Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Diminished Returns

by Steve Evans





"Bastard."

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 breastplate.

"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 end."

"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 only."

"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 helmet's speakers.

"String saturation…100%."

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 polarity.

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 past.

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 reality.

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 panicked instincts.

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: permeate.

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 like sharks.

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.

"Eureka!"

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 attack stalled.

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 sooner.

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 stone.

"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 this confrontation.

"Omnia, are the automatic replenishing systems active?"

"Yes."

"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 happened.

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.

20 meters.

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 down.

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 and knees.

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 goal.

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 higher parapets.

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 waters.

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 looking at.

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 crowding in.

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.

Identical signatures.

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 stringent competition.

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.


THE END


© 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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