Runoff Vote: Short Story Contest #176 Theme: "Into the Woods" courtesy of @Lancie We have two entries tied for first place. There will be a 24 hour runoff. Entries are posted below. Voting ends tomorrow, July 20th, 2015 ~6:00 pm Pacific Time. _______________________________________ Unicorn  [Language Warning] With every footstep the crisp freshly fallen snow crushed and compressed with that irregular abrasive sound it makes. It was familiar, yet foreign all at once. The world was just now starting to come into focus, and it was white. In all directions nothing but white. I felt a warm sensation on my forehead, something wet. Wet and warm. It trickled down into my eyelash and I instinctively bowed my head. The whiteness of the world was stained now as red warm drops of blood fell from my scalp onto the fresh snow. It was still snowing. Not too heavily, but enough that the drops of blood were being covered behind me as I walked. I reached up cautiously with my left hand to explore where the blood was coming from. I brushed my long black hair from my face, and tucked what would stay behind my left ear. I slowly probed my hair line, and made my way back, tracing the still dripping trail of blood, searching for it's origin. I made it about five inches back before I felt it. The cold snow falling into my open wound had dulled the pain, but once my finger stroked along the gash in my scalp it suddenly felt as if I had been electrocuted. The twinge of pain shot down through my entire body and I became faint. My knees buckled and I came down hard on them as the world went dark. My eyes fluttered against the fresh powdery snow, my face numb from lying in it for however long I was out. I planted my hands in the snowy terrain and pushed myself back up to my knees. The bleeding has stopped, but my head aches now. A dull throbbing pain, and when I wince at the pain in my knees, from the fall, I cannot help but furrow my brow. This moves my scalp and the sharp pain the snow had numbed, the electric pain, returns until the nausea overpowers me. I lose the contents of my stomach, the cramping contractions of spasming abdominal muscles keeps me from drawing in a breath for too long and the lack of oxygen makes me light headed yet again. I crawl away from my vomit and lay on my back beneath the still dancing snow. As I look skyward, blinking more than usual, as heavy flakes of crisp clean snow land on my eyelashes, I see dogwood trees. Reaching up toward the sky, they have many branches, but no leaves. It is winter. It is cold, and hard under this soft blanket of powdery snow. It is so quiet where I am, I hear the snow crunching, compressing becoming more densely packed as I move on it. I hear only the faint sound of the wind as it blows through the barren trees, and the thumping beat of my own heart as the blood courses through my throbbing head. The smell is of cold air and vomit. I roll to my side and get to my feet again. I know only that I am cold and I am injured, I know to walk that way only because I see my blood soaked footprints behind me. I follow them in a straight line with my gaze, as far as I can see my quickly-disappearing footprints. As my eyes reach the horizon the stark white of the landscape becomes one with the white snowy sky and the world seems to end, right there at this blank white slate. I see a faint trail of grey streak across the sky. Is that smoke? No matter, it's too far to turn back now. I turn back and continue into the woods, up the hill ahead of me. The further I go, the deeper the snow seems to be. I see the crest of the hill now and I start to speed my ascent, hoping the vantage will show me where I am. I have a misstep - I think - and I stumble, but when I do I come down hard in an area of already compacted snow. My scalp is bleeding again. Goddamn it. What did I step on? A root? A rock? I look around and see nothing. I take another step forward and the snow crushed too easily. I look down and see blood stained ivory snow with irregular indentations in it ahead of me. As I lift my head and follow the dimples I see they form a path up the hill. They are footprints. Footprints covered in fresh snow. I start to run through the trees now and every step I take lands a foot in an already existing hole. Every impact wrings more blood from my scalp, dropping into the pristine white snow. I reach the top of the hill and take a deep breath as I scan the environment. There are still more woods, more barren dogwoods ahead - But I see it now. The Highway! I make my way through the woods and out into a clearing. I stumble again, and again into blood soaked footprints. I try to change my path, but the bloody foot prints seem to precede me. This head wound is worse than I thought. I may be hallucinating. The road is close now. I see a sign on the far side. It comes into focus as I get closer, the freshly falling snow seems to part and I read the large green sign with the white bold letters; 2mi - EXIT 43 I stare at the sign trying to decide why it's familiar. Do I work there? Do I travel this road? The snow falls heavy again and the sign is hard to read. There’s more on the sign, I cannot see it from this side of the road, I cross out into the street to get closer. Stearns-Kauffman Research Facility 2mi - Exit 43 I hear the sound, too late. The horn blaring, the tires fighting for purchase on the icy road - sliding and skidding the old white Bronco’s headlights blind me as it approaches coming up the off ramp. I have no time or energy left to react and in a moment it is upon me. ... “I’m going to the store, we’re all out of laundry soap!” I yelled to my husband, Dale, as I made my way up from the basement. Grabbing my coat, tucking my long black hair under my woolen hat, and getting my gloves from the mud room, slipping into my winter boots. Dale is watching football in the den with the boys. I don’t think he even heard me. I walked across the house and repeated myself from the threshold to the den, “I’m going to the store, we’re all out of laundry soap. Do you want anything while I’m out?” Dale replied, sheepishly, “We don’t have anything for dinner, hun - the boys asked if we could get a pizza? Can you stop and get a couple from Papa Murphy’s if I call it in?” “Pizza, huh? You boys are going to turn into a pizza. Ok, on one condition, I’m bringing salad, too - and I want to see empty salad bowls - not a Golden Retriever with lettuce up his nose,” I replied. It seems compromise is the only way to raise two boys, three if you count Dale. Four if you count Rowdy, the Golden. I walk into the room to have a more discreet conversation with Dale, the Vikings have scored a touchdown and my three boys get loud. I lean over Dale’s La-Z-Boy and whisper in his ear, “Wait until I text you to order the pizza - I have to stop at the lab to check on a thing.” “A thing, huh?” Dale replies, eyes wide in mock surprise - As if he was somewhat offended that I wasn’t more verbose with my plan. “Fancy physicist thing in the lab place, huh?” “If you must know, my team is preparing the Unicorn for a dry run on Tuesday, and I want to make sure they calibrate the gravity perceptors to the correct phase of the moon,” I replied.Dale’s face scrunched up in confusion, “I was going to tell you to make sure they did that, Anna” Dale is an excellent woodworker, and I am an excellent theoretical physicist - I don’t know much about tools, and he doesn’t know much about the Higgs- Boson. And that’s why it works, he & I. ... I grabbed the keys to the SUV and headed outside. It had been snowing all weekend, and the roads were pretty bad, but after driving in Minnesota winters for the past 18 years, I had a pretty good idea of my abilities. The snow fell soft and fluffy and every step to the truck was a reminder of that irregular way the snow compresses under your feet when you walk on it. As I drove towards the lab I tuned into Sirius 138 for St. Louis and Minneapolis Traffic & Weather - More so for weather, since it was Sunday. I can see the snow, and I expect the snow, but it's nice to know it's not going to come down any harder while I’m out. The lab is well outside of Minnesota, off I35 - Remote enough to be safe, but close enough that my home in Lakeville didn’t make the commute unbearable. I passed the Cub Foods on the way out of my Neighborhood, planning to stop on the return trip, since I now needed to also get the pizzas. I traveled South for a few miles until I came to my exit, 43, and pulled into the parking lot at the Stearns-Kauffman Laboratory. There were 3 other cars in the lot, Jerry, Dave and Kelsey. Undergrads from UM, all excellent and eager to learn, and totally excited to be part of this experiment. I had to take off my glove to enter my PIN into the door lock, which was still difficult because #6 was frozen. Three tries later and I was in. The mud room separated me from the lab, that and a retina scanner. I scanned in and made my way to the Unicorn lab. The Unicorn was an acronym for Unified Near-field Isotropic Cohesive Organic Radiation Nexxus. The theory was that if we generated a magnetic field from genetically modified electric eel skins - grown in a lab, of course, and irradiated them with heavy isotopes we might be able to organically generate a self sustaining organic energy source. The Unicorn device was fairly massive, about the size of a VW Bus, and we calculated that it should produce about 10,000 Kilowatts of power per square foot of irradiated skin - And this bus had 600 square feet of skin layered inside of it. Just as I rounded the corner and headed for the lab, Jerry came bolting at me from the calibration room - A set of Fiskars in his hands and a look of terror in his eyes. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, don’t run with scissors!” I said to Jerry, jokingly - But Jerry didn’t laugh. He rushed past me, paused a moment and turned back... “It's bad, Anna, it's really bad,” said Jerry, dropping the blood soaked scissors to the cold linoleum floor “Relax, Jerr- I was just coming to tell you not to forget the moon phase as a gravitational fact--” I was cut off, interrupted by a blaring alarm. Jerry looked me in the eyes and I could read his lips -”I’m sorry, I screwed up” and with that he turned and ran down the hall and out into the freshly covered snowy parking lot. I turned to the access panel on the wall, where the alarm was coming from. I entered my override command and shut off the sirens. The screen read “CRITICAL MASS IN 2:34” - I ran towards the control room which overlooks the staging area where the Unicorn Bus sits. The red lights spun around silently, spilling over the console and the ceiling and the doorway. There was a loud hum and perceptible heat coming from the room below. I came up behind Dave, tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “What the Hell is going on?” Dave replied, as Kesley typed feverishly at her keyboard, “Jerry was calibrating for Tuesday and he fucked it up, like really fucked it up.” “How? What did he do?” I asked impatiently. Kelsey answered before Dave could collect his thoughts, “You both need to leave -right fucking now. I might be able to power it down, I don’t know - I’m searching for a place to send it.” “Talk to me Kelsey, what’s happening - why is the Unicorn running?” I asked “Jerry went nuts, he said he walked into the calibration room and he was already there. At first I thought he was having a seizure or a psychotic break, but then I saw the blood, so much blood. I think he killed whatever he saw in the calibration room. But then the Unicorn just came online. I didn’t start it, Dave didn’t start it. It just started itself. It's been exponentially increasing in output for about 20 minutes, and I have been trying to shut it down,” Kelsey filled me in. I replied to Dave and Kelsey, “Dave you said Jerry fucked up, so did he, what did he do?” Dave answered me angrily, “Remember the isotope we agreed to use? Well, Jerry decided the yield would self sustain if he loaded the isotope with tachyons.” Kelsey blurted out again, “Seriously not finding any way to shut this down - you need to leave!” The alarm on the screen read “CRITICAL MASS 1:26” now. “What happens when it blows”, Dave asked Kelsey, and Kelsey just looked at me, terrified. I answered for her, “Depending on the amount of power it's making when it goes, and whatever the fuck he did with those tachyons... A blast radius of 2 to 100 miles...of..of..some sort of new energy. Goddamnit, Jerry.” I reached for Kelsey and grabbed her wrist, “Let’s go- This cannot be stopped” The three of us ran quickly out of the building and into the parking lot, Dave and Kelsey ran to Dave’s Porsche. “Come on, if we’re going to out run this blast we gotta go now,” Dave said as he shoved Kelsey into the passenger’s seat, “I’m sorry, Anna, only two seats!” He said as he took off. I started my Bronco and floored it, sliding wildly in the icy parking lot. I suddenly gained grip as the Unicorn’s heat had started to spread, thawing and drying the pavement. I exited the lot and headed back up onto I35 via the off ramp. The snow was falling heavy again and I didn’t see the woman standing there until it was too late. I leaned on the horn, but she didn’t react. I struck her as I skidded out of control, and into the guardrail. Bouncing off, the old Bronco bucked and fought me, rending the wheel from my hands. I had no control now. The truck ricocheted back towards the icy shoulder and flew over the edge of the overpass. I came down hard on the nose and the Bronco flipped several more times. I kicked open the door and crawled out, blood pouring from a gash in my head. I felt nauseous as I started to stand. And that’s when I felt it. The Unicorn had gone critical, and a shock wave washed over me, throwing me back... and back... and back... With every footstep the crisp freshly fallen snow crushed and compressed with that irregular abrasive sound it makes. It was familiar, yet foreign all at once. The world was just now starting to come into focus, and it was white. In all directions nothing but white... ______________________________________________ Hovering Black Orbs [language ~2000 words] For a moment I’m not here. The explosions and fire and debris in the sky are happening but it doesn’t register. It’s not terrible. It’s fireworks. But I return to here and it is not good. It’s not fireworks. It’s bad. Everything is bad. It’s choking black smoke and hellish red flames. That dying, gargantuan metal bird being torn to bits used to be my entire life. Five minutes ago, it was a spaceship called The Cygnus, named after the constellation. Now it’s chunks of hot death. Hailing pieces of people with names and lovers and home planets. For a moment, I want to be out there with them. I want to be on fire, exploding, screaming and dying. All I did was pull a lever, give my handprint and mash an eject-cabin button – and now I’m here. Should I be? Why do I deserve this while that happens to them? But I’ve only escaped that way of dying. The drogue chute has not deployed and the stabilizers are not slowing the fall much. I may be dead any moment now. There’s no time for this shit. I’ll mourn and question what it all means later. No fucking time for that shit, Peethum. –No time for what, Krom? Estimated time until impact. –Thirty nine seconds. Impacting what – what’s the terrain? –Forest. We will crash into Takso Forest in thirty three seconds. Estimated chance of survival. –Between 34 and 72 percent. Fuck. Threats to survival within the forest. –Sensors detect organic/cloudmatter hybrids, most likely Protodothi. Protodothi? Dots? Here? –Yes. Fuck! Fuck. Okay, if we survive impact, can we survive the Dots? –Twenty one seconds until impact. The cloud contains very little information about Protodothi, except that they feed on cortisol-exudus and cannot only be destroyed unless their hardware source is destroyed. Their hardware source is unknown. Cortisol-exudus? –The bioenergetic field around mammals when their sense of fear is activated. What? –They feed on fear, Krom. Embrace for impact in… Ten… Nine… Eight… *** Head crushing alarms. The oxygen meter blinks: >1% >1% >1% Stars of Taghila, Peethum. How long was I out? –When you are offline, I am offline Krom. Right. Fucking brain implant, sure. Well fuck, we survived the crash then. –Correct. Now what? –If you stay in the escape pod, you will suffocate to death. My other choice is to be eaten by Dots out there? –If you down-regulate your sympathetic nervous system, the Prododothi will not consume you. Training was eons ago. What does that mean? –Breathe slowly and deeply. If your heart rate rises, interpret it as excitement rather than fear. Smile. It will convince your brain that you are happy, not afraid. Focus on positive bodily sensations. Interpret negative stimuli as neutral. Visualize pleasurable imagery. Sing. That’s ridiculous. –Centuries of cloud data confirm that these methods effectively reduce cortisol production. You know what you fucking know-it-all? –What, Krom? Air rushes in as I open the hatch. Deep inhalation. The woods are dense all around except where we crashed. I’m literally in a fucking spotlight, Peethum. They’re going to see me here. –That is one thought option, Krom. Another is that you are lucky to be alive. Another is that the light is warm. Another is that perhaps that if you are seen, you will be viewed as a friend instead of a foe. Deep exhalation. Peethum is pretty much always right. After all, he has access to all streaming data in the Y3 System. Focusing on what is good. That is what I will do. The taste of blood in my mouth is sweet, like a delicacy from Garro. The headache has a rhythm to it, more gentle than it is sharp. There is a soothing hush, here. So many trees everywhere. An army of them. No, a family of them. An ancient family of gnarled, gray trees. Roots like stone tentacles wind along the ground. They must reach deep into this planet. They must know its secrets. My chest rises and falls as if in a hurry to get somewhere. I place my hand there and sing “There there, little heart. There is nothing to fear!” When I was a child, elders told us stories about Dots. Black, floating orbs that entered peoples’ minds and devoured them from within their bodies. These floating terrors did this to feed a dull light at their center. But is it true? “They’re just stories,” I sing. “They’re just sto-sto-stories!” Maybe the Dots are asleep, dreaming of honey glazed Fargila. Cloudmatter must rest, right? Otherwise the hardware circuits would burn out. Now I’m dreaming of glazed Fargila. A steaming, golden Fargila covered in oils and herbs, fresh out of the cooking pit. Peethum’s data could be inaccurate or outdated. I don’t see black orbs floating around. Dots could be part of an elaborate mythology made up by pranksters trying to scare children. Then again, if there are no Dots around, why should I play this positive thinking game? What’s the point? Peethum, what if there are no Dots? What if you’re wrong? –If I am wrong, then the detected organic/cloudmatter hybrids are something other than Protodothi. If I am right, they are Protodothi. A breath so deep I become a balloon. I’m a balloon, Peethum. I’m a balloon. –You are a human, Krom. My lungs are bigger than this planet, bigger than the Y3 System. I am a child smiling for the first time sucking air in through tiny white teeth. The forest is a universe of its own. Crouching to touch the soil beneath – my knee! My knee, Peethum! My fucking knee! –Interpret the pain as a sensation without value. It is a sensation, and only a sensation. This knee is just a knee. Fuck! Fuck! What a beautiful knee! It sings! It sings like a choir of Zorbi priestesses! My heart jumps at the sound of a twig crunching under foot. “How exciting to hear the breath of the forest.” Peethum, which direction is away from the missile silos? –Southwest. There will be a river and unincorporated network of villages. Which way is Southwest? –Turn right. Hobbling now – like an elder. A wise, respected elder. Hobbling toward the river, where there are fish. I fill my lungs and puff my cheeks. My face is one of those goofy earthling fish. Bob bob bob bob, twisting my little fins about to wade through the water. Exhale through my man mouth. Men are good. Good, good men. We build big things and fly through black mystery of space. Explorers. Good guys. Passing over a fallen log, my knee sings some more! I’m one of the good guys. I’m a good man with a brain implant that tells me how to survive in dangerous situations. Maybe I’m a post-man. A futuristic cyborg written into some science fiction story from when Earth was habitable. When people only dreamed of what we can do now. There is light straight ahead. A dull spark in the heart of a dark forest. Light is a collection of particles entering through membranes of the eye. Stars give us light. Stars. Stars live and die. I am filled with gratitude for stars. We know so much about them, and yet the force that birthed them is unknowable. Light. It grows closer, larger. Movement of light. Deep breathing, slow. An object. A dark object in spherical form, its center illuminated by light particles, sacred stars trapped in floating mysteries. Several floating mysteries. Many black orbs glowing from their centers. The size of human heads. Horrible, terrible orbs hovering toward me. Peethum, what do I do? –Long, deep breaths. Force yourself to smile. Visualize- I’m going to die. –Decrease your cortisol-exudus and- They eat people alive. –You must stay calm. The Dots form a circle around me. I cannot take deep breaths. I can hardly breathe at all. The sensation in my knee sharpens so much that it explodes inside and I cry out, collapsing and screaming. They get closer and closer – I could touch them. But my mind is flooded with images and I’m clutching my head, curled into a ball. All I can see is Yari and me, when we were children, racing to the other side of the lake. He disappears under the water. The water reddens around me and I thrash toward the shore. Naked on the hot pebbles, I heave and sob and yell his name. The thing that took him from me forever emerges. Its fangs are chunks of metal on fire, a gaping mouth. Commander Rung emerges from the mouth and lands a blow to the side of my head. “You’re not cut out for flight squad, Krom. Why don’t you go cry to your mother, you coward.” Peethum! What’s happening! –Your visual cortex and limbic system are abnormally active. You must decrease your- Diantha straddles Doctor Abinor at the top of a hill. They turn to me, their eyes tiny black orbs. She throws back her head, shouting “Krom never meant anything to me! He is worthless!” Their faces melt into puddles of blackness. I am piloting The Cygnus watching missiles enter the radar screen. There is no eject button. Explosions behind me somewhere. Heat. My skin is boiling. A sharp object presses in through my back. My body is being crushed. Everything is bad. A silent scream for Peethum. A silent scream for anyone. Silence. Blackness. Nothing. *** The black orbs hover in stillness all around me. I am relaxed, completely free of fear. What happened? Peethum, are you there? –Yes, Krom. I’ve never felt so rested in my life. –That makes sense based on what they're saying. You’re talking to the Dots? How? –Yes. We’ve established a secure network. What are they saying? –They were originally a Rhombii military experiment. When they were first programmed, they were designed to use an enemy’s fear against them. They would detect cortisol-exudus, amplify it and inject a virus into the cortisol production zone. Then why am I alive? –Someone modified their software a short while ago. Apparently, not long before you ejected from The Cygnus. The Protodothi were reprogrammed to inject a cortisol neutralizing agent into a target after amplifying the field. This should have an extremely calming effect. Who would turn them from killers to healers? That’s so bizarre. –They do not know, nor do I. However, based on the timing of when the reprogramming took place, it could have been someone on The Cygnus before it was destroyed. On my feet now, I feel my knee throbbing. But the pain is dull and subdued. It is manageable. When I step forward the Dots move with me. Are they following me? –They would like to accompany you. Why? –They would like to make friends. This is something they have never had the opportunity to do. After a while we reach the river at the edge of the forest. I strip off my clothes and step into the water. Dots orbit around my naked body. The water is cold. I splash my face and shout. Floating on my back, I close my eyes. Tears roll down my cheeks into the river. The water is shallow enough that after diving and swimming just a few feet down, I am able to touch the mushy soil below. Taking a handful, I surface and gasp. I throw it at one of the Dots and laugh. The mush flies through it as if it were an apparition. The Dot seems to angle itself, almost like the head of a confused dog. The light at its center blinks a couple of times. Peethum, tell it that I am playing. If we’re friends, we can play together. –I have conveyed the message, Krom. They do not understand. Perhaps building bonds of friendship with them will take some time. I splash water at them and laugh some more, feeling half liberated and half mad. Soon we'll head downstream toward the unincorporated villages Peethum mentioned. Beyond that, I don't know what will happen. But right now, everything is alright.