Scream Saver

By Ann K. Schwader

The fractal on Halpin’s screen writhed through a dozen color shifts in as many seconds. One flowed into many, many into one – and the gaps between were jagged mouths, gnawing at a void blacker than imagination.

Susan backed away from her colleague’s desk. “Where did you download this thing?”

“It’s a distributed computing project. Strictly volunteer.”

He tapped one corner of the screen, where translucent spikes stabbed in counterpoint to the fractal’s movements.

“That’s got to be a pig for bandwidth.” She frowned, feeling queasy. “The IT Nazis will have a fit.”

Halpin’s smile was mysterious and deeply irritating.

“She already knows about it. Where do you think I got the URL?”

Susan bit back her doubts. Halpin’s nose was the brownest around, but his instincts were good. If the new head of Info Tech – some big-ticket foreign hire – hadn’t banished this monstrosity yet, she probably had her reasons.

“It’s like SETI, but better,” Halpin babbled on. “SETI just does space. This does space and time, because they’re the same when the angles bend right.”

This screensaver was definitely not bending right. “You’re not making sense.”

Halpin’s eyes stayed fixed on the screen. “Time,” he muttered, “doesn’t exist. Everything that ever was – or will be – is here right now, in some dimension of space. We simply can’t see it because our own dimension is too curved.”

Were those silver spikes jabbing higher, now?

“Angles are intersections,” he continued. “Points of contact between here-Now and here-Then – any Then. Imagine a time machine where nothing moves. Where you can just step through, back to the beginnings of life on Earth.”

His voice dropped even further. “And beyond.”

Susan understood now what Halpin’s problem was. Pharmaceuticals manufacturing involved unique challenges – like coworkers who sampled.

If she didn’t want to lose her own job, she needed to go report him. Bad enough that she’d stayed late – on a Friday night, too – at Halpin’s request. He had cited problems with a new tablet coating, but when she got to his desk, he’d started in about this instead. Now, he wasn’t even talking, just gawping as the screen’s patterns twisted and pulsed and leaped.

She retraced the cubicle maze on autopilot and adrenaline, heading for the hall as lights throbbed across the ceiling. Random doorways revealed screens all displaying the same fractal, each more twisted than the last.

Where do you think I got the URL? Hard to imagine Halpin working directly with the new head of IT, but it was just possible.

A low, overstressed hum rose around her. Risking a peek at one screen, she saw larger gaps of void between the fractals. Narrow, sharp things flashed in those gaps.

Eyes? Teeth?

“Oh God!”

Halpin’s desperate wail rose from back in the cubicles, but Susan fought the impulse to turn around. By the time she reached the corridor, she was running.

Think of a time machine where nothing moves. Where you can just step through. Every desk in this building had access to the Intranet, which probably meant access to the fractal program as well.

Access was such a horrible word. It went both ways.

Somewhere behind her came a dry scrabbling, like scales or claws or something worse fighting for traction. Halpin wasn’t screaming anymore.

Bolting for the nearest elevator, she slammed her hand against the Down button. When the door opened breathless seconds later, she ducked inside and flattened herself against the closest wall then fumbled with the controls to shut the door again fast.

A squat figure swathed in a long coat occupied one back corner.

“Is there a problem?”

Susan froze at the quiet, vaguely-Asian voice. The new head of IT. Of all the people she didn’t need to look like an idiot in front of -

“I’m not sure. There’s a screensaver running on all the terminals, and they aren’t sounding good.” Neither am I. “Halpin said it was a distributed computing project, some volunteer thing, but he wasn’t making sense, and it just got worse as he went on -”

Her voice trailed off as she realized whose “volunteer thing” the project must be. Still, Halpin had been babbling about space and time and angles…hadn’t he?

As though in answer, the squat figure nodded. “It is the Liao program.”

Susan blinked. Was this something she should have gotten a memo about?

“The program was experimental. It generates random angles of opportunity. Halpin was not meant to discuss it, although I suspected that he would.”

Sharp, dark eyes peered over the top of the coat’s collar. “I am sorry you were the one he chose.”

Something in her tone made Susan wish she’d taken the stairs.

And what the hell were “random angles of opportunity”?

“Halpin isn’t exactly discreet. He seemed worse than usual tonight, too.” Spit it out. “Like he’d been taking something –”

“You are so much less expendable than he was.”

As the pit of Susan’s stomach followed the elevator down, she stared into the eyes opposite her and saw nothing but void. Void in which strange sparks woke. In which something moved.

The head of IT folded down her collar with gloved fingertips.

“Your coworker was correct about one aspect, though. Like SETI, the Liao program assists something: the plight of immigrants. Immigrants desperate for the curved reality of a purer world than their own, which they made foul.”

Susan stared at the woman’s yellowed-ivory features, smooth and perfect as a mask.

“Immigrants?” she croaked. “From where?”

The elevator stopped. As its doors began to open, black eyes flicked away from Susan, toward the angled walls overhead. Toward the inexorable pressure of jaws forcing through at the corners, lean and thirsting shadows shifting from Then to shrieking Now.

The head of IT spread her arms to welcome them.

“It is called ‘Tindalos’.”

THE END

Ann K. Schwader lives, writes and accumulates far too many books in Westminster, Colorado. Her Lovecraftian/SF sonnet sequence, In the Yaddith Time, was published by Mythos Books in 2007. Her short fiction collection, Strange Stars & Alien Shadows, appeared from Lindisfarne Press in 2003, and her first Lovecraftian poetry collection, The Worms Remember, was published in 2001 by Hive Press. She is an active member of SFWA, HWA, and the Science Fiction Poetry Association. For updated information on her work – as well as other topics of possible eldritch interest – please visit her LiveJournal, Yaddith Times:  http://ankh-hpl.livejournal.com/.

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