GATEKEEPERS

Scientists waited on the asteroid named 2867 Šteins. Unofficially, it was called the Gateway. The next shuttle was on its way and overdue. It would be carrying four unconscious passengers, carefully chosen for the task at hand. The ritual was performed once every hundred days. Kali demanded it. No one defies Kali.

There was no job on Earth like that of a Gatekeeper. The three Gatekeepers, Cryo, Io, and Ken, were the only candidates who had retained any semblance of sanity after their year-long initial assignment on Šteins. Because of their resilience, they stayed. The others returned to Earth and led numb lives, or ended them.

Cryo had no family on Earth. She truly enjoyed her extraordinary life on Šteins, as cramped as it often was. She was one of the remarkably few people ever to inhabit an extraterrestrial body for a long period of time. She was exceptionally successful at pushing Hell out of her mind so that she could appreciate the rest of her environment.

Io came to Šteins partly to escape her family. She found her job fascinating, even pleasurable. She liked Hell. She thought it was pervertedly the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She enjoyed introducing the delivered arrivals to its Gate. Io's nickname in school was "psychopath". It fit, and she kept it.

Ken was an academic. He kept detailed journals of his experiences and had written a research paper that would never be allowed to be published. He planned to return to Earth and see his family again before too long, but he found the Šteins Phenomenon irresistibly fascinating. He considered Hell from an analytical point of view. He was uniquely immune to the human point of view.

You see, the Gatekeepers were unique in all the galaxy in that they saw Hell and lived to have nightmares of it.

The shuttle docked. Its pilot knew nothing of the Gateway. His name was Tek. Tek knew he carried unconscious passengers to an asteroid and didn't bring them back. He didn't know why.

Tek wasn't a normal part of the operation. The regular pilot, who did understand his job to the extent that it was necessary to never interfere with it, was being held in a basement somewhere. Tek and his associates in the People's League were determined to put a stop to the suspicious activity at 2867 Šteins. They believed that internationally-sanctioned murder was taking place there.

That's why Tek hijacked the shuttle. That's why the hijacking was kept quiet while the shuttle was en route.

"You're late. And you're new," Io said to the disembarking pilot. "Where's Umber?"

"Last-minute thing. He got sick."

"Fine. Let's hurry," Io said.

Tek pulled out the wafer-like beds on which his passengers were restrained. The three Gatekeepers joined him and they brought the arrivals all to an enormous room carved into the heart of the asteroid. Ken administered a stimulant and the bleary passengers pried open their eyes for the first time in months.

Tek said, "What is this place?"

Cryo looked at him strangely. "Shouldn't you know?"

"It doesn't matter. You can leave now," Io said to Tek.

Tek took a last, long look at the room which he'd entered. Cryo didn't like what she saw in his eyes then. Finally he nodded and returned to his shuttle.

"Alright," Io addressed the arrived four. They were mumbling and confusion and nausea were beginning to show in their eyes. Ken removed their restraints as they began to struggle feebly against them. Io said, "Welcome to 2867 Šteins. Today, you have the honor of serving the entire human race. We three have the honor of making you."

Io showed the four that she had a nerve gun. They watched her set it to the maximum pain setting.

"Slow now," Cryo warned them as they tried to move around in microgravity. "There's no hurry. Give yourselves a minute."

Ken floated to a console and began flipping switches. Deep noises filled the cavernous room. A violet point materialized in the very center of the room. A buzzing emanated from it, like a thousand swarms of bees. The floating violet shape pulsated and expanded until it was a sphere several meters across. The arrived four could not look away. To the Gatekeepers, it had become routine.

Rails extruded from the walls near the buzzing violet sphere until they came to almost touch it. The Gatekeepers helped the four to reach the rails and pull themselves along, toward the sphere.

One of them pointed at the sphere and said around a dry, resistant tongue, "What is that?"

The Gatekeepers ignored her question. They shepherded the four along the rails. Cryo said, "Follow me." She entered the sphere and was swallowed up by it. Ken and Io pushed the rest in. Ken followed them. Io stayed behind and went to the console. She checked that the Gate remained stable.

The four looked around themselves in confusion. They covered their ears with their hands. The buzzing was far more intense inside the sphere, though they could not understand how they were within the sphere at all. They saw that they were in a space far larger than 2867 Šteins. They felt that there was gravity, and ground, and a sky. The ground around them was like tar and littered with alien bones. The horizon was cloudless and blood-red as far as they could see.

There were bloodless human corpses all around the area. There were imps with geometries that challenged the mind defiling those corpses. Some imps saw the Gatekeepers and their four arrivals and creeped toward them. They bared their teeth, or whatever it was they used to chew on the souls of the dead.

Kali and a swarm of screaming insects rose up from a fissure and confronted them. The imps scattered.

Her skin was black like night. Her cloak was red like fire. She carried a blade that was silver like the moon. Her skull-shaped crown was gold like staring into the sun. She smiled, and her teeth were like elephants' tusks.

The Goddess's voice and the buzzing were one. "Have you brought blood to bolster my strength?"

Cryo said, "Yes, Kali."

"You wish for me to continue to hold back the dark forces?"

Cryo said, "Yes, Kali." She bowed to the Goddess.

Cryo and Ken moved away from the four, who were paralyzed by panic and confusion. Kali lighted on the ground and walked toward them. The ground steamed where her feet fell. She took one of the four and slit his throat with her blade. She drank from his blood while he exsanguinated. She repeated with a second. The next became un-paralyzed and tried to flee before it was his time; Kali seized his arm with a free hand and crushed it.

Before Kali had finished drinking the blood of the final sacrifice, there was a shudder. Io's voice came from far away: "Cryo, Ken, we have a problem!" Kali sensed something and moved back from the Gate. Fire and debris spat out from it. The last sacrifice was incinerated.

A breeze became a wind became an incredible gale. The spat-out debris and anything loose around was sucked into the Gate's sphere and vanished to infinity. Kali's insects buzzed more intensely than ever while they fought to oppose the wind sucking them toward the Gate. Cryo and Ken fell to the ground and dug their hands in.

"What have you fools done?" Kali roared, "How can I protect you now?"

She braced herself facing away from the Gate. She held her blade at the ready. The buzzing insects struggled to maintain their presence around her.

And then the rumbles, the growls, the thunderclaps. Noises so loud and so low they were like earthquakes.

From the horizon came shadows. They blotted out the crimson sky. The ground and horizon were both black. Kali's cloak radiated like flame in the darkest night.

Suddenly, in no time at all, the shadows were on top of them. They were unthinkably large. They were the size of planets. Kali was at once as massive as any of them. Her footsteps hammered the ground like stellar collisions. She swung her blade with the enormous strength given to her by freshly-drunk sacrificial blood. She cleaved shadows, which bled more shadows.

Kali's voice thundered like supernovae. "Go through! Close the Gate! I can't hold them off if the Gate stays open!" Ken looked at Cryo, and she at him. They took a deep breath and stepped through. They did it even though they knew what they would find. Kali couldn't know how they controlled the Gate. It didn't matter. No one defies Kali.

The console was gone. 2867 Šteins was annihilated. With their fleeting seconds of consciousness, Cryo and Ken saw the shuttle firing on the debris field with its missiles and they heard the most fearsome demons of Hell rending open the Gate and entering their reality.

Written by Sophie Kirschner