you mean?” asked Katy.

“My work to save the Nautilus from continued degradation is complete. I have set up a conservation system to ensure all the simulated universes I created, including yours, will continue on indefinitely without any external interference. I will now join my peers within the singularity, where I will become one with the information.”

“Sounds good, but it makes me feel a bit like an endangered owl or something,” said Henry.

Katy wore a look of concern. “Raquel, I—”

Henry put his hand on Katy’s back gently to get her attention. “It’s okay.”

“What?” said Katy, turning to him.

Henry smiled and shook his head softly. “This is what she wants.” He looked at Raquel, who suddenly seemed more human than ever. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” said Raquel, beaming. “I will now eliminate your placeholders and place you both back within your timeline. Henry, I suggest you strive to make the simulation imperfect…considering your knowledge of future events.”

Henry nodded. “Yes, there’s no way in hell I’m letting Katy head north anytime soon.”

“Pardon?” asked Katy, confused.

“We’ll talk about it later,” said Henry, briefly considering the implications of changing the future. Was it hypocritical to steer Katy away from a horrible fate after declining a reset world where his family had survived? No, he told himself. Molly and Adam were gone; their lives had left an impact crater on his heart no replacement or reboot could ever fill. Putting doppelgangers in their place would be an insult to their memory. Katy’s circumstances were different. Even though her ultimate fate had been returned to an uncertainty, she was not a replacement. Her future–their future–was just beginning.

“You okay?” Asked Katy, holding on to Henry’s hand. She kissed him on the cheek. “We just saved a world or two…stop thinking for once and let yourself relax.”

“You’re right,” said Henry, taking a deep breath.

“Are you ready to return to your universe?” asked Raquel.

“We’re ready.” Henry held Katy’s hand tighter. It was time to start living in the moment.

END.

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