io9 is proud to current fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. As soon as a month, we characteristic a narrative from Lightspeed’s present concern. This month’s choice is “Crystalline” by Daniel H. Wilson. You’ll be able to learn the story under or listen to the podcast on Lightspeed’s web site. Get pleasure from!
“Who loves you?” I ask.
My daughter appears away. Doesn’t reply. I lean down and switch her to face me, resting my thumb within the dimple in her chin. It’s the identical dimple her mom has. Or had.
“You like me, Daddy.”
“That’s proper, so please hear intently,” I say. She’s solely 9, however Anya’s eyes are flat and black and arduous to learn within the dim mild of the cave. “Solely you may make our household complete once more.”
“However. Final time. I noticed . . .”
“I do know. I do know what you noticed,” I converse over her. “That was an accident, honey. Daddy considered a foul factor. However you’re a lot sweeter than Daddy. You’ll solely consider good issues.”
The injuries throughout the again of my thighs are nonetheless weeping pus. The factor we noticed—it shouldn’t exist. Not in her world. Solely in my nightmares.
My daughter is shaking now, enamel chattering. Silent tears forge dirty streams down her cheeks. She is making an attempt so arduous to make herself cease. She cups a tiny hand over her mouth, as if she will power the sobs again inside. Her eyes are locked on mine, whereas I patiently smile again.
“It’ll be okay,” I reassure her. “Daddy can’t go close to the crystal. It does dangerous issues when adults are close to. However you are able to do it. Anya. Hearken to me now. I would like you to place your hand on the crystal and consider your mommy. Discover the mommy who’s essentially the most like your mommy. Pull her from one of many different locations.”
“How will I do know?”
I look round on the slick partitions of the cavern. The stays of our campsite are scattered round us in shambles. Our shiny crimson tent is collapsed like a deflated lung. 4 ragged traces rend the superior cloth.
I woke from a nightmare to the stench of rotten meat. The factor was perched on my chest, bristling with stiff hair and skittering on sharp legs—a vicious insect the scale of a soccer ball. This time, I used to be prepared with my hatchet. However I wasn’t ready in any respect for its eyes. They had been human eyes. It fucking had human eyes and once I killed it, they had been crying actual tears—
Past the sliced gaps of the tent, I see my daughter’s pink camouflage sleeping bag.
I push down the recollections of final evening and attain into the tent, pawing round till I really feel mushy fur. It’s her favourite stuffed animal. A present for her first birthday. I purchased it on the Frankfurt airport on my approach residence from a battle zone. I named it Nestor, after the previous Argonaut who gave such sage recommendation.
Being a toddler, Anya took to calling it “Nester.” And that naivety is what I’m relying on. A thoughts so younger and stuffed with fairy mud and sunshine. Dreaming about bunnies who nest.
No evil ideas. Nothing to worry from the crystalline depths.
I firmly press the bunny in opposition to my daughter’s chest. Wrap her chilly, clammy fingers round its mushy neck. Each our arms are swollen and sore from the bone-numbing chill down right here. We don’t have a lot time.
I raise the bunny up in opposition to her snot-streaked higher lip.
“Maintain onto Nestor,” I say. “Scent him. He smells like Mommy, doesn’t he?”
“Whenever you contact the crystal, shut your eyes. And if you odor this odor, focus. Convey mommy again to us. Then we’ll be a household once more. Okay?”
“Good. It’s time to go.”
Anya doesn’t transfer.
I wrap her up in a decent hug, feeling her delicate ribs beneath a torn, muddy jacket. The infantile owl-shaped headlamp perched on her brow spears two fingers of sunshine into the cavern. Her breath plumes like automobile exhaust on a chilly morning.
“Go,” I urge. “Now. Don’t make me depend to 3.”
It must be this manner, I inform myself. Anya is the one certainly one of us who can do that.
Rainbow boots scuffing arduous rock, she takes a number of steps. And some extra. I cross my arms and watch my daughter’s faint type disappear into the darkness. She’s received the stuffed bunny in a chokehold beneath one elbow. As I lose sight of her, I can nonetheless hear her breath shuddering out and in.
• • • •
The entire thing was presupposed to be a trip. My work in personal safety takes me all around the world. Nice cash, unique areas, however lengthy stretches of time away from residence. My spouse Hannah wasn’t blissful. Anya hardly acknowledged me.
Between jobs, I organized a household tenting journey.
We reside within the Pacific Northwest, so naturally—it rained. I set us out strolling by way of damp woods, stomping over glistening ferns in a cathedral of towering Douglas firs. We stopped for the evening at a liminal elevation the place mist enveloped the snaggled mossy branches only a hundred yards up the slope. Hannah informed me the woods felt magical.
I laughed and shook my head, moist and depressing.
Through the evening, I woke to a far-off, titanic groaning because the damp earth shifted beneath us. Our tent moved a number of inches. No person else stirred. And the following day, it was there—the yawning, mossy mouth of a cave. A thousand tons of moist, mushy dust had displaced, ripping a gap within the hillside earlier than us. The opening was fabricated from flat, naked rock. Like a welcome mat.
I pulled on my headlamp. I solely meant to peek inside.
“Wow,” mentioned Hannah. We stood collectively within the opening, smelling the earthy air seeping from the depths of the cavern. I strained my ears, pondering I may hear a whooshing from inside. However the place I anticipated sound, solely a dense silence pressed in, seeming to compress my ideas right into a sluggish stupor.
I took my spouse and daughter by the arms and pulled them inside.
“We don’t have the correct footwear for this,” mentioned Hannah. “It might be unstable. Anya is just too little.”
All the same old complaints stopped after we seen the glimmer.
“Is that mild in there?” she requested.
“Perhaps there’s one other opening?” I prompt.
“How? It goes straight into the hillside.”
Hannah frowned and refused to maintain going. So, I picked up Anya and put her on my hip, strolling towards the sunshine. The glare of my headlamp threw tortured shadows from jagged rock partitions. I seen then that the cave ground was warped beneath our toes. As if it had been turned molten after which cooled. Odd.
“Mama?” my daughter referred to as.
Shadows leapt as Hannah’s headlamp clicked on behind me. I heard her footsteps echoing as she rushed to catch up. However by then I used to be already too near the factor. The pulling had already begun.
“Are these footprints?” I requested, setting my daughter down so I may kneel and examine marks on the ground.
“Jesus, I hope not,” mentioned Hannah. “What may make a print like that? And in stable rock?”
I splayed my fingers and pushed my palm in opposition to cool stone, my total hand effectively throughout the define of a paw-shaped indentation. There have been seven digits, and deep gouges on the tip of every. Claw factors.
The glow was brighter forward, dimming and rising.
“I wish to return,” mentioned Anya.
“Hush,” I mentioned, turning to Hannah. “Prove your mild.”
“Simply do it!”
My shout echoed in dizzying reverberations. The sunshine silently clicked out. I reached up and turned mine off as effectively.
Hannah’s eyes adjusted first. She made a sound like a damage animal, murmuring in awe at the great thing about the factor. I noticed her hips silhouetted by the crystalline phosphorescence, canted, one arm round our daughter’s shoulder.
“Don’t contact it,” she whispered. “It’s been right here for tens of millions of years. We don’t wish to disturb it.”
The crystal was there, seen now beneath its personal mild.
It rose from the middle of the room, forming a pure pedestal of its personal. The construction was oddly symmetric, nearly man-made. The highest of it shaped a pale, milky sphere. However not fairly a real sphere.
I don’t keep in mind strolling nearer.
As I leaned over it, I noticed the crystal was fabricated from so many sides. Every flat airplane drew the attention in, resolving into reeling billions of smaller sides, all rising up and seeming to swirl collectively in my imaginative and prescient. It felt like falling right into a fractal—some type of pure locus level between all of every little thing.
So many sides. Just like the glint of sunshine from a wasp’s eye, I assumed.
“Oh my god,” I breathed.
Contained in the sides, I assumed I noticed one thing shifting. Not my very own reflection, however the vagaries of my creativeness. I blinked my eyes clear and bore witness to an infinite variety of reflections of my very own face, blinking again.
Besides none of them had been me precisely.
A few of the faces had been type, others had been merciless. Some had been scarred, hideous, and others ethereally lovely. I noticed these males wrapped in weird applied sciences and deformities, horrors and desires, wracked with illness and dripping with gold and gem stones. And one way or the other, I knew with absolute certainty that they had been all me. All of us of us had been the very same man, expressed by way of completely different worlds.
The crystal was a conduit. It was a nexus level for all of the variations of our actuality that had ever been. All these wondrous potentialities had been lurking on the market past a cloudy veil. And at that thought, a thrill of uncooked adrenaline raced by way of me. This might be essentially the most helpful artifact ever found. My curiosity and worry collapsed collectively right into a type of giddy greed—a determined must safe this object, to make it mine and defend it from others.
Think about, in these sides like a wasp’s eyes, existed each invention and expertise ever created within the infinite potentialities of time and area—within the historical past of a billion worlds. It was like a treasure chest. I laid my arms on the graceful platinum column and leaned my physique over it.
I may really feel a uninteresting strain rising behind my eyes. A tickle behind my thoughts. And that’s how I made my first pull.
I couldn’t have identified then, what I do know now.
The crystal exists in all of the worlds and should have because the starting of time. It’s an previous factor and drained. And it acknowledged me—all of me. The factor can see inside your head. It is aware of each molecule of what you’re. Each determination you ever made or didn’t make. It is aware of every little thing that roots you to this actuality.
However the factor it particularly is aware of is what you worry.
It’s why I can’t return. My thoughts has gone bitter, one way or the other. Too many duties have been laid on me. Too many worries. Even my spouse—essentially the most optimistic and affected person girl I’ve ever met. Even a mom together with her valuable daughter standing at her facet.
Even Hannah discovered the satan within the rock.
• • • •
“Anya? Are you in there? All the pieces okay?” I name.
The echoes of my voice bounce away into distorted reflections. I’m fairly certain I’m protected at this distance. However my eyes dart to the shadows anyway. It’s not unattainable that I may pull one thing from right here. One thing with spidery legs and flaking scales and human eyes leaking tears from the struggling of no matter hell-world it got here from.
I hear murmuring from deeper contained in the cave. The high-pitched, bird-like sounds of my daughter. A decrease, extra guttural baritone.
“Anya!” I shout this time. “Who’re you speaking to?”
Silence radiates again from the darkness.
“No person, Daddy,” says the skinny voice of a bit of lady. “The crystal is so fairly. I see a lot within it.”
The warmth of anger washes over me. She’s over there enjoying with it. As if the factor was simply one other toy.
“Hurry,” I say, placing on my dad-voice. “Don’t let daddy down. I’m relying on you. Mommy is relying on you.”
“Okay, Daddy,” she says.
I’m betting it’s solely the kids who don’t pull their fears. It’s the purity of their minds. All these shiny expectations for a world of shit that’s certain to disappoint them. It hasn’t but, however as an grownup I do know it would. Generally rapidly, typically a bit of bit at a time for many years. It’s at all times a disappointment in the long run.
However for now, Anya pulls desires as a substitute of nightmares.
“Assume blissful ideas.”
• • • •
Wasp’s eye. Wasps. That should have been what brought on it.
It wasn’t my fault. I simply didn’t perceive the way it labored.
All of the sudden, there was a flash of a shade I couldn’t fairly title. Perhaps it was a putrid violet, a brain-marbled grey, an infinite black that was brighter than a photo voltaic flare. A wasp’s eye. And similar to that—the wasp-that-wasn’t-a-wasp got here out of that eye-searing abyss. Lengthy, multi-jointed claws tentatively clicked in opposition to the stone ground, gaining confidence as a veined proboscis unfolded like a switchblade knife, twitching obscenely in anticipation of the blood it sensed coursing by way of our heat our bodies.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
I backed away from chitinous claws on rock. Earlier than I may shout, it was on Hannah’s face, plunging itself into the mushy flesh beneath her throat. She staggered, arms spasming, utilizing her final second to shove our daughter away to security.
Hannah didn’t even cowl her face or claw on the buzzing insect. As an alternative, she desperately saved the particular person she beloved most on this planet.
I turned to run and felt one thing heavy latch onto my thigh. Anya had wrapped her arms across the trunk of my leg. Shuffling away in numb horror, I couldn’t even really feel her weight.
Later, I couldn’t assist questioning what world the wasp-thing had come from. The best way its legs match completely into the divots of my spouse’s collar bones was too handy. It was as if it had been designed for that objective. Prefer it was hand-made to decapitate human beings, rapidly and effectively, feeding on arterial blood to gasoline its grisly job.
I felt a thrumming behind me and turned to see it perched on Hannah’s physique, iridescent wings prolonged and fluttering because it ready to take flight. And from under I heard Anya shout.
No, she screamed. No.
An orb of blinding mild streaked from the crystal. And when my imaginative and prescient returned, each my spouse and the wasp-thing had been gone. Ash flakes danced by way of sizzling air that reeked of ozone. The crystal nonetheless glowed with primal energy. The orb had been a weapon. A thunderbolt from one other world.
Anya had pulled it. She’d killed the monster.
It occurred to me that my daughter was sturdy. She might be a strong device. All due to her candy, infantile thoughts. An grownup has too many insecurities, too many worries to ever contact the crystal. The issues we conjure from the void. Horrible issues.
Solely now did I perceive my little lady was a golden key to limitless wealth, expertise, and even folks—something I may dream of. However first, we would want one factor.
• • • •
Anya tentatively emerges again into the cavern, taking small steps. There’s a girl holding her hand. I really feel my face flush heat with reduction on the sight of her.
Hannah. My spouse’s proper arm is draped over little Anya’s shoulder nearly by intuition. However this model of Hannah is cautious. She strikes slowly. I see a strand of grey hair my very own Hannah by no means had. However the swell of her chest appears the identical. My eyes hint the contours of her vast hips and I smile till my lips crack.
“You probably did it, child. You introduced Mama residence to me . . .”
After which I glimpse it within the darkness behind my daughter. One other determine, vague in shadow. A frown settles onto my face. A few of the worlds have fallen to plagues—illnesses that flip folks into strolling corpses. In others, I glimpsed tortured wolf-people, surgically modified for savage blood sports activities.
The factor is my dimension. One other monstrosity. And now I’ll need to kill it.
“Anya. Come over right here proper now.”
A flicker of disappointment darts throughout her forehead. Her decrease lip trembles. And my daughter turns to search for at her mom, uncertain.
“Hurry, now,” I insist. “Daddy will defend you.”
I unfold my arms for my child lady. Clench my enamel in what I hope is a reassuring smile. Movement for her to come back ahead.
Anya fixes a chilly stare on me.
“There he’s, Daddy,” she says, to the shadows. “That’s the person who damage me and Mama.”
“What?” I ask. “Who’re you speaking—”
Chilly pinpricks of gooseflesh erupt alongside the backs of my arms and over my shoulders. The determine behind my daughter is sporting the identical coat as me. Holding the identical hatchet. And his face is like wanting right into a mirror.
It’s one other expression of me. From a world I’ll by no means know.
The person steps previous my daughter, hatchet blade gleaming. When he bares his enamel at me, I see the scarlet ridge of a scar snaking down his cheek. I’m wondering what horrible issues he has finished in no matter world he got here from.
I’m wondering what horrible issues he’ll do in ours.
“Don’t fear, honey,” the person says with my voice, leveling these acquainted eyes on me as he raises the hatchet. “Daddy will care for the dangerous man.”
In regards to the Creator
Daniel H. Wilson is a Cherokee citizen and writer of the New York Instances bestselling Robopocalypse and its sequel Robogenesis, in addition to Guardian Angels & Different Monsters, The Clockwork Dynasty, and Amped. He earned a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon College, in addition to Masters levels in Machine Studying and Robotics. His newest novel is a licensed stand-alone sequel to Michael Crichton’s traditional The Andromeda Pressure, referred to as The Andromeda Evolution. Wilson lives in Portland, Oregon.
Please go to LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to learn extra nice science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared within the March 2023 concern, which additionally options work by Aimee Ogden, Oyedotun Damilola Muees, Beth Goder, Megan Chee, Peter Watts, Benjamin Peek, Samantha Murray, and extra. You’ll be able to look ahead to this month’s contents to be serialized on-line, or you should buy the entire concern proper now in handy e-book format for simply $3.99, or subscribe to the e-book version by way of the hyperlink under.
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