Crater Command didn’t believe the lies Ryker had told. The problem lay in her dire conviction she’d been telling the truth.
Fifteen hours of stark, peak lumens lighting and probing, rhetorical barbs levelled at her by a parade of interrogators would not prove enough to break her resolve. It couldn’t be helped if what she’d told them happened to defy all logic. What she’d described evoked from lightless depths their innermost fears. The potential truth of it, along with the implied consequences of such things coming to pass, would go on to instil a simmering, terrible dread inside each and every one of her inquisitors.
What Ryker described started like any other mining occupation. She had been posted right at the heart of the Thanatos crater, a mere sixty odd miles from the nearest processing and refinement bureau. There, on this moon in the perpetual shadow of a long-dormant sun, Ryker — unlike the other ninety miners busy prospecting their own allotted quadrants — unearthed something capable of restructuring her once mundane, now indescribable worldview.
While coasting, she’d hit something that had somehow reduced her Duo-kilo-tonne digger to a halt. The unlikeliness of such a thing was enough to put her ill at ease. Suited and soon acclimated to the outside G-reduction, she shortly thereafter crumbled ashen terrain beneath her boots on approach to the anomalous stoppage.
As she approached the front of the humongous behemoth vehicle, strange haunting trails of prismatic light danced at the periphery of whatever lay beyond. These seemed to rest on some invisible gaseous substance. Impossible, she thought, for no gas could settle without a supporting stasis, here in the icy vacuum of space. Her breath grew belaboured. She gasped in terror at the liquefied tear in reality that had formed up ahead. Added to this, on the other side, she distinctly saw what she initially and mistakenly believed to be an apparition of herself. She also saw reflected every element of her surroundings in a bewildering overlay of macro and microscopic proportions.
No apparition, her other Self deviated, belaying her digger via some transmuting tether hoisted through the tear. As the grapnel attached itself to the digger’s nose, it danced with a fervour that Ryker’s memory would serve by conjuring up visions of fiery whips slung by massive horned demons in caverns of hellish light.
Ryker felt her Self drawn to herself. There was nothing she could do to stop the advance of one foot followed by the other.
At the cusp of this two-way window into the beyond, her alternate self also approached. It, for Ryker couldn’t bring herself to think of this thing as her, moved uncomfortably out of phase albeit in time with her own movements. The effect was dizzying as though looking into watery, vertiginous depths, at odds with supraliminal perception.
When her alternate raised its hand, reaching out across the border’s warp, Ryker couldn’t help but do the same. She itched all over as some unseeable voltaic frisson sparked in the space between.
On contact, Ryker was suddenly transported to the inner outlook of this being. She saw, for the first time in her own species’ lifespan, how the truly unfathomable turned out to be very, very real.
We are taxing you, Ryker’s ersatz said to her original self across the gap. Mouthless words worked their way beneath her skin as though she were this whispering alternate.
Ryker felt a split, perceiving through this other and vicariously via her original self.
She experienced what it feels like to recognise one’s place in the face of an impossibly vast endlessness. She felt she equally understood what it is to command such realities, even in the utter alienness of such a dissonant inexplicable thing.
No words in any tongue or mouthless capacity to share meaning could approach the mesmerism she felt. To bear witness to while becoming the embodiment of the Unknown.
We are taxing you, it had said. “Of what?” Ryker heard herself ask, across a void far wider than any her conscious mind could begin to try and handle.
Reality. She felt the Other describe, more by way of some intangible presence than anything she might ever have imagined could pass for communication.
“What does that mean?” Her pleading mind asked quietly.
You won’t be conscious of it at first. By the time you are it will be too late. We will have stripped everything but that which is needed for your consciousnesses to survive. By that point you will no longer exist inside your physiologies or even the grey matter surrounding what you think of as minds.
Ryker, adapting to her host — albeit unsure whether her host was really adapting her to it — , could not surmount the aloneness of her situation. At least not sufficiently enough to arrive at something so human as an emotion or feeling consistent with the realisation of terror.
Something primal whispered. Such feelings should have found purchase, somewhere within her to reside, but this was no longer possible. It was as though Ryker had been unchained from a once stable, now untenable and fragile state of being.
“They are being taxed, themselves,” she told herself.
“Not physically. But by something far greater than them. By something which feeds on the interactions between things that constitute perceived and actual existence.”
Her mind felt as though it were melting at the strangeness of this and other truths that revealed themselves to her.
“This is some sort of vast, illusory projection.”
Ryker wondered if this other were unable to reach across untold physical boundaries. Perhaps this was only the messenger and yet the message seemed all too real.
This sudden glimpse, approaching a human thought, coming from within yet seeming to arrive without, seemed to suggest her awareness had grown cognizant of something she should have never known about.
She understood: whatever species this Other belonged to, it had in its own way been harvested. Indentured even now, it was trapped in a fretful, binding curse and forced to play a part in a colonial process so wide and far-reaching it exceeded the vastness of itself. It spoke to a tryst played out across interloping dimensions at the cusp of the very notion of existence.
“Is there no hope?” the child inside suddenly cried out, emitting some instinctive birthright, the desire to live, in words that found purchase in her vocal chords. She suddenly felt lost, inside the artificial atmosphere of her helmet overlooking space within sprawling space.
It intimated something akin to kinship with a whisper so profound it seemed to span her entire collected memory bank, right back to childhood.
It would let Ryker go, despite her having borne witness to knowledge bound by eternal laws that it not be shared with a sentient lifeform approximating her kind. Whatever this Other was, it empathised with her hopelessness, the bleak blindness in the face of knowledge so phenomenally bright.
There was one small glimmer of hope, it echoed. One means of escape lay open to all living species. Something not even its kind could control. By “its” Ryker took her alternate to mean whichever other Others that had enslaved her otherworldly self.
Given the scale of the tear and the interweaving of hers and her doppelganger’s realities, she thought for a brief moment: what kind of thing could be more powerful than the species her alternate belonged to?
Such thoughts terrified her until her other seemed to provide a solution despite the obvious strings attached. Ryker’s head throbbed with hurt. The only choice felt like no choice at all.
In your way of being, it is seen as the end. For understanding, we perceive… more clearly. It continued. The truth: the end merely marks the beginning of life.