Matt Gemmell

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An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

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Weekly Short Story: Dice

writing, fiction & once upon a time 7 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published three ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.

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Today’s brief tale is a mash-up of a couple of sci-fi tropes, together with a wholly unintentional bit of social commentary that emerged organically. When you’re writing — especially in this genre — that tends to happen a lot.

The story was inspired by a vending machine in the Psychology building at the university I went to. Someone had put a sticker beside the coin-return lever, presumably to indicate that it was unreliable, and the conciseness and playfulness of the act made it lodge in my memory. Iconography really works. Over the years, my mind has come up with various permutations of the idea, and this is yet another of them.


“And last but by no means least, this is the static core.”

The lieutenant sounded as proud of the machine as he obviously was of his uniform, but I knew that the device was hardly unique. Every ship capable of folded-space propulsion had an S-core by necessity. All the same, I was curious because I’d never actually seen one in person before.

It fit roughly with my expectations. Cylindrical in general outline, about two metres high and perhaps a metre and a half in diameter. I stepped closer, and was immediately aware of how incredibly cold the thing was.

“You can’t physically interact with it, of course,” the lieutenant said. “But if you try to touch it you’ll freeze your fingertips solid. I knew a man who had to have his thumb and index finger amputated after he tripped and fell towards a core.”

I hadn’t raised my hand towards the cylinder, but I took a careful step back anyway. There was a low railing surrounding the machine, and suddenly it didn’t seem sufficient.

“Remind me why you have these things,” I said, not because I didn’t know but rather because I could see that he was dying to tell me. Sure enough, his eyes lit up with all the zeal of a museum tour guide who got the nerdy class at 9AM.

“Well,” the lieutenant said, “as you’ll remember from school, there’s more than one universe out there. We’re in one at the moment, but there are many more.”

“An infinite number,” I said, and he nodded.

“And the universe — each universe, I should say — is vast. You’ll also remember from school the kind of distances we’re talking about. Even at the speed of light, it takes years to reach the next star over from Earth.”

“So we created hyperlight drive,” I said. Another nod from the lieutenant, this time in the direction of the much larger assembly of machinery that dominated the engineering bay we stood in. Really a multi-storey building within the ship, it provided both sublight and hyperlight propulsion for the vessel. It housed a small army of technicians to keep it all running smoothly.

“Which was fine for a while,” he continued. “We used hyperlight for almost sixty years, vastly expanding human civilisation, before the Helsinki incident.”

It was a favourite story, gleefully relayed by children everywhere to their parents once they’d learned of it, and the parents in turn listened in pretend amazement while privately recalling when they’d first heard it themselves.

The Helsinki was a mining survey vessel, and decades ago it had been exploring an asteroid field somewhere between the twin stars of 61 Cygni, having passed the A star en route into the system and made the usual observations on fly-by. The mining survey proceeded without incident, revealing some promising prospects, and a return course was plotted. After engaging hyperlight, though, a fluctuation in the engine’s plasma feed had necessitated abandoning the jump to make some quick repairs before the Helsinki had left the system. By sheer chance, a crewman had looked out a window and noticed that the A star was orange in colour.

“That’s when they noticed that 61 Cygni A had been yellow when they arrived, but was now orange,” I said. The lieutenant nodded, his expression more sombre now.

“I personally always remember it being orange,” he said. “But then that’s how it works. At the Helsinki’s origin point before their initial attempted jump out of the system, the A star was yellow — like Earth’s Sun.”

The modest geosurvey vessel had inadvertently discovered the critical side-effect of achieving faster-than-light space travel using plasma-moderated gravity distortion waves, generated by concentric spinning rings of element 683: you always ended up in a different universe from where you started.

Once the incredible fact had been verified, space travel all but stopped — except for very local, limited-range excursions — for almost eight years. That was the length of time it took to invent the static core, which was essentially a networked computer system inside an isolation field of super-cooled dark matter which insulated its contents from being changed by the shift into a parallel universe. Its purpose was very simple indeed: it held a checksum for reality.

When a ship dropped out of hyperlight, its crew knew three things: where they were, when they were, and the fact that they had been displaced by a random number of parallel universes. The trick was to find out whether the inevitable differences were going to cause an ongoing problem for navigation or even continued existence.

At that point, a ship’s static core immediately established contact with any other cores it could reach — and their range was truly vast. They would then compare checksums, which were fractally calculated from shipboard and planetside databases, and stored holographically. It was possible to very quickly identify which information differed between your arrival point and your last departure universe. The changes were logged, the new universe’s checksum data incorporated into the ship’s S-core for the next jump, and on you went.

There were a few intrinsic quirks that were very, very useful indeed. First, if you had a static core on board, you always ended up in a universe which also possessed that same technology. Scientists and mathematicians were still trying to determine exactly why it was the case, but no-one was looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Second, and presumably for the same mysterious reason, the static cores acted like anchors. When arriving at your destination coordinates in a new universe, it was much, much less likely that your own civilisation and territory would have changed compared to your last universe, seemingly due to the existence of the static cores. The cores almost made it seem like hyperlight travel was possible within the same universe — but not quite.

Conversely, less advanced civilisations and planets, who hadn’t developed either static cores or even hyperlight propulsion at all, were much more likely to suffer detrimental changes whenever any of the billions of vessels in the union triggered a jump. In some documented cases, entire spacefaring species had been erased from history, or rather left behind in the departure universe.

“It makes you think,” I said. “Hell of a thing to accept for the sake of interstellar travel. I mean, after even one jump, you can never return to your family. Not to the same family, I mean.”

“Almost always an identical one, though,” the lieutenant said. “Or in my case, literally the same: they’re in my quarters on deck 26. If you feel that way, I’m surprised you didn’t bring yours with you. We’ll be jumping soon.”

“I don’t have a family,” I replied. “And you’re right; I wouldn’t be here if I did. I’m not sure I could even accept the idea of all this. When we get to Earth, it’ll be the same as I remember, won’t it?”

The lieutenant grinned. “Yes. Earth never changes. There are hundreds of S-cores on the planet’s surface and in orbit. It’s the most anchored place in this whole arm of the galaxy. If any S-core did ever detect a checksum deviation for Earth, a new jump would be triggered automatically.”

I felt reassured, but then the feeling went away as I heard the hum of machinery powering up. A light within the static core, still visible through the fine mist which surrounded it, changed from green to amber.

“Jump order came through,” the lieutenant said. “We’ll be going to hyperlight shortly. If you want to place a bet, there’s a board over there.”

Sure enough, an illuminated panel within the wall of a bulkhead had a series of names and credit amounts, alongside a prediction of changes in the destination universes the ship would hop through during its current mission. Everything from astrological phenomena to the introduction of fanciful non-human species. Someone called Howard — it was unclear whether it was a first or last name — had predicted that his father would finally be proud of his chosen career, and someone else had anonymously written No he won’t beside the wager.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I said. I found myself feeling nervous, and the lieutenant clearly noticed it.

“You won’t feel a thing, I promise,” he said. “Think of it as an adventure. Here, let me show you something.”

A steady tone began to sound nearby, and a hundred display panels displayed a warning that the hyperlight drive would be engaged momentarily. I followed the lieutenant to a master control console along the adjacent wall. My anxiety only increased when I saw that it currently displayed the activation control for the drive. The lieutenant pointed at it, and I looked closer.

Someone had digitally affixed a sticker to the smoothly pulsing trigger panel, showing an object recognisable throughout the union: a bright red pair of six-sided dice. Both showed sixes.

“It’s a gamble every time?” I asked, but I already knew the answer.

“Makes it more exciting, and less existentially horrifying. As long as you don’t think about it too much.”

A synthetic female voice intoned a countdown, and I had to force myself to uncurl my fingers. “So I could end up a quadrillionaire, with a private moon and a clone of my childhood dog?”

The lieutenant grinned again, but distractedly this time as he checked a few readings on the console. The countdown continued, nearing its end.

Ten seconds.

“It’s astronomically unlikely,” he replied. “Not impossible though. As far as we know.”

Five seconds.

He nodded, satisfied, resting his finger above the trigger panel, and looked at me.

One second.

“Let’s find out,” he said.


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.