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Excerpt: XM Apocalypse 

Rosae torched the end of her cigarette and wondered how long it would take for her companion to realize just how badly she’d fucked up.

The bright-eyed recruit from Europa Base: Sigma Epsilon (Ligma Epsilon was what everyone over at Gamma Pi called them, but this wasn’t something she was going to share) was scanning everything he could. An endless stream of observations trilled from behind his helmet. Every few seconds or so, the Klydex beeped as he added a new entry into its database.

“This fungus here, you see it, along the creekbed? It’s structurally very similar to morchella esculenta, but the soil isn’t limestone based. It seems more like a sandy soil, which makes me wonder why the ground has retained this much heat. The temperature readings are practically off the charts. Fascinating, isn’t it? How is it that something like that can be growing here?”

Rosae had to chuckle as she dragged on her smoke.

“New territory, new rules,” she reminded him. “Didn’t they teach you that in primary?”

“Oh, yes,” he answered idly, the Klydex still beep-beeping away, “but Law of Mnesmone indicates that—”

“I know the Law of Mnesmone, kiddo. Take your helmet off for a second, will you? I need to do my job.”

He looked like he wanted to protest, but no way was he going to disobey an order from a commanding officer. He did what he was told immediately.

Rosae felt a twinge of guilt as she beheld the youthful visage before her. He couldn’t be more than 21, with the typical pasty, malnourished look of a Europa recruit. Looking at him, it wasn’t hard to believe that he’d been raised on bland, vitamin-enriched foodstuff powders and had lived through a water rationing period or two. His blonde hair was flat from the helmet, and his lively blue eyes kept darting upwards periodically, like he was still trying to read the information feed from the helmet’s LED. He smiled at her, and it was like seeing an excited twelve-year-old smile at her. She couldn’t help but smile back, despite the pang in her heart. How was she going to tell him?

“I’m going to take your vitals,” she informed him, removing the Psinode module from the pouch on her right hip. Carefully, she patched it to his temple and removed her own Klydex from her leg strap. A series of information played out on the small green screen, which she absorbed clinically. Breathing, good. Blood pressure, likewise. Pulse rate, slightly elevated, but they’d just crashed out of the multiverse warren. She couldn’t ask for anything better, given the circumstances.

“State your name and class, soldier.”

“Roys Ayreon, D-Class. Terraforming and Biodiversity Division.”

“And who am I?”

“Lieutenant Colonel Rosae Chindler, M.D, head researcher of Site 473. And my boss. I suppose. But I haven’t met you until now. Good to meet you, Lieutenant. Or—shit—sorry! Doctor?”

“Just call me Rosae, kid. This isn’t a test, I’m just trying to make sure all your marbles are still rolling around up there. Tell me what you remember.”

“About how we got here?”

“Yep.”

“Ah, okay. We departed Site 473 at 0800 hours on the SS Valki. Small staff, short jaunt. It was planned around Io-64’s periods of stability. Readings indicated an atmospheric and geographical structure similar to that of Earth’s. Very low indication of sentient life, possibly an XM Post-Apocalypse. Mission was to scout, take readings, and return before the next projected destabilization of Io-64. My first scouting mission,” he added. Rosae felt another pang. “But I don’t like liftoffs, so I went to sleep.”

His first scouting mission, so that explained why he opted to go into the Somnichamber for the ride. He’d missed all the action. Officer Ezra’s insistence on his way down to the server room that the route calculations were incorrect. Her own, prideful insistence that those calculations were not wrong. The ensuing argument. Rosae had called Ezra a ‘micromanaging, chauvinistic prick’…and that was precisely when the warren began to destabilize all around them. When the ship started rocking, she landed on one knee hard enough to make her cry out. Somewhere away, she could hear Captain Krychek’s gut-rending screams. A spill of crimson spreading out from underneath the cockpit door—she still could not fathom what had caused that to occur. General Counterson laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And in the window, those eyes

Rosae shuddered and pitched her cigarette butt. She wasn’t going to think about that. Certain chemicals were released on the warren ferries when destabilization occurred. The rest of it, she must have imagined. Must have.

“All right, soldier, you pass. Give me a report on these readings.”

As Ayreon began to rattle off a series of interpretations on the biometrics he’d gathered, Rosae pressed her fingerprint into the Klydex’s reader to access the crash diagnostics. Every line of the damage report that she read felt like a nail hammering into the lid of her coffin. Meanwhile, Ayreon rambled happily away, still thinking everything was fine.

“So the initial readings were accurate, is what you’re saying,” she answered.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good,” she said, pulling her helmet back up over her head. “Come with me.”

In silence, they crossed the dried-out creekbed and ascended a small hill adorned with flora that resembled fiddleheads. They were bright yellow in color, however, and had an odd, sulfurous smell. Rosae noted this passively along with the rest of the information that her Klydex was importing onto her screen. She was so absorbed in scouring the data for any potential energy resources that she did not see the body. In fact, she had to look down to notice it, and only after she nudged it with her boot.

“Oh, thank God,” a voice wheezed. A lively blue eye peered desperately out from behind a bloodied, shattered helmet. “Thank God, Lieutenant Colonel. I can’t move my legs. Help me. Help me please.”

Rosae did not think. She immediately went into triage mode.

“It’s all right,” she told him. “It’s okay. I’m here to help you. What’s your name, soldier?”

Carefully, she removed the helmet, and when she saw the face underneath it, the breath locked in her throat.

No, she thought.

“Roys Ayreon, D-Class,” the young, blonde soldier wheezed. “Terraforming and Biodiversity Division. Lieutenant, they’re dead. They’re all dead. I don’t want to die. Please help me.”

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