I saw the signal when I emerged from an asteroid field. It was on a rust-colored planet orbiting a red star. The signal looked like a blue plume, pointing straight out of the planet like an arrow through a target. On the surface of the planet, at the tip of the arrow, would be a flare canister. I knew because I had a flare canister just like it on my ship. All members of the Warp Squad did.
Tears poked at my eyes as I shifted my navigation for the planet's surface. Who would it be? The faces of Aegis and Halcyon flashed in my mind, but really I would have been happy to see any of the pilots who were sucked into the wormhole with me. Even Mortis, who I used to avoid. The terror I used to feel when his eyes focused on mine was nothing compared to the terror of being utterly alone in this strange place.
The red planet grew larger as I guided the ship towards the surface. I imagined stepping out of my ship for the first time since entering the wormhole, grasping the hand of a fellow Warp Squad pilot. But then my insides squirmed. I wasn’t the same as I used to be. When the wormhole sucked me in, the pressure pushed and pulled me like I was made of clay, and I emerged… different. My right arm was now a dark tentacle with sensitive suckers. And the face reflected in the cockpit windows looked wrong to me. Worse still was my mind. It felt jumbled with competing memories. I was a philosopher, I was a bounty hunter. My mother was my mentor, my whole family was long dead. I was a murderer, I was a healer.
I snapped out of my troubled thoughts to steer the ship between massive, rocky mountains, jutting from the dry surface of the planet. There was ice on the mountaintops and no sign of vegetation. I was nearing the point where the signal originated. The blue plume stood taller than the mountains, taller than anything on this dead, empty world.
The gravel crunched beneath the ship. For the first time since I left on this mission, my ship was parked, and I stretched my legs as the cockpit opened. My eyes scanned the surroundings as hopped out and turned in a circle.
There was no one here.
“Hello,” I called out to the silent red valley around me.
There wasn’t even an echo or a stirring of dusty wind in response. It was as if the sound was absorbed, as if I hadn’t even shouted in the first place. I felt a despair so heavy, my knees buckled beneath its weight.
“Hello?” It took all of my strength not to weep. Instead, I rose to my feet and walked slowly to the flare canister.
The canister was covered in a fine layer of dust. It looked to have been here at least a few days. Where was the pilot who set off the signal? I reached towards the switch to deactivate it, but my hand stopped. What if another pilot would soon see it, just as I had? What if the wormhole had separated us in time, rather than space?
With my mind running in so many directions, I didn’t notice a figure approach from behind until I felt the blow to my head. The red valley and blue plume turned to black as I fell on my face.
I awoke with my arms bound behind my back, seated on the floor in a tall, large room. I blinked the dust out of my eyes. It appeared to be a cathedral, carved from the red rock, with circular windows and doors. There were spiral motifs everywhere, from the rock-hewn pews circling a round dais, to the carved walls. On the ceiling was an enormous carved symbol of interlocking triangles and circles, which looked like an unblinking eye.
“No, I’ll tell the Mother,” said a short figure, looking up his long snout at a tall, slim figure. Both figures wore yellow robes. “I’m the one who caught the wanderer.”
“But it was my signal,” said the tall, slim figure.
His signal? I tried to focus on the second figure. His skin was pale as ice, and his body so lanky, I could tell he was raised far from a sun’s light and far from a planet’s gravity. He was not one of the Warp Squad. I must have let out a sigh of disappointment, because his eyes jerked towards me.
“Hello, wanderer,” he gave a small smile, but his eyes lit up with malice.
The first figure gave a squeak and rushed through a dark doorway. I got a better look at him as he ran by: he had a stout body and a long, scaled face like a lizard. His footsteps sounded light as they disappeared down the corridor.
“Where--“ I sputtered, spitting out some dust and coughing.
“You are in the High Temple of the Singularity,” said the thin, pale man. “Congratulations, you have been chosen by the wormhole to be saved.”
“Where did you get the flare?” I managed this time to finish my question.
“You’re not the first wanderer I’ve met. Oh don’t worry, it wasn’t here,” he smiled wickedly.
Two figures emerged from the circular corridor. The first was wearing bright purple robes, emblazoned with a colorful spiral. Around her neck hung a giant amulet, with the symbol of the unblinking eye that was on the ceiling. She had wide eyes on either side of her head, surrounded by wrinkles. She was followed closely by the stout lizard-like figure from before, who bowed to her obsequiously.
“Welcome, chosen one,” the priest swept out her arms. “You must rejoice, for the Great Singularity has pulled you from a universe of chaos, into one of perfection. We must rejoice, for she has brought us another apostle.”
My mind was spinning like a ship in free fall, and this nonsense was not helping. I was in a room with three people after weeks on end wishing to see another face. Now, I already missed being alone.
“You’ve got the wrong person, lady,” I said. “I am not the chosen one.”
“All who come through the Great Singularity are chosen to be her followers.” She smiled benevolently. “Sirka, show our new friend the other followers.”
The tall pale one, Sirka, pulled me to my feet, and dragged me through a circular opening to a balcony. He was stronger than he looked. Outside, far below, were hundreds of kneeling figures in yellow. Most of them had stout bodies and lizard faces, like the other apostle. They all wore yellow robes and stared vacantly. When the priest emerged onto the balcony, they began to chant in words I couldn’t understand. Their empty eyes chilled me to my core.
The priest raised her hand for silence, and every voice died in an instant.
“Today the Great Singularity has brought us another follower,” her voice was strong for someone her age. “Chosen one,” she turned to me, “renounce all other gods and declare yourself a servant of the Singularity.”
“No thanks, it just doesn’t seem right for me,” I said, as I lengthened my tentacle arm and discreetly loosened the rope that bound me. I was beginning to appreciate my new arm.
“Very well,” said the priest, “we will teach you faith. Kyro, come with me to fetch a Burrower.”
“Great Mother, let me help you instead,” said Sirka quickly. Red blotches had appeared on his pale cheeks. “Allow me to serve the Singularity by converting the follower.”
“Great Mother, I am your servant, let me!” squeaked Kyro, the lizard-like apostle. They both surrounded the priest, pleading and bowing.
I threw off the rope and ran. But I didn’t even make it halfway through the temple before I was tackled by Kyro. I slapped him with my tentacle and kicked him in the face. Sirka jumped on me, and between the two of them, I was pinned. They bound me again, this time tying my arms on either side of my body, so tightly it hurt. They stood on either side of me and forced me to my feet. I looked at the priest. Her eyes were full of quiet fury.
“We will take the follower to the Burrowers nest,” said the priest. I noticed Sirka’s eyes flash with delight.
“What do you want?” I asked him. He smirked.
“Silence!” said the priest.
The two apostles marched behind the priest, dragging me with them down the circular corridor. Torches lit the passageway as it wound, probably in another spiral, gently downward. We stopped at a blocked doorway guarded by two people in yellow robes. At the priest’s signal, they each heaved on a rope, prying apart two stone slabs that revealed a dark chamber.
As I stepped over the threshold, my hair stood on end. I heard hundreds of creatures scurrying and gnawing, the noises coming from a pit at the end of the chamber. Both apostles tightened their grip on me. The rock doors slid shut.
The priest peered into the pit and smiled. “When my parents came to this planet as missionaries, they brought two Burrower eggs in the ship with them. And now, look how they’ve multiplied. Just like our followers, from my two parents, to all you saw outside. The truth, like the Singularity, wants to spread.”
I looked into the pit. It was full of insects, each as long as a finger, with fat abdomens and large claws which they were using to dig in the dirt and fight each other. As nausea washed over me, I wondered: if I threw up, would they fight each other to eat it?
“Kyro,” said the priest, “choose a Burrower for our new friend.” Kyro whimpered, looking like he might faint.
“Allow me, Great Mother,” said Sirka releasing me and jumping forward. He stooped towards the pit and lifted a squirming insect with both hands. “How does it work, Great Mother?” he asked.
“Place the Burrower next to the wanderer’s ear, and it will enter the mind, removing chaos and evil, and leaving them a faithful servant.”
Sirka stared admiringly at the Burrower as it wriggled between his fingers. He looked up at the priest, his eyes gleaming.
“Like this?” Sirka lunged at the priest, grabbed her arm, and shoved an insect towards her head. She screamed as it scurried into her ear. She fell to the floor, howling and convulsing. Her eyes rolled back and then she went silent. The insect emerged from her opposite ear and crawled across the floor.
Kyro shouted, his horror-stricken face unfreezing. He rushed at Sirka, and I stuck out my foot to trip him. His leg caught under mine and he tumbled into the pit. The insects covered him, crawling all over his body and several rushed into each of his ears. His screams didn’t last as long as the priest’s.
“Thanks for that,” Sirka said. He looked amused, as if he’d heard a joke instead of seen two people get lobotomized by insects. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time,” he said.
“A year ago I came here, as an apostle to the Singularity. I groveled, I worked my way up the ranks, all to get into this room. But the people of this planet have formed armies to prevent us from converting them, and those that come willingly, like Kyro, don’t need to be convinced. So no Burrowers were being used.
“But it occurred to me that if I could lure someone from off planet,” he continued, “surely they would would resist, and we would have to use a Burrower. After all, that’s what these Burrowers are perfect for, ensuring compliance.”
He pulled a box and gloves from his robes and leaned over the pit once more. I walked up behind him and drew back my foot, considering giving him a good kick. He looked up at me when he heard me approach.
“I can get us both out of here,” he said, “just give me a moment to find the eggs.” I considered the guards outside. I put my foot down. Sirka looked back to the pit and reached down along the edge, scooping up some eggs that were stuck to the side. He placed them in the box, and placed the box and gloves back into his robe pockets. Then he pulled out a knife and cut the rope that bound me.
I knelt at the edge of the pit, looking at Kyro, and discreetly wrapping my tentacle around a Burrower. Insects scurried across Kyro’s body and vacant face, some tearing at him with their claws. “Should we get him out?” I asked.
“No, as long as we have her, we’ll be alright.” He nodded toward the priest. Her eyes now had a sleepy, almost content look. He helped her up, and I was surprised to see her stand on her own feet. “Maybe if you drooled a bit, though. Try to look like you’ve lost your mind too.”
I reluctantly complied.
Sirka knocked on the stone doors, and they were heaved aside to let the three of us through. He stood between the priest and I, holding my left elbow. He steered us through the winding passage and into the red evening outside. I slipped my tentacle arm behind me and deposited the live Burrower into his pocket. That would be a fun surprise for him later.
“Your ship is just over there,” he said carelessly. “Goodbye.”
“Wait, aren’t you going to tell me who you are?” I blurted.
“You’re new around here, you wouldn’t understand,” he said. He pulled a heavy-looking cylinder out of his inner robes, and stamped it against the temple door. It left an intricate seal of two twisted serpents around a winged vial. He admired his work. “Goodbye, Wanderer.”
I followed the blue light from the flare to my ship, which was right where I had landed. I looked again at the empty landscape.
A small ship took off from the direction of the temple, and began to jerk wildly, as if the pilot inside were fighting off a clawed insect. I smiled for the first time since entering the wormhole, as I watched the ship disappear over the horizon. Then I deactivated the flare, and the blue light was replaced by the dark red light of the setting sun.