Ihor Zhelem

Science fiction


extremal  situation

               by     ihor  zhelem



Now it was his turn.

– The sentence is final, cannot be appealed against, should be enforced immediately! – The Universal Robot was droning monotonously.

Martin realized it was useless to object the machine, a stupid marionette by means which his majesty Brain of spaceship enunciated his will. His Majesty Brain... Crazy electronic dimwit.

– Defendant, come to the place of execution! – the Robot ordered.

Each day the Brain killed one of them. Martin was the last, the thirteenth one. Everybody died. Lisa, his beloved. Captain. All the crew of "Cassandra". Everybody... The Brain arranged a kind of "trial", inalterably proved the defendant's "guilt" and then calmly burnt the victim in the fire of the utilizer. Burnt alive!

The Brain reveled in the execution and relished victims' agony like a sophisticated sadist. They did not know who would be the next. They could only hear "the procedure": each step of the victim to the furnace, his frightened muttering, his sobbing and harrowing agonal cry. Martin was the last one. Mentally he had been already dying twelve times...

The condemned should not be censured no matter how miserable he may look. The approaching death, the last consciences step toward it exhausts the person, destroys his will, let fiercely down the cleverest creature in the galaxy. It may seem strange but Lisa, the only woman in their crew, turned out to be the bravest among them. On the edge of her death she neither cried no begged the murderer for quarter or mercy to her.

– You'll revive at the third station... – said Lisa parting with her beloved. She knew he was listening to her. She expected him to grasp her hint and at least these twelfth human victim won't be vain.

Lisa died yesterday. But today, during the procedure The Brian asked:

– What is the third station?

Martin did not answer. Is there any use to tell the stupid machine about Christ and his dolorous road to Calvary?! Once, together with Lisa they tried to cover that road – and withdrew from it at its third station. He felt so much ashamed for people who betrayed God. Lisa took Martin to the temple...

"Everybody will be given his due!.."

The machine betrayed its Creator, progenitor, its true-life God. The Brain of the spaceship was holding "justice": accused, rendered a sentence – and put to death!

The last way – to the utilizer – was unbearably long. Dwelling compartments, service rooms, reactor deck, hold... Martin tried to persuade himself that it was a haircurling play and he was just performing the horrible role of a sentenced to death. In his mind Martin went over and over that role during each execution when sitting in his cabin which became his condemned cell. To prevent the horrible performance from being a success he should not, he didn't have right to hit a clam now.

He was followed by forceful escort: a universal in front, a universal in the rear and two small but very deft stewards at each side. Martin was moving in like the condemned naturally does: shaky, faltering, stumbling. The luminators lighted brightly the long gallery and the escalator shaft at the end of it. In the shaft they lingered. "The first stop!" – Martin ticked off in his mind. As the tunnel was very narrow, the stewards could not keep him by his forearms. They let Martin go ahead. The escalator belt made tiny holes for feet, quaked and hurriedly moved down, very hastily, as it seemed to Martin. But he had no need for haste! Still robot urged him on hitching constantly so Martin had to jump over two stairs.

Another gallery. The shaft is in its remote end. Gloomy, narrow shaft curved into a rapacious spiral.

"The second stop" – Martin thought. He was stumbling slowly and unwillingly to his death. He even gave a sob as his role suggested. He did not want the Brain to suspect anything and change the route or, suddenly, ignoring the routine "procedure", finish him just in the gallery! The universal robot will quickly make away with him. With disdainful easiness it may do everything with its victim: strangle, pierce him through, to tear the puny human flesh into ugly bloody pieces. Now he should be sharp, he has to hold out till the next shaft. Martin already knew where they were to stop for the third time. He still had a vague chance to survive.

Black triangles on the yellow disk suggested the reactor deck. Their procession lingered again and only after ranging themselves in a single file they went on their march down the escalator.

"Here we are,– Martin decided.– The third station. Now or never!"

Here, in a narrow spiral tunnel, the steward could not hinder him in any way. The snake appeared at the second wind. It was curved like "S" with a predacious claw at each end. The brand could be hardly noticed.

Nobody knew what the brand on the inner wall of the shaft meant, neither captain, nor his first mate, even the Brain of the spaceship! It had appeared not long ago after an ordinary examining "Cassandra" in the Moon dock. They got used to it and did not pay attention. Nothing special. Only a scratch, a senseless hieroglyph in the shaft of the reactor deck. Lisa could not know about the scorpion den either. She definitely could not! Still why did she remember about Martin and, possibly bailout third station shortly before her death?! Could the Brain be playing fool with him? He may have suspected something and set that damn bloodshed as a test, the last ordeal for Martin and for himself!

Nobody knew about the strange transformations coming about with this brand each time when Martin appeared in the shaft. A commonplace hieroglyph transfigured in the most amazing way. The parts of the long, twice curved body were getting more bossed, their tiny lamellae were ridging, moving and produced an unpleasant, almost viperous hiss. The sharp edges of both claws flushed with unkind reddish light. The "snake" was waiting... Now, when Martin was going to the improvised crematorium, everything happened just the same. The snake started moving and hissing. Its curly edges of curved claws got dirty with blood-red fluorescent scum.

Martin jumped desperately like in abyss, as if he decided to ram his head against the ashlar wall with the intention to stop the tormenting execution and to go to his account here in the shaft. The steward grasped him by the overalls and, probably, could keep him but suddenly the snake slid down from the wall, stretched its bend to the tunnel opening and cut the metal tentacle by its claw. It was a seemingly senseless jump towards the invincible obstacle, injury, death... The shaft quaked and there appeared a hole in the firm ashlar inward of the shaft. The hole looked like the gash of a huge ravening fish feeding on lack-alls like Martin. Somewhere in the throttle of the blinder the blue fire was blazing. The "lamster" dived into it. A cross click of the closed diaphragm debarred Martin from the bloody nightmare with its mechanic torturer, condemned cell and batty positron Brain...

* * *

He hoped secretly that he would not need the crafty power of the scorpion at all. The privilege it suggested was doubtful...

The piqued and vindictive genius changed himself terribly with an evil intention: to elevate himself, to revenge, to dominate! This defiant motto smelled of blood. It meant death for millions! The human world shuddered with horror. The metastasis of total uncertainty and agitation were spreading throughout it. The powerfull Earth Council with its gerontocracy appeared to be helpless. Transport, communication were destroyed. Industry was damaged. Judgement Day seemed to come. At last the fixed order of this pompous and firm world was about to crash!..

Fire against fire! – exclaimed genius who was not less bright but just the same evil. – I can try to cast out the Devil but I demand my freedom in exchange!

They contracted an alliance with one criminal against another. A deal with one malicious genius against another genius of evil. Thus the captive with an ill and perverse mind who completely denied the slightest value of human life, created the S-capsule.

He got out of it becoming Scorpion with the desire to revenge upon Evil One, to have a good hunt for Devil and then to leave this disgusting busy world of men forever. Two frantic elements crashed against each other, multiplied and exceeded the imaginable limit of that what is possible and tolerable in this reality. They both died. The Evil One was suffocated with his own hatred and pride. Scorpion vanished without a trace, seemingly forever.

It was so long ago... The new Council appeared. The Outer Inspection was organized. Mankind broke through into the deep space. They tried not to remember the Evil One. They tried to forget Scorpion with his gloomy exploit. The bifacial embodiment of evil was cursed and left in the dark past...

Sure, Martin hoped that the shocking decision of the Outer Inspection to set the S-capsule in "Cassandra" was just a strange and useless whim. Martin was sure it would not trouble him during that ordinary trip. But it so happened that the Brain of the spaceship sentenced the crew to death – all of them, even Lisa, the only woman in the crew. Thus, at the third station, Martin had no choice. Still, jumping into the capsule he was not sure that it was the best way "to hand in his accounts"...

He was bogging helplessly in clammy, gummy something. "Could the color of hell be blue?"– he got astonished. Twinkling bluish substance blinded him, got into his mouth, nostrils, lungs and Martin suffocated.

Even those from the Outer Inspection did not imagine definitely what was going on with a human being in the S-capsule.

Everybody has his own hell!– the creator of the capsule warned. His explanation was very entangled. Once in ancient times we left the complete reality and hid ourselves in a small but very convenient part of it where we have been still "rusting" since then. The S-capsule nowise transforms its "prey" or embodies it in an unnatural monster. It makes a hole in reality, widens it and pushes the selected one into the "lost hell". "Primeval" or "completed" reality must be an eerie place. Evidently a human being exists in it as quite a different form. Unfortunately nobody can predict whether he will become devil or angel...

The creator smiled gloomily:

– Angels and Demons... Probably they are twins,– he was trying to be precise. – But those having a gloriole... I avoid them. I'd rather taste the forbidden fruit!

Martin tasted – and was suffocated with ghoulish blue cicuta. He was neither perceiving nor thinking or imagining... He was somewhere out of time and space. He had compressed into something absolutely strange, indefinite and frightening like a clot of insensate barbaric fear, hopeless sorrow and overwhelming despair. He was very lonely, almost the only living being in this sterile blue desert. It depressed him even more when he realized his useless exclusiveness. Was he really alive or did he die?! Could it be life after death?! By the way, what is life? Is it pain, fear, hunger, miserable jerks in the hostile strange environment?.. If it's so, then life is quite a trashy thing. A needless one!

He got confused. He did not remember a lot of things. He got into a very strange coma: being damaged, destroyed, almost dead Martin was agonally squirming in the bluish haze. In spite of all he did not sink into smooth oblivion and insensibility.

The S-capsule "composed" a human being in the widened reality. He appeared step by step from the chaos, rags of reminiscence, confused thoughts and endless flow of terrible curses. First he got the tips of the fingers, then limbs and finally when the clot of the human flesh got the shape of an "ordinary" human body, he became aware of himself and acquired the "soul" again. But whose soul did he get? Was it human too?!.

He had no time to ponder on "what" or "who" he was. The blue sheen grew dim and turned into blind darkness and only the ominous red "S" with the claws at each ends was still twinkling on the exit diaphragm.

He could neither wait nor hesitate. The shortest delay meant his eternal exile into this gloomy world – out of space, out of time...

The blood-red claws opened a piece of the "extended" reality and he jumped in that hole...

* * *

A human being in the extended reality is not necessarily a scorpion,– the creator of the capsule warned. – To become a scorpion he must get the "wings of demon", that is a shifty, sober, acute and even cruel mind, scorn for vanity and, in good soothe, immense cynicism!

He was singled out of the many thousands. Without any sensible reason Martin got the chance to leave the capsule having turned into an extremely dangerous and wily creature, into Scorpion. It was the decision of birkies from the Outer Inspection. "Cassandra" was set with S-capsule, while Martin was imparted secret, rather incomplete knowledge of hypothetical ancient reality.

"Could I possibly hide so much evil and barbaric savagery in my soul?– Martin was sometimes astonished. – Could I have given my soul to devil and this terrifying dream about scorpion and afterworld will come true some time?!" He was afraid of himself. He sincerely hoped that probably he would never play his great role in this dark carnival.

For some time it had been really so as he hoped it to be. Till that fatal journey to Octant! There was a trial: machine against human being. There were a lot of condemned burnt in the fire of the utilizer. Only one person survived. He, who escaped into the extended reality. Still, did he really succeed?!

He fell back into the shaft of the reactor deck, into the escalator of the spiral tunnel. Nothing had changed. He was pushed by robots to the place of death which was one step away from him. No "extended" reality or "scorpions". It was buff, lie, figment... The creator of S-capsule deceived them, faked them out with the stories about capricious angels and powerful demons. He did it with the only intention – to run away from his cell...

Martin was not overwhelmed with panic or senseless fury of a doomed man. He was pondering, dartingly, acutely, dispassionately. This fact was very significant in itself, but at that moment Martin was thinking about a different thing. He did not want to die. On the opposite, he was going to trace his murderer and take his life, no matter who he might be.

He was pondering. Well, the shaft, the tunnel, the robots seemed not to have changed. Martin did not turn into a queer, superdangerous insect either. Everything was just the same but...the escalator was moving a bit unnaturally. It was jerking, gearing down, stopping as if its infallible, multichecked mechanism suddenly started halting.

Martin was pondering, dartingly and acutely. "Like scorpion", – he thought suddenly and was not scared. He was not surprised that for so many years the curse of the S-capsule creator had not lost its significance and ill power. "Like Scorpion!" – Martin concluded dispassionately. Now it turned out that he did fit himself in that spiteful to everything earthbound extended reality...

And again, this extraordinary discovery did not agitate him at all. When analyzing the situation he was so composed as if he were an untouchable arbiter of destinies in both, this and that realities. He was Scorpion!

The escalator was slowing down. Its stumbling and jerks seemed to be longer and undubious. Something was getting wrong with time. During the pause when the belt was standing still, the mechanical escort was turning into a heap of useless metallic trash. Robots looked switched off, their palsy was synchronous and global. Martin was the only one who was able to move, think and act. However the pauses were rather short: some seconds passed and the movement was restarted. Down to the reactor deck, to the fire of the utilizer!..

Martin could use the following halt, push the helpless steward, squeeze himself past the universal and jumped hastily back to the second level. He could easily whistle off, cowardly run away, but he did not do it. He was Scorpion! He came here to clear everything up and to teach somebody a lesson!

The escalator gave a jerk and stopped. Martin already knew how to blip off his attendants. The body not coordinated with time frames is unstable in any case and in any reality!

Martin grabbed the steward's manipulator, it turned out unexpectedly flexible and slippery as an octopus tentacle. With a sharp chuck he threw the machine down. The heavy universal lurched as well. Martin "helped" it to fall down. A clumsy barrel jumped down the stairs, tread on Scorpion's foot painfully crashing another couple of motionless berks on his way. Very soon all four machines disappeared in the following curl of the tunnel rattling terribly.

Scorpion failed to leave the zone of temporary defect. The escalator got alive and the ghosts of robots appeared on its stairs. They were miserable with their obscure shapes and vibrating frames. Their transducer towers looked like ugly firedrakes heads with eye-pits and the chaps of the white shark... The robots could not exist simultaneously in both points of space: here with Martin and there, at the lower segment of the escalator. A powerful blow shook the shaft.

The blast wave squeezed him, split his ears, pressed him into something senseless and shapeless, and knocked him down unconscious. He did not remember anything: how he was swearing loudly when tumbling down the sharp spiral of the escalator; how his backbone broke with unbearable pain and crackle and how the reactor diaphragm did not open and stopped his dash falling for some reason.

He was lying indefinably long, raving about S-capsule, extended reality and strange defect of time that destroyed his torturers. When he finally managed to open his eyes he realized that his nightmare was real: badly beaten and crippled he was dying on the platform of the transport shaft!

Dying?! No, the execution failed again. He even thought that the death was not such a very bad thing, it's almost the lost paradise in this extended reality. Isn't it the best way out: to fall into oblivious sleep forever, not to feel the unbearable pain, despair and fear, not to dream about revenge and return to the previous "Cassandra" that, unfortunately, did not exist for him any more?..

Yes, the execution failed. The pain was pulsating in his breast. The heart was pumping it over the veins with hurried pushes all over the body, into his limbs and head. It meant that his neuritis was safe and recreated so very soon the hurtful paralysis would be over.

It happened so. He seemed to be lying in an disturbed anthill. Tiny insects were creeping over his body teasing his flesh. But their bites, how strange it may seem, were beneficial. First he felt a slight tingle, then itch and finally managed to move, even to squat.

The robots, if it were robots, were blown up like soap bubbles and their jelly-like remains drabbled ceiling and walls and were flowing over the immovable escalator and stained Scorpion body. That is why it was so light: this gluey greenish substance was eradiating intensively. Cold phosphoric irradiance was twinkling, getting lighter, glowing unbearably. Sometimes it got dark even "switched off" at all. It was like cooling down, dying embers. The grayish jelly burnt up, it smoldered shrunk like pebble leather and, turned into sparkling dots and at last disappeared at all, radiated completely into extended reality.

"No problems with corpses!"– Martin smiled grimly. He examined himself. Safe and sound. The neck is still teasing but the pain is quite tolerable. He could move . He even heard somebody's soft steps at the reactor deck.

The diaphragm got covered with bluish frost-mist, with a sophisticated ornament out of scratches and deep clefts and then moldered into the tiniest bites as if it consisted of thin, fragile glass and somebody very strong and capricious decided to remove that obstacle by crashing, demolishing it.

It was Lisa who was standing at the heap of sharp sparkling icicles.

– I've made a mistake, she said. I shouldn't have reminded you about the third station. This fatal prompt separated us even deeper than death could do it!

Martin was staring at her stretched hand with hesitation. No, he did not touch that hand. He somehow got up and started chafing his neck in the point of recent fracture where he still felt an ache.

Lisa sighed.

– You still have a way out,– she said. – You should find courage to die here and now!

Scorpion did not kill her only because he was not sure who or what it was, he could not even guess how much dangerous this creature was and whether it was mortal at all! He did remember that he was still in the extended reality – in the fearsome and strange place where the time was more than strange – just stumbling, crumbly; where greenish jelly-like creatures were acquiring robot appearance and enjoyed dying, as they gaily sparkled... Why couldn't this bewailing Lisa turned out to be a fake with quite perfect human appearance and ugly jelly instead of brain and bones?!

Scorpion was playing for time.

– That capsule... How did you learn about it? – He asked.

Lisa frowned.

– Capsule? – she asked. – Sure, the capsule! It is probably the only creephole in the extended reality. Capsule... No, I knew nothing about it . Nothing! You slept so uneasily for the last time, you were turning over in your bed, moaning, crying something out about the reactor deck and some lair... So I thought that there was a connection between you and that strange brand in the shaft. I hoped at least you would survive there in "Cassandra"! I loved you, Martin... But who could know that the dreadful and tormenting execution was false. It was just a transition, though painful, still the only possible way to get bask into extended reality. You are a stranger here, Martin. You should either return to "Cassandra" which is actually impossible, or die and find yourself, become one of us!

– Those robots... – he interrupted her requiem. They vanished. They mouldered into the pieces, burned out, irradiated...

– They are primitive forms. They can only imitate – a kind of mimicry. They are dependent, silly, unstable, they did even not create their individual temporal field. That is why you have destroyed them! I warned HIM about it. You are not liable to fear, too much astute, crafty and, I guess, you were in contact with the Outer Inspection. Still HE decided to take risk once more. HE sent me to correct my mistake and to help you go along this thorny way to the very end. I am quite a perfect form and nobody can prevent me from doing it. I'll do it for your sake, by all means! – It is "Cassandra, isn't it?" – asked Martin.

– It's extended reality – complete, primeval, fundamental.

This part of it keeps the structure of "Cassandra" till the spaceship exists in the former narrow niche. But HE has already activated the selfliquidator. The spaceship will die. This unnatural clot of extended reality will disappear as well. You are wise, Martin. You are dangerous. Still, you are a human being. You'll vanish as well! You should manage to die and to regenerate. And that is it! No other way out...

To die?! No other way?! Scorpion did not think so. He was analyzing – dartingly, acutely, dispassionately. Suppose everything is as she said. Though it is a hostile extended world, its definite part still preserves the shape of "Cassandra". Thus he, as a member of the executed crew, knows its structure perfectly. He'll manage to play bo-peep here! Time "hiccups", something is getting wrong with the space, sounds and images endures deformation. The "extension" might change the connection of cause and effect and create new, different reality. It is inhabited. Primitive forms, perfect forms... There should be a lot of intermediate ones. He is obviously a stranger here, an extremely undesirable "link". But he is a scorpion! He will manage to survive. He is obliged to worry along and come back in the narrow niche.

Execution, HE, extension, a strange life after death... Lisa seemed not to understand clearly what capsule was spoken about and who had crashed in their extended reality! If it was so he had an advantage – time!

Scorpion was analyzing and seemed to know the possible decision. It was quite an effective decision, no matter how questionable and severe it might be. Still now the most important is to evade somehow that self-assured perfect form with Lisa's appearance and to meet HIM. Scorpion had a very strong suspicion that it was not The Brain of the spacecraft who "crossed them out " of life. It was a mysterious somebody, a bloody idol of extended reality who threw them on the sacrifice altar in this starry desert.

Scorpion was listening to Lisa's stumbling arguments and watched her appearance, mimes, gestures. He was searching for the smallest holdfast of weakness which is natural for any creature even for the most perfect one. He was searching but unfortunately in vain.

Well, it was Lisa – a tall, clean-limbed, alluring brunette with sensual plumpish lips, soft, melodious voice and very gentle thin palms. She was, no doubt, a clever, quite self assured, sometimes obstinate and capricious person – the Lisa who had captured him in the previous, narrow reality! How could he possibly raise his hand to her?! Lisa... But her eyes... Why are they so very sad and dim, actually dead? Almost inhuman! Is it Lisa?!

Why did that mighty He decide that Martin would be so lamblike as to follow his sweetheart to hell?

Scorpion was thinking. It is no doubt that here, in extended reality, time is discoordinated, destroyed by blanks and it cannot be treated as a guarantor for the unity and stability of the world. The perfect forms have to create their own time shield to survive, not to feel those time pauses, like those pseudorobots in tunnel. Scorpion did see it: a reddish inconspicuous net covered Lisa head-to-toe. It was like a tender veil, pulsating and trembling at each hot breath. Scorpion saw his own powerful all – over shield. It appeared step by step. Blue-black power chords ran along his body, the interspaces were filled with oval semitransparent lamellae. Is he really condemned?! It sounds ridiculous! In such a covering he looked like a hunter rather than a prey...

Lisa did not understand what happened. Martin went at her. He was very, extremely rough. He slapped her across the face with his foot. She fell down and Martin took sharply off her reddish time veil. He stopped the time – at least he thought so! He did not know what was going on, but the shield seemed to push off the defective time thus the perfect form turned out to be absolutely helpless without any protection. "Lisa" cried out and grew numb. "She" turned into a motionless statue thrown from its pedestal. Martin saw her face rigid with horror and dim inhuman eyes.

"We'll see who is a more perfect form here!" – Scorpion thought and stepped over the woman's body. He could kill her just now: to move her a bit, simply to turn her into another side and to watch with maniac arrogance how she was radiating herself into extended reality...

Scorpion was hastening. He heard some steps in the shaft of the escalator. Somebody very stout was coming to help Lisa. He remembered that in the narrow niche the selfliquidator was about to destroy "Cassandra". And besides Martin did understand that extremely much was depended on meeting HIM!

Scorpion was hastening. He examined reactors and found out that he had some twenty minutes till the critical temperature. Martin rushed to the hold. He chose the longer way to evade the primitive forms and their more developed "brothers". At lightning speed Martin ran along hangars with planet equipment, robot stocks, notorious utilisator, cargo module and jumped directly into the tiny elevator. It stopped at the second deck. Without hesitation Scorpion gouged out the lighting segment, slid forward into the shaft and started climbing upstairs to the main level. In almost complete darkness he could see fairly well the uncorked elevator car, some hooks and deep dints on the walls along the shaft. He perfectly heard reactors roaring, remote hollers and bawls and even wavy breath of perfect form lying in wait for him at the main level! He felt he was strong, artful and dangerous. It was quite possible that he was a scorpion!!!

Martin got the last diaphragm. It was covered withbluish frost- mist and deep clefts. Having crashed it with one blow he grasped the "man" by his shank and sharply pulled him. The perfect form screamed and tumbled into the shaft with disgusting howl.

Martin did not notice who it was or whether the "guard" went smash. At last he slid out of the shaft and rushed along the gallery to the central room and The Brain section of "Cassandra". He was running into perfect forms with reddish, pale-pink and even violet protection shields. Now they did not even try to block his way, on the contrary, they deferentially gave him way as if his gloomy resoluteness struck them with awe.

The entrance to the room was guarded by the tallest and the most robust members of the crew: the captain and the second pilot. They looked at Martin with suppressed hostility.

– You'd better get out, – the second pilot murmured fiercely. Martin estimated the "guards' " shield. It was like his: power chords and oval semitransparent lamellae... He was surprised. Evidently, here, in the extended reality, these two creatures possessed some qualities of scorpion! Some of them...

Somewhere in the narrow niche the selfliquidator went on tinkling. Martin could not wait and did not want to.... Scorpion did not care for two-legged creatures with dim eyes. He did not remember Lisa and his passion for her. He had forgotten himself and those who once used to be human beings.

He was faster: he evaded blows, punched, torn away time protection and killed! During the time faults he hitched the guards and they mouldered, turned into sparkling greenish jelly, burnt away.

Martin recollected the password, pronounced it and the door opened. HE was sitting in the chair of the first pilot. It was really HE – the first Scorpion, the ill-natured genius who had created the S-capsule, the lord of extended reality.

Well, I've forgotten about the Outer Inspection, – HE told.– I've forgotten that people always remember the evil things and will use the S-capsule once more.

The lord fall into thoughts.

– You don't have any chance, – HE decided. You will die together with "Cassandra" or I'll kill you a bit earlier! That's too bad... You know, the real scorpions, the demons are such a rarity. You've just seen those forms. They are so weak and tortoise... In the extended reality they are in the majority: the perfect forms, the intermediate ones... Scorpions reign supreme here! Have you ever tried power, Martin, the complete, absolute power?! No, humans cannot rise over their own negligibility, feel themselves to be an almighty, omniscient God... An absolutely dominating person turns into a choker, cruel dictator just the same Evil One!..

– You are insidious and bigoted to the same extent, – Martin interrupted him. – You are killing...

– Death is an abstraction, – HE objected. – It is mysterious, chilling with its stark shapes and inevitability... In the "extended" dimension it does not exist. An afterworld is much more complicated than even the boldest thinker could imagine it. Hell and Paradise are combined in a strange single unity – extended reality. One can control time, squeeze it, cut it. The distances here are either endless or reduced to nil. There are a lot of dimensions here and a human and his multidimensional shade exists in each of them...Everything is very complicated and tangled. There very many things which I do not understand myself. It turns out that a human is eternal in this system. He casts a shadow into both past and future so his imaginary death is nothing more but his temporary absence from one of the worlds. The narrow niche in which people once settled is just such a world. It has special parameters. It is extremely stable and enclosed. One cannot escape from the niche that is why people consider their Universe to be the only possible one. By the way, the extended reality reverberated in the human dimension. The myths about reincarnation, soul and postexistence could not have appeared from nowhere! Those who were on the edge of death but succeeded to survive still remember some things: tunnel, light, voices, strange music... The matter is that in the narrow niche the human gets into a trap: he "twinkles" for some decades and then is "switched off". The isolated superclosed system somehow extinguishes his shadow and dispels it in others dimensions. The human stays out of functioning for some hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to "twinkle"again in the narrow niche under the suitable coincidence. He comes into life, grows old and dies again!

You see, Martin what is going on: humans who are the most viable race closed themselves into the narrow niche. They do not live, they are just rusting! I want to transfer them back to the extended reality, to return their original power and strength. "Cassandra" is only the first step.

– So, what do you offer in exchange? – Martin asked. Your notorious "perfection of form"? Oh, yes, I saw Liza. You destroyed everythinh human tnat was in her, you turned her into a dummy. I suppose there is a majority of such creatures here. They are weak and depend on you. Have you ever thought that our ancestors, probably, created the narrow niche in their dreams to become humans?!

– Well, I see, we'll never understand each other, – HE concluded. – That's too bad... I have to kill you!

HE stopped the time. Martin felt his time shield turned into a very stiff cocoon covering him head-to-toe. He could not move, even wink.

– You've lost the chance to be my partner, to stay with me... – HE said. – Evidently you are not worth it. You are not Scorpion. The Evil One was capable of many things as well, but he wanted to dominate there in the narrow niche. Such a fool! I could transfer him into the extended reality but he opposed and died. You'll die too. I'll kill you hands-down...

Martin did have some experience. He met Lisa, was fighting with the captain and his mate. He had already realized that time in the extended reality was quite a relative phenomenon and, to some extent, it was created by each form itself. Martin slipped out of the retarded time field and gained his mobility again. HE immediately made another cocoon around the stranger and rushed towards him. Martin was an experienced fighter. In the Outer Inspection they were taught hand-to-hand fight seriously. Martin shook off the cocoon of the doughy time again, gripped Scorpion by HIS forearm, threw over himself to put HIS shoulder out. The lord screamed and came down squab on the floor. Martin jumped trying to bash HIS face with the knee and probably to blip HIM off, at least in present embodiment. Martin failed. Scorpion managed to evade, grabbed ahold of Martin's head and pulling sharply tried to break his neck...

The lightning-like reaction was the only thing which could help Martin. Martin powerfully blew HIM on HIS groin with his elbow and jerked forward. The ahold eased off and Martin managed to free himself.

The genius creator, the lord of life and death in that reality did feel the pain. HE dropped to his knees and screamed. Martin knew he could not delay an instant. He tried to biff on HIS temples with the edge of the palm but HE evaded again and Martin transfixed the air.

At last the lord realized that HE had underestimated HIS enemy. HE jacked out from somewhere the pulsor-gun – an oblong cylinder with a red winking eye at the end... Martin had never seen such a gun before and did not know how it operated.

– Well, I'll teach you a lesson now! – HE hissed fiercely.

Martin managed to duck the ray, rushed to his enemy, disarmed HIM and kicked HIM in the stomach. Scorpion fell down and started creeping on all fours to the exit of the room.

Martin did not follow him. The selfliquidator was ticking away the time... Some minutes were left before blowing-up the "Cassandra". Breathing hard he came up to the control panel, turned back the blasting lever into the neutral position and set the cancel command. Martin broke the process when thirteen seconds were left before the annihilation.

"Again this fatal figure" – Martin thought. Life after death, extended reality, Scorpion's all-around domination ... Everything was reduced to the stupid cruel desperate fistfight! Still, did that extended reality exist? Martin might be raving and all those perfect forms and even Scorpion himself could be a result of his delirious fever. He might make up the whole story about the execution and S-capsule...Dying consciousness was able to create any sounds and images...

Martin looked around. Well, it was the exact "Cassandra" he remembered. However there were two unnatural things: strange pulsor-gun lying on the floor and the time shield which was covering his body. HE disappeared. Martin was absolutely sure their duel was still going on. He took up the pulsor-gun and started examining it... Sure, there were not such weapons in the narrow niche. Martin squeezed the pistol grip and a red eye flared up at the end of the gun. Then it turned into a bright cone- like ray. The ray touched the luminator and it fumed away in no time. It looked as if the luminator had never existed. There were neither fused debris, nor empyreuma... Martin looked perplexedly at fixing bolts and power cable. It seemed as if the luminator had not been installed as yet. "Something happened to time again, – Martin thought. – Probably, target was transferred into the past, or so..."

Martin put the pulsor-gun into the pocket and looked out of the room. HE was not in the gallery. The main level seemed to be desert as if the crew went down into the hold or even left "Cassandra".

Martin was pondering – dartingly, acutely, dispassionately. Like Scorpion? Could it possibly be true? The extended reality, the other world with the perfect forms existing somewhere out of "Cassandra". If HE had told the truth that death was an abstraction and a human being was eternal then Martin knew how to get back into the narrow niche, possibly, together with the whole crew!

To prevent the farce with the "trial" and the execution in the fire of the utilizer, Martin blocked the core of the positron Brain and a satellite doubling machine. He had to kill the crew of "Cassandra" there, in the extended reality. He had already "finished" with the captain, co-pilot and somebody else from the shaft of the elevator. So, he had "to make away" with nine perfect forms including Lisa...

It was an extremely strange hunt for a "non-human" by a human. Probably, it was a colorful and distinct nightmare. Martin tried to persuade himself that it was not a dream or rave and he was not dying... There was no blood. The perfect forms turned into sparkling greenish jelly, burnt out and vanished within half a minute. Martin drove them into "the tight corner" took off the time shield and was watching their death in the time pause: strong shake of the air and dazzling flash... He so much wanted them to regain consciousness in the human world.

Flight engineer, astrobioligist, science counsellor... Martin killed them all without suffering remorse. Nobody managed to offer worthy resistance. He as an Outer Inspector could fight efficiently. He was faster. He thought acutely and dispassionately, like Scorpion! Sometimes this idea terrified him. His consciousness split. Deep in his soul he found something uncongenial, barbaric and inhuman! He contested that gloomy shade but in vain. He felt he could never be the Martin he got used to. Something changed in him. He was murdering. He tasted and almost approved the taste of unexpected force and power, the absolute power! The wings of demon... The doughy time, perfect forms... Was he going out of his mind?..

Lisa was the last. A woman with dead, dim, inhuman eyes. She left the extended reality alighted with the green fire. Martin tried to follow her. Suddenly it appeared that his time shield stuck to his body so tight that it was impossible to take it off. Martin was taken aback by it. He was going to die, to put an end to that nightmare but he failed. Martin was at a loss. Where is the way? The furnace of the utilizer? He doubted very much that it was the way to the narrow niche.

Martin examined the spaceship again. HE was not seen anywhere. Martin rummaged stocks, hold, living modules. Alas! HE disappeared. Robots were indifferent to Martin. Some of them turned into primitive forms. As HE was absent, the stewards and janitors "drew in their claws", Those primitive forms even gave way to Martin as if he were their old avowed enemy. The danger seemed to be over and Martin relaxed. He did not notice the powerful universal on the second deck raise its manipulator and get ready to jump. The robot knocked Martin on the head, beat him down and grasped his neck by the claw.

The robot could cut off Martin's head immediately: to press the claw and dissect his trachea and the backbone. Martin was helpless. The machine kept possession of him again. Martin was bleeding and his agitated consciousness produced some ill apparitions: scorpions, angels, demons... Martin was raving. The robot was dragging him to the furnace of the utilizer. It occurred to Martin that it would be nice to die just at that very moment in the hug of that mechanic murderer and probably get back into the narrow niche. Well, again that furnace...

Red spots blurred Martin's eyes but he was still thinking dartingly, acutely and dispassionately. The robot was not an ordinary one. Like a perfect form it created its time shield so the doughy time did not influence it. The robot was invulnerable. With its claw on his heck, Martin could not tear off its reddish veil or make it motionless. Martin was waiting. He expected the robot to make a mistake...

The yellow disk with black triangless marked the reactor deck. The robot stopped. The Brain of "Cassandra" was switched off thus the automatic equipment did not operate. The robot had to open the diaphragm with pressing the button. The machine released Martin's right hand and reached out for a switch. It was quite enough for Martin to jerk out the pulsor gun. He directed it to the mechanical claw and squeezed the pistol grip. The ray hewed away the interstitial segment. The result was just the same: neither empyreuma nor smoke... The cut claw fell down on the floor. Martin managed to shoot once more. He fired at the transducer tower. The ray was too narrow to demolish the tower completely. It made a hole in the firm hemisphere and ran slap into the ceiling. The robot unloosed its grip and Martin managed to release himself. He knew he was pressed for time. In a minute the robot would use its stand-by sensors and see Martin again or, at least it would hear him. It was even capable of perceiving the beating of the heart.

Martin partially opened the diaphragm and rushed into to the tunnel of the reactor deck. The robot was following him. Martin heard manipulators rattling and a kind of metallic skier in the upper curl of the tunnel. The murderer was faster. It had almost run down its victim.

The snake was waiting. It was the same snake curved like "S", with a rapacious claw on each end... The segments of its body started moving. It felt Scorpion approaching. When Martin appeared it stretched and made a hall for him in the extended reality. He immediately jumped into blue something. The murderer tried to follow him but the diaphragm closed and the robot crashed into the wall of the tunnel. Martin suffocated with ghoulish blue cicuta...

* * *

He was raving. He was bogging in clammy gummy something. He floundered into that substance and was helpless like a fly in the web. He saw unfamiliar faces and himself in the fixing chair. He heard strange sound as if somebody were tuning an old piano. The heavy sound reverberated in his consciousness and hurt badly.

– "Cassandra"... – Martin moaned. – It will die!

– "Cassandra"? – Somebody was surprised. – It came back from Octant.

– Devil... HE is there! – Martin tried to cry out and opened his eyes. He was lying in the isolation ward of "Cassandra". The captain bent over him.

– You were raving, – He said. X-fever. You were very ill.

He was really badly ill. His consciousness could hardly be more ill than it was with that extended reality, zombies, robot-murderers... He was phrenetic and delirious.

– Where is Lisa? – Martin asked.

– Lisa? – the captain frowned. – She is waiting for you. "Cassandra", the isolation ward... The creature with dim, inhuman eyes... Martin knocked him down and pressed his face to the floor. The eyes! That uncounterfeit pass into the human world gave HIM away...

– Goof! – HE cried. – I just wanted to stop you. It's S-capsule. It'll transfer you into the narrow niche and you'll stay there for ever. Within some ten years you'll die as all those human creatures do. You'll make a mess of your immortal soul...

– Death is an abstract thing! – Martin reminded.

Martin killed HIM. The desperate scream, crack of spinal bones and disgusting sound of breaking chords... Martin felt the pain too. He executed himself in the extended reality. The isolation ward turned into a blue sterile desert – something out of the time and space...

* * *

He disliked that standard, fixed smile at once. He noticed detachment, arrogance and strange coolness in the eyes of the expert. He looked at Martin as if he were a "guinea-pig". He disliked the face. Conceited, rosy- cheeked and flabby, it reminded a running candle.

– Where is Lisa? – Martin asked.

– Lisa? – the expert was surprised. – Who is Lisa?

Martin was thinking – dartingly, acutely, dispassionately. Like Scorpion? He shivered. He examined his legs and body. The protection shield disappeared. Probably, he became a human being again. Probably...

He started recollecting hazily. The Outer Inspection, the experiments with subconsciousness... Liza? He used to know that woman. They separated. He had not seen her for ten years. Lisa had never left the Solar System. Actually the "Cassandra" never existed either...

– My greetings, – the expert said. You are the only one out of thousands who endured that test. I created the myth about the extended reality and S-capsule myself. An extremal situation. All the participants "were dying" and we had to intermit the experiment. Only you managed to survive in the virtual reality. You "survived" and even "brought back" the crew into the narrow niche. You deserved to be the first among the best! I'll confirm it. Once we'll "fly" to the Octant!

Extremal situation... Martin was able to kill him just at the moment. For his own suffering. For the torturous death of the crew. For insult to Lisa and the memory of her...

Martin stood up and sharply biffed him on his groin. The smile vanished and the "tale-maker" face was distorted with pain. He dropped to his knees and could not even bellow with pain. He was convulsively gulping for air like a fish on the dry land.

Martin left the torture chamber shutting the door with a loud bang. In the pocket of his coveralls Martin found the strange pulsor-gun – the gaping-stock which he had brought from the extended reality.

Martin was not surprised. He decided to find Lisa. He was thinking – dartingly, acutely, dispassionately. Like Scorpion!

translated by Ol'ha Grabovets'ka        

© I. Zhelem

Science Fiction