Today being my 35th birthday, I decided to celebrate by staging a "Choose Your Own Adventure" via Twitter's poll functionality (limited though it is! 25 characters per option!).
Last week I asked folks on Twitter what kind of story they wanted: a scifi gumshoe mystery, a goofy space western, a first-contact tale, or a 100% alien-species drama.
After some tense near ties (probably aided by my playful production of cover art for a couple of the other mysteries), a scifi gumshoe mystery won out... in theory!
In practice, after I created the flow chart / decision tree for THE MYSTERY OF SHIPPING CONTAINER QZ-7836, an unexpected tie early on in the voting process tipped the actual story into more thriller territory... and it escalated from there! As you'll note, then, the ending for this story is styled the way you used to find in Choose Your Own Adventure books of old, as an indication that the best possible ending had not been found on the run-through... but hopefully this ending still has its charms!
In any case, lots of fun -- and a terrific prelude to my next Menagerie Mysteries novella, The Moon Is Not My Name, which will be out on ebook January 12, 2021. (Preorder available now on Amazon; Book 1, Third Planet Fall Down, launched December 14, 2020, to some very kind and thoughtful reader reviews to date.)
For those who missed the run-through, or simply hate wading through Twitter threads, I've compiled the full story here, for your belated enjoyment.
Happy New Year's, by the way! More updates for Patrons coming soon!
And thanks, as always, for being with me on this ride.
THE MYSTERY OF SHIPPING CONTAINER QZ-7836
Of all the seedy transport stops between Planet X and the outer unknown, that damned shipping container had to show up at yours.
The hauler that had lugged it halfway back to Terra Prime had been gasping its last as it eased into dock. Its hull was scorched, its distress beacon faint, and human life signs? Nil.
But it wasn’t all salvage. Not yet, at least.
The mark of the IA, the Interplanetary Alliance, lay firmly upon all its contents, including a run of cryo-chambers and shipping containers that still bore smear marks from a valiant crew that had given… everything to see them home again.
The call came halfway through third-shift, and by the time you’d stumbled into your mag-boots and clunked down to the storage ring, the lifers already had half the cargo into decontamination. A haze of scrubbers lit up the processing bay in plumes of warning purple.
"What’d I miss?" you made the mistake of saying, while doing up the top clasp on your jumpsuit. Ellson took one look at you and snorted at the rest of the lifers present: Veej, Oni, and Priya.
“‘What’d they miss’, this one wants to know.”
The war, is the answer none of them needed to say.
You were a kid in all their eyes.
A pretender to the throne.
Your Ma... she was legend here.
Best damned Head of Security this side of Neptune.
And what had you done?
Slipped on the badge, the boots, the uniform. Kept the seat warm, you’d told yourself, ‘til she could return.
Sure, you’d had the training for it. Followed in her shadow for years, hadn’t you? Been there for big arrests and tedious protocol meetings alike.
But then one day she’d gotten a call.
And shipped out for a third tour the next first-shift.
And that was when the doubts began. Why her again, and not you? What was your damage, that the IA had known better than to call you up into active service like the rest of them? What was the point in sparing you that life... that horror on the brink?
Hell if you knew. But also, hell if you didn’t feel both relief and the shame of relief, in being spared the risk. So, you put up with the lifers’ snark, you let it slide, and they got on with apprising you of the situation.
Fourteen cryo-chambers fit to be processed and sent on: survivors of the outer horror. Six shipping containers still in working order, most filled with basic support materials. But one... QZ-7836...
“Got a block on it,” said Veej. “Contents classified.”
“Fine,” you said. “IA’s got its reasons. If it’s in decent shape to be sent along...”
“That’s just it, though,” said Oni. “It’s not an IA block.”
“But it is still IA property,” said Priya. “With an IA destination in the inners.”
Well, that wasn’t good.
A shipment from the outer horrors, headed for the inner solar system, without 100% security clearance.
For all their snark, the lifers still respected chain of command. The decision was yours. You straightened up, nodded at your support crew, and told them to...
contact the closest base.
blow the thing to hell.
try to bypass the block.
You hedged your bets: contact and intel-gathering. And why not? You knew you had a solid team. You tasked Ellson with alt-frequency scans, and Priya with comms detail. She was the sharpest encrypter in the sector—a necessity, for any long-range communications this far out.
Even though no one had seen a jelly this close in a decade, there was no telling how far the network had advanced. Plus, the closest base, Delta Station, was more outer than inner, nearer to the launch-point for new recruits to the brink of the horror.
Delta Station had a good crew, though—or rather, a good crew lineage. When your dad’s semi-liquified remains came through their catch-net 22 years ago, they’d done right by him, all things considered.
Ma, who’d witnessed the obliteration ceremony, had told you so, at least.
You’d been just a tot at the time, and for some reason, you’d never brought yourself to watch the footage since. All you knew was that it had been... explicitly unpleasant. But for good reason, you knew:
The IA had decided early on not to hide the horror of liquification-by-jelly from the inners. Everyone needed to know what they were in for, if the fleet failed to hold the line.
Seventeen minutes out, eighteen minutes back, for Priya's simple, technical message to Delta Station. Time enough to check up on Ellson, who was directing Veej and Oni to set up some indirect assessment tools.
No one wanted to risk setting off a defense mechanism in the container (instant death, sometimes, depending on who had put up the block). But they could read the surroundings—the emissions patterns, and quantum-level variances—to rule a few things out.
The question was, what were they even looking for: Life signs? Explosive materials? Some highly coveted remains of jelly-tech, the likes of which had proven impossible to secure for half a century?
You were rivetted to Ellson's careful work with set-up, and the initialization of a few warm-up environmental checks, when Priya called down to let you know Delta Station had responded: Priority 1, Head of Security’s eyes only.
Priority 1 was beyond urgent—but so too was a sudden cry from down in the bay, as Veej, Oni, and Ellson, working in a triad arrangement around QZ-7836, pointed to the container after the first of their scans.
You’d passed up a chance at cloning when the cloning was good, and couldn’t be in two places at once. You looked up at Priya, then down at the rising distress of three crewmates, and...
hopped up to comms.
dropped down to the bay.
stayed put to holler down.
You had a good team, you told yourself. They could handle whatever crisis was unfolding below—but without all the intel, especially intel that sounded critical, nobody could be expected to make the right calls in the long run.
Priya set you up in a secure booth, then doubled back to help the others with whatever was going on below, while you waited for the video to patch through. Four seasoned lifers could handle anything, couldn’t they?
The real question was what you could handle. Commander Jiro's expression, the moment it materialized on screen, made you realize you were gripping the edge of the console—hard—and the words that followed didn't give you any reason to relax:
“QZ-7836 doesn't exist,” he said. “It was obliterated on the brink decades ago. I believe your transcript records—I believe the freighter thought it was carrying a legitimate IA container signature. But you’ve got a ghost on your hands. Tell no one, but lock it down now.”
Your breath stilled as you watched Jiro's trim, salt-and-pepper beard turn from the camera... only to pause, in 3/4 profile, before his eyes darted back to face the viewscreen directly.
“And prepare to vent,” he added, before the video switched off.
Vent? Vent what? The container? The storage ring?
...The whole damned transport stop?
You felt a chill down your spine, which was matched only by the cries you now heard echoing through the storage ring.
As you popped out of the booth, you heard Priya’s voice above all the others—heard her shout “Bay sealed! Q-Level Yellow all along the Ring!”—while the rest moaned a sort of pleading protest from below.
“Sorry, gang,” she said. “You know the drill.”
“Fucking hate this drill,” you heard Oni holler back.
But even his articulated fear gave you hope that this was indeed simply precautionary overkill.
You came up alongside Priya and peered down into the sealed-off bay.
“What happened? Everyone okay?”
“What happened—” Ellson hollered up, with an accusing finger at the container, "is that this damned thing started to float."
Float? Even in the bay-level's artificial gravity?
But you weren’t alone in your scepticism.
“The hell you on?” said Veej. “It was glowing!”
“Glowing?” said Oni. “It was vibrating! Couldn’t you see how it shifted in the light?”
Priya, standing by you above the deck-wide seal, shook her head, plainly suppressing her fright.
“They’re hallucinating. It must’ve done something to all of them. But now they’re locked off, so—we'll wait and see, right?”
Jiro's words weighed on you as you stared down into the ongoing quarrel, and fixed your gaze especially on ‘the ghost’, the container at the innocuous centre of the dispute. Was it glowing? Or vibrating? Or floating?
“...Right?” Priya prompted, when you’d been silent a beat too long. “Hey, you okay?”
Stars, but you had a shit tell when you were worried.
“Right...” you said, slowly. “Only, now we need to...
scan them for anomalies.”
keep running those scans.”
prepare to vent the floor.”
Priya nodded. It was the sensible call, and an easy one to pull off without their crewmates noticing and panicking.
A simple, targeted sweep of all lifeforms on the bay level should do it. Best-case scenario? They were all just feeling the effects of some sort of chemical leak.
A problem, sure—but not insurmountable.
But, worst-case scenario?
What continued to worry you, as Priya initiated those scans, and as the rest of the lifers kept bickering over the shipping container's supposedly changing behaviour, was how quickly Jiro had ended the call.
You'd never been IA, never been called up to the frontlines like the rest of them had, but still...
There'd been this case dropped on Ma's console, a syzygy or so back, when you were still pushing paperwork in a nearby corner, quietly watching and taking it all in.
This was back when Ma still swatted your hand from the bottle, if ever you reached for an end-of-second-shift swig.
Back when she used to say, “Trust me, you don't want to be the kinda person who earns this—and needs this.”
That day, they'd had a hard-luck case before them.
“But aren't they all?” she'd usually counter.
Only, this one had gotten in deep:
Humans in flight from the brink. Humans, haunted and haggard, discovered in a cargo hold, and begging the transport stop to give them sanctuary.
Except that no one came back from the outer horrors save through IA oversight, and sanction.
And so, when that freighter showed up with twenty-seven who'd bypassed the proper channels, Ma had been obligated to report.
“Hold them,” she'd been told. Then the call had cut out.
And at first, when the screen went dark, Ma sat in silence.
You, in the corner—you'd sat in an anxious silence, too.
“They're coming,” she'd said at last.
And you'd been on the verge of asking just who “they” were, when...
Ma pulled out a second glass. In pouring you each a dram from her treasured stash that day, she'd told you everything you needed to know.
When the IA shut down conversation, it was because they'd already come to their own conclusions.
And action plans.
Not long after, you'd been by Ma's side while the IA boarded and confirmed that none of the brink-runners had escaped into the greater facility. And you were still standing there, bearing silent and uncertain witness, when they sealed and whisked off the freighter whole.
No one spoke of that ship again.
And the names from the passenger manifest?
They'd never shown up on record again, either.
You peered over Priya's shoulder to review the results for Ellson, Veej, and Oni as they appeared.
“Contaminant type?” asked Priya.
The system whirred and hummed. You could hear that neither of you was breathing.
Then the dread symbol flashed.
Jellies. There were jelly traces here—in them.
Priya's question was a good one—an important one, if the pair of you were to spare the rest of the crews' hides.
Right now, though, you as the Head of Security had to make an executive decision.
Yes, protocol was clear, but so too was conscience. And so, you knew you had to
order them into cryo.
vent the bay floor.
let them liquify.
It was all happening so fast, but then—that was the job. Some days, weeks, even months dragged on in tedium. Other days, hours, even minutes, the fate of the system hung on the choice of a single grunt.
Today that grunt was you.
“All right, listen up,” you said, from above the deck-seal. “We've got vent the bay floor to wipe it of contaminants, so you've got five minutes to get yourselves into cryo before everything not bolted in gets blasted out.”
When you looked up, you saw that Priya was already hard at work plotting an ejection path for the bay floor. It wasn't enough to expose everything to vacuum. No, in under T-minus 5 they had to eject everything in a way that’d send it flying far & free from the facility on whole.
You looked down again, worried that amid all their bickering Ellson, Veej, and Oni hadn’t even heard you. Maybe the hallucinations were already too strong. Maybe there was no chance of saving them after all.
“Ahh!” you cried out, jumping back.
Priya looked over—then down, and saw it, too.
“Holy mother of...”
The lifers down on the bay floor were all standing still, frozen in spot, and staring up at you and Priya with the same quiet calculating expression on their faces.
“They really have been jellied,” you whisper. “I'd always heard the stories, but...”
Priya's jaw set, and she returned to her work at double-speed. The encrypter had seen two tours. Nothing fazed her for long.
“Preparing for venting. Only... Shit, we've got company.”
“How'd you know?”
Speedy as always, that military outfit. You waved her on. “Set an alternate vent path, ASAP. We can't risk expanding the circle of contamination.”
Looking down again into the bay floor, you felt queasy. Three lifers who’d never stopped calling you ‘kid’. Was this the only way?
But then—there were dozens more lifers in this facility who’d wake soon to find that they’d never even gotten to say goodbye. And that was the job: to make sure they, at least, could wake up safely, and feel that grief, and be pissed at you instead.
“Ready to vent.”
You nodded, and Priya stood beside you to salute the statuesque trio one last time.
Then the system klaxoned, the bay doors opened, and a pressure valve at the perimeter helped to guide everything clear of the facility as it bucked out into the vacuum.
Small canisters, sensory-test equipment, two of the other shipping containers: out went one item after another. But still the trio kept staring up at you and Priya.
Worse still... you could see it now.
QZ-7836 was floating without being vented out. And glowing. And vibrating.
Panic heightened when a systems ping alerted you to IA's arrival. If you answered, you'd have to tell them about this. And if you told them that you couldn't vent the ghost container and its three contaminated subjects...
Hells bells, what a nightmare of a third-shift. You looked to the call button on the nearest console. You weighed your options—and the stares coming up at you from below, and what Ma would've done if she were here, in your mag-boots. Then you inhaled deeply and
hailed the IA vessel.
silenced the ping.
booked it for an evac-pod.
Priya met your gaze as you reached for the comms system—and in that moment you saw that, while she of course knew what was coming, she also recognized that youknew what this choice meant, too.
And she respected you for making it anyway.
...Not enough to say something, mind you—real life was rarely like the movies. In actual life or death scenarios, how often was there ever time for one last chuck on the shoulder and a gentle “Your Ma would be real proud of you right now”?
But, you could tell.
That good feeling gave you strength as you confirmed your ID for Commander Jiro, who was personally helming the approaching IA vessel. Then he asked for an update on the situation, and you gave it.
And... he cursed a blue streak.
“Who in blazes decided to try to bypass the block in the first place? An unidentified block on IA property, and you go diving in without permission. Just who your numbskull number thought that it’d be a good idea to—”
“Team effort,” Priya jumped in, saving you from the kind of fury that IA saw fit to unleash on those who hadn’t seen service firsthand. “We thought we were dealing with a run-of-the-mill issue. This far in, the odds were in our favour of a simple communications mishaps.”
Jiro shifted his ire then to the veteran, where it took on a firmer, more devastating edge.
“Carelessness like that has cost us more ships and battles than I can name,” he ground out. “And now it's going to cost us this transport hub. Do you understand that, soldier?”
“Copy that,” you jumped in, to save Priya from the lecture in turn. “Only, can we not jettison the sleeper quarters first? They’ve been nowhere near the storage ring.”
Jiro considered, and Priya nodded, when he glanced her way: They were indeed a few levels of security removed.
“If you can manage it remotely,” he agreed, “we'll quarantine and evaluate them separately. But you two...”
“Yes,” you said. “I know. We were too close. And I'm probably already exposed, because I can see what the team was seeing down there, too.”
Priya looked at you in surprise, then dismay, and something twisted in your chest. She really hadn’t seen anything? Nothing at all?
It felt a crushing waste that she’d be trapped here with them, too.
But—better safe than sorry. For the inners. For Terra Prime.
“Go, initiate the separation,” you told her. “I'll port our full data set. Only I have the clearance to. Ten minutes?”
“Ten minutes,” Jiro agreed. “No more.”
Priya set to work, and you did, too—but you didn't need 10 minutes to authorize a data transfer.
Instead, the moment all was uploading you returned to the deck level, and peered down past the seal. Heart racing, you switched it off. What did it matter now?
Ellson, Veej, and Oni stared calmly up at you, but you pointed past them, to the glowing, floating, vibrating QZ-7836.
You had to know. Damn it, you were going to die over this anyway. Why not die with as many questions answered as you could?
“Help me with this, will you?” you said, hopping down.
And the jellied crewmates obliged, in their eerie, uniform silence and movements. All four of you pried at the container’s edge until one side swung suddenly open.
Then you stared into what first seemed like emptiness, void. But then...
"My god," you said. "It's full of
The depths of the shipping container were indeed twinkling, from an array of soft, bluish-purple lights that hung at a distance impossible to pin down: either meters off, or whole lightyears.
Were they actually stars, though?
The way they shifted before your eyes, defying easy placement against their backdrop, you could almost swear they were imprinted on a set of vast, cosmic limbs, roiling together in some great and outer darkness.
Or maybe that was just another hallucination.
Either way, even standing at the outer lip of QZ-7836, you felt like you were teetering at the edge of an abyss, and with one false move you would tip over into it.
But why not?
Why not dive into the mystery of it all, at this juncture?
Behind you, back in the tedious world of transport and storage, of the IA and its never-ending war with untold horrors at the brink of human expansion, a critical end was fast approaching.
Vaguely, in the distance, you heard shouting.
You’d never watched the footage, but in dreams you’d thought a lot about your father’s transformation under the touch of those distant jellies. How the liquification process had taken hold of him. How he might possibly not have been... eliminated by it, so much as reborn.
Reorganized, say, from the base pairs up.
Back on Terra Firma, after all, there’d been a jellyfish that could endlessly revert to an earlier stage of development. A sort of... eternal chrysalis feature, allowing it to play out genetic reformation at will.
You wondered what that would be like for you, for all humanity, to get to play out the same life over and over...
Though could you ever really do it all exactly the same?
Maybe the whole universe would need to access such a chrysalis feature together, simultaneously, to give any singular being within it a real chance of finding that perfect run-through of itself for all eternity.
But maybe that’s what the jellies had been doing all along? Rebooting every entity in the universe—a few at a time, yet always growing in number and in reach, in pursuit of that one perfect iteration where every life would play out as immaculately as it could?
By now, though, you knew you’d clean run out of choices. A rumble in the distance signalled that the destruction of the transport hub by the IA vessel under Jiro's command had begun. You had no idea, even, where Priya was bracing herself, to wait out these last, brutal seconds.
Nor could you so much as turn back to look for her—not with the jellied figures of Ellson, Veej, and Oni now stampeding into the void of the ghost container, all in perfectly calm sync with one another—and driving you past the edge of all human knowledge alongside them.
Not while you were falling, falling for what seemed an eternity into that well of darkness, and... maybe stardom?
Not while you were reaching out, mid-tumble, even now with some small trace of hope, that the next reassembling of your contents would be the right one.
...Or, if not the right one, at least one that showed marginal improvement over this last.
Some reassembling of your life’s contents, that is, which stood a better chance of bringing the whole damned universe to a far more perfect...
than this one would ever be.