“Once upon a time, there was a good little boy who went to sleep.”
“I want a real bedtime story please.”
Mae Lin sighed a frustrated sigh.
“Why do you want me to tell you a bedtime story? Why don’t you play videogames until you fall asleep like a normal kid?” she asked.
“The stories help me sleep, mom. They help me forget,” said Xiao.
“I have to be in the Jump Deck right now. I can’t be wasting time with your insomnia issues,” said Mae Lin. Xiao seemed very sad. Mae Lin cleared her throat. “Why don’t you let your PAL read you a story?”
At her mention, a holographic pterodactyl flew around Xiao’s head and landed on his shoulder.
“He’s boring. And besides, Omar hacked him so he only speaks German now,” said Xiao.
“The Tenko family is much respected. A rumor like that will not do, Xiao,” said Mae Lin.
“Nein! Achtung!” Xiao’s PAL said. Mae Lin sighed again.
“I’ll have a word with them tomorrow. Right now you need your sleep cycle and I need to be at my station. This is an exploratory mission, son. Failure is not an option and it certainly won’t be because of my absence.”
“Please? Just one? I won’t be able to sleep otherwise and I have a big test tomorrow and without proper rest I will fail and then I will be sent back a grade and and…”
“Okay! Fine. One story to get you on your way,” said Mae Lin. She browsed through the files on the boy’s shelf. “How does Wally and the Penguin sound?”
“Boring,” said Xiao.
“Wouldn’t that be a good thing if you’re trying to fall sleep?” asked Mae Lin.
“Another one,” said Xiao.
“How about Julio and the Sleeping Fairy?”
“The Hero and the Princess?”
Xiao shook his head.
“Mr. Snuggles and the Military Industrial Complex?”
“Okay, next one I pick is the one I’m doing no matter what,” said Mae Lin.
“Mom,” Xiao whined.
Mae Lin picked up the next file. It was a plain, clear composite with the words SKOPS written on it in black ink. That was unusual for a file but admittedly not for her son’s eclectic tastes. She placed the file on the transmitter and the room darkened to enhance the holographic effect.
“Okay, here’s the story of SKOPS,” said Mae Lin as the words filtered through her visual field display. Xiao sat up in bed. He looked curious. “Um, let’s see. Okay, so once in a distant universe, the rules were different. It was the fault of others and so the wrongs had to be righted.”
The file projected a scene of deep space, but the colors were all wrong. The stars were black against a pale white void and swirling gas clouds and nebula burst with all the colors of the rainbow, though each had a sickly tint as if they were ill or malnourished. Xiao’s eyes widened with awe.
“The one who was chosen was SKOPS. The choice was made before thought and the first thought was Help. The second thought was No. The third thought was Why? This is a weird story. Where’d you get this?” Mae Lin asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t know I had it,” said Xiao.
The hologram shifted to a scene on a planet with an ecosystem that pushed the limits of human perception. Clustered “plant” “life” clung to black jagged rocks, pulsating in time to an unknown beat. Rivers of opaque milky fluid jam-packed with tiny throbbing “fish” or “worms” or something like it flowed through muddy sand between groups of fleshy grass-like stalks. An alien creature came into view that defied explanation. It had no symmetry. It had no rhyme or reason. It didn’t make any sense, it just was. Everything was hard to look at or focus on for too long.
“Uh. Um, so, okay. So SKOPS would be the voice of the All-Soul in All Universes and SKOPS knew the path to guide the wrong to the right. But wrong entered SKOPS and SKOPS became wrong and wrong would be All Universes,” Mae Lin said, trying to keep up with the text flying past her retinas.
A darkness appeared then. Xiao felt himself shrink. It was powerful, this darkness. The feeling it gave him was more powerful than any feeling Xiao had ever had. It was dark and empty and cold, but mostly it was waiting to be filled. The file expanded its field of view as the darkness grew from a spot just above the alien thing. It reached out and the alien creature screamed. It didn’t sound exactly like a scream, but the noise it was making was unmistakably a scream to Xiao. He knew instinctively that it was being eaten alive by the darkness. The alien’s pain and suffering was so immense that it twisted and turned and contracted until fluids began to leak out of it.
“Wow. Neat visuals. Whoever designed this didn’t spare any expense. This is almost super photorealistic,” said Mae Lin.
Xiao had never been more terrified in his life. He was watching something die a slow and painful death right before his eyes. This wasn’t a generated image. This was real. He knew it was real. Then the darkness changed. It moved. It was impossible, but Xiao absolutely knew that the darkness was now looking at him. And it knew he could see it.
“And SKOPS is still wrong and the Universe was wrong and SKOPS found new Universe for new wrong. The End. Good night. Sleep tight. Good luck on your test tomorrow,” said Mae Lin as she sped through the last of the story and shut the file off before the darkness finished its work on the alien and its planet. She kissed Xiao on his cold sweaty forehead and left the room without another word. The room was dark and silent for a moment before a quick, “Auf Wiedersehen!” from Xiao’s PAL made him yelp in surprise.
Xiao did not sleep that night. Even the calming mist and sleepy time mélange did little to ease his nerves. All he could see was the darkness. The darkness. SKOPS. Every little noise was a footstep or a soft breath. Every shadow was an arm moving, shoulders shifting, claws extending. When he could take it no longer, he did something he hadn’t done in years. He made his PAL turn on the night light.
Mae Lin found her way to the Jump Deck and logged in to her workstation, just seconds before her shift start time. She was usually early, as every crew member was expected to be, and her shift supervisor noticed. She cursed silently as the supervisor made a note on his pad. The mission had not changed since her last shift, so it would be an easy day, Mae Lin reassured herself. The exploratory vessel, Paramethium, was tasked with exploring the many realities that made up the local multiverse super cluster. It looked nothing like the glossy ships of yesteryear’s space fantasies. The Paramethium was solid, heavy, and utilitarian. It was spherical and smooth on the outside to prevent hull rupture during sphere breach, but the inside was a mess of dark hallways, confusing grid access, and spotty power circulation. The mission had only been underway for a year in local time, but the planning, funding, and building process had taken so long that by the time the approval phase had arrived, the Paramethium was already a relic. The vessel was affectionately called the Old Egg by her crew not only because of its shape but because, like a fossilized dinosaur egg, it was ancient before it was even born.
Mae Lin checked the daily brief, reviewed the mission logs from that morning, and settled into her routine. She was responsible for one thing on the vessel. Making sure the lights on the sensor gauges for the wave disruption module stayed green. If they were green, it was good. If they were yellow, it meant a system glitch. If they were red, it meant everyone on the vessel had maybe seconds before instant quantum unraveling occurred. Luckily, she’d never seen red. Every twenty minutes, Mae Lin ran a system diagnostic. The results came back positive every time. This would continue for the next ten hours until an automated message from Xiao’s educator made its way into her inbox.
The test went terribly. Xiao could not focus to save his life. Not only had he not slept, but during the test his mind kept replaying the story from last night again and again. The alien’s death throes haunted him. He was not new to gore or violence. He’d committed millions of digital murders over years of playing first person shooters. This was different. This was too real. It was raw suffering. And that… thing… SKOPS. SKOPS saw him. It looked right into him. Into his soul. Xiao knew it was crazy, but this thing was real. More real than real.
There. In the corner. Underneath Virginia’s desk. That shadow seemed darker than the others. Was it? Over there near the front, small and hunched over. No, it was just the class statue. But it looked dark from the corner of his eye. A trick of the light? That was impossible in this virtual classroom. It must have been a glitch.
“Eyes on your exam, Mr. Lin,” said Xiao’s educator as she hovered around the room. There wasn’t a more boring educator than Miss Vivec. She could have chosen absolutely any conceivable avatar ever, but she decided to stick to the standard model, a grey outline of a non-specific gendered person. Even if Xiao had the best sleep ever, her dull monotone would have put him out like a light.
Back to the exam. Question six. If a standard physical model is presented with a Universal constant, how far from the universe is considered the minimum membrane index before the constant changes? Dang. An essay question. Xiao hated those. The room got imperceptibly darker. Xiao looked around. Everything was as it should be. The view outside the classroom was a calming view of the cosmos, much different than the one he saw last night in the story. Crap, there it was again. That feeling. That feeling that the world was different. Different than the world from before the story, when there was no SKOPS. Back to the question, back to the question. Xiao squinted. His test paper was hard to see in the dark.
“You’re in my light,” said Xiao. He looked up. He froze. There it was on the ceiling. The shadow. SKOPS! It was here! It was real!
“Mr. Lin I won’t tell you ag…. DISCONNECTED. ERROR.
Xiao threw the uplink across the room and ran. He had to hide. It was here on the ship. It was here for him. It wanted him, he knew it did. The crew barely noticed him as he ran to the upper decks. Security Officer Ramirez stopped him.
“Hold on, Junior. This is your educational block,” said Ramirez.
“No, no I can’t. I have to find my mom. I don’t want to…” Xiao’s words flowed out of him in a panic.
“Slow down. Why are you running? What’s wrong?” asked Ramirez.
“It followed me. From the story. It’s here,” said Xiao.
“Wait. Your eyes. Did you forcibly disconnect from your uplink?” asked Ramirez.
Xiao couldn’t speak. Right over Ramirez’s shoulder it hovered. It looked at him. A shape like nothing. No, Xiao saw a head and shoulders now. And… an arm?
“It. It’s…” Xiao squeaked.
“Son, I’m gonna have to take you to the medical ward…” the arm reached out, “…and contact your parent or guardian…” the arm split, two, four, five, sharp needles, “What is your name and ID codeAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
Ramirez bent over backwards. The shadow had stabbed him somewhere in the spine and bent him backwards as if to see what it had caught. Black needles extended from Ramirez’s chest as he slowly slid down onto the shadow’s pointed fingers. Ramirez screamed and bent and screamed louder and bent more. In seconds, the scream was no longer human and Ramirez had become twisted beyond recognition, but he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t possibly be alive but he wasn’t freaking dead! Xiao had seen contortionists before on the holo-vids. This was beyond that. Bones were sticking out all over his body. Blood and other fluids were pooling on the floor. Ramirez’s head was buried somewhere inside a tangle of arms and legs but he was still screaming. The shadow’s head turned. It had a face now.
It had been a long shift and Mae Lin felt the stimulants wearing off. She was idly wondering whether or not it would be a good investment to get those artificial ocular implants they were calling “Arty Eyes” like Maya a few chairs down had gotten when the message popped. She ignored it at first, figuring it would have been flagged with high importance if it had come from a superior, and went back to monitoring the lights on the sensor gauges.
During a lull between multiversal folds, she decided to check her inbox. The message was short and to the point, like messages from educators usually were.
We regret to inform you that XIAO LIN did not pass his exam and has been sent back to remedial training in the area of Subatomic Physical Interactions between Spheres. The Head Educator would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience. Thank you and have a nice cycle.
Mae Lin re-read the message a hundred times. This couldn’t be right. Xiao was a bright kid. He didn’t need remedial. His talk of failing the test the night before was just nerves. He didn’t need to get sent back. What had happened? She opened a channel to her son, but after a few blips, a negative response was returned. Now was not the time for him to be ignoring her calls. Not when she was this pissed. She was going to have to track him down when her shift was over.
Xiao hid in the supply closet behind old sweeper robots. It was dark save for a single flickering light. Out in the hall, the voice of Officer Ramirez called for him, asking him to come out and that it was safe now. But it wasn’t Ramirez. Xiao’s PAL appeared on his shoulder. “Anruf fur Sie,” it said.
“I don’t know what that means. Go away,” said Xiao.
“Nein, mein friend. It is you who must go away,” said the PAL. Xiao saw his PAL melt into a pool of darkness.
“No!” Xiao screamed. He swatted at the image as it grew to engulf him. In a moment of clarity, he reached back behind his head where the PAL chip was located and pressed the slot in to open it. It didn’t open.
“Close your eyes. Come with me.”
Xiao felt dead, or perhaps he was dying. Perhaps he’d never been alive at all. It was all fake. This life. Fleeting and imaginary. No more real than his PAL’s life was real. Xiao felt wrong. It was trying to make him wrong. Xiao didn’t want to be wrong. He didn’t want to be anything other than himself. He was real. SKOPS was wrong, not him. He grabbed the chip slot between his fingernails and pulled. The world around him got fuzzy, fuzzier than it already had been when he pulled the uplink free. His vision was blurry, then static, then pain. Pain! It hurt so much, but he had to be free! Finally a sharp pop and the world was gone.
Mae Lin looked up from her station.
“I need to speak with you,” said a Security Officer.
“Okay?” Mae Lin was confused and worried. “What’s this about?” she asked when she was in hall outside the Jump Deck.
“Do you know where your son is?” asked the officer.
“He’s supposed to be in the middle of his educational block. He’s usually at the uplink in his room,” said Mae Lin. The officer shook his head.
“He’s missing,” said the officer.
“Missing? What happened?” The officer flinched.
“You probably shouldn’t be seeing this but… here.”
He sent a data package to her. Mae Lin accepted. It was a video file. It showed Xiao in his room with his uplink. Then he screamed, tearing the uplink out and running out of his room. The next video showed him running toward the upper decks when he was stopped. There was no audio, but she could tell her son was distressed. Then Xiao pointed at the officer that stopped him and the officer started screaming, grabbing for his back.
“My god. What is this?” Mae Lin asked.
“We need to find him. Do you know where he could be?”
“No, but I’ll do whatever I can to help, Officer… um,”
“Ramirez,” the Security Officer said.
It was dark. Xiao opened his eyes. His fingers were wet with blood and buffer solution. A sweeper robot was cleaning the mess leaking out of Xiao’s neck. Everything was blurry and there was so much pain, but he couldn’t hide here. He had to find his mom. He put his ear to the door of the closet and listened. When he heard nothing, he slid the door open and dashed for the stairs to the upper decks. There was an announcement on the P.A. system, but he wasn’t listening. The walls and signs were blank, nothing was streaming through his optics anymore. He had to rely on the painted signs to navigate.
He reached the Jump Deck a minute later, tired and dizzy from blood loss, his heart racing a million miles an hour. To his horror, the Jump Deck was dark. The night vision app in his retinas popped on but they didn’t have the latest firmware update so they lagged a microsecond behind his own vision and without the chip he couldn’t tell his PAL to disengage it.
He looked around, trying to gasp for air as quietly as he could. The announcement sounded distant behind him, which meant that all power had been lost to this section of the ship. It could have been one of the regular blackouts, but Xiao knew in his heart of hearts that SKOPS was behind this. He went to the nearest security station, then hesitated. He remembered Ramirez’s voice calling for him. He decided to find his mom’s workstation. He’d only been once or twice for ‘Bring Your Offspring to Work Day’, but he remembered where it was. The doors were half open. Despite the numerous survival horror games he’d beaten, Xiao was more scared than he’d ever been in his life, but he steeled himself and pushed ahead.
He threw up when he saw what had happened to his mom’s co-workers. They were all in a corner, twisted together in a pile and… writhing.
He caught his breath outside. What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t call for help. He couldn’t do anything with that thing running around.
“Hey. You,” someone said. Xiao slowly turned. A woman sat next to a wall, her legs jutting at wrong angles away from her. “You’re Mae Lin’s kid, right?”
“I need you to do something for me. Go to the Command Deck. Find the control room. Take this card,” she lifted her jumbled mess of a hand, a card somehow nestled between her twisted fingers. “Tell them Supervisor Miyamoto recommends that we activate Cloister Protocol.” Xiao shook his head. “You need to. Something got on the vessel. Something wrong. We can’t allow it to spread to other universes. On this ship, it could potentially reach every quantum instance. Every single one.”
“I can’t… I can’t I just want my mom,” Xiao said, crying.
“Do this to save your mom. To save yourself. There are potentially trillions of you out there traveling right next to our vessel in the space between spheres. And trillions of your mom. All the slightest bit different, but more or less you. You can save them. All you have to do is do what I asked you to do. Please.”
Everything was a blur after that. From Xiao tearing the card from Miyamoto’s hand as she screamed in pain, to finding an impulse weapon in an open weapon container, to running from the screaming doors to the stairs until finally he was at the Command Deck. The lights were on here and the announcement was coming through loud and clear. “All personnel, please report to the common room at the recommendation of Officer Ramirez for safety. All personnel, please report to…” repeating over and over.
Xiao found the main doors to the control room. They were sealed and battered extensively by something with incredible strength.
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?” Xiao called, but his voice was a whisper. He ran up to the door’s panel and pressed the intercom button. “I have a message from Supervisor Miyamoto and a card I need to give to you. Activate Cloister Protocol. She said activate Cloister Protocol.”
The door panel buzzed.
“Hello?” came an older man’s voice. He recognized the voice. It came on every morning with the daily salute. Xiao couldn’t remember who the voice belonged to though.
“Hello, my name is Xiao Lin and I have a card from Supervisor Miyamoto and she said to activate the Cloister Protocol and and…”
“How do I know that? How I know you’re not one of them?” asked the voice.
“I’m not. I’m not SKOPS,” said Xiao Lin. A noise from down the hall made him whirl around and raise the impulse gun.
“Is that what it’s called? Never mind. Where is your parent or guardian? Did a security team send you here?” asked the voice.
“No, I’m by myself. Supervisor Miyamoto told me to come here and give you this card,” said Xiao. More sounds. The sound of something banging on metal. The faint echoes of screams. The lights were getting dimmer. “Please open up!”
“The door is sealed for safety. I’ll send a security team to escort you…”
“No please! Let me in! There’s no one left out here!” Xiao screamed.
“Calm down. You’re going to be all right. Here, I’m opening a slot next to the panel. Stick the card in there,” said the voice. Xiao did so. The card disappeared. After a moment, “Thank you, son. You were brave. Good luck out there.” The panel turned off. Xiao stood there for an eternity.
“Let me in! Help me! Help! Mom, I’m scared!” Xiao screamed.
Xiao turned and saw his mom standing in the hall. She looked harried and out of breath, but it was her. Xiao ran towards her. He didn’t care about anything else, he needed to be in her arms. Then he stopped dead in his tracks. Her eyes. Her body. A shadow surrounded her, darker even than the darkness.
“You… you’re not mom,” said Xiao.
“Xiao, what are you talking about? What happened to you? What have you done? Your neck is bleeding!” she said, walking closer. Xiao lifted the impulse gun.
“I know it’s you SKOPS! Don’t pretend to be my mom!” he yelled.
“Xiao, put that down. It’s me. I don’t know what’s going on but it all started with you. Officer Ramirez showed me the video. You did something…”
“No! This was SKOPS. This was all SKOPS. It came here. It followed me to class and then it… It’s not my fault. It’s your fault, SKOPS! You did this!”
“SKOPS? That story I read you last night? Honey, it’s just a story. SKOPS isn’t real,” said his mother.
“Yes it is! He did this! He killed everyone! No, you killed everyone, SKOPS!” Xiao shouted.
“Xiao. I am your mother. Put that thing down before you…” Mae Lin’s head exploded. Then her chest and stomach as Xiao fired the impulse gun into her. She slumped backwards, blood and organs and other things oozing out of her.
Xiao threw up again. The darkness closed in. Even his night vision app couldn’t detect the light. In his mind, in his heart, he heard a voice.
“You are mine now. You killed her. Now you are wrong.”
“No. No it’s a trick. My real mom is hiding somewhere,” said Xiao, but even as he spoke he felt the truth burrowing through his mind like a burning hot knife. He realized what he had done. It was wrong, now he was wrong. “It’s not true. It was an accident. You tricked me.”
“I was chosen. Now you are chosen. Open the door for All Universes and the All-Soul can make all things wrong. Then all things will be one.”
SKOPS appeared before him. It opened up and Xiao saw the infinite reaching out to him.
Meanwhile, several decks below, a light at Mae Lin’s station which had been orange for twenty minutes flashed red. Seconds later, the Cloister Protocol went into effect and the Paramethium ceased to be.
“Go to sleep, honey,” said Mae Lin.
“I can’t. I have a big test tomorrow and it’s wigging me out. I want a story,” said Xiao.
“Make your PAL read you one, I don’t have time,” said Mae Lin. At her mention, a holographic seagull flew around Xiao’s head and landed on his shoulder.
“I don’t want him to. He’s boring,” said Xiao.
“Too bad. I have to get to work. Good night,” said Mae Lin.
Xiao sighed. This blew monkey balls. Stories worked the best. Now he was going to get no sleep. Whatever, he thought. The PAL wasn’t all that bad. He rifled through the files on his shelves, going through them all until he found one he’d never seen before. A plain old file, unlabeled save the word SKOPS, written in black marker on its surface.
“Let’s give this one a shot.”