Four ranks wide, thirty deep. He could feel the fear of every one of them. Feel it crawling up his back, pressing through the seams of his armor, working through every gasket and seal. It wouldn’t last long, a mayfly caught between the crass jokes of waiting and the haze of combat. But the fear was a real thing for as long as it lived.
Twenty seconds, orange light flashing in every display. The Hole was a swirling black-on-black. It would turn into a swirling red-on-red in twenty seconds. They would surge forward, each one pretending the Hole didn’t look like the mouth of hell.
A heartbeat later, and they would be on-planet. There was never any fear left by then. It was here now, like the heat of the sun, but gone in an instant. It simply disappeared, somewhere in the Hole.
His husband had asked him, more than once, to describe it. “They’re taking your body apart,” Loren would say, “and sticking you back together light-years away.” Then always the question: “What is that like?”
But it was like nothing, so he would say that. What was it like to walk down the street? Or sit on the couch, and still be sitting there the following second?
“It has to be like something,” Loren would say. “Nothing is like nothing.”
He would always only shrug. It was like nothing. You stepped into the Hole… and you were there. Trip done. Millions of miles, like walking through a doorway. Loren would say that he needed to try it. “I need to experience nothing,” he’d say. He’d laugh then, early on, when they still laughed. Later he just said it.
But Loren was a civilian. The Hole was military only — break quantum glass in case of emergency. Even ambassadors had to take the long way around.
Loren always seemed to take that personally. But it was nothing.
Fear goes in, riding like a jockey on every one of them. And it was all blood and adrenaline on the other side. Like flipping a switch. He didn’t know how it worked.
It was training, he supposed.
A light began to blink. Ten seconds. His clock read 12:00.01.
A small moon, this time. Hostiles glimpsed by long-range telescope.
The training. He’d never been aggressive, before he enlisted. That’s what Loren said now. Said they’d changed him. Of course they had. They’d made him a soldier.
Four ranks wide, thirty deep. Expected forty percent attrition. They’d return eighteen deep.
The training never removed his fear, though. Only the Hole did that.
Two. He prepared for the instant of nothing. Walking into the next room.
Red swirled on red. They leapt forward. It was always like this. He waited for his fear to be taken away. The Hole embraced him.
The skin was peeled back off his hands and feet.
He couldn’t see his feet, or his hands. Couldn’t see at all. But he could feel the pain, in all his fingers, his toes. The soles of his feet. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t feel his mouth, had no lungs to expel the air that wasn’t there.
Something was terribly wrong.
They should have been there already, in the landing room, eyes bright with anticipation, hands clenching their weapons. He tried to turn his head, to see the others, but he had no head to turn, and no world in which to turn it.
His eyes boiled, like they would burst, and he had no eyelids to close. The muscles of his back — he had no back — spasmed like they might rip his spine from his ribcage.
What was wrong, what was wrong, what was wrong? The pain rolled through him, moving from limb to limb, deep into his bones, back out to his teeth, dispersing only to regroup on a new front. He repeated a mantra — they’ll find me, they’ll find me, they’ll find me — then another — I’m lost, I’m lost, I’m lost.
Time passed, and his mind swam in agony. Minutes, months, years. They would not find him. They never found him. Always eternity. Always pain.
And they would pay. He would make them pay. He would reach into their own bodies, tear out their own bones for doing this to him. He would stop at nothing.
He drifted, and writhed.
Then, after years, death and rebirth and death and rebirth in a no-place where he could not even scream, there was a floor under his feet. A floor, then gravity. Then light, into his open eyes, as he finished stepping forward.
The landing room, all around them. All of them present. Weapons clenched, eyes glimmering in towering rage. After years.
Now… it was time.
His clock read 12:00.13.
“Stay calm,” a voice said in his helmet, and a green light lit up his display. “Transit complete, status nominal. Administering Twilight.”
More light flashed. He checked his weapon. Were any of the ones responsible here, or would they have to go back through the Hole? He knew the others would join him.
More green light. They would pay, for… for making them endure… more light flashed. For enduring… what? He was terribly angry. He felt murderous. Because…? More light.
He remembered the marshalling room. Four wide, thirty deep. The swirling black Hole. The fear. More light flashed. The Hole, turning to red. They surged forward… more light flashed… then they were here.
The light stopped flashing.
The fear was gone, like it always was. It was amazing, something about the Hole. One moment they were there, the next moment here. No fear — only anger, aggression, a pent-up animal. Like a switch. And outside was the enemy.
He turned to face the door.
Tom Javoroski once earned a degree in writing science fiction, then went and earned a degree in philosophy. Having completed his PhD with a dissertation about teleportation, he now thinks they are more or less the same fields. He lives and rides bikes in Iowa, and thinks that one well-written sentence can change the world. He sometimes dips his toes into fantasy and mythology, and if any publishers think there is a market for an illustrated epic poem about trolls and a magical Norwegian fiddle player, let Tom know asap. Meanwhile, his “More Ideas Than Time” sign will keep taunting him.