LIGHTSPEED Presents: 'Crystalline' by Daniel H. Wilson
io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is "Crystalline" by Daniel H. Wilson. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on Lightspeed's website. Enjoy!
"Who loves you?" I ask.
My daughter looks away. Doesn't answer. I lean down and turn her to face me, resting my thumb in the dimple in her chin. It's the same dimple her mother has. Or had.
"You love me, Daddy."
"That's right, so please listen closely," I say. She's only nine, but Anya's eyes are flat and black and hard to read in the dim light of the cave. "Only you can make our family whole again."
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"But. Last time. I saw . . ."
"I know. I know what you saw," I speak over her. "That was an accident, honey. Daddy thought of a bad thing. But you're so much sweeter than Daddy. You'll only think of good things."
The wounds across the back of my thighs are still weeping pus. The thing we saw--it shouldn't exist. Not in her world. Only in my nightmares.
My daughter is shaking now, teeth chattering. Silent tears forge grimy streams down her cheeks. She is trying so hard to make herself stop. She cups a tiny hand over her mouth, as if she can force the sobs back inside. Her eyes are locked on mine, while I patiently smile back.
"It'll be okay," I reassure her. "Daddy can't go near the crystal. It does bad things when adults are near. But you can do it. Anya. Listen to me now. I need you to put your hand on the crystal and think of your mommy. Find the mommy who is the most like your mommy. Pull her from one of the other places."
"How will I know?"
I glance around at the slick walls of the cavern. The remains of our campsite are scattered around us in shambles. Our bright red tent is collapsed like a deflated lung. Four ragged lines rend the advanced fabric.
I woke from a nightmare to the stench of rotten meat. The thing was perched on my chest, bristling with stiff hair and skittering on sharp legs--a vicious insect the size of a soccer ball. This time, I was ready with my hatchet. But I wasn't prepared at all for its eyes. They were human eyes. It fucking had human eyes and when I killed it, they were crying real tears--
Beyond the sliced gaps of the tent, I see my daughter's pink camouflage sleeping bag.
I push down the memories of last night and reach into the tent, pawing around until I feel soft fur. It's her favorite stuffed animal. A gift for her first birthday. I bought it at the Frankfurt airport on my way home from a war zone. I named it Nestor, after the old Argonaut who gave such sage advice.
Being a child, Anya took to calling it "Nester." And that naivety is what I'm counting on. A mind so young and full of fairy dust and sunshine. Dreaming about bunnies who nest.
No evil thoughts. Nothing to fear from the crystalline depths.
I firmly press the bunny against my daughter's chest. Wrap her cold, clammy fingers around its soft neck. Both our hands are swollen and sore from the bone-numbing chill down here. We don't have much time.
I lift the bunny up against her snot-streaked upper lip.
"Hold onto Nestor," I say. "Smell him. He smells like Mommy, doesn't he?"
"When you touch the crystal, close your eyes. And when you smell this smell, concentrate. Bring mommy back to us. Then we'll be a family again. Okay?"
"Good. It's time to go."
Anya doesn't move.
I wrap her up in a tight hug, feeling her delicate ribs under a torn, muddy jacket. The childish owl-shaped headlamp perched on her forehead spears two fingers of light into the cavern. Her breath plumes like car exhaust on a cold morning.
"Go," I urge. "Now. Don't make me count to three."
It has to be this way, I tell myself. Anya is the only one of us who can do this.
Rainbow boots scuffing hard rock, she takes a few steps. And a few more. I cross my arms and watch my daughter's faint form disappear into the darkness. She's got the stuffed bunny in a chokehold under one elbow. As I lose sight of her, I can still hear her breath shuddering in and out.
o o o o
The whole thing was supposed to be a vacation. My work in private security takes me all over the world. Great money, exotic locations, but long stretches of time away from home. My wife Hannah wasn't happy. Anya hardly recognized me.
Between jobs, I arranged a family camping trip.
We live in the Pacific Northwest, so naturally--it rained. I set us out walking through damp woods, stomping over glistening ferns in a cathedral of towering Douglas firs. We stopped for the night at a liminal elevation where mist enveloped the snaggled mossy branches just a hundred yards up the slope. Hannah told me the woods felt magical.
I laughed and shook my head, wet and miserable.
During the night, I woke to a far-off, titanic groaning as the damp earth shifted beneath us. Our tent moved a few inches. Nobody else stirred. And the next day, it was there--the yawning, mossy mouth of a cave. A thousand tons of wet, soft dirt had displaced, ripping a hole in the hillside before us. The opening was made of flat, bare rock. Like a welcome mat.
I pulled on my headlamp. I only meant to peek inside.
"Wow," said Hannah. We stood together in the opening, smelling the earthy air seeping from the depths of the cavern. I strained my ears, thinking I could hear a whooshing from inside. But where I expected sound, only a dense silence pressed in, seeming to compress my thoughts into a sluggish stupor.
I took my wife and daughter by the hands and pulled them inside.
"We don't have the right shoes for this," said Hannah. "It could be unstable. Anya is too little."
All the usual complaints stopped when we noticed the glimmer.
"Is that light in there?" she asked.
"Maybe there's another opening?" I suggested.
"How? It goes straight into the hillside."
Hannah frowned and refused to keep going. So, I picked up Anya and put her on my hip, walking toward the light. The glare of my headlamp threw tortured shadows from jagged rock walls. I noticed then that the cave floor was warped under our feet. As if it had been turned molten and then cooled. Odd.
"Mama?" my daughter called.
Shadows leapt as Hannah's headlamp clicked on behind me. I heard her footsteps echoing as she rushed to catch up. But by then I was already too close to the thing. The pulling had already begun.
"Are these footprints?" I asked, setting my daughter down so I could kneel and inspect marks on the floor.
"Jesus, I hope not," said Hannah. "What could make a print like that? And in solid rock?"
I splayed my fingers and pushed my palm against cool stone, my entire hand well within the outline of a paw-shaped indentation. There were seven digits, and deep gouges at the tip of each. Claw points.
The glow was brighter ahead, dimming and growing.
"I want to go back," said Anya.
"Hush," I said, turning to Hannah. "Turn out your light."
"Just do it!"
My shout echoed in dizzying reverberations. The light silently clicked out. I reached up and turned mine off as well.
Hannah's eyes adjusted first. She made a sound like a hurt animal, murmuring in awe at the beauty of the thing. I saw her hips silhouetted by the crystalline phosphorescence, canted, one arm around our daughter's shoulder.
"Don't touch it," she whispered. "It's been here for millions of years. We don't want to disturb it."
The crystal was there, visible now under its own light.
It rose from the center of the room, forming a natural pedestal of its own. The structure was oddly symmetric, almost man-made. The top of it formed a pale, milky sphere. But not quite a true sphere.
I don't remember walking closer.
As I leaned over it, I saw the crystal was made of so many facets. Each flat plane drew the eye in, resolving into reeling billions of smaller facets, all rising up and seeming to swirl together in my vision. It felt like falling into a fractal--some kind of natural locus point between all of everything.
So many facets. Like the glint of light from a wasp's eye, I thought.
"Oh my god," I breathed.
Inside the facets, I thought I saw something moving. Not my own reflection, but the vagaries of my imagination. I blinked my eyes clear and bore witness to an infinite number of reflections of my own face, blinking back.
Except none of them were me exactly.
Some of the faces were kind, others were cruel. Some were scarred, hideous, and others ethereally beautiful. I saw these men wrapped in bizarre technologies and deformities, horrors and dreams, wracked with disease and dripping with gold and gemstones. And somehow, I knew with absolute certainty that they were all me. We all of us were the exact same man, expressed through different worlds.
The crystal was a conduit. It was a nexus point for all the versions of our reality that had ever been. All those wondrous possibilities were lurking out there beyond a cloudy veil. And at that thought, a thrill of raw adrenaline raced through me. This could be the most valuable artifact ever discovered. My curiosity and fear collapsed together into a kind of giddy greed--a desperate need to secure this object, to make it mine and protect it from others.
Imagine, in those facets like a wasp's eyes, existed every invention and technology ever created in the infinite possibilities of time and space--in the history of a billion worlds. It was like a treasure chest. I laid my hands on the smooth platinum column and leaned my body over it.
I could feel a dull pressure rising behind my eyes. A tickle in the back of my mind. And that's how I made my first pull.
I couldn't have known then, what I know now.
The crystal exists in all the worlds and must have since the beginning of time. It's an old thing and tired. And it recognized me--all of me. The thing can see inside your head. It knows every molecule of what you are. Every decision you ever made or didn't make. It knows everything that roots you to this reality.
But the thing it especially knows is what you fear.
It's why I can't go back. My mind has gone sour, somehow. Too many responsibilities have been laid on me. Too many worries. Even my wife--the most optimistic and patient woman I've ever met. Even a mother with her precious daughter standing at her side.
Even Hannah found the devil in the rock.
o o o o
"Anya? Are you in there? Everything okay?" I call.
The echoes of my voice bounce away into distorted reflections. I'm pretty sure I'm safe at this distance. But my eyes dart to the shadows anyway. It's not impossible that I could pull something from here. Something with spidery legs and flaking scales and human eyes leaking tears from the suffering of whatever hell-world it came from.
I hear murmuring from deeper inside the cave. The high-pitched, bird-like sounds of my daughter. A lower, more guttural baritone.
"Anya!" I shout this time. "Who are you talking to?"
Silence radiates back from the darkness.
"Nobody, Daddy," says the thin voice of a little girl. "The crystal is so pretty. I see so much inside of it."
The heat of anger washes over me. She's over there playing with it. As if the thing was just another toy.
"Hurry," I say, putting on my dad-voice. "Don't let daddy down. I'm counting on you. Mommy is counting on you."
"Okay, Daddy," she says.
I'm betting it's only the children who don't pull their fears. It's the purity of their minds. All those bright expectations for a world of shit that's bound to disappoint them. It hasn't yet, but as an adult I know it will. Sometimes quickly, sometimes a little bit at a time for decades. It's always a disappointment in the end.
But for now, Anya pulls dreams instead of nightmares.
"Think happy thoughts."
o o o o
Wasp's eye. Wasps. That must have been what caused it.
It wasn't my fault. I just didn't understand how it worked.
Suddenly, there was a flash of a color I couldn't quite name. Maybe it was a putrid violet, a brain-marbled gray, an infinite black that was brighter than a solar flare. A wasp's eye. And just like that--the wasp-that-wasn't-a-wasp came out of that eye-searing abyss. Long, multi-jointed claws tentatively clicked against the stone floor, gaining confidence as a veined proboscis unfolded like a switchblade knife, twitching obscenely in anticipation of the blood it sensed coursing through our warm bodies.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
I backed away from chitinous claws on rock. Before I could shout, it was on Hannah's face, plunging itself into the soft flesh under her throat. She staggered, hands spasming, using her last moment to shove our daughter away to safety.
Hannah didn't even cover her face or claw at the buzzing insect. Instead, she desperately saved the person she loved most in the world.
I turned to run and felt something heavy latch onto my thigh. Anya had wrapped her arms around the trunk of my leg. Shuffling away in numb horror, I couldn't even feel her weight.
Later, I couldn't help wondering what world the wasp-thing had come from. The way its legs fit perfectly into the divots of my wife's collar bones was too convenient. It was as if it had been designed for that purpose. Like it was hand-made to decapitate human beings, quickly and efficiently, feeding on arterial blood to fuel its grisly task.
I felt a thrumming behind me and turned to see it perched on Hannah's body, iridescent wings extended and fluttering as it prepared to take flight. And from below I heard Anya shout.
No, she screamed. No.
An orb of blinding light streaked from the crystal. And when my vision returned, both my wife and the wasp-thing were gone. Ash flakes danced through hot air that reeked of ozone. The crystal still glowed with primal power. The orb had been a weapon. A thunderbolt from another world.
Anya had pulled it. She'd killed the monster.
It occurred to me that my daughter was strong. She could be a powerful tool. All thanks to her sweet, childish mind. An adult has too many insecurities, too many worries to ever touch the crystal. The things we conjure from the void. Horrible things.
Only now did I understand my little girl was a golden key to limitless wealth, technology, and even people--anything I could dream of. But first, we would need one thing.
o o o o
Anya tentatively emerges back into the cavern, taking small steps. There is a woman holding her hand. I feel my face flush warm with relief at the sight of her.
Hannah. My wife's right arm is draped over little Anya's shoulder almost by instinct. But this version of Hannah is cautious. She moves slowly. I see a strand of gray hair my own Hannah never had. But the swell of her chest looks the same. My eyes trace the contours of her wide hips and I smile until my lips crack.
"You did it, baby. You brought Mama home to me . . ."
And then I glimpse it in the darkness behind my daughter. Another figure, indistinct in shadow. A frown settles onto my face. Some of the worlds have fallen to plagues--diseases that turn people into walking corpses. In others, I glimpsed tortured wolf-people, surgically modified for savage blood sports.
The thing is my size. Another monstrosity. And now I'll have to kill it.
"Anya. Come over here right now."
A flicker of sadness darts across her brow. Her lower lip trembles. And my daughter turns to look up at her mother, unsure.
"Hurry, now," I insist. "Daddy will protect you."
I spread my arms for my baby girl. Clench my teeth in what I hope is a reassuring smile. Motion for her to come forward.
Anya fixes a cold stare on me.
"There he is, Daddy," she says, to the shadows. "That's the man who hurt me and Mama."
"What?" I ask. "Who are you talking--"
Cold pinpricks of gooseflesh erupt along the backs of my arms and over my shoulders. The figure behind my daughter is wearing the same coat as me. Holding the same hatchet. And his face is like looking into a mirror.
It's another expression of me. From a world I'll never know.
The man steps past my daughter, hatchet blade gleaming. When he bares his teeth at me, I see the scarlet ridge of a scar snaking down his cheek. I wonder what horrible things he has done in whatever world he came from.
I wonder what horrible things he'll do in ours.
"Don't worry, honey," the man says with my voice, leveling those familiar eyes on me as he raises the hatchet. "Daddy will take care of the bad man."
About the Author
Daniel H. Wilson is a Cherokee citizen and author of the New York Times bestselling Robopocalypse and its sequel Robogenesis, as well as Guardian Angels & Other Monsters, The Clockwork Dynasty, and Amped. He earned a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as Masters degrees in Machine Learning and Robotics. His latest novel is an authorized stand-alone sequel to Michael Crichton's classic The Andromeda Strain, called The Andromeda Evolution. Wilson lives in Portland, Oregon.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the March 2023 issue, which also features work by Aimee Ogden, Oyedotun Damilola Muees, Beth Goder, Megan Chee, Peter Watts, Benjamin Peek, Samantha Murray, and more. You can wait for this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition via the link below.
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