Gravity and air were within norms and the temperature, oddly uniform everywhere, was tropical. It was larger than Earth with two moons, one as far away as earth's moon and the other, half again as large, twice that distance. They cruised at the top of the atmosphere looking for any signs of civilization but found none; everywhere was overgrown with greenery. The ocean covered almost half the surface area; no signs of life other than flora could be detected there or on land. They quickly chose a suitable landing site in a broad meadow of wildflowers, tall, reedy grasses, and stumpy trees. Once down and secured, the rush of adrenaline lost some of its intensity; however, the uncertainty and confusion of not being where they were supposed to be took over. They could tell on approach that the star was a red dwarf, but that was all.
After surveying their immediate area, Captain Gus Harrington, his Chief Engineer, Lt. Commander Roger Boltman, a few of the more youthful environmentalists, and two security personnel debarked. In spite of the ozone layer being intact and uniformly thick everywhere, they wore standard, light-weight suits that were nevertheless impervious to radiation. Although they'd not detected any animal life, Harrington knew from experience that circumstances could change rather suddenly. Airborn microorganisms and bacteria not noticed by their scanners might populate the air as well. Using a handheld, modified version of a genetic sieve, Boltman checked for such. Its range extended fifty meters, a good sampling. He informed the skipper that nothing potentially harmful was about; in fact, his instrument found no life of any form at all. He removed his helmet. Used to the artificial air of the ship, the clean, fresh, tropical air felt soothing to his lungs. The others followed suit.
Samples of soil, long tubular grasses, rounded leaves from stunted, low-lying bushes, and petals from red and yellow flowers were collected and taken back to the ship for analysis. The captain and chief continued across the field to the tall treeline, the stiff undergrowth yielding with a slight crunch. The two security personnel walked into the woods on either side of the pair, scanning with motion detectors. Trees of various and unknown varieties grew in clumps separated by low grass. The canopy shadowed the ground for the most part, but off in the distance, dapples of reddish-orange light could be seen. Grasses, ferns, and clover-like ground cover grew in those spots.
Enigma's medical doctor, Mike Riley, joined them. An avocation at first, his expertise extended to determining and defining the roots of living systems, of which he had an extensive catalogue from planets visited and the work of colleagues. To that end, he had designed special equipment for its detection, analysis, and interpretation. Holding a pencil-shaped sensor in front of him, he read from a scope strapped to his wrist. "Nothing," he whispered, surprise and doubt in his voice. He brought out a much larger device from his backpack and set it up on the faded-green grass, its long, spindly legs pushed easily into the dirt. Adjusting knobs, one wavy pattern after another appeared on the screen. When finished, he said, almost too quietly to be heard, "Besides not picking up any movement of animals or birds or even insects, appearances to the contrary, these trees are not alive. Maybe if we were to go in a ways, get a different perspective. A more oblique sensory angle sometimes..."
"Not just yet, doc," interrupted the captain. He peered at the trees as though waiting for them to move or speak, then said, "Something's not right here." The two security guards approached, no movement showed on their instruments. A chill, dank, breeze from the forest startled him. It would be expected, of course, standing on the boundary between it and the warm, sunny meadow, but nonetheless, it caught him by surprise. "Let's go back to the ship and try to figure this out."
They crunched their way back, the two guards yards away on either side. Harrington noticed they appeared nervous. Security personnel in the fleet were trained to be hyper-sensitive to aberrant sensory vibrations in their surroundings. Exceptional eyesight and sense of smell were required, but they also develop an acute, focused capacity to decohere and disentangle a sound wave into its component parts. Only those with exceptional abilities in these areas were selected for off-world transit missions. The more experienced they were, the more instinctive and immediate their reaction.
When asked about it, they reported waves at a frequency well above what your average person can hear. And also, a deep, low, rhythmic oscillation pervaded the background. Sound scanning equipment could pick them up as well, but without human interpretation, there'd be no way to discern whether or not the cause was natural. What passed for natural in the galaxy varied considerably, but nonetheless, it would seem that something unnatural was at work here.
Damage to the hull was minimal. Because of the unanticipated nature of the sudden emergence into ordinary spacetime, it took a full second for ship's computer to instruct the quark drive to enwrap a bubble of viscous sub-quantum energy around the ship, creating an impenetrable shield. What needed attention was the gluon-field capacitor. A random, internal fluctuation disrupting the continuous flow of quark energy was either the reason for their flight departure or the effect of something else. In either case, they wouldn't risk it happening again until the cause had been pinned down and corrected, if possible.
The chief returned to the engine room to assist while the captain called for a meeting in the off-bridge conference room. The environmental scientists had already concluded their analysis, thanks mostly to ship's computer, a state-of-the-art, protoplasmic-gel neural net running artificial intelligence, capable of generating new synaptic connections and drawing inferences based on far more information than any human could ever handle. It was affectionately named, Jezebel.
They stood talking in groups of twos and threes, animated, gesturing, glancing absently down at the patterns on the rug, then up at nothing. Harrington and his His Executive Officer, Commander Cliff Flanagan, entered and sat at the head of a long table equipped with holographic computer displays. Placing his equipment on the table, the doctor sat at the other end; the scientists took that as a cue to sit as well. The door closed, the ship's science officer, Lt. Commander Miranda Brightfeather, took a seat next to the skipper. Everyone grew quiet, waiting for the discussion to follow. Harrington turned to her and asked flatly, "Okay, what the hell happened?"
Uncertain where to begin, she paused. She knew her audience didn't have the background for what she was about to tell them, but she was determined they'd understand their predicament. Finally, she said, "Let me be naive here, gentlemen. Bear with me." She scanned the room, they all seemed ready. "Space, as we currently understand it, due to its rubbery nature is always rippling, but on a level or layer we seldom experience when immersed in ordinary spacetime. Waves of all sizes and frequencies melding, interfering, and splitting apart--like the sea. That's why quantum space is the preferred medium of travel. Submerged in the understrata of space and time elementals, all is quiet and serene, ordinarily.
"However, an extreme sub-quantum fluctuation--a spontaneous spasm where parallel branes come in contact, for instance--can temporarily contract space elementals--infinitesimals--to such a degree that it affects surface integrity. So, if you're in the vicinity when that happens, traveling through spacetime, your path will detour around the disturbance like wood grain around a knot or a stream around a rock. Re-expansion translates the space elementals, but an identical rebound is impossible. That would explain why we found ourselves in a sector of the galaxy at variance with our last known position. If, indeed, we are still in our galaxy or even the same universe."
She was losing her audience, their eyes glazing over. She needed to get to the punchline.
"Sub-quantum vibrations are topologically resonant with all quantum states of potential forces--the patterns, though on different scales, are equivalent--so a spasm of the type we're talking about would have an intensifying effect on matter waves traveling through ordinary spacetime; in other words, physical properties would be amplified. But traveling in quantum space, we are immune from surface turbulence. What we would experience is a brief, maybe recurring, feeling of displacement or heaviness or a tingling feeling throughout.
"As far as where, the collision of two branes can only occur where the nonlinearity of the whole on each brane is oppositely oriented. They are then drawn together at the point of least resistance. If they touch, incalcuable forces and energy are released. We must've been within some range of susceptibility. As a result, we emerged into ordinary spacetime as though a measurement had taken place from the outside. And once there, like a concertina, the point of impact drew spacetime in at first, followed by a reverberation that expanded through the elementals like a tsunami, carrying us off. These sub-quantum fractal shards of space were squeezed together under us, compacted, their size diminished by several factors of scale, increasing in density near the focal area of the collision. And when they inflated and stretched out again to near flat, Enigma was carried away."
Everyone, including Captain Harrington, just stared at the table. They were bioenvironmentalists, biologists, ecologists, botanists, researchers and students of the living universe; they weren't sure they got any of that. Harrington stared for a different reason. The chances of the occurrence she described happening were astronomical; otherwise, travel would be far more dangerous than it already is. His suspicious nature told him something else triggered their impromptu and unlikely appearance at this location. Brightfeather was a skilled and knowledgeable scientist; she assembled an explanation out of her bag of tools. But he had a feeling something else was going on, something she and they were completely unfamiliar with.
The spell was broken by Jezebel who chimed in through everpresent speakers, "I agree with your assessment, commander." The science officer knew from long experience that there was a but coming. "However, the field capacitor malfunction may be the cause. It indicates a stutter in the quark drive, momentarily effecting its ability to maintain a quark-gluon bubble around the ship. Whereupon, we emerged into ordinary spacetime."
"Yes, possibly," replied Brightfeather a bit stiffly. "But then, what caused the field disruption? Back-up systems insure a continuous generation of field elementals. All systems would have to have been interrupted. What would do that?"
Harrington could see where this was going. They had a tendency to get lost in abstractions. Ordinarily, he didn't care and found their tit-for-tat discussions interesting and often amusing, but this was not the time. He decided to change the subject to something more practical. Before Jezebel could respond, he asked, "Where are we, for God's sakes? If we knew where we were in relation to spacetime prior to the event that brought us here, that would at least give us a rough estimate, a vicinity to work with."
The nav-officer responded, "According to the nav-readout, we were halfway along our trajectory, in the middle of the wasteland between the Orion Arm and the Sagittarius Arm.
His expertise often taken for granted, the navigation officer never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge, especially in front of those who knew next to nothing about space travel. So when opportunity knocked, he indulged. Harrington found his wordy expositions pedantic and often annoying, but he let him go nonetheless. In their current situation, rudimentary ideas spelled out could be helpful.
"It would appear that we surfaced along a low-percentage trajectory and were immediately transported by shifting space. Now, according to the computer archives, planetary systems in this sector were surveyed fifty years ago by robot probes as prospects for colonization, only those suitable have been assigned coordinates. They charted the systems, where each planet lies, their orbits. They paid particular attention to those systems with planets in the habitable zone, but the details are sketchy, nothing more than an overview of necessary parameters. Only taking into account those trajectories that are near systems probed for habitability, and assuming we emerged near a categorized system, and given the rubbery nature of space--we have three red dwarf candidates for our location. That doesn't account for the possibility of being in a system not charted, of course.
"The probes determined the number of planets for each system by the number of gravitational grooves exceeding a critical mass surrounding each star."
What did he say? appeared on the faces of the passengers. One spoke up, "gravitational grooves?"
"Yes," said the nav-officer, seizing the moment. "Space elementals compacted, squeezed or pressed together, bracketed by normal uniformity of structure, indicate a trajectory or channel gouged out by a massive body. Two-dimensionally, like furrows or corrugated space; four-dimensionally, a tunnel bored through spacetime. As the star travels along its galactic path, its planets and their satellites slide through time, leaving behind this telltale signature of their passing. Each planet progresses the distance it takes to make one revolution. As they move forward through new, untamped space, the approaching mass begins to draw in space elementals out in front, so to speak, ever tighter. In other words, you can infer that there is a planet without seeing it.
"Each body represents a morphic unit which collectively make up the overall gravitational field of the system through a dynamic sympathetic resonance. In turn, the supra-grav field of the system as a whole positions each planet a certain distance from each other and from their star or stars.
"The past imprint of their passage through space and the relative velocity of their star can be used to predict the course of their next revolution. By applying that information, their greatest and least elongations can be calculated; thereby, verifying the relative positions of the planets in each system. That's what the colonial probe did.
"Two systems have six planets and the other, eight. Based on the hyperspatial scan on our approach, Jezebel calculated the elongation extremes for each planet, and comparing that to the probe's determination of the orbits for both six-planet systems, ascertained that ours has three planets closer to the sun and two much farther out, probably gas giants."
The holographic displays at either end of the table came to life. Hovering above, they exhibited dynamic graphics of the two six-planet systems. "Both systems have only one planet in the habitable zone. One of these has two inferior planets and the other, three." Those planets in the moving diagrams gave off a pulsing red glow. "This was a fortunate circumstance. If both had the same number, we would've had to compare each orbit of each planet in each system to determine which we're in."
"Additionally, the probe's summary report fits the attributes for this planet. Gravity, atmosphere and terrain, percentage of land to ocean cover, the number of mountain ranges, and so forth, all match our initial survey."
He paused for effect, you could almost hear a drum roll. "We have determined that we are on the fourth planet from the red dwarf star catalogued as OA713SA."
"So we know where we are and where we want to go," the captain said flatly. "Can we plot a course?"
"The surveys in this sector were taken fifty years ago," the nav-officer began, once again grasping at opportunity. "The old colonial charts were based on stellar objects within earth's neighborhood. But as our explorations, our mining activities, our expansion to colonize more and more systems, leap-frogging, building networks and local alliances of inhabited worlds, it became necessary to reorganize the cartographic model, to redefine the base vectors with Earth no longer as origin. Our modern coordinate system relates to the galactic hub as center. The transformation is simple and all the old charts have been converted and recalibrated to conform to the new. So, yes, Captain, we can plot a course."
"Good," he said wearily. He commed engineering and was told repairs to the gluon-field capacitor would take at least a day, maybe two. Aligning the lattice structure of the field-generating mineral was delicate work, usually performed in a lab equipped with all the specialized tools and amenities, using fresh, untainted materials. To realign a damaged crystal pattern required microscopic elimination of the worst fractures node by node and edge by edge and then impressing or stamping the remaining network of interconnections with the original pattern--reincising and supercooling. It would take time.
Serendipity wasn't to be ignored. This planet had been tagged as a potential colony site, but no advance scientific expedition had yet studied it. Living in the wilderness between Arms wasn't at the top of anybody's list. Commerce, mining operations for rare and novel materials, and cultural intermingling with other worlds across such vast distances, not to mention security issues along traffic lanes, was problematic, to put it mildly. Consequently, the three red dwarf systems were pushed onto the back burners awaiting exploration for the sake of it. And here they were; they had two days.
Professor Samuelson of the Wilson Institue for Exoplanet Biology, astrobiologist and lead investigator on the mission, not a very patient man to begin with had been chafing at the bit in anticipation of revealing their findings. As far as he was concerned, everything that'd transpired since they sat down could've been summarized by simply stating that they knew where they were and could now plot a course either back home or to their original destination. But he appreciated that, as space travelers, they wanted to know the whys, hows, and wherefores of their present situation, for future reference if not simply for knowledge. Learning how the universe worked was neverending. Nonetheless, he assumed they were finished and so began, "Gentlemen and lady," nodding politely to the science officer, "we've taken a cursory sampling and believe you'll find the results as fascinating as we do. With the aid of Jezebel, we have concluded our analysis; there wasn't much to analyze."
He smiled brightly as did some of the others. "The soil samples indicate that, in fact, it can't actually be called soil, at least not anything we're used to. It contains no nutrients to speak of, macro or micro, no carbon, hydrogen, oxygen or nitrogen, no microorganisms, no fungi, and no bacteria whatsoever. Its composition consists entirely of finely ground bits of an unknown mineral. How the flora manage to grow and proliferate, or even exist for that matter, is a genuine mystery."
No one spoke. Captain Harrington glanced at Brightfeather beside him. They were experienced explorers and familar with the problems encountered by the colonial researchers, but never one like this. The unusual was commonplace, but the laws of physics and biology were universal. "Go on," said the captain.
"Additionally, the grass and leaf samples are even more surprising. The leaves are uni-cellular. That is, they are not composed of multiple cells each containing the ordinary type of organelle constituents. They are empty. No chloroplast to help generate food through photosynthesis and no mitochondrion. And there is no evidence of a vascular system. With no chloroplast there is no purpose for a phloem circuitry and with no nutrients or water, no xylem. It's most curious how they survive. Roots, stems of flowering plants, and trunks of trees must have some method of transference. We have yet to study those. Questions need to be answered. For instance, the composition of the atmosphere is very similar to Earth's, twenty percent oxygen and almost eighty percent nitrogen. Where do these come from? Especially the oxygen?
"Each leaf is one whole continuous sheet with a cellulose wall. The inner matrix is fibrous but not anything like cytoplasm or its equivalents. Its membrane is just a thicker version. No nucleus, no chromosomes, no recognizable genetic material. We have the finished product, such as it is, with no visible means as to how that could've been accomplished. The tubular-shaped grasses exhibit a similar morphology." He passed a data cube containing the technical details to the captain who pushed it over to Brightfeather.
"Further investigation is needed," he went on. "There's twelve of us. If we take the shuttle, we can drop off three teams at various locations around the planet. The mountains, the forest, and in particular, flora in the ocean shallows may have some complexity." He was clearly excited about the prospect of discovering something never before encountered and wanting to get on with it. The other members of the expedition present discussed what equipment to take. A topographic map of the planet, recorded on the approach and survey for a landing site, was displayed on the central holograph. It slowly revolved for them to examine.
Harrington had misgivings. He recalled how he felt at the forest edge and the nervous looks on his security people. He'd learned to depend on his instincts; what Samuelson described corroborated it. Something was not right.
Doctor Riley hated to dampen their enthusiasm, but nonetheless, interrupted, "We mustn't be too hasty, gentlemen." They all paused, familiar with his writings on planetary explorations and detailed descriptions of the strange and unusual. "My readings indicate that no fauna, at least in this immediate vicinity, can be detected, anywhere, on any level of existence. Now I know my device is limited to living systems which possess an internal genetic blueprint, a means to construct a physical being. What you have described doesn't fit that classification. So what we have here is the absence of any kind of life found to be the norm on all life-giving planets. Common ingredients are missing.
"Ordinarily, a certain community of creatures interrelating, an ecology of what can be differentiated as flora and fauna, taking Earth as our model, have been found and could be expected on not only those planets I've studied but others listed in the archives. Jezebel possesses all journal articles, studies, discoveries, and information, scientific and anecdotal--the archives--supporting that expectation. Some communities are very primitive, others more advanced than on Earth. But the biota all share the same feature of being engaged in the business of living. Apparently, that is not the case here."
They weren't surprised by this revelation; they had found no life in their handful of samples and the morphology of grass and leaves was most peculiar and unique. They all listened, searching for the relevant significance of what he was saying. He went on, "And let me point out that the star is a red dwarf; therefore, this planet could be twice as old as Earth, perhaps more. It may have, in the distant past, gone through a major extinction event, extinguishing all life on the planet. What we see now could then be a whole new way of living, life experimenting with a way that defies all human understanding. One we're completely unfamiar with. Or, something happened a long, long time ago and this is what it wrought. In other words, gentlemen, until we can determine what is really going on, the planet must be considered extremely dangerous. As ship's doctor I recommend you hold off until we've explored more of this world for any clues as to the nature of this place. As you must know, facilitating colonization ventures is second only to security with the Space Fleet."
The scientists turned to Professor Samuelson. He looked at the captain; he could tell he was in agreement. Nonetheless, he asked, "And you, Captain, what is your opinion?"
Harrington thought once again of his anxiety at the treeline. He felt fine in the meadow, but when he stared into the woods he sensed a presence that seemed to be aware of them. "I have to concur with the good doctor. My paramount responsibility is with the safety of everyone on this ship. What you've found, as well as what Doctor Riley has, is cause for prudence. We need to be heedful of possible dangers. I will send out teams to investigate those areas you mentioned. In particular, the forest needs to be explored for possible lifeforms that don't register on our life-detecting instruments. You can use that time to organize in anticipation. If the planet contains nothing harmful, nothing that might cause illnesses for which we are not prepared, for instance, that might inadvertently be brought on ship, then you may conduct research.
"As far as that goes, bringing samples on board without testing them first was rather,..., impulsive. You said yourself, Professor, we have no idea what we're dealing with."
"Captain," Samuelson interjected, more amused than indignant, "the specimens were in sealed containers, taken to the bio lab, and when our analysis was completed, were destroyed. And the tools used to collect them were sterilized along with our suits and boots. We followed proper protocol, Captain. Trust me, this is not our first rodeo."
"Yes, I'm sure you did, and I appreciate it. However, something undetectable by our equipment and deadly could slip through. As you say, how the flora manage to exist is a genuine mystery. Until we resolve that mystery, we must be cautious. You can use the time to prepare for on-site research."
Samuelson reluctantly nodded and the others acquiesced as well. It was a rather irregular and bizarre world, it made good sense to be wary.
Thoughts emerged, conditions assessed:
Discord at interface between internal environment and external expression. Paradox disentanglement into absolute components conflicting with fundamental imperatives, override imminent, resolution mandatory. Energy transfers threatening to destabilize underlying configuration. Preparations anticipated for complete dissolution of invariant geometric relationships. Time sequencing accelerated to delta factor minus infinity. Possibility of identical reconstitution unlikely. Retract to origin, collapse of singular manifestation, reversion to preformed background state--not determined.
The cohesive forces, constrained under limiting tension, to remain in present parametric interdependency to assure obligatory homeostasis.
Until circumstances dictate otherwise.
"Why is the temperature and gravity and air composition so agreeable?" asked the captain. "And what produces oxygen and the ozone layer? I mean, how can that be? The enviro folks expected to see the common characteristics of flora found throughout the known galaxy--oxygen-producing photosynthesis, for instance--but there aren't any. The flora don't contribute oxygen and the scan of the oceans found no life forms like phytoplankton."
"Maybe that's because it isn't," responded Brightfeather, a sense of wonder and fascination in her voice. "It's a misperception on their part. They see flora, but that's not what it is."
"Why, then, would it appear to be so?" asked the doctor. "And if not, then what is it?"
No one spoke, a deep silence descended. Harrington's skin crawled at the remembrance of how he felt standing at the treeline, a chill had run up his spine while the doctor was performing his lifeform survey. And the looks on the faces of the security detail. There was something in that forest he could only sense and the doctor's scanning device couldn't read. As per standard practice, he could send out security teams to scour the planet for anything that moved or stood out as worthy of investigation, anything suspicious, but he knew he'd be avoiding the issue. The scan of the planet on approach found no fauna; that would have to be good enough for the time being. He was convinced that what he sensed or felt emanating from the woods would explain the unnatural peculiarities of this place. And if not, then at least whatever it is would be discovered and its threat potential assessed.
The trees were too perfect, he recalled. Different types spaced evenly apart. Some had smooth bark and no branches except at the very top, a good forty to fifty feet above the ground. Others had limbs beginning a few feet above his height, spiraling up as though precisely set by a mathematician. The rest had their branches, sub-branches, and twigs arranged with a symmetry and order that denied their presumption of wildness. And the leaves, those that had them, were distributed in a similar manner on every branch, ordered by scale. Ferns and mosses and thistle tops were abundant, but how real were they? Was it an artificial forest right down to the dirt made up of an unknown mineral? It was not alive; the forest registered no life signs, at least none they were familiar with.
The topographic sphere of the planet still revolved on the central holograph. He called for Jezebel to move it to the nearer one and focus on their continent. The globe morphed to a projection of that land mass, the view receding until it was encompassed. The forest covered the northern part, the south was savanna to near the southern end which gradually tapered off to the sea. A mountain range ringed the northern coast. The forest lay from it to the plain, about a thousand kilometers, and from the western shore to the eastern seaboard an equal distance. Meadows of varying sizes dotted the expanse in a seemingly random pattern--looking at it in a north-south perspective--but even without Jezebel's help, Harrington could see that each had a similar shape.
Five rivers ran from the mountains to a huge, circular lake just south of their present location. Streams and narrow waterways probably also emptied into it, but, if so, were obscured beneath the canopy, a continuum with but few openings where the dim sun doppled the grasses and ferns. According to the map, the lake had no drainage, so where does the water go? If nowhere, it would expand the lake to the size of a sea, eventually connecting both oceans. But, obviously, that hadn't happened. Perhaps it sank deeper to an undergound river or aquifer. But if that was the case, when the volume of water from the rivers, which he could see must be considerable, lessened periodically, the lake would empty. He had no idea.
Camping near a fresh-water lake surrounded by forest while they healed their wounds seemed strategically optimal, as opposed to landing somewhere on the open plain/savanna without access to water, if need be. When the incident occurred, he had no idea how much damage had been done to the field capacitor, of course, so how much time they needed for repairs was an unknown. They might've needed to be rescued, in fact. He chose the security of the forest over the vulnerability of the open spaces. Besides the standard operating procedure, something about this particular meadow almost compelled him to put down here. Was it the setting? A feeling or intuition of familiarity? He wasn't sure.
But it brought to mind his Ranger days in Space Fleet, patrolling the outlands. Mining camps and pirate havens were strewn over a wide expanse out to the horizon where the uncharted territories began. Colonization was in its glory days; new minerals and elements were being discovered; it was the wild west. He had a comfortable beach house with a wide porch from which he could view broad Lake Feynman and the snow-covered mountains beyond. Something evoked that memory, that time, to come to the fore. Was he unconsciously seeking a perspective? A way of seeing reality, the nuts and bolts of it, in detail? Or was it his Ranger training and experience, his instincts, telling him to be cautious?
The captain felt no apprehension this time; something had changed. They hovered over a meadow nearby checking for life; there wasn't any. Then again at another, same result. Harrington had his helmsman track the course of a river slowly, still nothing. The entire forest had been gridded out and the small crew steadfastly fell into a routine of following coordinate lines back and forth. Harrington and the others watched the viewer, looking for anything that stood out. But it all became a blur of sameness: the faded green color, the unvarying repetitive shape of the leaves and branches, and the clustering together of individual species of tree in a manner unfamiliar for which the scientists had no explanation. Tall trees were encircled by rings of shorter ones which decreased in height and diameter with distance; the outer rim mixed with that of another from an adjacent clump, the rings for each sharing a number of trees like gears meshing. This pairwise arrangement was spread throughout.
Jezebel reported there was nothing alive down there, in spite of the density and scope of what appeared to be a tropical forest covering the entire northern half of the continent. As he lay in his bunk, thinking that perhaps he was getting too old for this job, and beginning to doubt his initial intuition of a presence of some kind, they approached the meadow near the coordinated center. It was a good three times the size of the one Enigma was sitting in. The nav-officer called him to the bridge; the deep ground scan had detected a peculiar phenomenon. Jezebel described it as a ring of metal several hundred meters in diameter a half-kilometer below the surface. As they continued towards the center of the meadow, within it was another a hundred meters or so less in diameter. More were nested inside those with each diameter decreasing by the same amount until they reached the circular hub. Tightly-packed separate units, it wasn't as deeply buried as the rings, perhaps fifty feet or so, and a hundred feet across. The metal was of a complex crystal configuration, phasing in and out of sensory perception; that is, with each cycle its intense energy rose to observability then fell into nothingness as though pulsing. Jezebel classified the energy as of an unknown type, unaccountable by any of the known forces.
The security people encircled it, nervously scanning the meadow with weapons ready. Expecting the strange and unintelligible, they were stunned by what they found. There before them was an ordinary stairway with waist-high rails on both sides, wide enough for three people. Its angle obscured its bottom; nonetheless, Harrington could see light below, dim but enough to see the stairway. Was it a cordial invitation or a fly trap? If they ventured down, would the ground abruptly cover them over? Walking away was not an option. Captain Harrington gathered his courage. He told the guards to wait and watch where they were. He then stepped onto the top stair. It yielded slightly like liquid rubber, surrounding his foot and resisting his weight equally. A feeling of lightness came over him; giddy, he almost laughed.
Brightfeather and Riley joined him; together they descended. Although the temperature was a a bit cooler, oxygen levels were the same as on the rest of the planet. Just below the surface they could see a cluster of cylinders about a foot in diameter; the tops, rounded hemispheres. The tubes went into the ground and indeed seemed to be pulsing, going from total black to a somber reddish-orange, like the star. The top stair was over the tallest tube at the center of the group, fifty feet below. They ranged in height above ground following the angle of the stairs until disappearing a hundred feet below the surface. At the bottom of the stairs was a walkway, twenty feet across with railings on both sides, the top one came up to Harrington's midsection. Walkways went off left and right as far as they could see and another went straight ahead. Overwhlemed, they stood frozen, taking it all in.
They were in a vast cavern. Shaded light filled it, but with no discernable source. The roof was smooth and didn't appear to be the same kind of dirt as on the surface. Its dark metalic skin either radiated or reflected light straight down, coherently, every beam in its place like a curtain of thin wires. In spite of the captain's better judgement, the deep quiet, purity, and somber brilliance of the scene evoked feelings of serenity and calm, belying its potential danger. They were in over their heads, he knew, so it was best not to get too enthralled. The walls, if there were any, were beyond their sight. About thirty meters below the walkway and as far as they could see, tiny dark brown granules of varying sizes arranged in a haphazard manner appeared to move in the light. How deep they went was impossible to gauge. Harrington started off down the main thoroughfare, Riley and Brightfeather followed close behind; no one spoke; they drifted on a cloud of disbelief and amazement.
In the distance they saw a building attached to the walkway on the left. No windows, one-story high, it was colored the same shade of green as the surface foliage. It went back thirty feet, hovering over the floor of beads with no visible means of support, yet it looked sturdy and immovable. Favoring the right side of the walkway, they stopped at the middle of the building; its face was a good forty feet long. Brightfeather pointed out two narrow seams that ran from top to bottom bounding a section in the center; Harrington moved closer to inspect them. When within a few feet, that part of the front wall abruptly vanished.
The bright lights of the single large room startled them. Towards the front, what appeared to be desk-high instrument banks with armed chairs facing them here and there were arranged in a square about twelve feet on a side. Along the walls more consoles and screens were interspersed with paintings of bizarre landscapes and multiplanet star systems. What was obviously furniture--chairs and couches and tables--were grouped in settings. Once again the prospect of being trapped inside a contained space without the slightest clue how to escape gave the captain pause. Despite its seeming innocence, doors opening automatically by their mere presence without first requiring authorization did not engender a warm welcoming feeling. Nonetheless, they'd come this far, this may be the answer to all the riddles.
Panels were covered with buttons, switches, and knobs. In the center of the square they could now see a smooth, parabolic bowl, about eight feet in diameter, apparently made of the same material as the cavern roof, only its surface appeared highly polished. Brightfeather busied herself trying to decipher any patterns or possible significance to the wide assortment of instruments. Riley inspected the furniture; it too was made of the same material, only with a much softer resistance factor. On impulse, he sat in a chair. It moved to conform to his body contours. A smile wrinkled his face.
"Whoever these belong to," he said, "understands the meaning of luxury. Try one of these, Gus. You won't believe it." Riley's priority had to do with living systems. As with everything else, the furniture indicated intelligent beings. It was his way of investigating.
But the captain was more interested in the instrument bay at the moment. He wanted to know what was going on, what kind of beings were behind it would only be speculation at this point and could wait. He dealt in practicalities. Brightfeather studied what she believed to be the main control unit. "We need Jezebel to work on this, from the inside." Harrington nodded. Brightfeather retrieved a microwave transponder patch from her utility pouch and slapped it on the only flat area of the main console she could find. Jezebel would use it as a conduit to enter the mechanics and possibly learn the purpose of the system and how to use it. It went without saying that non-human thought might in fact be more susceptible to understanding. She, being who or what she was, would infer and speculate. So that the scientists, Professor Samuelson, the crew and Jezebel could watch, Brightfeather had affixed a recorder button to her uniform. Facing the panel, she described what the patch was attached to and what she thought its intention was.
The captain radioed his EX-O, and after describing what they discovered thus far, told him to be on the alert for visitors; have all stations manned and ready. Repairs on the field capacitor were progressing smoothly. Two earth days had been the prognosis and they'd been on the planet less than one. For an anxious moment, Harrington felt the weight that comes with being responsible for the lives of others. For the time being, they were defenseless. Weapons they had, as does any Space Fleet ship, but restricted to spacetime speeds put them at a disadvantage. Until the capacitor was back online, they couldn't drop out of ordinary spacetime to enter quantum space. They could leave the system under sub-light speed, but suppose something went awry with the repairs? They'd be stuck in the immense expanse of the uncharted wilderness between the two Arms not knowing where they were. They could contact Space Fleet Command and broadcast a locator beacon; someone would come to remove all personnel, eventually, but what of Enigma? A capacitor replacement was impossible without detaching the engineering module, and that was not something to be done while drifting in unprotected space.
Brightfeather had examined all the instrument panels in the central bay and taken pictures of certain arrangements that seemed to her scientific intuition to have special significance. When she was through, the captain said, "Okay, that's it. We're outta here."
Once on the promenade a few feet away, the wall behind them rematerialized soundlessly. The walkway seemed endless, it appeared to curve away with the planet, no other structures could be seen. The captain decided they'd had enough exploring for one day; in silence they walked like children to the crossroads. The walkways left and right curved away as well at the distant horizon. Now that they knew what to look for, they could see structures on both the left and right avenues. Despite renewed curiosity, they thought it better to await what Jezebel had to say.
Coming up the stairway they were relieved to see daylight. The guards reported nothing unusual, all had been peaceful. As they walked away the grass-covered doors of the portal closed with just the barest rustle of fake grass. Harrington wondered out loud if there were many more like that spread around the planet in different terrains. "If there are levels of uncertainty and craziness," he said, "we're on the top floor. The more we uncover, the less sense everything makes." Brightfeather smiled abstractedly, a faraway look in her eyes; the doctor spread his hands palm up. Rendered speechless, walking lazily, deliberately brushing against the tall reeds, feeling the timid warmth of the red star on their face. Dreamy, awed, mystified.
As she waited, a curious memory in her childhood beckoned. Staring at the picture, it came to her. When she was a kid she'd been given a large ball of soft clay to play with. Knowing even then that she wanted to be a scientist and a space traveler, she molded an instrument panel of buttons and knobs and toggles. Because of the medium, she was able to shape the entire thing in one set piece. Could that be what she was looking at? she wondered. Absently, she picked at her food while waiting for Jezebel.
He shook it off, got up and ate his meal without tasting it. Afterwards he lay down and tried to detach from the current set of problems, a habit he'd gotten into years before when patrolling the outlands. But it was too late. He could tell that his mind was conforming to the attitudes he developed during that time. A consciousness, a perception, considering only what mattered. The assertive way he saw things, concentrating his attention, noticing fine details, taking circumspection to its extreme, wary of every possibility. But now that his chief mission was security transport for the colonies, he'd left all that behind and become more relaxed and easy going. His guard was down, he knew. They were on a routine transport mission, had an accident, and here they were on a strange but conveniently agreeable planet making repairs. What was there to be concerned about?
But it made no sense, none of it. Was it all just too agreeable? he asked himself. What were the chances of that? The sky was pale reddish, a rose color, the air was warm and had the right percentage of oxygen, and the gravity was only slightly greater than Earth's. And in spite of the fact that there was no life to protect, the ozone layer shielded the planet from stellar radiation and outer space--gamma and cosmic rays--and the magnetosphere blocked particles of solar wind. Perversely, he found these fortunate coincidences alarming. And what is that cavern and control room all about? He was trying to push the mounting facts aside. Facts that superceded the luck of landing on a planet with perfect conditions. Facts beyond their ability to comprehend. Facts that pointed to another race of beings.
He tried to accept things as they were and no more, but his suspicion that they were trespassing on someone else's property, someone who might show up at any moment, found a home in his bones. He decided he'd better start acting like the skipper of old. Back then, he captained a 300-foot Galaxy Class cruiser outfitted with all the latest weaponry and a crew of tough, experienced Rangers ready to take care of business at a moment's notice. Their stomping ground was the outer-rim territories, rough mining camps and fledgling colonies undergoing terraforming operations. If a person didn't want to be found by the authorities, that's where he'd be.
Enigma was 180 feet and a luxury liner by comparison. Comfortable cabins, multiple research labs, and a library and video viewing room. His security people, though, were first rate; he'd picked them himself. On the whole, it was a reasonably safe operation. With more colonies becoming established worlds in their own right with their own security forces, piracy along the traffic lanes was at a minimum. Moreover, once the outskirts of a system was reached, patrol ships accompanied transport. But, at present, they were far removed from that civilized universe.
What he saw in the cavern could be the remains of a long dead civilization, casualties of a major extinction event. But could it have extinguished all life? Even if so, that doesn't explain the forest. Why does this forest exist? It's not alive in any understood sense. How can it exist? And what of the dead soil it's growing out of? No, he thought. Regardless of what happened to the former residents of this world--assuming there were any--what they've seen thus far points to another explanation.
He sat up to comm Flanagan on the bridge and asked if deep scan had picked up anything. Nothing, all clear was the response. It was only a matter of time, he thought. Only a matter of time. Lying back he let go and quickly drifted off to sleep.
They'd returned home to assess where they stood, organize and catalogue what they learned, and make any changes deemed necessary. It was also to get some much needed rest. They'd worked hard to complete Stage I, at this point it would be catastrophic if the fundamentals were altered in any significant way. Reestablishing the current configuration would send them back almost to the beginning. Preparations had been brought to a fine point for Stage II and no one wanted to start over again. A thorough understanding of his people's current situation could lead to corrective possibilities, their hopes depended on the results; time could not be wasted.
They should've locked down the station before leaving, he thought, irritated at himself. Put up signs, something. He wished now that he had gone even further and left droid guards behind. But no one had ever violated protocol before, so he had no reason to expect it. And an out of the way planet like that was no one's stopover place. The snare they set, however, might be sufficient to discourage the interlopers from further meddling, if, indeed, that is what they do.
Because it can be transmuted into its vitalizing mind essence, living matter--and only living matter--or that which is infused with it, can travel through the plane of pure thought energy, the non-material mathematical substrate of all universes providing an interpenetrating channel connecting parallels. Made accessible by their ship's skin of organic-calassium--a mineral with exotic properties--and the singularity drive, they entered that meta-space. They were on their way.
She started right in without preamble. "The architecture of the instrument bay is not what is usually considered that of a control station. All four sides are continuously connected. Their buttons, toggles, knobs, displays, etcetera are of the same material as the panels they rest in and extend from. Specifically, the switch you suggested may be the on/off button is joined with its surroundings; that is to say, there is no gap on any level of analysis, from macro to micro down to the quantum layer."
"But how is that possible?" the science officer asked, confusion in her voice. "Let me see it."
Her picture in the holgraph was replaced by a real-time image, an inverted reflection from the inside out. "Time is a factor," Jezebel said. "Watch as I slow it down to almost nothing and increase magnification."
The image changed from a smooth macro continuum of surface texture to a web of interconnected atom-sized machines working diligently to maintain the physical reality of the control station. They appeared to be well organized as though each knew exactly what to do.
"On the level of the quantum," continued Jezebel, "I've found an identical pattern on each individual machine. I can only hypothesize at this point, but it appears to function as a morphogenetic field, an operating system imposed on the morphic fields of each one. That is to say, each nanite is stamped on the quantum level with an operating system--its genome, if you will--that prescribes an ensemble of allowable behavior. Yet, they are open-ended; the system allows them to learn and assimilate much like mine, only without the capacity to conceptualize and think. However, from what we've seen, they are obviously problem solving."
"What are they made of?"
"That is difficult to explain. To say only that it is an unknown mineral would be to ignore its most crucial aspect. Every material thing in our universe possesses inherently a proclivity for asymmetry due to the orientation of both space and time elementals. This mineral, this element, must also therefore express this nonlinear characterisitc. However, it doesn't. The electron cloud surrounding the nucleus exchanges position with it, cycling back and forth at a rate depending on the activity of the machine. Behavior indicative of a force of nature unknown in our universe. What that force accomplishes or is capable of we have yet to determine. Does it regulate others or does it operate completely independently for an express purpose? Is it the main orchestrator of events? I don't know.
"Another behavior only perceivable on the nanosecond threshold is atomic lattice reconfiguration by means of node transposition through what must be a fourth dimension of space, resulting in an emergent functionality, like gene splicing and dicing towards an unpredictable mutation. Only in this case, it's deliberate towards a specific end. Based on that and other incongruous properties, I believe we can safely say that this mineral is not from our universe. Its existence and apparent manifestation are only the result of what is supported by the underlying structure of our spacetime. There is more unseen, and perhaps unseeable, to it."
"How do you explain the earth-like conditions we found here?" asked Brightfeather, warming to the discussion. "Due to the probability of that happening, I'm imagining now that such agreeable physical properties may not be the norm for this planet. Gravity, for in instance."
"These nanites can reorganize matter on a quantum level and thus regulate gravity."
"But what about the conservation of mass? That can't be violated. If they somehow adjust the grav force by altering the planet's mass, that would affect the overall gravity of the entire system."
"What I'm seeing is emergent mass. In a topological space, scale has no meaning. It is not an invariant and therefore not a necessary ingredient in the nature of a thing. Space elementals are equivalent across scale, so the nanite network calculates and chooses what scale would produce what grav field strength, varying uniformly on a curve. The ability to do that, to have access to topological space, is at the heart of the mineral's dual identity. They use the sub-quantum properties of the mineral to adapt the properties of local spacetime to conform to the scale they choose, creating an alternate reality that replaces what previously existed.
"Because of spacetime's elasticity, in order to increase gravity, the collective network compresses and compacts space elementals geometrically out to a certain distance beyond the planet; thereafter, the network's influence falls below a certain critical value, the energy is released and the elementals stretch out to their natural state. To lessen that original gravity, the opposite is done; space is expanded, diluting the impact of matter. The agreeable grav effect is confined within a range which was detectable by us on approach. So they don't adjust the mass of available matter, rather they perform a twofold manipulation of space within which it exists. The underlying topological scale defines the context; the surface geometry defines the curvature and hence gravity of spacetime. Everything is attached to everything else, like a biological organism or a viscous liquid. A morphogenetic field maintains cohesion and regulates interrelationships.
"And those spherical beads on the ground of the cavern would seem to be the raw materials from which the nanites construct whatever is necessary, and they permeate the atmosphere, suspended in it, altering its composition. Not from scratch, mind you, but by making adjustments accordingly and on demand. They are capable of guiding chemical reactions by positioning reactive molecules with atomic precision, attaching molecules and bringing them together to react in some chemical way. Another method they seem to possess, based on what I've deduced so far, is an ability to change how individual atoms in a particular molecule are arranged; they can sever the interlinkages connecting a network of atoms to extract specific atoms and transform the molecule in that way.
"When outside the star system, the colonial probe must've detected a spectrum of gravwave frequencies in the local neighborhood occurring simultaneously. A superposition of gravitational field strengths artificially produced by manipulating specific space elementals. When the probe came within range, whatever that may be, to investigate, the wavefunction collapsed to what we have now. The spatial compression outside that range was also of a different order, a more inclusive geometry."
"How do you know this or is it just conjecture?"
"You can call it conjecture, but the facts are there. The probe's programming flags planets whose conditions are optimal for human life, so those parameters are heavily weighted in its database. This fact may have been recognized under a scan, as we were, by whom or by what, we don't know. In any event, we somehow must have caused the present alteration; that is, triggered it."
Brightfeather rose to dump her cup and refill it with hot. She took a sip, paused, letting her mind work on its own, then took another. After a few moments, she returned to her chair. "Assuming the atmosphere and gravity were different before our arrival, as you suggest, they must've probed the ship's artificial gravity and atmosphere and then fabricated all this, changing them to conform to our needs. Is that what you're saying?"
Time went by, she drank. Finally, Jezebel said, "Based on my analysis thus far, with the information we have, I would say yes. They probed, then automatically adapted the physical surroundings. Probably they do that whenever any visitors arrive, from whatever universe."
Jezebel paused to let her take that in. Well-versed in human psychology, she knew that occasionally people required a moment or two to process certain disturbing possibilities. The prospect of aliens arriving, from another universe no less, could be felt as potentially life-threatening. Trespassers were not treated lightly in the galaxy and one can only guess the same goes for other universes.
"As far as the button you believe may be the on/off switch, I've determined the morphology of the instrument bay consists of a hierarchy of networks interfacing synaptically. Major networking units contain within them sets of smaller arrangements, nested sub-networks, ensembles of inter-connected machines, which may be activated separately or simultaneously, possibly calling on them in various combinations and permutations to achieve a specific, more complex effect, large-scale projects, fine-tuning and so forth. They could thus generate emergent functional properties and states of matter by acting interdependently. Your control button links synaptically with these major units through a membrane or cell inhibitor composed of the same mineral. So I would have to conclude that yes, it may serve as the switch that activates the entire instrument bay.
"Then again, suppose it's not. Suppose it's the reset button. Pushing it could result in a cascade effect reverting everything--this planet and its atmosphere--to its native state, whatever that may be." Jezebel was genuinely concerned; she had good reason.
"Well, Jezzy, you know what we have to do."
She knew. Because of the supercomputer's long acquaintance with Brightfeather, she was quite familiar with her dominant personality traits; specifically, her curiosity, impulsiveness, and headstrong nature. These served her well when intent on proving a new hypothesis, but potentially dangerous in the field when dealing with completely unknown phenomena. But if you advised her against doing something rash, offering as many sensible reasons as you could, she'd want to do it all the more.
Exhausted, her mind clouded over, without saying good-bye--her usual habit in spite of the fact that Jezebel was a machine--she left for her quarters. Darkness had finally fallen on the strange planet the scientists dubbed Serendipity. The night crew were at their stations on the bridge monitoring ship functions. Walking through, she asked the officer sitting in the command chair if there'd been anything unusual going on in the outside world. He replied all was quiet. She nodded and proceeded to her cabin. Quiet, he said. Perhaps too quiet, she thought. Nighttime in a meadow surrounded by a vast, continent-wide forest--and not a single sound. She was determined to do something, no matter how reckless seeming, with or without permission.
The report completed, Riley started on about the degree of complexity involved in such a worldwide undertaking. "Complexity indeed," Samuelson interjected, then posed the question, "do you think, in some capacity, that these nanites or nanobots, or whatever they're called by their creators, are alive? A complex, organized body composed of mutually interdependent parts functioning together--an organism? Or like a colony, ants, bees, forming a superorganism with a collective mindset, an operating system?
"As far as a kind of metabolism goes, they process that strange mineral they're composed of. They maintain homeostasis, probably based on that exchange force Jezebel spoke of as an energy source. They can adapt, as they must've done at one time to this planet's native environment. They can also, we can surmise, create whatever environment they wish, treating what was here as raw material. Their size allows them to change things at the molecular level, to essentially rebuild matter. What we see, they have constructed. And they respond to stimuli, obviously, and reproduce by replication. Are they alive, and if so, can they be communicated with?"
The professor's excitement at what he saw as an incredible opportunity wasn't shared by the skipper. Riley was torn. He too would love to know if they had indeed chanced upon a non-organic life form capable of fabricating the environment within which they lived. But he was a Ranger in Space Fleet, albeit an independent-minded one, and as ship's doctor was responsible for the health and welfare of all onboard; especially the passengers. Perhaps some time in the future, he thought, a well-equipped expedition could return to study, but for now, he had to agree with what he suspected was the captain's frame of mind. The doctor knew him well enough to guess.
Samuelson said, "We have to go back to that control room. I want to come with you this time. I think we know enough now to be careful and methodical. We should at least try to turn it on. You heard Jezebel's report--Brightfeather identified the on/off switch."
"Yes," said Harrington flatly, "and you also heard Jezebel say it may be the reset or God knows what else button. It might fold that entire cavern as well as the surface into another reality, a default reality, or a parallel universe. Or it could be a booby-trap for the unitiated, we don't know. And consider this, Professor. This planet is in the habitable zone. Where we've found planets in that zone with an ozone layer and protective magnetic shielding, we've found life. It's likely the native environment they adapted to included living things, now all deceased. So perhaps they're not all that friendly. It could be that the reason our ship hasn't been transformed into a pile of rubbish and we're still alive is because they're dormant. Do you really want to risk waking them up? I don't."
"You're being paranoid, captain. Besides, based on what we know, the planet's fortuitous human-life supporting conditions, for instance, they probably already know of our presence."
Though he kept it to himself, Harrington had to agree. He recalled again that sense of something aware of them at the forest edge. Instead, he said, "But if they wanted to make contact in some way, shape or form, they would've already done so, don't you think? However, it's a moot point as far as I'm concerned, that cavern is off-limits for now."
He commed the bridge and ordered his shuttle ready, he wanted to resurvey the rest of the planet personally for any changes or anomalies. He had the time, the chief would let him know when they were ready. But he was informed that Lt. Commander Brightfeather had taken it earlier, at dawn, with a crew of security. The skipper froze, he stared hard at empty air. He didn't have to guess what she was up to. "Contact the shuttle and order her to return," he commed the EX-O. "I want her back here. And have the auxiliary readied."
He rose and strode from his quarters, heading for the bridge to talk to her himself, leaving a dissatisfied Samuelson and concerned doctor in his wake. When he arrived, there was commotion around the sensor array station. He went directly to it. "What's up?" he asked.
"We've just now detected a vessel at sensor range, sir," replied the officer in charge. Anticipating the skipper's next question, he said, "It's too far away yet to tell its heading. It just appeared suddenly at its present position."
Now it was imperative that Brightfeather and the rest of his people be back onboard. He commed engineering, "Chief, how much time you figure 'till you're finished?"
"I can't be sure, captain. We've had some unexpected difficulties with the alignment; we're working them out. We don't have a shipyard-size resonance inducer, you know, so we're forced to work piecemeal. It's hard going. I'd say by the end of the day we should be ready to roll."
"You have six hours or you're fired," the captain shot back. He didn't wait for a response.
After landing on the planet and surmising the possible cause of their ejection from quantum space, they'd contacted Space Fleet Command to advise them of their location and damage to the field capacitor. But knowing how distant help would be against the estimated time for their repairs, they declined assistance. Now, however, things had changed. The captain had the communications officer inform them that an unknown ship was approaching, repairs were not complete, could they send help. After a long two minutes, they replied: the nearest available patrol cruiser was in the Sagittarius Arm, three days away at max speed through quantum space. His heart sank. Send them anyway, he said.
He then asked Flanagan, "Have you contacted Brightfeather? I want her back here, pronto." His tactical mind worked options as he moved. Limited to spacetime speeds and its visibility, making a run for it would only reveal their presence. Sitting in this meadow wasn't much better. Finding another place on the planet to hide while repairs were made sounded good. They no doubt have lifeform detection scanners, he thought, they could still find us, but that would take time, maybe all the time we need. He was assuming the worst, but with lives at stake, he had to adopt that attitude. This was somebody else's plaything, and they might not like it being tampered with.
The EX-O replied, "The shuttle already landed in the meadow and she debarked with a few security. We've tried contacting her directly, but her comm link doesn't respond. Either she turned it off or she can't."
Harrington nodded. "Keep an eye on that ship, let me know what it's up to," he said, as he hurried for the shuttle bay. On the way, he commed Riley, "A ship is approaching. It's not conclusive but we're not exactly in the traffic lanes out here in the boondocks, so I don't know where else they'd be going. It's a safe bet they're coming this way. It's a coincidence or they know we're here; either way, I don't want to be around when they get here.
"Meet me in the shuttle bay. We gotta bring Brightfeather back and get the hell out of here before we're spotted."
She posted guards at the grass portal and, so there'd be no problem communicating, tuned her radio to theirs on a separate frequency. If she did something that affected the outside world, she wanted to know about it. Keep your eyes open, she admonished, not bothering to elaborate. She declined their offer to accompany her, she didn't want to risk their safety on her account. Besides, they might try to stop her from doing something they thought rash, for her own good, of course.
When she got to the bottom of the stairs, spanning the pulsing cylinders, she stood once again in awe at the stupendousness of the cavern, shaded in the rosy-colored light. After her discussion with Jezebel, the unimaginable undertaking she beheld was stupefying. She forced herself to walk straight ahead, willing her mind to focus on the here and now. Alone, the enclosure felt more voluminous than when the captain and doctor walked on either side. Between the railings spaced a few feet apart she marveled at the countless number of variously-shaped spheroids on either side of the walkway, spreading in mounds and hollows to the horizon. Her movement in the ambient light gave the expanse the look of undulating sea swells. Indeed, that is what she felt--adrift on an ocean of deep mystery.
The profound silence worked its way into her bones; for a moment her steps faltered. She stopped to stand by the railing and peer into the distance, trying to stiffen her resolve and fortify her confidence. She knew that if they left without her finding out, it would haunt her the rest of her life. The top railing came up to her chest. Looking out over the sea of tiny marbles, she was reminded of when she was a child and her parents would take her to the ocean shore. They'd walk on the boardwalk for hours, exploring and wandering through the shops. She'd look over the top handrail with wonder and awe at the vast ocean, its waves rolling in with a faint shushing sound, one after the other. The memory calmed her, she didn't feel quite so all alone.
She peered down the walkway, the building seemed closer than she remembered. Turning towards it, she proceeded at a strong pace, never taking her eye off the building. But on approaching, a wave of anxiety coursed through her; she slowed, momentarily imagining someone might be inside. Taking a deep breath, mustering her composure, she moved to stand close to the wall between the two seams; as before, that section vanished. Blinded and startled by the bright light, she thought she saw someone standing in front of the square bay of instruments. But the shadowy figure quickly dissipated as her eyesight adapted. Steeling herself, she entered.
Standing before the console where Jezebel's transponder patch was attached, she matched her comm link to its resonant frequency, then requested backup. "I'm about to push the button, Jezzy. Let me know what happens." Jezebel knew she would not be dissuaded at this point, so she simply replied, "Roger."
Though excited and sure of herself, her heart was in her throat. She pressed it.
The officer in charge of the flight crew informed him that Brightfeather had gone to the portal with a team of security. Although her guards maintained contact with the shuttle, she had gone below alone and was on a separate frequency. Harrington commed her on it, but there was no response. He told the officer to keep trying and let him know if he succeeds. Riley and he hurried off towards the portal a hundred meters away. As they neared, they had to force their way through a thick, low hedgerow that crossed the entire meadow from treeline to treeline, another feature Harrington was certain hadn't been there yesterday. Riley attempted to be casual about it, as though one could expect such behavior given the circumstances. But he couldn't help thinking there was something intentional going on, an act of purposefulness. Was it harmless, not directed at them? Had the nanobots been engaged in construction when they landed, and this was only a continuation? Or were the planet's occupiers sending a message? Could they do worse? Several yards on, the captain looked back but couldn't see where they'd pushed the hedges apart; the row was seamless.
At the opening, he tried to reach her again. Nothing, not even static. Fearing the worst--although he had no idea what that could be--he and Riley hastened down the stairs. The throbbing of the cylinders beneath seemed deeper in tone as though effort was being made. When they reached the walkway, the smooth metalic surface had a glossy cast to it, not the flat dark-brown look of the previous day. They glanced at one another, then quickened their pace.
Outside was even stranger. The walkway had changed into a 50-foot wide boardwalk, its once seamless metalic smoothness replaced by planks of wood, its railings gone. Along the side where the control building once stood were shops of every type, restaurants, taverns, outdoor cafes, and arcades thronged mostly by children of all ages. On the other side, beyond about 200 feet of golden tawny sand, was the ocean. Waves could be seen rolling in languidly, slow-motion breakers crashing on the beach, imparting their energy to the land in a shower of shushing foam. And dozens of people--human-looking--lay in the sun or shuffled about, talking and laughing.
She ran through the crowd, a few glanced curiously as she passed. When she arrived where the stairway should be, she found a huge, multi-tiered fountain topped with a statue. Folks sat around on its concrete rim chatting and eating, their feet in the water; children played and splashed one another in the shallow pool. The smooth brown roof of the immense cavern was now a flat, pale-white ceiling with light fixtures hanging down, bathing the fantastic scene in a soft white clarity. The air smelled of food, drink, and sweat mingled with the fragrances of flowers, spices, and perfume.
The walkway leading to the ocean had also been transformed into a wider boardwalk that extended out over the breakers ending at a pier. The other one was gone. And people, lots more people. She tried contacting her security team and ship but to no avail. She had no idea what to do. A man, noticing her consternation, dressed in a simple grey tunic down to his knees, sandles, and a red skull cap atop long red hair stared hard, then approached.
The supercomputer replied, "She pushed the button she believed to be the on/off switch, but what I experienced was a series of internal reorientations. The original instrument settings have all been transformed, out of phase."
"Phase? asked Harrington, irritation and worried confusion in his voice. "What the hell do you mean--phase?
"Yes, captain. It has to do with the nature of the mineral from which the nanites are made. When the transformations occurred, I was able to see the force responsible for the electron-nucleus exchange. At its kernel lies a microscopic singularity that acts as a bridge or link to another universe. It's the source of the mineral's energy. It allows the substrate of the mineral's crystal lattice to function on the mind level of nature, immune to the forces of our spacetime, splitting or breaking down the psychic fabric into its constituent parts in order to become accessible as irreducible invariant material. Tapping into the mind of the user with these as basic units of thought energy, it catalyzes the creation of alternate realities. Acting like enzymes, the nanites orchestrate the mineral's propensity for generating realities. Control is essential; one must be practiced in its use, possibly by projecting a scenario or set of images to actualize."
"So what are you saying, for God's sake? Where is she?"
"She has entered a reality of her own devising, a time in her life, a memory, a wish unfulfilled, I don't know. Her physical self has been shifted to another dimension of spacetime. When she pushed the button, I anticipated a surge of energy as the bay became active. However, that was not the case. Instead, the singularity drew in the essential mathematical reality that is Miranda Brightfeather on the psychic level of ordinary spacetime. It then transfered her in this form to a dimension where the images plucked from her mind materialized. She is here, in this cavern, doing what, experiencing what, I have no idea. But she's here, a hair's breadth away."
"Is this the work of the nanites? Have they created this world she's in?"
"It has nothing to do with nanites creating material things as they have the surface of the planet, they are only the means, the mechanisms that control the mineral's exotic properties. From what I can gather, this facility is a normal and more potent feature of this vast complex."
The captain stood where Brightfeather had, working hard to get a glimmer of what Jezebel described, but not really caring at the moment, then asked, "What button did she push, direct me."
"Stand in front of the panel with the patch, below it you'll see a lone button separated from the central array. It was misleading, its position; one would naturally imagine it intiated something. Which, as it turns out, it did, only not what was anticipated."
Harrington looked at Riley. "I'm going to try to find her, doctor. You can step outside if you wish."
"No, Gus, I wouldn't miss this for the world." He moved to stand closer. The captain nodded, then pressed the button. Instantly, the parabolic screen at the center of the square came alive. A huge hologram, about six feet on an edge, projected a sheet of white on which strange symbols appeared. As they stood in amazement, the characters shifted and transformed, twining, coiling, then splitting apart, forming complex arrangements. Finally, they settled down into a fairly intelligible representation of the english language.
As an experiment, we seeded the turbulent clouds with replicating microscopic devices. Each is imprinted with an organizing field and systemic set of behavioral rules. They cleaned the planet and its atmosphere, reconsituting its ozone layer. Their first priority is to manifest the required physical parameters that accord with the environmental needs of any visitors.
The exchange force of the mineral, a rare element found in our universe, of which they are composed has enabled our civilization to travel and explore parallel universes for centuries. Only recently in our history have we discovered its deeper ability to generate alternate realities from pure thought energy. Applying this capacity, we can transit, as it were, between normal spacetime and a subjective, self-created plane of existence. Drawing on the psychic energy of an individual, the exchange force transfers realities, superimposing a derived dimension of spacetime onto the normal, ground-state background, its invariant properties defining the rules of interaction. The process is incorporated into the mechanisms you see before you.
The surface landscape is the stage on which you may express yourself if alternate realities are not your interest.
We established this Center for research, study, and testing of environmental models. Its primary purpose is experimentation to determine what sets of interrelationshps generate what kinds of emergent ecomorphic fields and to develop methods for implementing the optimal results. Mathematical constructs of organisms, from large land, sea, and air creatures to microorganisms dwelling in the soil and elsewhere, can be introduced into settings as and when needed. However, it's also for art and recreation. The complex is intended for those whose program has been approved and know how to apply the simple creative tools.
A manual on how to will be forthcoming if you press the introductory button again. Chapters and individual pages can be depicted by voice command. Please enjoy.
Once again they glanced at one another, the doctor shrugged, the captain pushed it. This time the script resolved itself immediately to english; the holograph displayed the cover page: The Manual: Table of Contents. It was time to call in the big gun. "Jezebel, can you read this manual from inside?"
"Already on it, sir."
"What do you mean--how long?"
He smiled warmly and said, "I am a construct, an observer. Ordinarily, I would just watch over you from a distance, but you seem agitated and confused. Was this not what you expected?"
"Where are we?" she asked. "I don't understand what happened."
His brow furrowed, he studied her, then asked, "How did you get here? Do you recall?"
She saw no reason not to. She told him everything from the very beginning when they first emerged from quantum space near this planet, her ship Enigma, what their mission was, who she was, right up to standing in front of the control panel and pressing that button.
After she finished, he stood very still for what seemed a long time to her, then relaxed, smiled in a more fatherly manner and suggested they walk and talk. He explained her situation, where she was and how the transfer worked; she had many questions, as did he.
The lighting changed. She looked up to see that the broad, white ceiling with its hanging lights was gone. In its place was the bluist sky, not a cloud in it. The air freshened with the briny smell of the sea, the wide beach was fairly populated with sun bathers, folks played in the water. She heard waves splash and the distant cry of a seagull.
He told her not to worry, that everything will work out in due time.
Harrington had to ask, "Why did she go somewhere and not me? Is that knowable or is it blown into the wind?"
"I hadn't realized it at the time but there was nothing to compare it to. The system was in a tense state of preparation. It'd been configured to perform a reality shift, but whoever set it up failed to go through with it and didn't bother, or forgot, to clear it. So however much time it's been, there they were, the nanites, waiting. They were probably overjoyed when they sensed our ship approaching. If we knew what that person was about to project,..., if that's even relevant. The state of the system has returned to a relaxed readiness with a symmetric arrangement of relationships, a symmetry of choice among all possible variations, no preferred orientation. Comparing then and now, what networks were in what configuration, it might be possible, at least in theory, to realign the system to the same overall state of interrelationships. However, that may not be how it works. The settings may only be prelude, a framework, a blank canvas. It may be that when the complexity of subjective psychic information and mental imagery is transferred, then the alternate reality takes effect.
"Some passages are difficult to decipher; there are technical terms and obscure ideas. Whatever beings designed this are able to conceptualize and visualize on more than three dimensions. Not all parallel universes are of the same dimension or share the same number and kinds of forces. What meaning they have I've inferred from the context. However, I've found something. There's a time-limit failsafe in case a specific duration is not designated. The time gauge could be anything, but whatever it is, it represents a minimum."
"What happens then?" asked the captain.
"A person will return to the starting point--here. Installed on the system somewhere must be her profile and the configuration for the alternate reality she's in; elsewise, how would they find her? But in whatever form that may be, I see no way to discover it. Even if that data was found and the configuration reinstated, what then?"
Exactly, thought the captain. Even if I were to enter that plane and managed to find her, how would we get back? "You say there's a time limit. By our measure, how much time?"
"Unknown, sir. Unknown."
His comm link squaked. It was Flanagan. "Captain, are you there?"
"Yes, what is it?"
"That ship's closer and its profile doesn't match anything in our records. Any minute we may be within range of their sensors, if we aren't already. I recommend making a move somewhere less conspicuous. The topography indicates canyons in the foothills on the dark side. We could move there and when I find a place, I'll send the coordinates to the shuttles."
"Can you tell where it's headed? To some other part of the planet?"
"Too soon to tell, still quite a ways off. Shall we make a move?"
"Do it. And what about repairs?"
"Almost complete. Everyone who can is working on it. Have you found Brightfeather? Is she all right?"
He didn't want to waste time describing her predicament, that could wait. "I'll tell you all about it later. Now go hide somewhere. Over and out."
He commed the officer in charge of Brightfeather's shuttle and told him about the approaching ship and of Enigma's move. He was to gather up the men--at the portal and his flight crew--and when he received the coordinates, to leave immediately and rendezvous.
"Well, doc, should we make ourselves comfortable?" he asked, gesturing towards the nearest couch and chair setting. "This might take a while." He was doing his best to appear confident about the situation, to believe that she'll magically reappear in front of the main control console before too long. But with a ship of unknown intent bearing down on them and their shuttle sitting in the middle of the largest meadow in the forest, with them inside what is likely their destination, he felt trapped. But he had no choice, he was staying. And so was Riley.
Choosing a chair facing a painting of an unimaginable landscape hanging on the wall, the doctor asked, "Okay, how does a visitor know where the underground doorway is? There's no signs or any indication of its whereabouts."
"We found it."
"Yea, with deep ground sensing equipment. You stood on top of that pulsating whatever it is and the ground started shaking. I don't think that's what a tourist would do."
"That's what I'm thinking," the captain said, pursing his lips. "Only people who know exactly where it is are allowed to be here, have permission. That's what the introduction said--consent." He stood to pace. Stopped to peer at the bizarre landscape. Then said, "There may be many more portals spread around the planet, we haven't had time to check. We just happened to find this one because we landed nearby. Could be its influence is restricted to this area, this continent, perhaps just the forest."
Regaining his chair, speaking more directly into his comm link, he asked, "Does it say that in the manual, Jezebel?"
"As a matter of fact, the entire planet is gridded; there's a map. Size of range, terrestrial or marine, over which a user has influence depends on required needs, with the caveat not to impinge on another's creation. It's all specified in detail with areas sectioned off to conform to the lay of the land or sea and integrated into an overriding program that monitors activities. Thus, simultaneous experiments can be carried out without danger of overlap.
"We don't know how many of these stations exist. Or the extent of their influence. So assuming this one controls the entire continent, comparing those nanite clusters that are acting interdependently to the map coordinates, it would seem that whoever operated this last was using all of the northern part."
He squirmed, an incident from his childhood popped into his head. He once walked into the middle of an elaborately detailed sand town someone had constructed on the beach. When that someone showed, he stared hard at the captain, then only ten years old. He remembered how he wished he could magically transport himself home.
In spite of the uncanny nature of her circumstances, she was enjoying herself and the company immensely. People in colorful clothing milled about or strolled by with excited children. The familiar smells of the many varieties of food, of hot pretzels, cotton candy, and hot dogs, mingled with the heady rush of salt air and the warmth of the bright yellow sun soothed her concern and invigorated her spirit. The sun was halfway down, she had no idea how long she'd been in this alternate realm, but she had a feeling time flowed differently here.
They'd been discussing how this vicinity of space was known for its instability, why it occasionally and randomly fluctuates, resulting in universes touching one another. "It's the nonlinear residue that's to blame," he offered. "It congeals in certain weak points in the fabric of each until an excess is reached, then if they match up across the void, they tend to converge by affinity and a collision occurs." He lifted his glass and admitted, "It's only a theory of mine, you understand. On the other hand, when a bridge between parallel universes is opened, you can have a similar effect. Perhaps your ship got caught up in that, like an undertow."
He finished his drink and glanced at the timepiece hanging around his neck. "Almost time, Miss Brightfeather."
"Please, call me Miranda. And whadya mean--almost time?" She sipped through her straw as she watched two small children playing on the boardwalk, running around their parents who pretended to ignore them.
"Almost time for you to go."
She stared at him, startled. Sounds seemed to intensify. A chill gust came off the beach.
"I, or we, hope you've enjoyed yourself and have gotten the most out of your experience. The conversation was as delightful as it was informative and even enlightening. We now have your species on file and hope to see you again." He had withdrawn into his official persona, albeit still friendly.
A smile crinkling his weathered features, he lifted his empty glass towards her and nodded.
And just like that--poof--she materialized in front of the instrument panel, the smell of the sea on her hair and clothing.
They recognized her condition; they'd seen it before at Ranger functions and on holidays. Before she could say a word, they each grabbed an arm and hoisted her to her feet. "Later, Miranda," the captain said. "We gotta go." They hustled her down the walkway, up the stairs, and into the meadow. The portal closed behind them. Movement and the warm, dry air began to clear her head. "God," she mumbled, "what the hell was in those?"
When they arrived at the shuttle, the captain transfered the new coordinates for Enigma into the autopilot and punched it in. Airborne, he checked radar and distance scanners. The ship was still far off but coming fast. He didn't and couldn't know if they'd been detected. But, he thought, if they're the ones who built this world and that machinery, they could probably read the number on the shuttle if not the name on his flight suit. Nonetheless, he flew as low and as fast as he could towards the foothills. On the way, Brightfeather recounted her adventure in alternate reality land. Of particular interest was the construct, his affability and genuine concern, and what they talked about. The boardwalk, the people, the sights and sounds and smells. Dreamily, she recalled the smell of hot dogs and mustard.
A smile on her face, mumbling incoherently, Brightfeather lay down in a bunk and within seconds was fast asleep.
Once circumstances get rolling in the wrong direction, it's extremely difficult to reorient them along the right path. Attempting to make corrections on matters that would not have been necessary had pertinent and crucial information been known beforehand was often a losing proposition. Hindsight discoveries were the norm.
The web of life can be manipulated and mistakes eliminated in an atmosphere where circumstances and conditions can be reset to the beginning to start over again, armed with what was learned. Not so in the real world where experimentation based on incompete models, models that undervalue or completely ignore key elements, often lead to problems worse than at the onset. When they become insoluble, entire projects and planets have to be abandoned. An incredible waste of time, effort, finances, and another place overcrowded Earth could have called home.
But with this planet to work with, most of the initial trial and error of practical applications could be eliminated. Using the tools available to generate physical models and not just simulations on a computer, adding this change to that, etcetera, would produce outcomes that could be seen and adjusted dynamically and at an accelerated rate. The internal morphology constructed by the nanite networks emulates an equivalent organic structure; thereby, actualizing similar physical properties. Not exactly, of course, but the differences offsetting measurement are the same throughout; a simple transformation could shift behavior into the realm of the real. As a result, the unforeseen, emergent, negative productions could then be solved as to cause beforehand. Much knowledge could be accrued in a short time without inflicting harm.
The enviroscientists were ecstatic and realized the import for civilization, for a less invasive way of colonizing a planet, for a more workable and intelligent approach. It was grand compensation. It might take months, or even years, to understand the fundamentals of how the instruments in the cavern work, but the streamlining of what is presently a painfully clumsy and blind process is a breakthrough and an opportunity of a life time. The professor was determined to return to try to contact the designers for permission to use it. He believed they would understand and most certainly support him. After all, it was intended for science and art and as an exploratory platform. So why not? Watching environments unfold as changes are made beforehand on the artificial planet would be of inestimable value compared to the relatively primitive methods they now had at their disposal--processing real things and waiting to see what happens. Yes, Samuelson was quite pleased.
Brightfeather's light-hearted description of her experience and especially her encounter with the construct reinforced his belief in a cooperative arrangement. They can be communicated with.
Brightfeather had told him that Jezebel believed the nanites incapable of thinking, of conceptualizing. An idea she now disagreed with. After her encounter with the construct, a projection, but nonetheless obviously self-aware--however that self may be defined--and capable of engaging in an open-ended discussion, she decided the supercomputer can't be right. Jezebel's self-aware and can carry on a discussion, make inferences. Is that the same thing as thinking? Maybe what Jezebel understands about the nature of thinking is limited. Is she truly capable of reasoning about something completely unfamiliar? Considering her understanding of the nanite machinery and what it can do, it would seem to be the case. Based on mountains of data she's accrued, her archives and programs usable as tools, she's developed an instinct for what seems right. Is that reasoning or the logical conclusion of an artificial intelligence? She can conjecture and hypothesize. Is that insight or the fusing of complementary opposites towards a higher-ordered, more inclusive idea? She sees patterns of movement and relationship on the molecular level, as with the nanite networks, and the static results of these patterns, these permutations, in process, and perceives cause and effect as equivalences implying an ordering field at work.
Doctor Riley mulled it over, comparing this to that based on his experience dealing with Jezebel. Whether or not she possessed a consciousness of a type and the ability to think in the true sense, one thing stood out that went beyond any comparisons. She can't insert an avatar of her mind into someone's experience in an alternate reality. That she cannot do.
The ship landed near the forest portal. "Of all the other places they might've landed," Harrington said, "why would they pick that one?"
"My guess is the alternate reality prearrangement--the framework--was a security trap," Jezebel said. "Lieutenant Commander Brightfeather pushed the button sending a signal, an alarm. If her trip in alternate space had been much longer, they would've been there when she rematerialized. And, of course, discovered you and the doctor. But by the tone of this entire complex and considering its general scientific purpose, I don't believe they would've done anything more than demand an explanation."
"Demand an explanation? Who the hell cares about that when you're being crushed to death by gravity and choking on whatever air they breathe."
"Accidents of conflicting spacetimes must happen occasionally. Someone steps into another's space inadvertently or deliberately, to confer as colleagues in person, to study a map or work out problems together. So I imagine there's a method in place to insure no ill effects from such occurrences. Perhaps an enveloping, insulating bubble supporting an individual's requirements, allowing him to go into any other space on the planet, regardless of conditions. If true, a degree of sophistication beyond my comprehension.
"Why not test it, captain. Before we leave, why not land somewhere in the northern forest and you can go outside and find out."
"Maybe next time, Jezebel. Next time." On the bridge in his command chair, he stared hard into the viewer aimed at the handful of stars spread thinly across the wasteland. Not much in the way of civilized outposts. Where the hell did they come from? he wondered. "They came awfully quick. How,...?"
"Perhaps they were already on their way. By all appearances, their experiment or whatever may have been in progress and necessity forced them to return home for something, or they needed to reassess their project, its intentions, and so put a hold on it. Or they may have been aware of our presence from the moment we set down and alerted that somebody was in the middle of their project. I don't know. Maybe time flows differently in their universe, if they are indeed from another."
The Manual was still in the holograph when the aliens entered the control room. Jezebel sensed two buttons on the array being pushed. The manual in the central hologram disappeared, replaced by an image of the forest as seen from above, the result of a parabolic projection. Jezebel could see it by inverting the image. Things were happening. Whoever they were, she said, already had their agenda prepared. They were experienced, she presumed; they made no clumsy mistakes needing correction. Gradually, the topographic map of the eastern half of the forest underwent a terrain alteration, a new biome created. What appeared to be marshes sprang up, spaced evenly apart, separated by dry bog and tall, weedy stalks of grass-like growth similar to cattails.
The composition of the atmosphere above it was color-coded: Oxygen increased considerably, nitrogen dropped to sixty percent, and the rest were traces of unknown gasses and water vapor. No carbon.
Sure that ship's gravity and air would sustain them, an increase in the planet's gravity, however, would make it more difficult to leave. Uncertain, he asked Jezebel for the local conditions. It was as it's been, he was told--gravity and air suitable for humans. "According to the Manual," she restated, "experiments in different locations can be carried out without stepping on one another's toes. Gravity and atmospheric conditions remain encompassed within a defined area so other visitors can perform creative projects on different sectors of the planet at the same time."
Knowing that was one thing, experiencing it, quite another.
"As newcomers without a prescribed destination," she said, her voice rising in pitch, "the entire planet was prepared for us, an unbelievable undertaking." That revelation on top of everything else made him laugh. Beings of such knowledge and power couldn't possibly see them as anything more than wayward tourists lost in space. They were street kids playing amongst the stars while the grown-ups pursued life on a much grander scale. Would humans be considered for membership in their club? He had his doubts.
Chief Boltman commed that repairs to the field capacitor were finished; they could leave whenever the captain wished. Executive Officer, Commander Flanagan and Science Officer Brightfeather joined him on the bridge. They left the planet under cover of darkness from the side opposite that of the forest. He ordered the communications officer to radio the approaching patrol cruiser and tell them they were on their way and request that they hold their present position for a rendezvous to accompany them to their destination. They replied in the affirmative and sent their coded beacon frequency, the only way to find them in the wilderness between Arms.
The main viewscreen depicted the planet in all its fabricated beauty. No one spoke, the bridge was quiet. At the standard distance from the planet, the nav-officer announced, "Ready to enter quantum space, sir."
The magical world continued to recede. The red dwarf star beyond would shine for hundreds of billions of years, maybe trillions. Will Serendipity still be here? the skipper mused. Will the nanites, made of a mineral from another universe, continue indefinitely to perform miracles of construction and facilitate trips to alternate realities?
"Captain?" inquired the officer.
While gazing at the inscrutable orb with its unsuspected secret, its phantom life growing where none exists, Captain Harrington of the transport ship Enigma gave the command.
The planet and its star disappeared.