Simon McDougall's Writing

January
26th

Limbo

by: Simon McDougall


​ Writing is hard. So many possible combinations of words. So much potential.

Whimsical stories, magical worlds. There really aren’t any rules. No one to say what can and cannot be written.

Sometimes the words just seem to flow onto the page. Most of the time they get stuck in limbo.

But if a story wants to be written, surely they find their way out.

Because a story wants to be shared. It simply must be told.

That’s how it comes to life.


June
21st

Destination Unknown

by: Simon McDougall


He ran. Tired, afraid, but not looking back. He'd had enough. He needed an escape. He was an outsider. All day long, he couldn't escape the feeling of never quite belonging.

Would things be better now?

He couldn't say. But things would be different. Maybe that was all he needed.

Puddles on the ground splashed up as his feet passed through them. It was raining. Hard. He could feel the drops on the back of his neck, each one like being flicked by a bully's finger.

As he neared the street corner, he realized he was freezing. His clothes were soaked through.

Where would he go?

He looked around, as if for a sign, but the world was still. Nothing but a wash of white noise around him. The sudden downpour had caused fog to roll in. Fifty feet ahead the world just ceased to be...

But that's how he wanted it. It felt like his tracks were being erased behind him. He felt like there was no where to return to, and the world agreed.

But there was no where to go forward either.

Up the street and down, nothing but gray.

He pressed on.

When the road stopped leading where he wanted to go, he crossed a field instead. Beyond the field lay some woods. The leaves provided some cover from the rain, but they also blocked out the streetlights behind him.

Dark, cold, lonely. However, he knew the way.

A winding path led through the forest. He could hear the sound of the river rushing nearby. At parts, the path led him along its edge.

The water gushed with a ferocious intensity. Anyone caught in its waters would likely not be seen again.

He paused for a moment, as if to actually contemplate the possibility. He shrugged it off. As much as he'd like to disappear, the currents would prove a bit too permanent.

He pressed on. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness. The rain let up, as quickly as it had arrived. He stood in the muddy forest path, looking ahead, then behind.

He shook his head and continued. Each step through the forest got a bit more difficult as the mud clung on hard to his shoes.

He'd been walking for miles. Where was he going?

The forest path came out in the next town over. His friend lived here. Maybe he could stay the night. But that would mean explaining himself.

Would anyone understand?

The clouds cleared and he stared up at the starry sky. He looked to the crescent moon for advice, as if it could speak to him. He found comfort in it though.

He balled up his fists, took a deep breath and continued walking.

Destination unknown, maybe he'd keep wandering forever.


June
19th

System Panic - Chapter Two

by: Simon McDougall


System Panic

“Hey. Welcome to the party!” the formerly disembodied voice greeted.

“He’s all yours Zeke,” answered Lys, who was already halfway out the door.

“Hi,” I awkwardly spoke up, weakly waving my hand.

“The name’s Ezekiel Eliott, but everyone just calls me Zeke.”

“Jackson Ridley,” I replied, holding out my hand. His enthusiastic handshake practically ripped my arm off my body. “Just Jackson though, not Jack or anything else.”

Zeke was big. He definitely lived up to his booming voice. Zeke stood a towering 6’2, looking down at me. He had short black hair and a dark skin tone. He was incredibly muscular and looked like he could take just about anyone in a fight.

“Alright then Jackson, welcome to HQ.”

The room, and the hallway leading to it were very plain. The halls had been a not-quite-white shade of gray, while this room was an equally muted shade of light blue. Everything here was simplistic and angular. The walls and floor were perfectly flat and lacked in any sort of detail. They didn’t seem to be made out of any specific material, they simply existed as flat shapes.

Zeke lead me to a chair near an impressive computer workstation. No less than six screens decorated the space in front of his seat. These screens were not computer monitors. They existed as completely flat surfaces floating in the air before him.

My chair was square and boxy. It resembled a wooden chair in structure, but it was a plain solid shade of brown. It’s appearance lacked any sort of texture or wood grain. Despite this appearance however, it was not uncomfortable. It somehow felt quite soft and cushioned. Zeke’s chair was larger, taking on a reclined ‘captain’s chair’ like structure, though similarly featureless.

“So,” I said trying to break the ice, “Are you going to explain what’s going on?”

“Wha--? Oh right, Lys didn’t tell you anything,” Zeke shook his head, “That girl can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.” I couldn’t help but laugh at his statement. From the brief time I’d known her, I could certainly see where he was coming from.

“Okay, so first thing’s first,” Zeke took a deep breath, “Everything you know the world to be is a lie. This world is actually a complex computer simulation.”

He paused, expecting a reaction. I raised my eyebrows giving him a ‘go on’ kind of face.

“Yeah, given the day you’ve had, I guess that’s not much of a surprise.” He looked disappointed and quietly added, “I always look forward to seeing the shock factor on peoples faces though.”

“So if everything here is fake, why are we here?”

“Come on, do you have to jump right to the hard questions?” He sighed, “We don’t know. We’re prisoners though, unable to leave of our own free will. What’s worse is that most of the population has no idea they’re being held captive. They likely never will.”

“But you guys do. Why is that?”

“Because we’re the ones trying to break out of this prison. We’re determined to make a way out.”

“So what, you’re a bunch of computer hackers?”

“Yes, in both the correct and incorrect usage of the word.”

“Huh?”

“We’re both enthusiastic programmers and security crackers,” I gave him a puzzled expression, “You know what, never mind, that’s not important. We’re hackers trying to liberate humanity. The small portion trapped in here anyway.”

“What do you mean ‘small portion’?”

“It’s not the whole world who’s trapped here, just the city. Everything outside the city... it’s all fake.”

Now that was a crazy thought. I’d grown up in this city, only leaving it once or twice when I was younger. Now that I thought about it though, I didn’t actually know anyone who claimed to have lived anywhere else.

“I’ve met tourists though. And I swear my parents took me out of town when I was younger.”

“All fake. Just like I said. The tourists, anyone you encountered out of town, any sights you saw, they’re all just constructs of the System. Most people you meet in the city are real though. It’s the ones you don’t talk to much that you should question. Some of the shopkeepers or the police. Anyone you have a minimal interaction with could be part of the simulation.”

“So anyone could be watching?”

“Nah, they’re mostly harmless stand-ins for real people. They’re just programmed for basic interactions, not spying. They can be commandeered by the System if needed though. Like those SWAT-like guys that were following you.”

“Enough about them though,” Zeke continued, standing up and stretching his arms overhead. “Time for a history lesson.”

As he stretched, I noticed an odd black outline around his right leg.

“Yeah, I guess that’s history too.” He must have noticed my gaze because he chimed in without warning. “It’s fake too, just like everything else in this place.”

He motioned from his knee down to the floor. Now that he was pointing it out, I noticed that the black outline cut across his leg just above that knee. “It’s just a copy of the other leg. I lost the real one fighting some Maintainers about five years ago. This copy lets me walk around in here, but I can’t take it outside the building. If I did, I’d risk being flagged as a rogue like you and Lys were.”

“What are maintainers? And wait, are they going to track me down or something?” I said, feeling uneasy.

“Relax, the flag will wears off when they lose track of you. You’ll be fine when you go home later. And the Maintainers, they’re our enemies. System administrators that keep the population subdued and the rogue elements in check. Oh, and they’re human too. Sort of.”

“They’re human? Why are they helping keep us here?”

“They aren’t stuck in the simulation. We don’t know why, but they are the ones keeping us here. And they’re only sort of human. They’re all genetically modified.”

He paused, running his hand over his short hair. He walked to the far wall and started staring at it. I got up from my chair to get a better view. I then realized that what I thought was the back wall of the room was actually a window overlooking another room. The room below was just as drab as this one. Without looking carefully or catching a glare on the almost invisible glass, it was hard to even notice that it wasn’t a wall.

“At least that’s my theory.”

“Huh?”

“About the Maintainers. They all look incredibly similar and are in peak physical and mental condition. You don’t want to go toe-to-toe with one,” I glanced at Zeke’s leg and wondered if he was trying to be funny. “Fortunately, it seems like they forgot how to actually administer the System long ago.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the System has a ton of security tools and functions. We’ve even been able to tap into a few of them on occasion. The Maintainers don’t though. My guess is they’ve forgotten how.”

“How could they forget about something like that?”

“Who knows. They’ve had a long time to forget though. You’ve lived in this simulation all your life. So have I. So have our parents. So did our grandparents. We don’t know how far back it goes, or whether the first generation even knew they were imprisoned.”

“And you guys haven’t managed to brake out yet?”

“Actually, that effort only began recently. Are you ready for that history lesson now?”

“I don’t know, give me a minute to process everything.”

“While you do that, why don’t you come over here.” He waved, motioning me toward the window.

As I approached, the room below came into view. Several long rows of workstations similar to Zeke’s lined the room. Two screens per person, with at least fifty people typing away, if not more. I stood mesmerized at the sight. They all kept perfectly focused on their work. They didn’t move or blink much. They just typed on their keyboards, which appeared to be drawn onto the surface of the desks they sat at.

“They’re trying to break the System’s encryption. Everything it does is encrypted, and that encryption changes every so often too. If they can crack it, we’ll have our way out.”

“So this is what they do all day?”

“And night! In shifts of course, but hell if they’ll sleep when we tell them to. This is how they choose to spend their free time. By networking their PPN’s, they can combine their computing power and progress more quickly.”

“Okay, I keep hearing that term. What the heck is a PPN?”

“Personal Processing Node. Everyone has one. It’s an independent computer tied to us in the real world. It’s responsible for handling all the calculations and rendering of your immediate surroundings. It handles all your sensory input/output as well. Basically, anything that you see or hear, the System offloads that work onto your PPN that way it can focus on managing the simulation as a whole.”

“Uh,” Zeke kept going. He seemed to be on a roll with his explanation. He didn’t notice my confusion.

“Every PPN uses the same encryption keys for its network traffic. We cracked that a long time ago though, and we can use it to send fake information.”

Zeke rushed over to his computer and tapped around on one of his many screens. “By sending out false information, we can trick the PPN’s of people nearby into thinking something is real.” He gave the screen another tap, and suddenly a hot mug of coffee appeared in his hand. “The System then error corrects and makes that object or modification available for everyone to see.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. Once Zeke got going, his enthusiasm on the subject was downright scary.

“So yeah, with the help of that trick, and a few simple lines of code, almost any object can become real.” He paused and took a big swig of coffee from his new mug. “Ah, that hits the spot. Thanks buddy, I bounced this one off of you.”

“You’re welcome?” Zeke gave a hearty laugh at my answer.

“So, now that I’ve told you about PPN’s, lets have a look at yours.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just a simple scan is all. You see, you shouldn’t have been able to see Lys earlier. At least not as she looks now. To anyone outside of our group, she should look like an inconspicuous brunette, much to her dismay.”

“So what’s different about me?”

“That’s what the scan will tell us.” He tapped a few more items on his screen, and suddenly a cylinder appeared next to his workstation. It stretched from the ceiling to the floor, and had an opening in the front. Like every other item in the room, it had no texture or detail beyond its dark gray color.

“You know, if you painted that thing chrome,” I said, pointing to the cylinder, “it would have sort of a 1960’s sci-fi thing going for it.”

“I suppose it would,” he said with a heavy laugh. “We try to keep things minimalistic around here though. It frees up more PPN resources for other things, like generating these computers. Alright now, climb inside,” Zeke said as I stared at the cylinder. “It won’t hurt at all, it’s just going to probe your senses.”

I stepped through the cutout in the front of the cylinder. I don’t usually get claustrophobic, but the eerie feel of being in this dark tube gave me sudden chills.

“You’re going to experience a range of sensory input. Brace yourself, it can be alarming at first.”

“Okay, ready.”

“That’s the spirit. Starting the process... now.”

As soon as he said the word, all remaining light in the tube vanished. No, all of my senses had stopped. I couldn’t see or hear anything. It was odd, and somewhat scary. I felt alone, and I suddenly understood how people could go crazy in isolation.

The sensory deprivation only lasted a moment before I was overwhelmed with bright imagery. Light flashed in all manner of colors, like strobe lights dancing around me.

A series of audio tones played. At first they were simple tones, scaling up and down like a hearing test. They began to get more complex and almost musical.

And then came smell and taste. At the same time I was overwhelmed by the smell of flowers and the taste of blueberry pie. The two did not go well together. Further smells and tastes appeared, changing every few seconds, but never matching each other.

A feeling rushed over my skin. A slightly ticklish sensation, running over ever inch of my skin, covered or not. It grew from a slight tickle to a deep massage and back again. While it scaled in pressure, it also changed temperature, getting hotter and colder at times.

The unusual feelings continued until all at once they hit me hard. The smell of an outhouse, the taste of puke. Loud screeching sounds and a complete whiteout of my vision. My bottom half froze while my top half sweltered. I felt tickled in some spots and beaten in others. It all ended abruptly with what felt like a punch to the face.

“I thought you said it wouldn’t hurt.” I said as my senses returned to me.

“Would you have gotten in there if I’d said that it ‘won’t hurt much’? Besides, it’s gone away now, hasn’t it?”

After he pointed it out, I realized that all of the pain I’d felt at the end of the probe was completely gone. I rubbed my arm, expecting the muscle to be sore, but it was like none of it had ever happened.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I sighed, “So what does the test say?”

“It’s not good,” he said grimacing. “It’s like I feared, your PPN’s damaged.”

My heart sank. “Am I going to die?”

“What? No. I can fix you.” He smirked. “Your PPN seems to have a section of bad memory. When it tries to read these damaged areas, there’s a chance it can jump over and read a different section.”

Again, his words taunted me. I understood the terminology, but could never seem to grasp its context in relation to the System.

“This is how you were able to see Lys earlier,” he continued. “This hardware fault caused you to miss the information that was supposed to conceal her from your senses.

“There was an explosion. I heard it, but I couldn’t see it until I bumped into her a few minutes later.”

“So you physically touched her? Huh. It was a shared sensory experience. I’d have to assume that your contact with her caused your PPN to read bits of her perception program.”

“And suddenly I could see what she saw?”

“Pretty much. And hear things too, remember my voice?”

“Alright, so you said you can fix it?” I asked desperately.

“Sort of. I can write a program that will work around the damaged section and prevent its use.” He paused, looking for the right words.

“But?”

“But the change is permanent. I can do one of two things. Your first choice is that I can completely block off the damaged areas. You’d be one hundred percent better, but you could never run any modified programs on your PPN.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m saying that you could go back to your regular life and never be bothered by this stuff again. I can’t make you forget that this world is a simulation, but given a few years, today will just become a distant memory to you.”

“And it would be permanent?”

“You wouldn’t be able to change your mind about it. You’d never be able to come back here or see the truth about the System again.”

“Okay, what’s my other option?”

“I can fix it so that the damaged memory only has a softer block on it. With practice, you’d be able to control it and cause the errors at will. The potential usage for an exploit like that is enormous. You could join us and be a big help to our rebellion.”

“Which, based on today, I assume is dangerous?”

“Every single day. There’s no in-between option though. Without the practice, you would likely experience more issues like today. Even laying low, within a few months you’d risk getting flagged again. They’d hunt you down and terminate you.”

“Ouch,” I answered. “So basically I can either go back to my life, knowing that it’s very meaning is futile.”

“Or you could join our cause and risk your life for the greater good.” Zeke looked toward the floor. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to force all this onto you.”

“It’s alright. Is it safe to take a bit and think it over?”

“As long as you don’t take too long. The failure must have happened recently, otherwise you’d have been discovered long ago. If we don’t act soon though, it could fail again.”

“Okay. It’s getting late. I want to go home and sleep on it.”

“Sure. I’ll have Lys contact you tomorrow. Sorry, I don’t think we should delay any longer than that.” He stood up and walked toward the door. “Follow me, I’ll walk you out.”

We walked down the long hall, but turned toward a door before reaching the garage I had entered through.

“That door will take you right out the front door of the fire station. I can call a cab for you if you’d like.”

“Nah, I’m gonna walk it. A good long walk will give me time to think.”

“Alright then, if you say so. Take care man.” Zeke waved as I opened the door.

“Thanks. See you tomorrow then.”

Bright light shined in from outside. It was much brighter than the lighting inside their headquarters. I held my arm up to block the sun as I stepped out the door.


May
10th

Blue-03

by: Simon McDougall


Ssssssss!

The cockpit sealed with a hiss. I tried to get comfortable, but anxiety was getting the better of me.

I switched on the main computer and entered my authorization codes. The system kernel was Linux-based, and started almost instantaneously. The fighter’s complicated subsystems took a while to initialize. I watched as the familiar messages scrolled across my HUD.

Life support [ OK ]
Navigation [ OK ]
Main Reactor [ OK ]
Propulsion [ OK ]
Targeting [ OK ]
Weapons [ OK ]

As the various subsystems came online, a platform moved underneath me. My fighter was moved through the hangar along a track, eventually lining up with a large bulkhead door.

The bulkhead opened and long magnetic rails stretched out toward my craft. Several more bulkheads opened after the first. Section by section, the launch tube formed before me.

The magnetic rails only extended through the first section of the tunnel. That would be the end of the artificial gravity. After that, my free-floating fighter would be guided by an electromagnetic suspension field, ensuring that it cleared the tube.

“All clear,” called the loudspeaker. “Blue-03, you are cleared for launch.”

I flipped my thrusters online and eased into the throttle, propelling myself forward on the rails. As I neared their end, I pushed hard on the throttle. Within half a second, the launch tube disappeared behind me and I was thrust out into space.

I had spent twelve months training in a virtual environment for this. Four more in an authentic g-force simulator unit. I wasn’t ready though.

Nausea churned in my stomach. Not from the G’s, I could take them, but from the stress of the situation. As I got my bearings, I flipped through the closest targets on my HUD. Their locations and descriptions were projected onto the glass of my cockpit.

After acquiring a target, I moved into pursuit. The computer’s targeting and navigation systems were bridged and provided an assisted flight system. It helped to ease the difficulty of maneuvering in this 360 degree environment.

I pulled a hard right and my target came into view. I took a deep breath. During training, the simulated opponents were always aliens, fictional characters, and other unintimidating absurdities.

Reality was not so pleasant. My target flew a ship identical to mine in every way, minus their green coat of paint. Its pilot was human, no different than me, other than our separate allegiances.

Rebels they were branded. Insurgents, looking to undermine our way of life. They were out here escorting a new kind of weapon. I tried to focus on that detail. Anything to rationalize this civil war. To somehow justify my own actions.

Pshyuu! Pshyuu! Pshyuu! Pshyuu!

I began to fire preemptively as I lined up my shot. The targeting system locked onto their fighter. My targeting reticle ironically changed from red to green.

A brilliant blast of white engulfed my vision as my target’s craft exploded. I pulled away sharply to avoid getting caught in the blast.

I flipped through the available targets to select a new one. An alert flashed on my HUD, letting me know an ally was in trouble. I immediately targeted the fighter pursuing them and followed suit.

With my thrusters on full, I started to close the gap. I’d need to wait for a target lock before I could attack. Without a lock, I’d risk hitting my comrade.

Heavy G’s pressured my entire body as I tried to keep pace. 800 meters. 700 meters. 500 meters. Almost in range.

Pshyuu! Pshyuu!

A direct hit. Their craft sat disabled. I thought about finishing them off but hesitated. They were no threat to anyone now. I turned and backed off.

Pshyuu! BOOM!

A bright flash reflected from behind me. The disable fighter was no more, destroyed by the craft it had pursued. I shook my head at the needless kill and tried to refocus on the firefight.

“Attention all fighters,” a voice called over the radio. “We’ve almost cleared this wave. Red team continue pursuing their fighters. Blue team break off and head for the next objective.”

I activated the next objective on the computer and headed toward the waypoint we were supposed to group at. Before us was a large starship, a mobile headquarters for the rebels.

Formerly an Earth Alliance vessel, it had been commandeered by these traitors almost five years ago. They had been successful at eluding us until now, hiding in space while working on their weapon.

Our ambush would stop them before they could put their weapon to use. Our new objective was to take out their shield generator and render them vulnerable. In order to take it out, we’d have to get closer, inside the shield bubble it created around the ship.

The shields nullified our most powerful weapons. It made a ship to ship strike impossible and forced us to rely on our fighters instead.

As my squadron approached, the enemy launched another round of their own fighters.

“Hold formation and try to break through,” orders rang out. “They’re trying to make us scramble, don’t–”

Two fighters to my left, the ship at the head of our formation disappeared in a blinding flash. Then one on my right. There hadn’t been any weapons-fire. The enemy was engaging us at full-thrust, making kamikaze runs into our fighters!

Formation broke pretty quickly. All sense of order was gone. The remaining men in my squadron were trying to stand their ground against the enemy fighters.

I had my orders though, and unlike the others, I intended to follow them. I wasn’t sure whether this was due to my sense of loyalty or if I was just being naive. This was my first mission, and I was determined to succeed.

The shield generator drew closer. It was almost within weapons range. I just needed to get a little closer…

Pshyuu! Pshyuu! Pshyuu! BOOM!

I was hit. The force of the blast threw me into the side of the cockpit. While trying to maintain my trajectory, I glanced over at the warnings flashing on the left edge of my HUD.

Weapons [ Damaged ]

My mind scattered in a state of panic. All around, I could see nothing but debris and exploding fighters. The signals from my allies were dropping out left and right.

Sensors showed a large power signature steadily rising inside of the rebel starship. Red team was on their way, but it would be at least two minutes before they’d arrive. The enemy was going to use their weapon, and the only unit in any position to make a difference was me.

‘There’s only one thing I can do,’ I thought, seeing another of my comrades go down from an enemy collision. I pushed my thrusters to their max and continued my course. Weapons or not, I was going to take out that shield generator.

The enemy’s hull grew closer and closer. I took a deep breath, awaiting the impact.

Pshyuu! Pshyuu!

Propulsion [ Damaged ]

The message flashed on my HUD. The hit altered my course. I tried correcting it with my remaining maneuvering thrusters, but it cost me my speed. If I continued, my impact wouldn’t cause enough damage to take out the generator.

“Dammit,” I screamed, alone and useless. I couldn’t help anymore. Using my maneuvering thrusters, I slowed my approach to a safe speed and rotated until I was parallel with their hull.

CLUNK!

My magnetic docking clamps attached to their hull. I sat there, watching helplessly as my comrades were taken out. The power reading coming from inside the ship was slowing down, reaching its peak.

All of this was for nothing. Our ambush failed, and the rebel weapon was charged. I looked out into space, silently waiting for the enemy to notice my presence. Having docked with them had likely hidden my sensor signal, the enemy fighters would have to see me with their own eyes.

The power signature had begun to hold steady. Red team had just arrived, but they were too late. The remaining rebel fighters moved to intercept them. The struggle would soon be over.

A bright flash blinded me. It was several seconds before I could open my eyes again. This time however, it was not the flash of a destroyed fighter.

I looked out in amazement. A large bubble of clear space surrounded the ship. Outside it, a brilliant stream of stars rushing by.

Navigation [ Error ]

An indicator on my HUD designated the confused state of my fighter’s computer. Of course it would be confused. It wasn’t designed to move this fast.

I remained in awe, mystified by the ocean of stars passing by us. The light seemed to distort around the shield bubble that protected the ship. The pocket of space between me and the shield was eerily calm.

Warp drive. Faster than light travel. Whatever you wanted to call it. Our best scientists told us it was a pipe dream. It couldn’t be done. Guess this would prove them wrong. If they ever found out that is.

My head was spinning with revelation. The rebels had never been creating a weapon. All their secret research must have been on creating this new form of travel.

Why would they keep it a secret though? Or did the Earth Alliance know about it all along? Were the claims that they were building a weapon all a conspiracy?

This also meant that the kamikaze fighters weren’t an act of desperation at all. They were a sacrifice made by pilots who knew they wouldn’t be making this trip. The realization shocked me.

Amongst the silence of space, my stomach growling sounded like that of a monster. I had skipped lunch to avoid g-force nausea. I couldn’t stay out here forever. And If I tried to escape I’d likely be torn to shreds once I left the protection of this ship’s shields.

“Rebel starship,” I hailed the enemy. “This is Earth Alliance fighter Blue-03.” I waited a bit, but there was no reply. “My craft was damaged during our battle and I was forced to dock with your ship.”

A small blip of silence sounded on the radio, as if someone was going to reply, but hesitated. “My fighter is damaged, I’m no threat to you. Requesting permission to come aboard,” I sighed, “as a prisoner of war.”

A long pause followed. It felt like several minutes passed by before I heard a reply. “Alliance fighter, your request has been granted. Put your fighter into maintenance mode and transfer us your authorization codes.”

I did as I was told, shutting down any hostile subsystems on my craft and enabling maintenance mode. Transferring the rebels my authorization codes left my fate in their hands. They could shut me down at a moment’s notice should they choose.

“You may enter hangar bay two on the underside of the ship,” the radio informed me. “Any threatening action will result in your craft being jettisoned into space. Proceed when ready.”

I disengaged my docking clamps and slowly navigated toward their hangar bay. Maneuvering thrusters were slow, but with just about ten meters between me and oblivion, I wouldn’t have gone faster if I could.

Once docked inside, I released the seal on my cockpit and fresh air rushed in. I stood up from my seat, hands in the air. I was ready to be taken prisoner, likely to rot in a cell until the end of my days. Warp technology wasn’t thought to be possible, there wouldn’t be a rescue coming for me.

Several soldiers approached me, guns pointed and following my every movement. I climbed out of my fighter and stood waiting for instructions. One of the soldiers approached me and removed my sidearm from it’s holster. He waved me forward with the barrel of his gun.

Surrounded on all sides, my escort only got me two thirds of the way to the door before it opened. A man in a prestigious uniform entered the room.

“Captain on deck!” called the closest crewman to the door. Every soldier in the room stopped to salute the captain. Their salute differed from that of the Alliance, but the respect the soldiers conveyed was clear.

“At ease,” the captain commanded. He was a tall gentleman with a medium build and short black hair. His height and perfect posture worked together to intimidate me. I found myself unintentionally staring at the floor.

“Felt like coming for a ride?” the captain asked with heavy sarcasm.

“It wasn’t my intention,” I answered. My voice clung to my throat, not wanting to leave.

“Well then, you’re out of uniform soldier,” the captain replied, this time in a serious tone.

“Excuse me?” His new attitude threw me for a loop.

“I’ve got no room for prisoners aboard this ship. My crew has suffered heavy casualties at the hand of your ‘Earth Alliance’.”

His glaring eyes could pierce the hull of any ship. I no longer stared at the floor but was instead caught by his intense gaze.

“I’ll say it again, you’re out of uniform soldier.”

Having grasped a sudden understanding of his words, I straightened my posture and gave a salute matching that of his own officers.

“It won’t happen again sir!” I tried to sound confident. My voice cracked, but I maintained my salute.

“Good. Now, you will retrieve your uniform from storage locker seven. Then you will report for a mission overview in my briefing room.” He relaxed a little and added, “I trust you know how to navigate an Excalibur class starship?”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you have any questions, soldier?”

“Yes. Where are we going, sir?”

“Home,” the captain answered proudly. “However long it takes us to find one.”


March
1st

System Panic - Chapter One

by: Simon McDougall


System Panic

There, in the crowd. Something caught my eye. I strained to focus and find it again. There! In the middle of this crowded subway station was the most peculiar looking girl. The girl looked to be about my age, but maybe a year or two younger. She had bright white hair flowing down her back and aqua eyes so piercing I could see them from the fifty feet away I stood.

There could sometimes be some pretty outlandish looking individuals in this city, I’d know, I had lived here all my life. Still though. There was just something different about her. I wondered why no one else seemed to notice her.

“Transit 27 now departing,” I heard over the intercom. It took me a moment to realize that, in my distraction, I had just missed my ride. “Dammit!” I yelled under my breath. It’d be another half hour before the next one. I headed for a bench in the corner to wait.

BOOM!

Less than five minutes had passed when I heard a muffled explosion behind me. It sounded like it had come from the stairs leading back to the ticket vendors and turnstiles. Or the surface above them. When I turned to look though, nothing was out of the ordinary. No one even looked startled.

“I must be losing it,” I told myself. Probably just some construction above-ground. “It’s okay, you had a long day. Not much longer and you’ll be home with a beer in your hand and your feet up.” I sighed at my pathetic attempts to comfort myself.

“Maybe a snack will help,” I said, and thought ‘or at least help me stop talking to myself’. I got up and tried to cut my way through the crowd to the vending machine on the far wall. I got about halfway there when I felt a soft hand brush against mine.

I turned to look, and just inches away from me was the girl with the blue-green eyes. They were even more striking in person and seemed to have a neon glow to them. Our eyes met briefly. When they did, her expression grew confused, as if she wasn’t used to being noticed. In fact… no one but me seemed to acknowledge her at all.

When our short moment of eye contact was over, she continued forward, walking at a rather quick pace, to board the subway car in front of us. I turned to continue my quest for food, and that’s when things got crazy.

Up above in the stairwell, bricks hung forward from a hole in the wall. The railing on the stairs was bent and broken. The edge of the concrete stairs had even started to crumble and fall to the floor below. It looked quite literally like a bomb had gone off. And yet… everyone just walked on by the damage, as if they were completely unaware of its presence.

As I stood gawking, two men dressed like SWAT team members rushed down the stairs. One of them pointed in my direction while the other took aim with a high-powered rifle. My eyes widened as I turned toward the train. I realized just what, or rather who they were aiming at.

I lunged forward, throwing myself onto the white-haired girl and dragging her to the ground as the subway’s doors closed. Behind me, the windows exploded, raining glass down onto me. I didn’t move, I didn’t check to see if I’d been injured. I just laid there, as close to the floor as I could.

Several other shots had been fired. I could see bullet holes ahead of me in the opposite doors. Holes that would have been in the flesh of this girl had she been standing. The train finally started moving. As we passed the threshold out into the tunnel, I got up. Carefully, I tried to shake the broken glass off my clothes, only to see that there wasn’t any. I examined the subway doors. Both still had their glass, and no holes to speak of.

Nothing was out of the ordinary here, except for me. The other passengers looked at me with distaste. The white-haired girl glared at me from the floor. I reached my hand out to her nervously.

“Sorry about that. Are you okay? I caught my foot in the gap and tripped.” She took my hand and pulled herself up. The other passengers lost interest and resumed their business.

“Nice save,” she whispered in my ear. For a moment I had begun to doubt the reality of my situation, but finally somebody made me feel like I wasn’t crazy.

“Wait, you mean the tackle or the excuse?” I asked in a panic. Maybe I still was crazy.

“Both,” she answered. “But what I want to know is how you saw them!” Her tone had quickly gone cold.

“Elysia, everything alright?” a disembodied voice called.

“Yeah, I got away. Thanks to some uninvited help,” she answered the voice.

“Where’s that coming from?” I asked, confused. She didn’t have her phone out, and she wasn’t wearing a headset.

“You can hear this?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“I can detect him too,” the deep voice replied. “It seems like somehow your perception abilities got copied onto his PPN. He’s being detected as a rogue like you.”

“Aw hell, really?” She shook her head. “Guess you’re coming with me.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“It’s like that movie,” the deep voice answered, “Go with her if you want to live.”

“Don’t mind him,” she sighed. “Guess I’m bringing you to the safe house.”

“Safe house?” I asked, a little too loudly. People were starting to stare.

“Shh! I’ll explain everything later,” she whispered. “This isn’t exactly the best place for it.”

I guess I’d have to agree. The cold stares on the subway were bad enough when you weren’t running from snipers. “How far is this safe house anyway?” I asked quietly.

“It’s near 26th and Benevolent Dreams.”

“But that’s in the north east corner of the city! The subway doesn’t go that far.”

“No shit. That wasn’t my original destination,” she cast a cold glare at me. “We’ll need a new ride. But first, a change of clothes.”

“A w-what?” I stammered.

“Calm down. This will only take a second.” She reached her arms out to the sides and stretched out her fingers. Two neon keypads appeared in mid-air, floating underneath her fingers. She tapped away on them for about 10 seconds, each keystroke accompanied by an almost inaudible chirp.

The keypad under her left had disappeared. The girl reached out and put that hand on my shoulder. She typed out another few keystrokes and pressed what I’d assume to be the equivalent of an ‘enter’ key.

“Don’t look alarmed,” she instructed. Within a few moments, my shabby work clothes turned into what appeared to be full-leather biker gear. Helmet and all. I looked up at her and she two had changed, however her outfit was a lot more stylized than mine.

Where she had previously been wearing sandals, denim shorts, an oversized cream colored sweater, she was now also dressed head to toe in leather. The gear she wore was much tighter fitting than mine, though not skin-tight. It was pale white with aqua-colored accents, a perfect match for her features.

The girl also seemed to have grown a few inches due to the wedge boots now on her feet. She had a helmet as well, but it had a distinct sci-fi flare to it. Her long hair had shortened under the helmet, and only about two inches stuck out the bottom. After the change, she resumed typing with the rhythmic chirping of her keypads.

I looked around. No one seemed to notice our sudden change in appearance. Theme of the day I guess. “Hey, why don’t they notice things? And what did you do anyway?”

“I injected a modified packet into the appearance output of your PPN. The system picks up on the inconsistency and error corrects for it. Your modified clothing becomes real.”

“My what? The system?”

“Shut up already. I need to concentrate,” she yelled, closing her eyes while she continued to tap. “Be ready,” she added, “we’re getting off at 48th street.”

“Okay.” I thought about it for a second and realized, “But wait, the Transit doesn’t stop at 48th Street.”

“Nope. It doesn’t.”

I thought over her words carefully. The Transit system actually runs above ground between 52nd and 48th Street. It comes out the side of a hill adjacent to 52nd, then turns west onto 48th. A few blocks later, it goes back underground. If she knows there’s no stop there, then that means…

As soon as I drew my conclusion, I looked up to see the girl finish her typing. She straddled her legs and with another firm strike on her ‘enter’ key, made some sort of motorcycle appear.

The vehicle itself featured the same hi-tech flare that matched her style. It had a sleek design overall, with several glowing accents. The most striking thing about it though, was the fact that it lacked wheels! The machine itself bore a somewhat resemblance to a snowmobile, but with glowing parts where you would expect to find the skis and tread. It hovered slightly off the ground in its idle state, seemingly without any effort.

A bright light shined into the cabin as we emerged from underground. “Four blocks to go. What are you waiting for? Get on!” the girl yelled.

“What happened to being inconspicuous?” I asked, awkwardly swinging my leg behind her and mounting the vehicle.

“Its time ran out. As ours is going to if we don’t get moving again.” With two blocks to go, she pointed at the door and typed out one last sequence on her floating keypad.

The door vanished. She leaned into the bike, turning the handles like a motorcycle throttle. The vehicle rose a few inches higher. I placed my now dangling feet onto the footrests on either side of the bike. “You’re gonna want to hang on,” she said. Reluctantly, and with no where else to hold, I wrapped my arms her midsection.

48th Street. I pulled myself in close to her as our vehicle shot forward, plummeting toward the street below. As we approached our impact, the bike, or maybe its driver, slowed our decent until we landed with soft bounce against the pavement. Well, maybe not ‘landed’ per se, as we still hovered about a foot off the ground.

We cruised downhill on a street called Yard-long Climb. The adjacent streets became a blur. It felt like we were going at least 60 to 65 miles per hour when the speed limit was only 25! I watched the adjoining street numbers drop. 45th Street, 42nd Street, 38th Street.

Coming up behind us was the sound of sirens all too familiar in this city. I looked backward and saw flashing lights rise up over the hill.

“We’re coming in hot. You got the door open Zeke?”

“Wide open and waiting. How close do you think it’s gonna be?” asked the disembodied voice, returning from its long silence.

“No contest,” the girl replied as we accelerated ahead. “I’m not about to let them catch up.”

“Alright, come on home,” the voice welcomed us.

“Wait a minute, I thought you said you were on the corner of Benevolent Dreams and 26th?” I asked as we came up on 26th Street.

“We are,” the girl replied. I swear I could feel her smirking through the back of her head. “Hold on tight.”

A hard right, a burst of acceleration, and a jerk on the handlebars. Suddenly we were no longer on the ground, but instead riding up the side of a building! We got about eight feet up the building before descending back down onto 26th Street.

Just a few blocks ahead, we reached an abandoned fire station. Well, not quite abandoned by the fire department, but certainly underutilized. As the building drew closer, I became more and more sure of my situation. My escort was aiming our bike into the broad side of the brick building!

Closer and closer. The bricks were getting bigger. Just as we were about to hit them, we somehow passed through the wall unharmed. Immediately after we were through, the girl in front of me slammed on the brakes with a slide sideways. We came to an abrupt stop right before we would have crashed into the far wall of the room.

“We’re in,” she said to her invisible partner. As she spoke those words, the ‘doorway’ on the wall we came though closed itself. Before it closed, I could see though to the outside world with just a faint brick pattern overlaid across it. Once it was closed, the wall was completely opaque leaving no sign of the doorway.

“So I guess this isn’t a fire station after all,” I said, not sure how to break the ice now that we had reached safety.

“Oh, it still is,” the girl replied, getting off of the hoverbike. “I guess you could say we ‘share the space’ with them.”

As I got off of the bike, it began to deconstruct itself before me. Layer by layer, its construction faded away into the nothing it had started as.

“So what? You guys work with them?” I asked, confused.

“Nope,” she replied, removing her helmet. “They don’t even know we’re here.” With one hand, she tapped a few of her keys. Our modified clothes returned to their original appearance. Her helmet, which she now held under her arm, disappeared as well.

The girl’s shortened hair grew out as strands of translucent aqua. The strands continued to grow until they reached their original length. They then solidified, becoming as blindingly white as they were when I first saw her.

“They don’t know you’re here?” I asked.

“This place exists in corrupt location data,” the disembodied voice chimed in. “In layman’s terms, it overlaps with the fire station. Don’t worry, we’ll explain everything soon.”

I scratched my head at this bizarre terminology. It wasn’t over my head, in fact, I considered myself rather good with computers. What all these tech words had to do with real life was the part that baffled me. As I stood there processing everything, the white-haired girl began to walk away.

“Hey, wait. Um, thanks for the lift!” I scrambled for the right words and didn’t quite find them. “My name’s Jackson. He said your name was Elysia, right?” She stopped and turned toward me.

“Yeah. If you’re sticking around, you can call me just call me ‘Lys’ though.”

“Okay, Lys. So, can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Nope,” she answered abruptly. “Not my problem. I’ll drop you off with Zeke though. He’s the voice that’s been in your head all day. He’ll be able to answer your questions.”

“Um…” ‘Some gratitude’ I thought to myself. “Okay, lead the way.”

As I followed her, my mind raced with questions. I guess they’d be answered soon enough. And from the sounds of it, I’d be meeting the face behind that disembodied voice as well.