by Steve Evans
Adam Blake smiled. "Rock beats scissors, bro. I don't make the
rules." His voice was clear, the helmet's visor not yet locked into the
"Just follow those rules to the letter," Mike Manel instructed. "I
know you'll be tempted as hell to play with everything this thing can
do, but this first trip is only a test of the enmeshment system. We
know all the inanimate matter we sent through came back, and all the
bunnies in their sterile cages came back just as cute as ever, but if
anything as complicated as a human being is going to make it, the Omnia
is the only thing that can slave to the Slingshot and not leave us
trapped in a box once we're through. Just because you're carrying an
entire lab on your back doesn't mean you should use it."
"I got it, Mike," Adam replied.
Mike chose not to hear him. "Stay put, keep a low profile, and don't do anything."
Adam adopted the false features of someone deeply insulted.
"Stuff it," Mike said. "We both know that if this works there's
nothing you're going to want to do more than collect samples for carbon
dating or hog-tie some poor Coelurosaur and haul it back here. The last
thing we need is for you to butterfly-effect the hell out of us on this
"I know, Mike. I've got it. Stay put in the trees, leave the bells and whistles to test on another run."
"I mean it, Adam. Everything is riding on this. Everything we have,
and ten times more, is invested in this thing. If we screw it up, we're
done, and... everything else that means."
Mike's expression softened. Adam did his best to push thoughts of his daughter aside.
"We're one step away from making all this worth it," Mike continued.
"From having it all. Enough for you to get Sarah everything she needs,
but that doesn't mean we aren't still playing with fire. I know you
have every reason to push things, but promise me. Passive analysis
"Mike." Adam's voice was smooth and sincere. "I won't jeopardize
this for either of us. Constant video feed, automatic sensors, and
that's it. I promise."
Mike accepted his word with a sigh. "Okay, the Slingshot's energy matrix is set for just sixty seconds. We've enmeshed the Omnia
and String-Generator, so once you go through, the homeostatic principle
will pull you back on its own after the minute's up. We could get hit
by a nuclear blast while you're gone and the suit will still yank you
back into the middle of it. So don't destroy the Jurassic, and I'll do
my best to make sure the building is still here waiting for you."
"It's a deal. So you ready to prove just how genius we are?"
"I can't think of any more reasons to stall."
They shook, and Mike retreated to his place in the control room
overlooking the matrix floor. Adam took up his own position inside the
shell of the String-Generator. After today, they would go public with
everything, and Temportal Industries would be on the map,
planting its flag in a big way. No more leaving his wife at home to
watch his five-year-old suffer alone. No more impotence at having
neither the money nor clout to push medical science into figuring out
what was killing his little girl. Today would be the first day of the
rest of his princess' better life.
The suspended cradle arms of the String-Generator began to hum and
spin, small threads of radiance emerging from contact points as the
intricacies of string theory itself were manipulated to harness the
folds of time within the energy of light. As the Generator spun,
increasing its speed at an exponential rate, the light-strings began to
fold around Adam's suit, the designed interaction imparting an almost
physical quality to the luminous threads. Seconds later, blinded behind
the durable airtight visor, the simulated voice chimed through the
Holding his breath, incapable of suppressing the smile broadening
his face, Dr. Adam Blake stepped forward against an invisible pull--
--and into the light of an alien time.
The cloying semi-immaterial strings of temporal radiance were gone,
leaving only the blinding sunlight of an era lost over a hundred
million years to Earth's past. Adam squinted as his visor adjusted its
Turning in a circle, he confirmed the matrix floor was nowhere to be
seen. Beginning a narration for the record, he had the presence of mind
to ensure all the cameras and sensors were recording.
He was surrounded by mountainous trees. His fingers twitched with
the impulse to scrape off a sample of exotic bark from the massive
conifers, but he heard Mike's voice in his head and settled for simply
staring at the majestic beauty of it, keeping true to his promise.
Meticulously stepping around prolific collections of fungi, he
worked his way to a clearing, allowing himself a view of the wider
A water basin pooled a couple kilometers to the east. Sending
cameras back to track prehistoric astrological progressions, they knew
enough only to pinpoint their destination to within a millennium or
two. It was possible--even probable--that in the years past or to come,
the watering hole would be (or had been) substantial enough to leave
the evidence in their time suggesting a larger body of water than what
he saw here.
Looking up to the eastern sky, Adam almost wished for a nightscape
so he could establish more precise chronological placement. What he saw
instead was still incredible; the ancient proximity of a daytime moon
almost three times the size the human mind had ever known. Looking back
to the watering hole, he reveled in the incredible proliferation of
extinct life gathered there. In his periphery, a section of his
heads-up display indicated he was only thirty seconds from retraction.
Adam checked the digital readout on his forearm. He noted that the
sensors identified atmospheric compatibility. Appropriate oxygen,
carbon dioxide, and nitrogen levels. No surplus of sulfur or ozone. No
trace of airborne bacteriological presence the filters couldn't handle.
The last thing they wanted was to bring some hundred-million-year-old
virus back to the present and set off a modern-day pandemic.
But that was why the atmospheric sensors on this thing were so damned sensitive. If the Omnia said the air was safe, it was. He could at least experience this one aspect of a new scientific frontier.
With a grin, Adam reached up and breached the seal of his visor,
lifting it with a hiss of atmospheric decontainment. He breathed
deeply--just once--for the same reason men and women had planted flags
at the North Pole, left boot prints on the moon, placed plaques at the
peak of Everest, and laid tracers at the bottom of the Mariana Trench:
simply because they had made it there.
Resealing his visor with satisfaction, Adam looked to his countdown. I'm coming, Sarah.
He felt a pull at his chest and across his shoulders, the sense of
resistance building as it swiftly approached its terminus. Feeling the
backwards pull of a million centuries, knowing that this trip to the
past had changed his future in all the ways that mattered, Adam watched
his readout count back to zero. He was yanked forward through time--
--into a world he didn't recognize.
The matrix floor was gone. No walls surrounded him. In fact, as far
as he could see, no buildings existed at all. Stepping back, attempting
to turn and survey a wider area, Adam's booted foot slid and he almost
went down. Catching himself, he looked and saw that he was standing
upon a field of some kind of...sludge. There was no grass anywhere to
be seen, just a fine layer of spongy, gelatinous glop.
"What the hell?"
Bending over, he pinched the stuff between a gloved thumb and
forefinger, bringing it up for a closer view. It was slimy and
lubricating, but also strangely fixative. The color was something
unquantifiable, a metallic shade of deep red.
With his mind focused on color, Adam realized something else for the first time since the Slingshot brought him...here. The sky was wrong. Very
wrong. Charcoal gray clouds floated low across a sickly purple
backdrop. With his eidetic memory, Adam didn't think a word existed for
the color hanging over his head.
He began searching his surroundings with a frenetic desperation. Nothing was as it should be; nothing was even as it could be. With a complete lack of understanding, he searched for anything that made any kind of sense.
That's when he noticed the eyes.
Maybe fifty feet away, a set of dimly luminescent eyes pierced him
through the interlaced screen of some thorn-work briar patch. Two feet
off the ground, Adam saw the gaze joined by others as he blinked the
image into closer focus on his heads-up display.
It was an animal that didn't exist. Propped upon two frontal
appendages, the creatures stared at him with an obvious predatory
hunger. Their mouths cracked in a malignant smile full of multiple rows
of serrated teeth.
Unnerved, forgetting these things were not as close as the enhanced
image suggested, Adam startled from his crouch and jerked back. To a
predator, anything that fled declared itself prey. His impulsive
retreat was all the incentive the creatures needed.
They literally dove into action, propelling themselves out of the
alien thicket onto broad undercarriages, gliding through the gelatinous
moss like sharks through water. As Adam hesitated, he realized just how
much the creatures resembled sharks on the move. Powerful appendages
like caudal fins propelled the things through the slick moss. The
side-to-side oscillations called all-too-vividly to mind the graceful
aggression of the ocean marauders, and at last, it was enough to break
him from his scientific fascination and haze of confusion.
Turning to run, he only nearly avoided a slip that would have ended
the flight before it began. Regaining his footing, he found a
precarious equilibrium between the lubricating and cloying features of
the substance, but knew that even without the slimy surface his best
speed would be significantly hindered by the suit alone.
Adam noted tree-like structures peppering the area. Looking more
like giant leafless bushes, they only further highlighted the alien
strangeness of this place. Bizarre, football-sized bugs resembling
something like huge beetles populated the things, and with revulsion he
decided those trees were nothing he was willing to trust his life too.
Acutely regretting a lifetime of sedentary scientific pursuits, he
ran on, striving to keep his breath. Suddenly, one of the landsharks
pulled even to him on his right, not two feet away, "swimming" with
ease across the surface of the moss. A second later another swam up to
his left, pinching him in a coordinated flanking maneuver that was as
elegant as it was terrifying.
In his mind's eye, he saw another of the creatures surging behind
him to take him down, and with a primal scream, he flailed an arm and
found a vent valve on his suit. Gaseous compound hissed from multiple
pressure seals, startling the creatures and sending them scattering.
In their retreat, two of the creatures slammed against the trunk of
one of the alien trees, shaking loose many of the perched beetle-like
things..., which didn't survive long. The frenzy only further called to
mind the chaos of shark-infested chummed waters. The landsharks
immediately abandoned the chase in exchange for easier prey, more than
one turning on its brothers in the competition for the free meal. Adam
wasted no time continuing his own retreat.
What the hell was going on?
There was no way he was still in the past. Nothing in any of his
three doctorates or in all of known science left room in the
undiscovered past for holes in the paleontological record big enough to
cover what he was seeing here. Besides, simply the nature of the laws
of gravity, light, physics, and the conservation of energy made it an
impossibility for the Slingshot to return him anywhere other than his
temporal point of origin. It would be like pulling the steel bearing of
a Newton's Cradle back forty-five degrees and getting a ninety degree
reaction on the other end, or no reaction at all. The only option left
was that he had, somehow, been thrown chronologically sideways.
He and Mike had always treated this idea as an amusing fiction. Both
of them had been convinced that any parallel realities--if they even
existed in the first place--would be completely inaccessible by the
means with which they planned to manipulate space-time.
But stuck under a sick-purple sky, running across an alien
gelatinous moss, presented with giant flying beetles and accosted by
some kind of non-existent landshark, Adam had to acknowledge facts.
Somehow, he had been kicked sideways into some parallel temporal
Still running, he turned to verify that he was still alone. The
landsharks farther and farther behind remained interested in their meal
under the strange flesh-colored tree. Relieved, he slowed to a brisk
walk, breathing hard across his visor and struggling to reign in his
He had to get back home. Without the success of Temportal Industries,
his little girl would get none of the things she desperately needed,
and there was no way Adam would let that happen. There was no way in
hell he would let his baby girl down.
He needed time and a place to think.
There was no reason to assume differences would exist between
natural geological conditions in his reality and this one. So he began
to process how he could use the natural environs around Temportal Industries
back home. Almost immediately, he had an idea. Less than a mile to the
east of their warehouse was an expansive limestone quarry. If
significant limestone deposits existed equally in this reality,
unmolested and unexcavated, then the nature of the rock would do what
limestone always did when subjected to the ravages of time and nature:
There would be caves.
Adam wasn't likely to find a more ideal position to rig defenses and
study his situation. Immediately, he started to the east at as quick a
walk as he could manage. It didn't take long for him to again feel the
effects of an overly academic lifestyle. Sweat quickly began trickling
from his hairline, and instinctually he reached up to wipe it away,
only to smack himself in the faceplate with the glove of his suit. As
the sweat invaded his vision, his eyes began to burn, and the prismatic
effect only served to make the purpled sky that much more unnerving.
He tried to blink the sweat from his eyes, only to prompt his visor
to confuse the act as inaccurate commands. Shaking his head forcefully
back and forth, he settled for only minimal success.
Plodding his way at a pace burdened by both the suit and the moss,
trying to reset his HUD after the inadvertent confusing commands, his
visor suddenly alerted him to something in his periphery.
He cursed himself for his shortsightedness. He'd come maybe a
quarter of a mile, far enough from the original pack of landsharks that
they were no longer a threat, but this was a wild and unknown
landscape. What kind of scientist was he that he had assumed he need
only worry about one dangerous pack of predators?
On both sides, maybe thirty feet off, he was being paced by two
divisions of yet another school of landsharks. About five or six to
each cluster, with distinctly different coloration, they were gradually
inching in, closing the gap in the same well-coordinated pincer tactic
the others had used before. Terrified, he still couldn't help but
marvel at the similarities in strategy to the leading theories about
how many smaller whales and sharks hunted together. The only problem
was that this time it was him guest-starring in the role of dinner.
The things truly resembled what he imagined might happen to certain
sharks along an evolutionary process that took them from the water
millions of years back. So, with no other options, he would treat them
He thought through his inventory. Along with all the elements that
made up the Omnia's circulatory, power, and respiratory systems was all
the gear that made the thing functional as a highly sophisticated
portable lab. Adam had a modest supply of many common chemicals used
for various scientific processes.
Starting to run again, he blinked a command into the display in his
visor, simultaneously reaching back to produce the tubing that led to
an internal catch basin. When his HUD acknowledged the command to ready
his ammonia store, he further blinked orders to have it pressurized. If
these things were in any way related to the sharks he knew, then they
would share an exceptionally sensitive sense of smell.
Rapidly cannibalizing a nozzle from one of the sterilization tanks,
Adam cut away at the tubing in order to make the nozzle fit. By the
time the Omnia signaled full pressurization, Adam had the
nozzle attached to the tubing about as well as he ever would. He closed
his eyes, took a deep breath, and sprayed at the encroaching landsharks
with a liberal dose of NH3.
The reaction was immediate. The landsharks thrashed, fleeing back to
a distance that gave him a moderate buffer, but still keeping pace. Two
of the things were caught directly in the spray, and began keening in
an unearthly wail that made Adam's eyes water even through the
insulation of his helmet.
As the ammonia hit the gelatinous moss, the stuff immediately
withered, drying up on contact. The two landsharks caught in the
reaction floundered like the fish out of water they so seemed to be.
Their vestigial-adapted fins appeared to be no use whatsoever in the
absence of the organic ground cover.
As he ran on, the suit grew even heavier and more cumbersome. Even
with the hydraulic assists, Adam's renewed flight was proving to be a
clumsy thing. These predators were bold. Continuing to flank him, the
remaining landsharks of the two groups almost immediately moved in
again, leaving their impaired shiver-mates behind.
Impulsively he squeezed off another spray towards the group on his
right, but the pressure only carried the liquid ten feet. Startled they
skittered back, but less surprised this time the tactic in no way
deterred them. Looking to his left, he saw the other half of the pack
had taken advantage of his distraction by stealing closer. They now
swam though the moss a mere twenty feet away.
"Stupid!" he cursed into the confines of his helmet. He was a genius
twice over who knew what these creatures were doing, and still he had
fallen for it. Panting loudly, the sound filling the small space, he
tried to think. Any reaction to a group on either side would only offer
an advantage to the other. He had to act smarter.
Afraid to divide his focus, he nonetheless commanded his HUD to zoom
in on the horizon ahead, relegating the picture to the upper left of
the screen. Up ahead, the land rose in what appeared to be a rocky hill
honeycombed with dark patches that could be little else but caves
carved by years of weathering and erosion.
As the landsharks crept nearer, he tried to blink the command for a
distance layout and stumbled in the process. As his footing threatened
to give way the landsharks surged, but he recovered and sprayed a
panicked spew of ammonia in a full arc from left to right and the
It was too much. Running for his life and thinking through the blink
commands was just too much to handle all at once. He ordered the Omnia
over to voice command, another thing he should have thought to do much
He wasn't playing to his strengths. There was no way he was going to
outrun wild predators, a fact that the growing stitch in his side and
constant medical readouts reinforced with each passing second, but he
could stop reacting like some defenseless, panicked animal and use the
tools at his disposal.
Taking advantage of the grace period provided by the assault of his
improvised chemical sprayer, he took a few hitching breaths and
gathered himself as best he could. His destination wasn't that far. He
only had to make it to the caves. Chances were that these landsharks
wouldn't be able to pursue him once the viscous ground gave way to
"Omnia, overlay distance to target highlighted on-screen," he
commanded. Immediately numbers superimposed themselves over the image
of his destination. 569 meters. 568. 567. The math came quickly
to him, conversions taking place automatically in his head. Just over a
third of a mile. He could do that. He could make it.
He pictured the small oval on the treadmill gathering dust in his basement. Less than two laps, he
thought, refusing to picture what the display always had to say about
how much time elapsed for each trip around that imaginary track.
Forcing calm, Adam began methodically spraying bursts to his sides,
first to his right, then to his left, falling into a rhythm as he went.
He transitioned quickly, scattering each group like a swarm of flies
before turning his stream to the other side, back and forth, to prevent
either group from taking advantage of his divided attention.
It was working! He was holding the two groups at bay about twenty feet out, pacing him but never getting closer. 350 meters. 325.
Suddenly two of the landsharks on his right peeled away from the
group and circled back. Needing to know what they were up to, Adam
risked a turn to watch. His steady pattern of spray was evident in the
path behind him, with lines painted in dead, withering liquid-moss to
both sides like highway dividers. At even intervals, where he had
sprayed to the opposite side, smooth patches of the healthy moss
remained. The two circling landsharks effortlessly eased between
patches of his dotted defense, directly into his wake.
"Damn," Adam offered aloud.
Once behind, the two started coming up fast.
"Goddammit!" he offered again. Talking to his suit he said,
"New target." He locked the image of the two landsharks to his rear.
"Calculate time to intercept."
A countdown popped up to the right of his HUD. The new number was
just shy of thirty seconds. To his left the entire group of four
continued to pace him, and to his right three of the things remained to
keep him in check. Their hungry jaws full of teeth looked to be
smiling, as if they knew he now realized the inevitable conclusion to
"Omnia, are the automatic replenishing systems active?"
"Thank God!" When he made it out of this and got back home, he was
going kiss Mike right on top of that bald head of his. With the
automatic replenishing systems active, the Omnia's programming
had begun manufacturing new ammonia from the stripped bonds and base
materials of molecules drawn in through the intake filters as soon as
he started expending his supply.
"Pressurize storage to twenty percent and vent containment," he ordered.
Immediately ammonia sprayed from the back of the suit's housing,
dousing the moss behind him and spreading the effect like the wake from
a passing boat. Adam heard a keening from behind, and he turned to see
both landsharks thrashing in the withered bio-gel.
The group to his left made their move. Frantically, he reoriented
his makeshift spray and saturated the group as they closed to less than
five feet. The blast caught them up short, but Adam already knew what
was coming next.
Dismissing the immobilized predators on his left, he jerked to his
right to see the remaining members of the shiver coming fast.
Panicking, he squeezed the lever, watching as absolutely nothing
The process of disassembling and reassembling molecules took time.
In a split second, in his two-pronged defense, he had vented his entire
supply of NH3. Ahead, the limestone sanctuary stood only forty meters
away. The three landsharks to his right came on.
Adam had emptied his bag of tricks one trick too early.
The final three aggressors assumed a V formation. Sensing it was now
or never, they poured on speed in a vicious head-long assault.
He wasn't going to make it.
At the last second, the lead landshark juked to its right, just
three feet short of him, cutting directly across his path. Completely
unprepared for the ruse, Adam tripped, losing his stride and going
He did his best to twist and take the fall on his back, but the bulk
of the suit prevented him from performing a full turn. Instead, he
landed across his left side, his momentum enough to carry him almost
ten meters through the sludge.
Skidding to a stop, he planted his left arm and hefted himself the
rest of the way onto his back. There was enough time to see the two
free landsharks cut to either side to attack from his flanks. He was
within fifteen meters of the safety offered by the rocky terrain. With
no time to think, he kicked out at the landshark to his right, aiming
for what he could only hope would be an overly-sensitive snout.
Adjusting high to accommodate the gaping maw, he connected and was
relieved to see a spout of blood spray from the thing.
To his left, the other flanking landshark bit down, locking him in a
vice-grip of serrated teeth between hip and knee. As it worked to gain
purchase, Adam fought his panic as he scooted backward on his left
elbow, beating futility at the top of the thing's head with his right
fist. Sensing what he was trying to do, the landshark stopped its
attempts to shake him senseless, and Adam felt an insistent pressure as
the thing tried to pull him away from the rocky refuge.
As the landshark responsible for tripping him turned to join in the
fight, Adam abandoned his assault against the thick hide of the
creature locking him in its jaws, and instead kicked out savagely again
and again at the bleeding muzzle of the first wounded landshark. The
spray of blood redoubled, and the injured animal backed off to escape
his unexpected ferocity.
As hoped, when the lead landshark entered the fray, the fresh blood
was a siren song the predator couldn't ignore. All bonds of pack-hood
abandoned, the monster turned on its mate and went cannibal on its
wounded brother. As it bit into the side of the creature, blood and
meat poured forth, offering a temptation too much for the third and
final predator's instincts. Releasing its grip on Adam's leg, it too
joined the process of turning its brother into breakfast.
Suddenly free, Adam crab-walked backward as fast as the suit would
allow, scrambling desperately for purchase until he looked to see ten
feet of rock between him and the edge of the organic slime. The two
healthy landsharks barely noticed his escape as they fought over the
vestiges of their former equal.
Standing slowly on shaky legs, Adam studied himself.
His leg was a mess of mangled components and seeping liquids. The
metal shell of his molested thigh was shorn away. Wires and insulation
lay exposed, and in many places fluids bled out onto the exterior alloy
of the Omnia. The only good news was that the suit didn't
appear to have been breached all the way through. For the moment,
structural integrity remained intact.
Running a diagnostic, Adam discovered the fluid escaping from his
shorn suit was Liquid Nitrogen. Liquid Nitrogen was an integral
component of the Omnia's coolant system, not only to help regulate body temperature, but also to cool built-in components. Adam instructed the Omnia
to shut down the circulation of LN2, and watched as the seepage slowed
and then tapered completely off. Looking to his forearm display, he
tapped a simple command and called up the temperature outside his suit:
97°F. He was about to get a little warm.
In his reality, the limestone quarry had been an extensive one,
highly excavated and expanding to include more than six hundred acres,
but now, here, Adam saw a naked land free from human
exploitation. Limestone rose and fell off to the distance, in places
seeming to tower three stories or more. Walking about ten feet, he came
to an incline sharp enough to force him to scrabble a little on hands
As he climbed, he noticed porous apertures peppering the rock,
ranging in size from golf balls to grapefruit. The orifices seemed odd
to him, but he dismissed his curiosity. He had no idea what kind of
impact the climate or weather might have in this place, and guessing
after them wasn't his highest priority.
Then he saw it; a natural cave, elevated almost fifteen feet from
the gelatinous moss below. Pulling a chemical flare from a drop pouch,
he broke its seal and tossed it inside. Readying himself for the
startled attack of some new terrifying creature, he relaxed slightly as
he saw the cave was entirely empty. Only about ten feet deep, the flare
was enough to cast light into each corner of the cave. He crept
cautiously in and saw no droppings or bones, nothing that would
indicate this space was a den to anything.
Adam already had in mind the few tests most likely to indicate what
had gone wrong with the Slingshot, but he decided a little
fortification had to come first. Careful to avoid breaching the
interior integrity of his suit, Adam extracted the now-useless casing
for the Liquid Nitrogen piping in his mangled left leg. Realizing it
wouldn't be enough, he carefully cut out the tubing from the right leg
as well. Laying it in front of him, eyeing the modest opening of his
grotto, he decided the supply should be sufficient.
Detaching the canister of LN2, he went to work using it as a tool to
hammer at the metallic tubes laid out in the entrance to the cave. With
effort, the comparatively soft limestone proved forgiving enough to
accept the tubing, and after about twenty minutes, Adam had encircled
the entire mouth of the miniature cavern with a continuous metal ring
pressed snuggly into the rock. Then, removing one of the portable
batteries, he stripped away the contacts and carefully connected the
exposed wiring to the metal of his new defensive perimeter. Immediately
the connection sparked, and the ring of alloy began conducting a charge
in a continuous circuit.
Stepping back, admiring his work, Adam for the first time felt
comfortable bending his attention to the core reality of his
predicament: how he had gotten here, and how to get back home.
He collected organic samples from the viscous moss coating his suit, called up records in the Omnia's
database of his own DNA for comparative analysis, and programmed the
uplink between the equipment and his suit to set the tests in motion.
He couldn't keep from flicking his eyes repeatedly to the entrance of
the cave to ensure he remained safe in his redoubt. Not once did he see
anything moving out there.
It caught him completely off guard, therefore, when he felt the vibrations of something grinding at the foot of his suit.
Startled, Adam jerked back and felt something crunch under his boot.
Looking down, he saw deep score marks in the metal of the Omnia's hull.
A scaly fear slithered into his nerves at the thought of what could be
strong enough to gouge through almost half the width of the reinforced
exoskeleton. Almost timidly lifting his foot to expose what was
beneath, he saw the first creature he was capable of identifying beyond
doubt since coming to this inverted reality.
It was an ant.
A big ant. The size of a small mouse, its carapace had been
crushed as Adam inadvertently stepped on it. Apart from its size, the
identical appearance to the anatomy of an ant was doubly remarkable in
this world where all traces of the familiar had been abolished. The
familiarity made him uncomfortable for reasons that teased at his
understanding, but remained out of reach.
Suddenly he was distracted by an alarm pinging through his suit. A diagram of the Omnia
automatically overlaid his HUD, and a small circle of blinking light
indicated a containment breach in the casing of one of the atmospheric
filters mounted on his back.
Panicked, Adam slammed into the limestone wall behind him, scraping
like a bear in the woods desperately scratching an elusive itch.
Turning, he saw a smear of black-red across the rock wall and a second
giant ant twitching in spasms on the cave floor. Reverting to instinct,
Adam spun in circles swatting at every accessible inch of his suit,
trying to ensure he was rid of all unwanted guests. It took a few
seconds to reassert control over himself.
He felt slightly ashamed. He had survived a trip through the fabric
of space-time, escaped mysterious predatory landsharks, maintained his
composure in a harsh and terrifying alien landscape that should instead
have been home, and then freaked out over a couple of ants. If he
didn't hold the scientific method so sacred, he might be tempted to
delete the last two minutes from the Omnia's video record.
Examining this newest defeated threat, Adam let loose an expletive
without even the faintest consideration for the record. He noticed a
clear liquid oozing in notable quantities from the once-bulbous
sections to the rear of the abdomens. Reviewing his memory, he saw
again in his mind's eye the hundreds of baseball-sized perforations in
the rock, looked to the oversized mandibles that had been capable of
chiseling into the suit's metal alloy, and lastly to the liquid
spilling out onto the rock floor of his grotto.
Adam knew how integral the use of pheromones was to ants.
Casting his glance about the cave, he stood in dumbstruck horror as
giant ants literally poured themselves out of rock-hewn tunnels. When
he had crushed the two exploratory ants, the act had been the
equivalent of setting off a pheromone bomb, a beacon to any members of
its family nearby.
It was apparently a big family.
The things came on fast, surging from their tunnels and spreading
out across the cave walls. As they emerged, the natural gray of the
stone turned black under a blanket of broadening life. Backing to the
center of the cave, Adam watched as the ants completely ignored his
equipment, instead somehow sensing that their target awaited them
inside the container he wore about himself. Astonished at how quickly
the diminutive giants had infiltrated his hideout, he looked to find
the space between him and the cave opening teaming with gnashing maws.
There was no way he could run through that line of defense without
picking up hitchhikers, all of which were apparently capable of chewing
through the Omnia like it was simply the wrapper to a
juicy-centered treat. Reaching out, Adam snatched the canister of LN2
he had used as a crude hammer. Tossing it into the throng between him
and the cave mouth, he relied on their aggression to accomplish his
Immediately they chewed through the metal sheath, releasing the LN2
in a blast of explosive decompression. Every ant in a five-foot radius
crystallized under a veneer of artificial ice, crunching and collapsing
in on itself. Adam was close enough that some of the chemical splashed
across his legs, and he felt a stinging pain where the landshark had
exposed the inner workings of his suit. Not pausing to think about it,
he made for what passed as daylight in this nightmarescape of a
reality, crushing flash-frozen ants underfoot.
Undeterred, the surviving ants gave chase. They followed at his
heels, along the walls, clinging to the stone canopy above; pouring
relentlessly from their apertures in an unstaunched flow. Reaching the
cave mouth, Adam hurtled over the electrified barrier. Once outside, he
turned and began scaling the modest slope of limestone in search of
Behind him, the leading edge of the swarm charged into the
electrified metal. The ants clinging to the walls and ceiling dropped
dead in piles, those on the ground spasming in their death throws
before collapsing as empty shells.
But the horde didn't relent, and ant upon ant sacrificed itself
until the critical mass was reached to provide a blanket of death to
travel upon. Adam scrabbled for purchase as he climbed ever higher. In
many places, it dropped off sharply to his left or right, forming deep
pits or ravines. A couple of times he was forced to brave almost a
sheer descent to his flank as he shimmied around ragged outcroppings or
navigated surface rock with no handholds. The entire time he could hear
the scuffling of hundreds if not thousands of rodent-sized ants, to the
nerve-racking cascade of loosened rock at his feet.
As he worked his way higher despite the increasing risks, Adam knew
the debris cascading in his wake was likely the only reason he hadn't
been overtaken already.
Suddenly he noticed a shift in the attack, as ants began seeping
from tunnel openings off to either side. A realization hit him that
should have been obvious much sooner: this entire deposit must be one
giant colony. His capacity for fear proved even more substantial,
pressing on him a tickling sense of teasing hopelessness. The image of
his daughter flashed before his eyes, and it flooded him with the steel
to keep moving.
Staying ahead of his pursuers by only the marginal length of a
shadow, he suddenly saw what he had feared most. Five meters ahead of
him, ants began spilling from a tunnel directly in his line of flight,
cutting him off.
Desperate and with no choice, Adam cast himself off an embankment to
the mercy of a steep slope of loose stone. Sliding the twenty feet to
where the pitch leveled off between hillocks, he jarred into the bottom
of the grade. Even through the suit, the jolt slammed through his legs
and knees. Looking down, he saw that a natural basin formed here
between two facing slopes, gathering a sizable collection of loose
gravel almost a foot thick. It was fine enough to embrace his footing,
each step an effort, as if he were trying to flee through shin-deep
Adam saw the ants coming on down the slope with much more grace than he ever could have managed.
Fighting his terror and wading on through the debris, Adam stepped
into gravel that suddenly gave way under his foot more so than before.
His leg sunk into the stone to his knee. When he pulled to free it,
nothing happened. He jerked his torso around, pivoting on his free leg
to steal a look behind. As he twisted he felt a metal twang, and an
alarm immediately rang out in his suit. He looked down to find that the
severely damaged thigh of his suit had torn through. The Omnia was breached.
The host of ants drew nearer, like a lemming swarm from his worst
nightmare. Turning back to his trapped leg, he wrenched violently,
twisting it and adding the force of his upper body as well.
Instead of releasing upward, his foot sank still further until he
was forced to drop to his other knee. He could feel his foot below
freed from its trap, dangling into the open air of some unknown space.
He watched as the gravel around his leg began to dimple. The dimple
became a depression, the depression a deepening pit, until Adam
realized he was little more than an ineffectual stopper at the
penultimate pinching point of a giant hourglass.
The gravel surrounding him rose briefly as gravity brought the flow
down upon him, burying him to the waste. Afraid to struggle for fear of
what lay beneath, he nevertheless planted his knee as firmly as he
could and pushed, hoping to liberate himself.
For a second he felt his leg rising, but then the flow of rock swept
his bracing arm out from him and he fell forward, twisting painfully at
his wedged hip. He heard a loud crack, and then freefall.
He landed hard along his side, rock raining down upon him. He turned his head, listening to the thunks and tinks of
large and small stones clinking off the metal casing of his helmet,
afraid of exposing his faceplate to the deluge. After a few seconds,
the downfall lightened and Adam pushed himself cautiously upright.
When he surveyed his surroundings, he was so surprised by his good
fortune he was almost tempted to laugh. Virtually all the pursuing ants
had been crushed under the force of the falling rock. A few of the
things still twitched here and there, but for the most part, he was
alone. Three unscathed ants came at him in the dimness, but the attack
was uncoordinated. He pounded each one in turn under a gloved fist.
He could see more at the top of the fissure he had fallen through,
circling but finding no stable way down to him. Dismissing them for the
moment, he triggered the spotlights mounted to his helmet and found
only one of them functional. Between the blade of illumination it
provided and the sick-purple daylight spilling down from above, he
could make out enough to see he was in some kind of pocket cavern
within the limestone deposit. It wasn't big, maybe ten-by-six feet,
dropping down from the gap above no more than fifteen feet. He'd been
extremely lucky; avoiding serious injury from the fall and taking no
further damage to his suit.
Another alert beeped through his helmet, and Adam jolted up,
throwing loose rubble in every direction before realizing it was only
the Omnia signaling the completion of the tests set in motion back in the cave. His suit was still slaved to the equipment.
Scrabbling, Adam propelled himself backwards until he felt the solid
outline of limestone against the metal at his back. Only then, with a
hundred and eighty degrees eliminated to threats, did he call up the
newly-available data...the information that would point the way home.
He stared, disbelieving.
Desperate and near hysteria, he ordered the data feedback to the beginning.
The bacteriological configuration of this place was beyond anything he could imagine possible. Über bacteria. This had to be the most pathogenic, infectious, virulent bacteria ever to exist anywhere.
It would take a hundred million years for the bacteria of his world to
evolve into anything close to the efficiently deadly machine he was
And it was everywhere. In everything.
Glancing down in a daze, he stared at the spot on his left thigh
where the integrity of his suit had failed. Without expression, he
turned to the only other result of his tests that mattered: the quantum
signature of this reality.
At the far end of the cavern, Adam's headlight caught movement.
Gathering at an opening on the opposite side, thousands of ants began
Seeing them fill the space with their numbers, Adam's light cut the
settling dust, which had until now concealed the nature of this place.
The floor was littered with the translucent remains of thousands of
eggs, crushed beneath the cascade of stone.
Adam coughed, and a faint film of blood painted the inside of his
visor, not quite covering the comparison of quantum signatures between
his world and this one.
Adam remembered his one breath of fresh air, a hundred million years
ago. He thought about the only life likely to survive such an invasion;
the one's most likely to resist and adapt to a bacteriological cache
with a thousand-millennium head start.
Sharks. Beetles. Ants. Adam could only imagine what other evolved horrors he might find in this world created by his ignorant pride.
He coughed again. More blood obscured his vision, but not enough to
mask the surge of oncoming ants. He had a moment's scientific curiosity
as to which would win the race--the super infection he had given a
hundred million years to evolve beyond his ability to cope, or the
angry warriors grown a hundred times their size in the vacuum of
A hysterical laugh finally escaped, laced with tears. As he
whispered his daughter's name, one last coherent thought occurred to
him. He could die knowing that his Slingshot had worked perfectly.
It had, after all, brought him back home.
© 2016 Steve Evans
Bio: A mental health therapist by trade, Steve Evans has written
numerous speculative short stories, most notably "'Lo Midnight," which
won Readers' Choice for best story in Frontier Tales Magazine, and a recent story, Turtled Dove in the March edition of Aphelion. He has also recently published his debut novel, Minutiae,
and has his second on the way. He has a beautiful and amazing wife, two
awesome kids, and loves the fact that society has evolved to the point
where it has become borderline cool to have grown up such a huge
dork. Feel free to like him on Facebook or check out his website.
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