Short Story Contest # 176 Theme: "Into the Woods" courtesy of @Lancie Congratulations @Hubardo for your first medal with the science fiction story, Hovering Black Orbs. _____________________________________________ 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.