Freebie Mondays: Humpty Dumpty – A Random Picture Prompt

Freebie Mondays: Humpty Dumpty – A Random Picture Prompt

I decided to do a random picture prompt but with a bit of a twist. I shared the picture in my discord and invited my Twitch chat to participate if they wanted to. (The picture I chose is the background of the splash image for this post.)

My immediate thought when I looked at this image was portal to another world. But I wanted to do something different from what I’ve done in the past. I really challenged myself to stretch my limits and write something new. I’m not entirely sure when the nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty popped into my head, but it worked so perfectly I just had to run with it!

Incidentally, I streamed the creation of this short, so you can watch it come together if you’d like (including a bit of a deep dive into the history of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme!)

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall

“We have incoming,” the radar tech announced with an irritating level of calm. “Five marks at nine o’clock.”

Mira gritted her teeth and muttered a soft curse. “How much time left?” she demanded as she scanned her readout screens.

“It’s hard to say,” the science officer replied with a small hint of exasperation. “Mission clock indicates a minimum of sixty seconds, but it could be up to five more minutes.”

God damn it! I warned them about performing one of these maneuvers when we wouldn’t be able to make an extraction.

“Contact the admiral and ask him to intercept,” Mira commanded. She braced her chest against the wave of panic that threatened to overwhelm her and forced all of her limbs to remain still. She must at least appear on the surface to be cool, calm and collected. Else the rest of the bridge crew would fall to pieces. “What kind of ships are we looking at here?”

“Small fighters,” the radar tech replied, her tone measured to match the captain’s. “Bombers probably.”

The kind that could easily slip a strike through our blockade and vanish before we get a mark on them.

“The admiral has ships inbound,” the communications officer reported. “But they’re two minutes out.”

And we have only a tiny escort and the long-range guns on our ship.

“Move us into targeting range,” Mira demanded. It was a snap decision, but it wasn’t a hard one to make. The resources on that planet were far too valuable to risk losing – even if the retrieval agent hadn’t been her sister.

“Captain, our long-range guns are no match for their speed,” the radar tech protested, turning in his seat to cast her an imploring look.

“And we can only hit one at a time? Don’t you think I know that? We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

“We’re in their attack range,” the science officer warned curtly, perhaps trying to draw everyone else’s attention back to the task at hand.

“Do we have movement on the mirror?” Mira demanded. It had to have been at least thirty seconds since those ships appeared, though it felt like a small eternity.

“None,” the science officer admitted with a soft sigh.

Mira scanned her readouts again, but she saw no indication of the telltale spike that indicated a tech passing through the mirror-like surface of a gateway.

Come on! she hissed in the vaults of her mind. Do not make me do something I’m going to regret.

“Captain, what do you want us to do?” the navigator demanded. He wanted permission to perform evasive maneuvers, but they needed to remain firmly between the bombers and their target.

“Just do the best you can until the admiral’s ships get here. Weapons, fire as soon as you can get a clear lock.”

“I’ll do my best,” the weapons officer replied. “But they’re a hell of a lot faster than us.”

Mira braced as she felt the familiar vibration of something bouncing off the ship’s shields, followed by the hum of the main canons charging. Again, her eyes raked her readouts, and she said a silent prayer she wouldn’t have to remain on the edge of her seat for long.

“Communications,” she hissed, “can you punch a message through the gate?”

“Not a chance, Captain. It’s designed to repel anything that isn’t coded with the proper genetic signature.”

Could she create a message that could punch through? Did she have that kind of time?

“Where are the admiral’s ships?” she demanded as the ship once again vibrated with a barely repelled strike.

“Twenty seconds to intercept,” the radar tech announced, still mostly calm.

“Captain, two of the fighters have slipped through our barrier and are heading for the surface!” came the science officer’s report.

And just as she spoke, Mira spotted the spike she had been looking for, the signal that  their tech was about to emerge from the world beyond their world.

Damn it!

“Shoot those ships out of the sky. You have no greater priority,” Mira told her weapons officer. “Navigation, get us close enough.”

Affirmations were called over the shoulders of her busy crew, but Mira knew damn well that they were not a military vessel. They were designed to transport sensitive cargo. They relied on other ships to provide their muscle.

It was no coincidence that the admiral’s ships were drawn away. The asshole should have anticipated this, but he expected Mira to pull a miracle out of her ass to cover his.

Thirty more seconds and I might just be able to do it…

The ship rocked and an alarm sounded. Mira gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to snarl. “Report!” she barked.

“Minor damage to the port-side engine nacelle. The engineering crew has it under control,” came the response.

“One of the fighters is down!” The triumphant call of the gunner followed.

Then silence dominated the bridge, and Mira felt the bad news reverberating through her bones before anyone had a chance to speak.

“The second fighter dropped its payload,” the radar tech finally reported, haltingly and, to Mira’s mind at least, in slow motion.

“Where?” she asked. But her eyes were on the readouts and the static fuzz across the bars was answer enough.

“It was a direct hit,” the science officer whispered.

“The gateway?” Mira whispered.

But she already knew.

“Shattered.” The singular word echoed in her mind like the breaking of a glass.

*   *   *

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

Just breathe Lizel. You’ve done this, what, dozens of times before? It was a simple, easy process. Allow the liquid metal of the gate’s metallic surface to slide over her, then meld with the biotech woven into the frame.

Passing into the other world was like stepping into the mist of a waterfall or passing through a brief patch of fog. It would tingle against her skin for a moment, then she would be beyond the realm where she was born, in a space where physics no longer operated on the same parameters.

She was no longer sure whose idea it had been to store all of their most sensitive projects here. It kept them out of the hands of the enemy, certainly. But it made them awfully difficult to retrieve in a pinch.

Was it better to make sure no one could steal the key to their latest weapons upgrades, or would it be better to have the knowledge on hand in a hurry?

She, evidently, didn’t get to answer that question. She, like everyone else, simply did what she was told.

As the gateway slid away from her skin, all sensation vanished. She did not have form here in the same way she did in the regular world. She was nebulous, connected to every other molecule that occupied the pocket dimension.

Every time she made this transition, she marveled at the scientists who had given up all claim to their original forms to work within this space. They brushed her mind as she awakened to the sights and sounds of this non-space, a vast chamber of swirling cubes and impossible shapes, constantly rearranging even as she attempted to observe their positions. The minds that forever dwelt here were like ghosts, their fingers intangible and cold.

But they knew exactly how to find what she needed, the small piece of reality she had been tasked with detaching from the pocket space to take back with her when she retreated.

She appreciated the guidance. It was dangerous to stay in this space very long if one intended to return, and not just because of the passage of time on the other side of the barrier. The longer she remained enmeshed with this bizarre landscape, the more difficult it would be to gather the scattered pieces of her original form. Those who lingered here to work did not actually forget what they were or where they had come from. They simply adapted rapidly to the new space – eventually integrating so completely they couldn’t stand the order and limitations of normal space.

It was the work of a moment to wrap her fingers – such as they now were – around the molecules that made up her retrieval package, though it took extra time to integrate them with the rest of her so that they would make the journey back to normal space intact. Everything else in this pocket dimension had been here quite a bit longer than her, after all.

Her task achieved, Lizel began the incantation that would reverse the process of integration and spit her back into the world of her birth. This was the most time-consuming and focus-intensive portion of her mission.

The incantation could not be rushed. It must be spoken precisely, without hesitation, interruption or mistake. The results of failure would be catastrophic – mostly for her.

Even as the concepts rolled through her being, she felt herself rise from the sea of barely contained chaos. Directions regained their meaning, and the misty tingle of the transition consumed her being.

First, she must return to the mirror frame, the liquid-like surface of which held her biomolecular structure in anticipation of her return. The particles needed to reintegrate her – and the precious package she carried – would be exuded by the gateway’s material frame. Once they gathered in its center, like dew on a spider’s web, they would resume their three-dimensional form, and the transfer of consciousness could be completed.

She could almost feel the soft breeze surrounding the gateway’s exterior against her skin again. In a matter of moments she would be more than just a concept, though less than what she had been while she occupied the pocket dimension.

That was the most difficult part of the transition – the shrinkage back into a singular small body occupied by a solitary consciousness. That was the constraint that always hobbled the scientists when they returned after years on the other side.

But Lizel liked being a singular being. She rather enjoyed the solitude of her body. And she always experienced a small race of anxiety in the second just before she broke free of the mirror, unable to keep from worrying about the loss of all that she was and could be.

She felt the strike rake over the gateway. It rippled through the mesh frame and tore through every molecule of her body at once.

Her muscles didn’t just tear. Her bones didn’t just crack and bend.

Her essence scattered, thrown back across the mirror surface before it could regain its original shape.

Then the mirror shattered as the mesh frame popped and sizzled.

To an outside observer, it would look like dozens of solid glass shards hanging askew in the frame that once kept them mounted. But to her, it was like looking into the world she wanted to reach through thousands of pairs of eyes.

It was too late to go back, and she could no longer go forward. The connection was severed on both sides – but she was still integrated with the gateway. Broken like the glass and twisted like severed limbs.

The agony was greater than she had ever encountered, and it did not cease after the smoke cleared.

*   *   *

All the King’s Horses and all the King’s Men

“How go your efforts to restore the shattered gate?” The admiral’s voice was low and deep. Mira likened it to a base guitar, thrumming darkly beneath the day to day harmony of the world surrounding her, interrupting the flow with its incessant vibrations.

“They don’t,” Mira replied with a long sigh. She almost felt as if she were deflating.

This defeat was personal – something the admiral could never understand. The information her sister carried across that threshold might have been critical to fleet command, not to mention their active military operation. But how was she going to tell her mother Lizel wasn’t coming home?

“Elaborate,” the admiral commanded in a tone that brooked no argument.

Mira wanted to sigh again, but she squeezed her eyes closed instead. “We cannot simply put the pieces of the gateway back together. It doesn’t work that way. The connection between the worlds was broken when the explosion penetrated the mesh.”

“So two decades of work are simply gone?” the admiral demanded, his words laden with barely contained outrage.

“No,” Mira said again. It was easier to be calm when her chest was wracked with guilt and grief. There was little this man could do to her that could compare with the disaster she was already dealing with.

The admiral shot her a look that suggested he did not like having to ask more questions, and Mira groped for words that would make sense to him.

“Theoretically, the pocket dimension is still there. We simply don’t have a way to access it. A new gateway could be constructed.” That much was easy to understand. They already had a dozen of them scattered throughout their territory. “The trouble would be reconnecting to the proper anchor point. Usually when we build new gateways, they open to new pockets. We’ve had limited success with regaining access when the connection is disrupted.”

“But it is possible?”

“Yes.” But all things were possible; that didn’t mean they could be accomplished within their lifetimes.

“And what about the package your courier was meant to deliver?”

Mira gritted her teeth to hear her sister referred to in such a clinical, dispassionate manner. She was not a god damned object!

“That is lost,” she replied on the tail end of another sigh. “All of our scans suggest that she was in the middle of the reintegration process when the bomb struck. The essence she was told to retrieve will therefore no longer occupy the pocket even if we regain access.”

The admiral frowned. It wasn’t the answer he wanted.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Mira,” he commanded, and the use of her first name caused her to jump, “but if your sister was in the process of emerging from the gateway, does that not mean she is still integrated with the mesh?”

A cold chill ran up Mira’s spine. That was the worst part of this whole situation. The fact that her sister was not actually dead – merely theoretically dead. What else could she do but mourn her? It wasn’t as if she could do anything to help her.

“Theoretically, sir, yes. But as I stated, we cannot reconstruct the gateway exactly as it was before. Even if we used the shattered remnants with an intact frame, some of the matter will have been lost during the strike. We have no idea what might have been stored in those irretrievable pieces.”

Silence stretched between them while the admiral considered her words. She knew what was coming, but that didn’t stop her from dreading the inevitable.

She should have shattered the rest of those remnants rather than taking them back to her ship’s lab. But then she would have had to live with murdering her sister before she proved beyond a shadow of doubt that she was lost and irretrievable. And what kind of sister would that make her?

“What I am hearing,” the admiral said at last, his voice that soft low thrum again, “is that you could reassemble the mesh enough to retrieve what is still written across it, you simply don’t know what that will turn out to be.”

“Yes,” Mira admitted softly, the word tearing free of her throat against her will. She feared what the man would say next and prayed he would consider the potential horrors before he answered.

“We need the data contained in that retrieval packet,” the admiral stressed. “It is of paramount importance.”

Don’t do it, Mira pleaded silently. Please have mercy – on her if not me.

“If you can retrieve even a small portion of it, you must.”

She wanted to say that she couldn’t. She wanted even more to say that she wouldn’t.

But there was a small part of her that would rather have any small piece of her sister back, if only so that she didn’t have to arrange for her funeral.

So she nodded and cut the connection. Then she sat in the darkness of her quarters for most of an hour resisting the urge to cry and praying her sister – or what was left of her – would forgive her for what she was about to do.

*   *   *

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again

She watched the lab technicians work from the shattered remnants of the gateway like a cartoon character stuck inside an old television screen. She was conscious the entire time, though the experience redefined her concept of awareness.

She wanted to scream at them to stop, to bury her somewhere in the dark where she could simply try to forget.

The agony never stopped – even now she could feel it wriggling through her being, demanding to be known.

“What have you done?” she hissed as soon as she could move her lips again. The agony was there, reverberating through the essence of her speech even as she struggled to find her voice.

The glare she leveled at her sister should say it all – and more.

The answer was in Mira’s eyes – what I had to do. What they made me do. But she didn’t speak the words. She was wise enough not to give herself the excuse, and it made Lizel hate her ever so slightly less.

“We integrated as much of your biological essence as we could recover into the mechanical replacement body.”

Under other circumstances, the consciousness transfer, the biological download that allowed a dying mind to take up residence in an artificial shell, would have been complete enough that her new body wouldn’t feel any different. Except her time within the mirror material made everything feel different than it had before.

She was nothing more than a doll now, a pretty remnant of what she’d once been. She could walk and talk, even hide the truth of her new existence. But she would never be able to perform the transfer again. She was useless as a tech wizard, and she’d be just as useless as a sister.

But which one of us is going to regret that more?

“You have no idea what you have done,” she snarled, and it pleased her when her sister cringed.

It wasn’t just her body that changed. It was her mind too. They hadn’t been able to control what they pulled from the remnants of the shattered gateway. The transfer had been all or nothing.

Mira knew that; Lizel could tell by the horrified look on her face. But even she didn’t understand the full extent of her folly.

“You have no idea what I am,” Lizel whispered, and a single tear flowed from the corner of one of her new eyes. “You have no idea what I will become.”

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