Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
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by Roderick D. Turner

I wake with a start, senses on full alert. A taste in the air, coating in my throat that clogs and chokes, sulfur odor like the aftermath of fireworks. The room so still I can almost hear my own heart thumping, except--there, a voice I think, a ghost of whispered sound. A siren moans, seeming to echo off the walls around me, yet so distant it feels more dreamlike than real, but the sweat sticking me to the sheets is all too immediate, the chill clamminess of my palms oozing fear into the damp humidity of the summer night. I force a slow, shuddering breath. Jut an elbow towards the sleeping form beside me.

"Raj." I shape the word on my lips, but my throat remains silent. Nudge him again.

"What is it?" His voice thick with sleep. Raj rolls towards me. In the vague moonlight, I see him raise one eyelid, a gesture only. He is still dreaming.

"Something--in the air." Choking on the words. I cough, gasp for a good breath.

He rolls up onto his elbow, rubs bleary eyes. "Caro, don't do this to me. I need the sleep tonight."

I take stock of myself; swallow the foul tang in the air once more. "I know," I croak. "But something's wrong." I reach out a hand, tentatively grip his arm.

"Jesus, you're soaked!" he says. Now he's sitting, scanning the room, taking it in. "You sick, Caro?" He's watching me now, reaches up and puts his palm across my forehead. "I don't feel a fever."

There it is again, the spectral siren, resonating off the walls. "Did you hear that?"

"Maybe I should take you to the hospital," he says. "All I hear is the traffic over on Richardson."

"--into tactical position. I think we have them cornered. Cover the rear exit. We're almost on them, and they're desp--"

Phased in, then out again, like tuning through a radio channel. The words are loud and clear enough to have come from Raj himself, but Raj is still looking at me with worry on his face. "There's someone in the house," I whisper.

Raj keeps a cricket bat by his bedside table, and he's very slick once mobilized. Standing beside the bed in his underwear, silhouetted against the moonlit sheers covering the window, he is formidable. He raises his hand palm out. "Stay still. Stay quiet."

"Raj, it's not what you--"

"Just do it." He moves catlike towards the door, bat slung behind ready for an upward thrust. Opens the door silently, and is gone into the darkness of the hall.

"--keep getting weird static, like someone's on the channel. Watch your backs. OK, We're in position. Launching second wave no--"

There is a screeching roar right beside my bed, and I dive and roll the other way. Smell of oiled metal, hot, and acrid. A sudden loud explosion, close enough to shake the floor. Smoke all round me, the sulfur odor overpowering. Almost, I scream. Then the automatics take over, and I do what I know best. React, the training ingrained. Scuttle to the nearest cover. Assess.

The bedroom, my home, is gone. I am in a corridor, very wide, perhaps a warehouse or a factory. Machinery whines in the background, a continuous muted roar, an ululating alarm sending tingles down my spine.

I am behind some kind of bulkhead, a giant duct protruding from the wall. At my back, pitch darkness. The air is thick and barely breathable, burning my skin and throat, and I know I will not last long without breathing apparatus and some body protection. Since the underwear is doing me no good where it is I tear it off, hold it across my mouth to protect my lungs. Nude, I crouch and watch as two armored figures trot into the gloom ahead, brandishing weapons, occasional flashes of blue light preceding them. Keeping low, I follow.

There are doors of a kind along the corridor, like those in a ship, giant metal structures with heavy bolt-covered seams, as if designed to hold back pressure. No visible handles, and I cannot stop to investigate. My only hope of survival is ahead, where the figures are, but I am not suicidal enough to just rush forward and say hello. A naked woman springing from nowhere in this place might cause almost any kind of unpredictable reaction. A bullet in the head not the least likely.

Periodic flashing near-infrared lights, bleeding some energy into the visible, dot the entire passage, lending a faint eerie glow to the scene. From a cross passage ahead two more figures appear, garbed similarly to the others. The four mutter briefly, scan quickly in all directions, my precautions of staying back paying off. Then two position themselves against the walls in my corridor, looking away from me. The others continue their sweep ahead, leaving the rearguard in place. This is my chance. Over the continuous clamor, they cannot hear me coming. I stick to the left wall, bent near double as I rush forward the way I have been trained. See that these men are indeed armored, in protective metal suits. The odds not in my favor, then, as usual.

I time my attack for a moment that my opponent leans forward to peer round into the side corridor, slide in and sweep his legs back, completing the move sliding under his falling body to put him between me and my remaining opponent. My victim drops his weapon as he reaches armored hands out to break his fall, too late, the impact on his helmet enough to at least temporarily stun him, and now, the gun raised, I find a trigger and fire. Brilliant blue light sears outwards across the passage, the other figure too slow to respond, slumping almost immediately down against the wall.

I turn the weapon towards my first target, wait for him to start moving. Give him a good rap against the back of the helmet with the butt of the gun, just so he knows I'm there. "Keep your face to the floor," I say, the underwear muffling my words. "Where am I?"

"How the hell did you get behind us?" He sounds more surprised than scared.

"I'm asking the questions. Tell me where we are."

"Baldran Station. Space dock. In orbit."

For a moment my head spins, the world zooming out then back in, reforming, and a place I've never been before. The constant dull burning on my skin suddenly flares into a wave of gut-wrenching agony. I grunt with pain as I writhe, suppressing it, willing it back to manageable levels. My existence has just taken on a new direction, and it hurts. When I truly look again, my opponent is looking back at me, still on the ground under threat from my gun.

"Like what you see?" I say.

"Who the hell are you?" More awe in his voice this time than surprise. Maybe also, now, a little fear.

"A minute ago I might have told you Caroline Buckingham. Special task force, covert ops. Now, God knows who I am."

"But you're not wearing a suit. How can you survive in this air? Are you--human?"

"You tell me, buddy," I say. Poke the gun against his helmet, step back again. "What I can tell you is I could really use one of those suits myself about now, this nude operation is not what I signed up for. So are you giving me any more information, or am I shooting you?"

"Shoot me like you did Hannah, and you destroy the suit, and me. I can show you where there's more. Just let me up."

"Doesn't sound like a good idea," I say. Wincing, as another wave of agony threatens to force me into unconsciousness. My breath is coming in short gasps, my lungs on fire in spite of the bikini. "But in the circumstance, I'll take the chance."

When he's on his feet he towers over me, a good twenty centimeters, and I stand one eighty five. I wave the gun towards his fallen companion. "Tell me about this. Before it goes off again."

He begins walking along the side corridor, at a good pace. Past the partly melted frame of Hannah, both armor and body charred where I hit it. "Jesus," I say.

"Yeah. We didn't want to have to ask questions. Any Militia coming at us would've done the same."

"The gun?"

"Molecular beam," he says. "Like firing a high-powered electron microscope. Along with high-energy photons. Together, they penetrate almost anything for a short depth, vaporize what they hit, and char everything around it."

"And your opponents have these too?"

"Some better stuff as well. Armor immobilizers. Lasers tuned specifically for human flesh. Microwave beams that cook the meat off your bones."

"Holy crap," I say. I'm beginning to really feel ready to pass out.

"You don't sound so good--Caroline." The big guy half turns, reaches. "Here, let me--"

"Back off!" I fire a short burst past his head, watch the scar form on the ceiling. "Just get me a suit, or we're both dead."

"The next hatch on the right," he says. Moving fast, he sweeps his hand across the wall and the entire metal door structure vanishes. Then he dives through the door, and I know the drill. With major effort I vault into the space where the door was, roll clear into the room and regain my feet, gun trained, before he can grab another weapon off the wall rack.

"Lady, whoever you are," he says, "--or whatever you are, we need you. On our side." He gestures towards a closed locker on the floor. "Suit up. It's time we joined the party."

The locker slowly opens as he speaks, revealing several bundles of clothing, with small helmets to go with them. "What the hell are those?"

"Best I can do. Grab a suit and a helmet. Hang the suit O ring around your neck and it'll self-fit. Then the helmet auto seals on top. I'd tell you I won't look, but hell I already saw the best part."

I give him a grim smile, and then follow directions. The suit must carry some kind of built-in medical diagnostic. As soon as I have the helmet on it purges the poisonous air, then pumps something in that soothes the fire in my lungs. A tingling over my entire body tells me my skin will feel much better in a moment as well. "What's your name?" I ask.

"Holyfield. Reginald. Second Lieutenant."

"In what outfit?"

"SDA. Space Defense Agency."

"And the Militia?"

"We're not sure. Not human, that's all we know, but they're screwing around with--sorry, screwing around with some really dangerous stuff and they suddenly appeared on this Station, out of nowhere. No ship, nothing. Took the security teams completely by surprise, and we came in to try to evict them. We're in a bit of a standoff."

"So how do I fit in?"

"Something they did must have targeted you, pulled you in here. Sorry to involve you. We try to keep this stuff pretty much under wraps."

"Trouble is, Reginald."

"Reggie," he says.

"Reggie, then. Where I come from, I have pretty good clearance. In fact, I know everything the top levels of military know, and there is no SDA. Not on Earth in 2063."

Reggie looks at me through his helmet, and I can see his eyes go round. "Damn," he says.


"Let's start with the year. It's 2063 all right, but SDA was started in 2045 by the United Planetary Defense Coalition. Everyone knows about it."

"Not where I come from we don't."

"You thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Lateral shift," I say. "Some kind of breach in the space-time continuum. Or a parallel reality." I laugh, glad to be able to breathe again. "Or I'm having some kind of really scary hallucination."

"We better get into the action, we need all the help we can get. Last I heard on the jammer before you clocked me one and shut it down--the Militia were making a break for it out the rear. We didn't have enough men to seal it really well."

"There's one other thing that should be worrying both of us."

"I was afraid of that."

"If they can pull me out of an alternate reality, or whatever the hell they did, then they can put one of their agents back in my place." My thoughts are suddenly with Raj, standing in the darkness with nothing to defend himself but a cricket bat. "And am I the only test case? Why would they not do this a number of times? Send agents into a whole series of different timelines, and leave the victims, like me, stranded up here. With you."

* * *

When we reach the rest of the assault team, my worst fears are realized. There are no Militia on the Station. Instead, there are fifteen other people, seemingly randomly chosen. Three are dead, shot by the SDA before they realize they are not Militia. A complete sweep of the Station reveals that most of the crew are dead. Microwaved, as Reggie puts it. The survivors fled in lifeboats and can tell us nothing of the Militia attack, other than the horror of hearing screams as the others died.

Reggie's commander, Captain Chalmers, decides I am too good a resource not to use, and he has no better staff to investigate the background of the other exchange victims. All are from the same year, so we are not talking time travel, but each presents a different history of the past thirty to fifty years. We are all from lines of parallel existence, and now our lines are being scouted by the Militia.

Every day now, I enter UPDC headquarters in Genevia where I work trying to decipher the remnants of an alien relay we found on Baldran Station. It is the key to the Breach technology, I am certain.

Each day I come expecting to hear of a renewed invasion from the Militia. Reggie can never forget that first day we met, and we see each other often, but he is not Raj. He tells me there are still occasional encounters on remote planetary stations, but nothing else. All has been quiet for three years. I know the day will come, eventually, when I have a chance to meet one of the Militia face to face, and then, we will see.

For I know their smell. I sensed it in a bedroom long ago, in another world which once was mine, but which I have lost forever, and I will not be forgiving when I meet them again.


2014 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: In his own words, "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Seepage in July 2014. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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