io9 is proud to current fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. As soon as a month, we characteristic a narrative from Lightspeed’s present challenge. This month’s choice is “Crystalline” by Daniel H. Wilson. You may learn the story under or listen to the podcast on Lightspeed’s web site. Get pleasure from!
“Who loves you?” I ask.
My daughter seems to be 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 pay attention carefully,” I say. She’s solely 9, however Anya’s eyes are flat and black and onerous to learn within the dim gentle of the cave. “Solely you can also make our household complete once more.”
“However. Final time. I noticed . . .”
“I do know. I do know what you noticed,” I communicate over her. “That was an accident, honey. Daddy considered a nasty 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 attempting so onerous to make herself cease. She cups a tiny hand over her mouth, as if she will pressure 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. Take heed to me now. I want 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 vibrant pink tent is collapsed like a deflated lung. 4 ragged strains 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 dimensions 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 after 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 comfortable fur. It’s her favourite stuffed animal. A present for her first birthday. I purchased it on the Frankfurt airport on my means house from a warfare 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 towards my daughter’s chest. Wrap her chilly, clammy fingers round its comfortable neck. Each our palms are swollen and sore from the bone-numbing chill down right here. We don’t have a lot time.
I raise the bunny up towards her snot-streaked higher lip.
“Maintain onto Nestor,” I say. “Odor him. He smells like Mommy, doesn’t he?”
“If you contact the crystal, shut your eyes. And once you odor this odor, focus. Deliver 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 below 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 automotive exhaust on a chilly morning.
“Go,” I urge. “Now. Don’t make me rely to a few.”
It needs to be this fashion, I inform myself. Anya is the one one among us who can do that.
Rainbow boots scuffing onerous rock, she takes a couple of steps. And some extra. I cross my arms and watch my daughter’s faint kind disappear into the darkness. She’s acquired the stuffed bunny in a chokehold below one elbow. As I lose sight of her, I can nonetheless hear her breath shuddering out and in.
• • • •
The entire thing was alleged to be a trip. My work in non-public safety takes me everywhere in the world. Nice cash, unique areas, however lengthy stretches of time away from house. My spouse Hannah wasn’t comfortable. Anya hardly acknowledged me.
Between jobs, I organized a household tenting journey.
We dwell 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 couple of inches. No one else stirred. And the following day, it was there—the yawning, mossy mouth of a cave. A thousand tons of moist, comfortable filth had displaced, ripping a gap within the hillside earlier than us. The opening was manufactured 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, considering 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 palms and pulled them inside.
“We don’t have the fitting sneakers for this,” mentioned Hannah. “It could possibly be unstable. Anya is just too little.”
All the same old complaints stopped after we observed the glimmer.
“Is that gentle in there?” she requested.
“Perhaps there’s one other opening?” I urged.
“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 observed then that the cave flooring was warped below our ft. As if it had been turned molten after which cooled. Odd.
“Mama?” my daughter known 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 towards cool stone, my complete hand properly 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 need to return,” mentioned Anya.
“Hush,” I mentioned, turning to Hannah. “Prove your gentle.”
“Simply do it!”
My shout echoed in dizzying reverberations. The sunshine silently clicked out. I reached up and turned mine off as properly.
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 hundreds of thousands of years. We don’t need to disturb it.”
The crystal was there, seen now below its personal gentle.
It rose from the middle of the room, forming a pure pedestal of its personal. The construction was oddly symmetric, virtually man-made. The highest of it fashioned 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 manufactured 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 thing.
So many sides. Just like the glint of sunshine from a wasp’s eye, I believed.
“Oh my god,” I breathed.
Contained in the sides, I believed 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 sort, 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 goals, 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 prospects 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 could possibly be essentially the most invaluable artifact ever found. My curiosity and worry collapsed collectively right into a type of giddy greed—a determined have to 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 prospects of time and house—within the historical past of a billion worlds. It was like a treasure chest. I laid my palms on the sleek platinum column and leaned my physique over it.
I may really feel a uninteresting strain rising behind my eyes. A tickle at the back of 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 will need to have for the reason that 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 might be. Each resolution you ever made or didn’t make. It is aware of every 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 obligations 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 along with her treasured daughter standing at her aspect.
Even Hannah discovered the satan within the rock.
• • • •
“Anya? Are you in there? Every part okay?” I name.
The echoes of my voice bounce away into distorted reflections. I’m fairly positive I’m secure at this distance. However my eyes dart to the shadows anyway. It’s not unimaginable 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 one, Daddy,” says the skinny voice of a little bit lady. “The crystal is so fairly. I see a lot within it.”
The warmth of anger washes over me. She’s over there taking part in 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 vibrant expectations for a world of shit that’s sure to disappoint them. It hasn’t but, however as an grownup I do know it’ll. Generally rapidly, generally a little bit bit at a time for many years. It’s all the time a disappointment in the long run.
However for now, Anya pulls goals as an alternative of nightmares.
“Assume comfortable ideas.”
• • • •
Wasp’s eye. Wasps. That will need to have been what triggered 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 coloration I couldn’t fairly identify. 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 towards the stone flooring, 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 comfortable flesh below her throat. She staggered, palms 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 function. 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 gentle 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 could possibly be a strong device. All because of 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 wish 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 virtually 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 seems to be 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 house 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 measurement. 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 lookup 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 carrying 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 ponder what horrible issues he has achieved in no matter world he got here from.
I ponder 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 maintain the dangerous man.”
In regards to the Creator
Daniel H. Wilson is a Cherokee citizen and creator 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 basic The Andromeda Pressure, known 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 challenge, which additionally options work by Aimee Ogden, Oyedotun Damilola Muees, Beth Goder, Megan Chee, Peter Watts, Benjamin Peek, Samantha Murray, and extra. You may look ahead to this month’s contents to be serialized on-line, or you should purchase the entire challenge proper now in handy book format for simply $3.99, or subscribe to the book version by way of the hyperlink under.
Need extra io9 information? Take a look at when to anticipate the most recent Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s subsequent for the DC Universe on film and TV, and every thing you’ll want to find out about the way forward for Doctor Who.