Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience voting to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Freak Dog Show Freak Farmer’s Market Freak Star
“Is it supposed to be that color?” Michelle asked. She wasn’t asking anyone in particular. Three of her associates were in the lounge with her, and any of them was welcome to look out the viewing window and see the star in the distance. Only one did; they weren’t getting paid at that moment, so there was no point in analyzing anything. Better to keep their eyes glued to their imitation beef stroganoff before it went cold. Their ship’s food imitator was notoriously uncooperative; anything that went cold went as hard as yeast-less bread.
“Huh. I’ve never seen it look like that,” Dominic answered. They’d been tracking the surrounding stars and the currents of dust between them for more than three months now, but that odd brown sheen to the nearest one was new. He’d woken up to its ordinary light just three hours ago. “You guys, take a look at this.” The third researcher, Yennifer, left her spoon, standing straight up, in her stroganoff and came to the window. The fourth, Hercule, refused. His eyes were closed whenever they were uncompensated.
“Maybe it consumed that planetoid?” Yennifer suggested. There had been a rogue body in the system thrust into a chaotic orbit around the star.
“No way it caused that kind of discoloration,” Michelle muttered. “If you drop one brown grain on a white beach it’s still a white beach.”
“We don’t know what was at the core of Morsel,” Dominic argued, referring to the planetoid’s nickname. “The more we look at all this empty space the more certain I am that the good stuff is hidden away in the rock.”
“Whatever it is, we should get back to the lab,” Michelle said. “We obviously have to study this.”
“I’m on break,” Hercule said without looking up. “Union regs. Even if that thing blows up or sings Mary Poppins songs I don’t have to look at it. Not for another twenty minutes.”
“I’ll join you,” Dominic said, a look of concern growing on his face. Was the light getting more intense? Dominic looked much tanner than usual. The potted plants in the corners of the lounge had a dried-out look to them, like palm trees next to an active volcano. “Yennifer?”
“No,” the youngest researcher answered after a moment. “I feel kind of sick after that stroganoff. I think I’m going to take the rest of the day. Shut my window.” She wandered off, holding her stomach. Hercule twisted on the couch without moving his legs, snatching the abandoned stroganoff off the table and digging into it himself.
Michelle and Dominic took their leave and headed back to the lab. It was always a relief to remember that it wasn’t like the sparsely-equipped facilities of their training. They were paid well even if the tooth-cracking sandwiches from the imitator didn’t show it. The labs were allowed to be comfortable, with plenty of furniture and a low-armed robotic assistant that managed to catch any dropped samples before they hit the floor.
Robot Update Telescope Session Quarantine
“Do you have any date for us on this coloration anomaly?” Michelle asked the robot. The machine was about five tall with a paint job rather like a lab coat. They’d stuck a scarf on it to give it some personality and named it Frosty. Normally Frosty was extremely polite, but his eye displays flashed red and the first sound he produced was an alarm. The two researchers heard the lock hiss closed.
“We are beginning quarantine procedure,” Frosty told them. “Please keep away from the door.”
“Why was quarantine activated?” Dominic asked. He had his hands out as if balancing on a piece of ship debris in the middle of the surf.
“One of the crew has fallen ill and is showing odd symptoms,” Frosty explained. “They’ve been isolated in Hallway 54H. A sterilized medical unit is being transported there now. Many onboard have been exposed to the one anomalous factor known.”
“The… the light?” Michelle asked. She rushed over to the window and grabbed the darkness screen, pulling it all the way across and hooking it into place. “Frosty, we were in that light for the last ten minutes. Who’s sick?”
“Yennifer Lottim,” the robot answered.
“She wasn’t feeling well,” Dominic reminded Michelle. “What symptoms is she showing?” The robot didn’t answer immediately. “Frosty, what symptoms is Yennifer showing?”
“I am not a diagnostics unit,” it eventually said, “and that information has just become classified. I can only tell you what the whole system knew moments ago.”
“Yennifer Lottim vomited in Hallway 54H, but did not collapse. Her skin took on a darker pallor and became visibly soft and puffy. She seemed paralyzed and unable to respond to queries from the computer’s intercom.”
“How do I look?” Michelle asked Dominic. The researchers spun around, examining each other. Without the brown light their slight tan was gone, and everything seemed normal.
“We’re fine,” Dominic reasoned.
“But why are we fine? We stood closer to the window than her… and longer too. Why would we not have any symptoms?” Dominic shrugged, scowled, and then rolled one of his shoulders a few more times. Any tiny itch or sting felt like the beginning of the end. He grabbed his shoulder and felt around for lumps or sensitive spots, finding nothing.
Light Research Blood Sampling Robot Hacking
He rushed over to one of rolled-up data screens and dragged it across an empty table, locking it in place much like the darkness curtain. Electricity flowed through it, lighting it up and providing an interface. He pulled up a small window with a video feed of the off-color star.
“It looks the same,” he said.
“Don’t look at it!” Michelle cried, throwing her fingers over her eyes.
“It’s a video feed, not the direct light. There can’t be any harm.”
“You don’t know that. Frosty, go record what he’s looking at and then show it to me. A double recording should be fine. That’s like wearing two pairs of rubber gloves.” The robot did as it was told. Michelle grabbed the sides of it and watched the slightly delayed video. “Give us a spectral analysis.” The robot beeped idly for several moments.
“There is a unique energy signature,” Frosty confirmed. “I cannot parse this information. The light is behaving in a way more akin to matter traveling at light speed.”
“That’s not possible,” Dominic said. He pulled up a blank window and did some calculations of his own with a fingertip. “There has to be some explanation.” The video feed cut off. He opened another window; it was black. Another. Black. Another. Black. “What happened to our telescopes?”
“They have gone offline,” Frosty said. His display had gone dark as well. His round eyes were devoid of color, each looking like a deep trashcan with the lid ripped off.
“Is this part of quarantine?” Michelle asked.
“No,” Frosty answered, “they are offline. They have sustained damage that the ship cannot categorize.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Dominic barked. “Categorize! Were they hit by micro-meteors? Smashed? Short-circuited? Did the damn things fall off?” There was no answer, just another processing beep. Michelle smacked the robot, knocking his scarf to the floor and bringing his voice back into the room.
“The cameras and telescopes have stopped being cameras and telescopes,” the machine said cryptically. They bombarded him with more questions, but there was no greater detail to be had.
“I have to look,” Michelle said, tugging on her hair, slightly reassured by the fact that it wasn’t falling out. “You hide. We’ll see if anything happens to me.” Dominic didn’t argue; he simply crouched down behind the counter, out of the path of the viewing window. He had the longer contract and was thus the bigger investment. She was practically an intern. Let her be ridiculous.
She approached the hook of the darkness screen, hand shaking. She breathed in and out slowly, wondering why Frosty didn’t try to stop her. Her hand wrapped around the hook.
Planetoid Swarm Stone Skin Dead Star
She yanked the screen back in one swift motion. It snapped back into its setting audibly. Michelle winced, expecting a blast of pain or at least nausea. She felt nothing. She opened one eye. The strange brown light was all but gone. The star was still there, but it couldn’t be called a star anymore. Its surface was like barren rock, scarred with canyons that must have been massive beyond comprehension, given that she could clearly make them out from that far.
The star wasn’t emitting anything anymore, but they couldn’t know that for sure with all their external equipment down. There was something she noticed. She’d seen an object like that before, only much smaller. Morsel. The planetoid. Perhaps it had been ingested by the star and caused his strange phenomenon.
She was about to tell Dominic to look for himself when the lab door hissed open. Frosty’s eyes returned to their friendliest color, but they flickered like cheap neon signs.
“Quarantine is suspended,” the robot informed them. “You may now move about the ship.”
“There is no further point,” Frosty told them. “The ship is fully compromised. We have lost all methods of communication and seven tenths of the crew are deceased.” The news hit them like the whole of the space station being dropped on their heads. Dominic was doubly battered by his first sight of the dead star and its new rocky appearance. He rushed out of the lab, Michelle following close behind.
It didn’t take them long to find Hallway 54H. Yennifer was still standing there, even more stunned. No, it couldn’t be called stunned. Petrified. As devoid of life as a layer of rock from the Earth’s molten youth. Her skin was the same color as the dead star, as Morsel. Her mouth was open in an endless moan of confused agony; Michelle looked down it. Her tongue and throat were still flesh, but there was no moisture or quiver to them.
“She’s dead,” Dominic whispered. “Along with everybody else.”
“That is correct,” the medical unit standing next to Yennifer said. “Her epidermis, dermis, and half her blood supply have been transformed into an unknown mineral compound.”
“Why are we unaffected?” Michelle asked, words catching in her throat. The medical robot insisted she repeat the question clearly.
“All were affected to varying degrees.” It stuck out an arm with a glassy black sphere at the end, pushing it up Michelle’s shirt and rolling it across her abdomen. “A cursory scan shows mineral build-up in your blood stream, but not significant enough to cause blockage. It should be filtered out in your urine within the next few hours.”
“Morsel…” Dominic mumbled. There was no time to study it, but it was starting to come together. Something about the planetoid had turned the star into a dispersion mechanism. Its light, while it lasted, transformed anything it hit into the barren surface they had studied to no avail.
Escape Pods Expedition Hunker Down
“What do we do now?” they asked the medical unit.
“I cannot advise. We were affected as well, largely in the mineralization of our batteries. All robots aboard have less than ten minutes of functionality remaining.” As if to prove its point, Frosty sped by them and knocked over the petrified Yennifer. His eyes blinked erratically and his long arms wiggled limply on the carpet.
The two researchers rushed to the escape pods to see their condition, passing statues of their former crew mates as they went. Some were down on their knees with clasped hands, praying to a god that was likely petrified as well. There was no knowing how powerful the burst caused by Morsel was. The star’s light reached planets a galaxy away. Perhaps there was nothing to escape to.
The pods were intact, but could not fire. There was too much stony build-up over their doors. The dying computer told them that any attempt would just smash them against the fresh bedrock of their station, resulting in an explosion that might not even rupture the new shell.
The computers were going almost as swiftly as the robots. The lights flickered. The temperature fluctuated. There were minor tremors indicating tiny breaches all over, likely the result of the stiff stone bending under the dead star’s gravity.
“Big Bite,” Michelle named the star’s new form. “If the old one was Morsel…” She laughed bitterly. “That’s the only place to go.”
“We have no idea what the gravity’s like. Anything could be at the center of it now,” Dominic argued.
“Well you said space was hiding all the good stuff in the rocks right?” They went instead to the short range shuttle intended mostly for repair flights and moving small parties to other stations. It was compromised as well, but still in one piece, its launch mechanism still operational. They might get one blast out of its engine. From there it would be a crash landing on Big Bite and an expedition across its fresh shell.
They took the food imitator with them. Suddenly the stroganoff didn’t seem so bad. It was used to getting too stiff to eat, so Big Bite had no effect on all the proteins inside. They had no idea what there was to find under the dead star’s strata, other than their future.