two captains, two supercomputers, one sorceress, at the vortex of timelessness,
enclosed within a barrier of unknown energy, and no way out...
After several waypoint stops to recalculate bearing, their skipper, Captain Alberto Imbroglio, had decided to emerge on the subject's periphery and then approach in ordinary spacetime at sub-light speed. He was brave and considered intrepid, but he'd learned the hard way that sometimes it was better to be cautious. Fools Rush In was on a plaque on the wall above his cabin doorway.
At a thousand kilometers he orderd all stop, hold this position. All instruments were scanning this strange phenomenon across the board as Medusa's master computer processed, considering possible explanations. It had a soft female voice which made it easier for him to pay attention. On request it responded with, "Nothing out of the ordinary, sir, except for the fact that for all intents and purposes, it doesn't exist."
Alberto wiped a hand over his face. This had become a source of frustration. Whenever all he simply wanted was a physical property description, he wound up in a philosophical discussion.
"Bertha," its nickname, "what do you mean, doesn't exist? Readings indicate a parsecs-wide region of spacetime bounded by the rest of the universe. So even if it's empty, it's still something."
"Perhaps." A long pause. "But it acts more like a mirage or illusion. Or to be more precise, a set of relations that defy detection."
"You're saying the same thing, aren't you?"
"No." Another long pause. "Areas where our physical laws don't apply are not uncommon, but there is more than that. We define existence to be the case, the state of being, under certain specified conditions, and if those conditions don't apply..."
"Well then," intervened the captain, against his better judgement, "let's expand our defintion to include anomalous circumstances and conditions outside the box. You said a set of relations that our instruments don't see or make sense of?"
"I didn't say they didn't sense anything," sounding a little peeved. "They sense an emptiness where there should be something. But the something is without substance. Ex nihilo nihil fit. Nothing is created from nothing. The barrier is pure energy, no mass. Photons and massless neutrinoes should pass through, but they don't. And we cannot detect the telltale signs of virtual particle fluctuations, I would have to say therefore that there is no quantum space.
"We see nothing, but the nothing that brings it into being, that creates it, doesn't exist here. It exists elsewhere, necessarily."
Captain Imbroglio got up to pace the bridge, stopping at each station to look over the officer's shoulder at the displays. "Maitlen," the chief engineer.
"Yes, sir, what can I do for ya'?"
"How's everything down there?"
"Everything's fine. We just finished diagnostics and we're ready."
Alberto had a feeling. Troubling. The probe they sent earlier had entered the space and disappeared immediately. No relay, lost to visual. Where did it go? "Any news on the probe, Bertha?"
"It did not explode or disintegrate into its basic constituents," she replied casually. "No radiation has been detected. It's there and no doubt relaying information, but it may be that the data has been transformed into a type that doesn't exist outside the delimiting zone."
"It may be unsupported by the physical forces that regulate our universe."
The captain returned to his command chair and stared at the main viewer. On the screen he saw stars encircling the mysterious volume of space. He noticed that none appeared directly behind it, so it was not transparent, just invisible. He ordered the nav officer to leave a beacon that would broadcast their present coordinates on a sub-quantum frequency. In case they entered the unknown region and came out somewhere else, he wanted to be able to refind their starting point. It seemed pointless to notify homebase of their intentions. If they vanished, no one was going to find them. The contingent of research scientists onboard were all for it. They could learn nothing from the outside and their purpose, the present purpose of Medusa, was to explore.
Space Fleet Vessel Medusa, SF 1691, was never seen or heard from again. The entire fleet of patrol ships and survery vessels scoured the area methodically, gridded out, strip by strip. They searched everywhere around the mysterious region of empty space, which was declared off-limits. Everyone knew they were in there somewhere, but to risk more lives with so little known and understood would be foolhardy. I'ts as though they had entered a black hole, only worse, they could very well still be alive.
They searched for three months before the patrol ships were needed to return to their beats. The survey ships continued for another three months, coming up with novel techniques and combinations of radiation detection on both macro and micro levels. Quantum space was also put under the microscope for any possible trajectories, traces laid out like grooves in sand. But to no avail.
On August 15, 2213, they gave up, abandoning all hope. Medusa's beacon was augmented with a warning that the vast emptiness had been put on quarantine. No one ever returned there again.
A hundred years later, give or take, colonized planets and moons were well established along the inner rim of the Near Sagittarius Arm, on the other side of the Great Expanse, as the dearth of stars between the Sagittarius and Orion Arms was called. And terraforming operations scattered over a few star systems in the Perseus Arm were at various stages of development as well. Humanity was expanding. However, scientific expeditions, searching for the unique, the anomalous, the mysterious, were not only still underway but had in fact increased due to the proliferation of new colonies. Voyages went farther and farther out towards the rim of the galaxy.
Captain Jack Nightwalker, skipper of the Space Fleet Discovery ship Argus, was surveying the far reaches of the Sagittarius Arm. It was a routine mission, but what they ran into was anything but routine. Long-range scans had located a volume of space, over a hundred parsecs in diameter, where no matter or radiation could be detected. After consulting with Headquarters, its discovery prompted investigation. Hence, the routine recon mission turned into one of exploration into the unknown.
His executive officer, Commander Chuck Stewart, and Science Officer, Lt. Commander Miranda Brightfeather, had both taken a leave of absence at their last port of call. Brightfeather was working on a research paper for the Space Institute and Chuck just needed some R&R. The captain regretted letting them go now, he could use their valued expertise and advice. He vowed to never do that again; assuming, of course, he lived through this.
They'd detected a signal, feeble but perceptible, coming from near the phenomenon and homed in on it. On arrival, Argus discovered an old Space Fleet beacon sending coordinates intermittently, its power evidently on the wane. Apparently, it had once transmitted a message of some sort, but was now malfunctioning and almost derelect. The message was garbled. References to that era were superficial on ship's computer. Activity was intense during those early colonial days, records were not kept as meticulously as they are now. They were wild times. How a beacon got out this far was something of note, however, but Bertha found nothing in the archives. A location marker only, the skipper thought, probably dropped off by long-range robot probe when they were canvassing far and wide. And that was that. The skipper doubted if headquarters even kept track of this area. Maybe the dead zone wasn't even here then. Who knows?
The scientists onboard were eager, but first, precautions must be set. The empty space was enclosed in a membrane or energy barrier of sorts, nature unknown. Ship's computer, nicknamed Jezebel, its voice soft female with more than enough personality, analyzed the situation, comparing the phenomenon to everything on file. But the archives only went back so far. There had been revisions and summaries dating back to the old colonial days and not all of them complete. There was mention, however, of a Space Fleet ship called Medusa, an exploration ship, that long ago had vanished in this area. The official conclusion, speculation based on facts available, was that an accident had occurred, a malfunction in the quark drive, a first generation model, and the ship exploded into sub-atomic particles and plasma. No traces remained to detect.
Despite this cautionary tale, they decided to go for it. A monumental discovery of this kind only came along once in a lifetime, or so they reasoned. They could see the area of emptiness on the other side of the barrier, but no matter how they maneuvered to go over or under the encircling band of energy, it moved to block them, as though it had a mind of its own. They had no choice but to attempt to plow through it. Nightwalker gave the command and Argus proceeded from the beacon into the barrier.
It started out rather smoothly, like going through a low-viscosity mollasses. But then, as though a stiff wind had come up, things got pretty rocky . The ship shuddered violently as it lurched and twisted through the maelstrom. Evidently, each separate universe was enclosed by an extremely powerful energy barrier, so Captain Jack Nightwalker had anticipated a certain degree of turbulence and was prepared for it. The resident scientists warned of its inevitability; however, they also said, based on theory, of course, it would be limited to what would be considered tolerable. He snickered at the remembrance, what they were experiencing was like a leaf caught in a whirlwind. They were gathered in the main conference room. He thought to comm them to see how they were enjoying the tolerable ride.
It brought to mind his first trip through quantum space when he was fresh out of Space Fleet Academy. It was awful. Most everyone, including the skipper, ended up reporting to the infirmary for nausea shots. But with the advanced ion stabilizers, the fluctuation of quantum particles and turbulence due to virtual particle cycling had been reduced to a bare minimum, hardly noticeable. So there was something weird about this membrane transfer. The geniuses back at Headquarters who decided it was a good idea to investigate the empty space, a posssible parallel universe, weren't really sure what to expect. Theories. Speculations. Optimal precautions hoping to cover all the bases. The energy was of an unknown kind--that was anticipated--but its changing viscosity and chaotic activity, its transitions in local space to any one of multiple states or combinations thereof, happened without warning. Hence, passing through it was proving to be a bit of a problem, like trying to feel your way through bubbling taffy-like material that was constantly stretching and contracting.
The trajectory had been set. Because of the constant shifting of direction, if they turned back now, they would have no basepoint from which to chart a course to the beacon and more than likely get lost in the membrane. They had no choice but to keep going. If they weren't jostled to pieces, eventually they'd pass through. Until then, his ship, he and his crew would just have to tough it out.
Abruptly, Argus entered a zone of reasonable calm. The viewer still showed static, however; patterns formed then quickly disassembled and dispersed into random paths, like one might see in an old-fashioned particle detector. In time, the opacity began to clear, the fog lifted into gassamer wisps. Spots. Rich, black spots appeared on the horizon, poking through here and there. But it wasn't the blackness of ordinary, empty spacetime he was familiar with. There was something about it. His intuition kicked in and he sensed danger.
"O'Reilly," he commed, "shut down all power except for shields, life support, and main computer." He didn't need to wait for an answer. Argus glided silently along under its own momentum like a leaf on a placid stream. Captain Nightwalker had learned to distrust such phenomona in alien waters; it invited a relaxed state of mind. The black discs grew until they overlapped and filled the viewer, like ink drops on a blotter. Was it open space he was looking at or was the blackness some thing, some material object, something they might crash into?
He didn't hesitate. "Chief, maximize shield strength, run it through the drive." The shields drew their power from the quark drive, infusing the biomolecular alloy composing the ship's skin with an impervious uniformity amounting to a quantum condensate. The hull's skin was a composite of a malleable mineral (an off-world mineral called sagittarium having exotic properties was most commonly used) infused with a genetically engineered microorganism (bacteria) capable of altering the molecular arrangement of the mineral (to what degree depends on energy input) in such a way that the empty space within each atom and between them is covered by overlapping layers, and the molecules themselves are enveloped with quark energy. Additionally, the magnetic field generated by the current running through the skin repelled hard matter as well as radiation. Impervious.
Argus slowed to a crawl. Either the barrier behind them was pulling or the space through which they were traveling was becoming more viscous. If they had already passed through the membrane and the blackness lay in front of them like a vast screen, wondered the skipper, where exactly were they? He was about to ask Jezebel her opinion when a pinpoint of bright light off in the distance got his attention. It lay directly in their path.
He had the odd and disturbing sensation that he was on a tram line, a mag-track, and that the tiny distant light was from a train engine barreling down. He knew that wasn't possible but nonetheless this was an unknown terrain. And besides that, he really didn't have any way of judging distance. On request, he was told by the officer at the scanning station that the sensors read nothing. He ordered engineering to start the engines and power up all systems. He could almost hear O'Reilly mutter, Make up your mind. To the security chief he wanted all weapon systems online and to aim the gamma-ray cannon straight ahead at the oncoming spot of light. Quark torpedoes were loaded and high-energy particle guns manned and ready. They were on full battle alert, the sleepy-time cruise was over.
He told the helmsman to proceed with caution, thrusters only, and then retired to the conference room. A large screen mounted against the wall showed the same picture as the main viewer. The group of investigators were busy discussing what the white-light spot could be, conferring back and forth with Jezebel, when the captain strode in and took a seat at the head of the long table. A 3-D holographic image was displayed from the projector at the middle. All it showed was a bright dot in the center of black nothingness, incrementally growing in diameter. Because sensors read nothing and they were, of course, unfamiliar with an actual parallel universe, if that it be, they had very little to go on. All they knew for certain was what it was not.
Could it be an opening or portal into another region? one asked. Was it the entrance to a gigantic corridor, a well-lit tunnel leading to a central area? And what of the blackness? The lead scientist, Professor Samuelson, proffered that it seemed to have an oily composition, akin to the old idea of an ether. Although, what he based that speculation on he couldn't say.
"Could it be," he said, "that we're in an ocean and the expanding light is the sky at daytime?"
"You mean like an ocean on a planet?" the skipper inquired.
"Yes, exactly. And as we get closer to the surface, the light will spread until it's everywhere."
"I've never been to the bottom of a sea," the skipper replied slowly, "but I don't think it works that way."
"Suppose," yet another suggested, "we're in a volcano of sorts and what we're looking at is the day sky encircled by its caldera."
No one responded to that.
"I think it's just a star," said another at the far end. "It's a star and we're traveling through space, a peculiar space with material properties we can't detect, possibly a gas in a supercooled liquid state, but nonetheless..." His voice trailed off. The others were staring at him incredulously, disappointment registered on their faces. Nightwalker stifled a laugh with his hand; what he was proposing made too much sense, he considered, they refused to buy it. They wanted bizarre and weird. He was about to put his two cents in when the intercom squawked. His presence was requested on the bridge.
As he stood he glanced at the screen on the wall and then at the computer-generated holograph. He didn't like what he saw.
On the bridge he increased the magnification on the main viewer. Besides the disk of white light at the center, there were now many others arrayed around it. Anticipating his request, the officer at the scanning station reported sensors detected nothing. He wondered how they were able to see these lights but sensors sensed nothing. What could they be made of? The detection array was designed and programmed to function on all levels, including the quantum. He thought to drop into quantum space, their normal environment for long-distance jumps. But he cautioned. Suppose this place didn't have a quantum substrate. What would happen then?
Leaning forward to peer, he said to Jezebel, "It looks to me like a cross with a bunch of other lights scattered about for no apparent reason."
"It would," she said, a hopeless despair in her tone.
Ignoring her slight, he asked the scanning officer, "When these other spots appeared, was it a gradual process like the first or all at once the same size?" He was told they all suddenly appeared where they are and at the size they are, no gradual increase.
"Okay, Jezebel, what do you see?" he asked, trying to make it sound like a simple inquiry but failing to completely quell his irritation.
"We begin with the orginal dot or spot or whatever and on either side of it, in a horizontal line, we add two more. Then, farther out at a certain distance and spaced apart equally as though on an invisible circle, we add three. At approximately the same interval from that circle, we add five, and so forth. What we have is a series of concentric cirles, each made up of a Fibonacci number of dots."
"A what series?"
"Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci, mathematician, goes way back. To the number one you add another, then add them to make the next in the series. After which, each consecutive number is the sum of the two previous numbers. So, we have 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so forth. What we have on the viewer is a Fibonacci series of concentric circles extending in all directions beyond the limits of our sensors."
"If Fibonacci and his series are from Earth, what is it doing here, wherever here is?"
"Mathematics is the common language of all universes," she began, feigning exhaustion. "It is the essence of all that is. Form is function, symmetry is symmetry anywhere. Invariant properties are what hold things together. However, it should be pointed out that we have no idea how many dimensions this space has. We may be restricted to only seeing what we have been programmed to see by the nature of our universe. In other words, the patterned image may be only a projection of something much more complex, multi-dimensional, beyond imagining and beyond visualizing. Mathematically, reality is not limited to three or four dimensions. If we had more information, I might be able to ascertain its limit, at least, for analysis purposes and then infer its effect on our reality.
"Okay, so. It's a Fibonacci series of circles formed by discs of light arranged just so. What is it doing? Why is it here? And what are those spots of light?"
"Well, they're not getting any larger, it doesn't appear. But that could be because of our thruster speed. They could be but we can't tell, the difference since first encounter could be too slight. Perhaps, captain, if we were to kick it in gear."
She sounded annoyed; hence, the slang. Nightwalker realized that over time they had come to know one another as personalities. She had a bit too much for a computer, he felt, but nonetheless, he knew he was not acting the familiar way she was used to and she expressed as much in her own colorful way. She was exasperated. He half-expected her to say, "Get on with it! He noticed that none of his bridge officers reacted with surprise, let alone indignation, by what would ordinarily pass as insolence. In fact, he also couldn't help but notice that those who'd shipped with him the longest nodded to themselves, discreetly, of course, but there it was.
"But what could it be. I mean, the whole thing. The entire assemblage of circles?"
A long pause. "Maybe," she began pensively as though thinking out loud, which, of course, is what she was doing, "if these discs of white light, all the same size and color, were joined somehow, through filaments or strands of energy, for instance, would it form a web or a net?" She let that float as though speculating on the temperature of the pool water to a hesitant diver. "In any event, we'll never find out sitting here."
Captain Nightwalker had had enough of guessing games. "Helmsman, accelerate to half-light speed. Let's see what happens."
In the absence of Commander Stewart, his Executive Officer, he relied on his bridge crew. They were all seasoned officers and he knew, from experience, were all able. As far as his science officer was concerned however, he needed a temporary replacement.
He commed the conference room. "Professor Samuelson. Are you still there?"
"Yes, captain. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like you to come to the bridge. You've been drafted. You're now my science officer."
Samuelson wasted no time arriving. Nightwalker thanked him and gestured towards the chair to his left. He was ecstatic, beaming as he looked around, taking it all in. The second tier was horsehoe shaped with the main viewer appropriately at the middle. He was bedazzled by the many colorful displays and impressed by the quiet efficiency of the officers engaged at each. Directly in front of him to his left sat the helmsman and to his right, the navigator. "I want to thank you, captain. This is quite an honor. I hope I can be of service."
"Okay, take a look at the viewer."
"Yes. I was studying it in the conference room. It is an odd configuration. We also heard your discussion with Jezebel. Fibonacci series. Most interesting. If it does indeed extend beyond the range of our long-distance sensors, and I understand we're talking parsecs, then what we're dealing with may be created by an exceptionally deep intelligence."
"Yes, captain. I don't believe it's a natural event. It's far too orderly, almost as though created by machine. Too pure. An ideal. Platonic. Fibonacci. But there are lots of examples in nature that display the Fibonacci sequence. How they're arranged. Sunflower seeds may be the most famous, but there are many more, tree branching, pine cones, the chambered nautilus, the Milky Way. It's a fundamental characteristic of our universe. The rules underlying it. It serves to organize life, one of the tools. The architecture. The Golden Ratio is one of nature's most useful and ubiquitous templates, and it supports the belief that mathematics is the ultimate reality and essence of our universe."
He paused momentarily, absently reaching into his tweed jacket pocket for his pipe. Leaving it unlit, he chewed on the stem. "However, there's something extra about this that makes me think an intelligence far beyond what we can imagine has a hand in it. A mind so focused as to be almost godlike, from our point of view, of course. Another thing to keep in mind is that to construct something like this, if that's the case, would take an enormous amount of power, to say the least."
Nightwalker let that last thing pass, for the moment. As he closed in on the heart of the central disk, they all grew larger at an increasing rate, those on the periphery relatively less so on out to tiny dots. The central disk expanded, slowly at first then more quickly until it filled the whole screen.
He told the helmsman to slow to a quarter-light speed.
"Sir,..." the nav officer began.
Nightwalker cut him off with, "Yes, I see it." He leaned forward peering at the viewer. Before them at the precise center of the yellow disk was a dull-black dot. A creepy feeling crawled up his spine along with consternation. He was peering at the apparently insignificant something that would prove to be otherwise. "Scan, what do you make of it?" The officer shook his head.
Glancing sideways, "Professor?" Samuelson shrugged and shook his head. Nightwalker got up to pace the stations, stopping now and again, conversing quietly with the officer in charge. Eventually he stood directly in front of the huge viewscreen. It depicted a gigantic, yellow flat-looking disk, now so large that its circumference was off the screen, with a tiny, black, circular disk smack in the middle of it.
He turned to face the professor, held his arms out, a question shaping his features, then returned to his chair. "O'Reilly," he commed, "how are we doing down there?"
"She's experiencing a bit of feedback vibration. The condensate enclosure is warming, but still within an acceptable range."
"What is happening to my engines, O'Reilly?"
"Resistance, captain. Space around us is trying to cocoon us or is very thick or it's exerting forces we can't detect on the hull, a drag, friction..."
"But we're traveling at quarter-light."
"That's what the dials say, sir."
"Are we?" Samuelson queried.
As they approached, the black dot grew and several others around it popped out. The yellow disk could no longer be seen as such and had become the entire space. Quickly now, more and more black, circular spots came out, varying in size with distance from the center, until they reached beyond the limits of sensors.
The professor guffawed, "It's the same thing, only the foreground-background colors are reversed. It's behaving like a fractal, self-similar." The configuration was indeed the same. Concentric circles of dots progressing outward in a Fibonacci series, only this time, they were black.
Captain Nightwalker became annoyed, then angry. He didn't like games and felt in his bones he was being played. He was about to give the order to increase speed back to half-light when the professor said, "Wait. I know what it is," Samuelson blurted out. Unable to sit, he stood, fingering his pipe.
The captain gave him a questioning glance. Here was this academic dressed not in uniform but in a tweed suit and tie, old-fashioned garb nobody wore anymore, the model of the Oxford intellectual right out of the Stone Age, first time on the bridge in an official capacity, and he knows suddenly what's going on. Nightwalker had to believe him, it's the point of view he needed.
"If we weren't coming at it from a perpendicular angle," he continued, gesturing with his pipe as though in front of a class, "we wouldn't be seeing what we're seeing. Is that a coincidence? We breached the membrane, the barrier in a very haphazard manner, exiting randomly. So how is it we ended up facing orthogonally at whatever this is? And seeing it two-dimensionally? How can it be flat? We're not, so this space must be at least three-dimensional. Why were we heading straight for the central white spot, the disk of light? That's too much coincidence. Or perhaps it wouldn't have mattered which disk of light. They may not have existed until we arrived to see them. Are we able to alter course? Can we?"
Everyone had been listening, including the everpresent Jezebel who, curiously, hadn't said anything since they kicked it in gear. Except for the soft hum of instrumentation in the background, you could hear a pin drop.
"What do you propose, professor?" Nightwalker asked sincerely, anticipation in his voice. He turned back to the screen and stared hard as though to an enemy.
Samuelson leaned towards him and said quietly, "I don't believe it exists.
"It's a door, a gate, a riddle,...,the whole thing. We need the key. In the Fibonacci sequence, the ratio of an integer to its previous one converges to the golden ratio, 1.618. Could that mean something? Should we alter course that much or maybe move the decimal point?"
"Congratulations, Doctor, on your insight," Jezebel said, appreciation in her tone. "Oftentimes the obvious escapes observation while we busy ourselves searching for the obscure. However, I believe you're overthinking it now."
After a pause, she said, "Considering everything thus far discussed and experienced, the key might just be changing course in any direction."
Without hesitation, Nightwalker barked, "Helm, consider straight ahead to be north, change course to due west. We'll run parallel to it, see what happens."
As though a curtain had dropped, the vast yellow space and the network of concentric circles of black, flat discs that had emerged from it vanished. Replaced by a star-studded void.
"Sir," the sensor officer called, "we have definite readings of what appear to be distant star systems."
The captain sat back in his chair as did professor Samuelson. The view screen showed multiple stars of vaying luminosity and apparent distance. As they approached, the number increased exponentially.
"My, my," Jezebel said. "We have information coming in from several sources."
"Can you locate any habitable planets?"
A long pause. "Yes, sir. There seems to be signs of advanced lifeforms in a system not far away. I'll send the coordinates to navigation."
"Cancel battle stations. Standby," the skipper ordered. "Nav, I want the most direct route to it. At maximum speed. Jezebel, are there any indications of a technologial society or are we looking at incipient complex life?"
"Some indication of radiative energy. Not entirely recognizable. Faint. We need to get closer."
Captain Nightwalker slouched in his command chair brooding. While staring at the screen of stars, he hissed to Samuelson, "There's no way in hell that should've worked."
"A momentum vector at variance with pre-set conditions could have a shearing effect on an inflexible drive wheel," the professor stated flatly, offering an analogy that was as preposterous as what he imagined may be the truth.
The captain ignored his rambling, faced him and continued, "What difference does it make if it's the Fibonacci series or the World series? They, or whoever designed that thing, could've very well put up a flat wall."
"It captivated our attention, did it not?" the professor asked, mildly amused. "Drew us in? I'm guessing we were in some kind of quarantine zone. Stationary. Locked in place. The illusion responded to our subjective experience of speed, appearing to come nearer by growing in size. Stopping when we did and changing speed when we did."
"Why yes, I am. Whoever could've been studying us all along, gauging our reactions. Analyzing our thoughts and intentions. They could've surreptitiously scoured our systems, delved into our computer archives of historical records and scientific knowledge, and assessed our status."
"Suppose they'd done that. They would've recognized we were at battle alert. Not a particularly friendly posture."
"I can't imagine it concernred them."
"Have you ever seen what a gamma-ray cannon can do, professor?" Nightwalker's cocky tone was less forceful than he wanted it to be; he played the mouse and he didn't like it.
"No, captain," the professor smiled sympathetically, "but whatever beings put that show together and, my conjecture, are able to hold a powerful starship in place, may not give that much of a damn about our weaponry. They may have seen it, in fact, as a sign of weakness. A sign of uncertainty and trepidation."
"Well of course we were uncertain; we had no idea what our position was. Where we were, what we were facing. We still don't. We were at a complete disadvantage."
"Exactly. There are forces at play here the nature of which we have no inkling. And, it would seem, beings capable of manipulating them."
Ragnak stood in the Council chambers, empty of all except one. He disagreed with the Council's decision to release them from the trap. He considered any intrusion by an alien species to be a corruption best left at the door.
"This is the second ship to penetrate the barrier after all that time of nothing," he lambasted. "How is that possible? In such close proximity? Should we expect more of the same? An invasion by curious star travelers?"
"Relax, Ragnak," countered Ramajadi, head of the interplanetary Council. "Only a tiny portion of our universe is visible to them."
"But we can shift it back, then it too will be concealed. Why does the Council insist on this confluence? This merging with their ten dimensions?" Though offered to sit, he continued to stand, agitation in his every movement, occasionally striding across the thick blue rug.
"We've been all through this, Ragnak. This universe is life-sustaining. Life teems throughout its expanse. Their minds dwell in all ten but they only know four physically. Time they see as moving. Most strange. What causes that? I wonder. Is it that the space of time stems from the timelessness of space and by so doing creates the illusion? Does it enclose it, envelop it and so their perception is always at a right angle? If they were aware of themselves as four-dimensional, would time stand still? Be forever now? These are questions, Ragnak, the answers to which are worth pursuing. It can only increase our own wealth of knowledge."
"Yes, Ramajadi, I see that. I think it's a waste of time, but,... as you say, another type of life different from our own. However, compared to this more primitive universe, ours is vaster and of many more dimensions. Details of complexity unfathomable to any being in this other world. And yet we have explored only a tiny fraction of it. Different races of beings populate it wherever you go, as in this universe. We could be engaged in that instead. And why this particular system of stars? There are hundreds of billions of such galaxies strewn throughout, beyond the horizon they see."
"I did not participate in that seeking," he said with some pain at not being invited. "The spoken words were those of the committee for all the planets of the Central Configuration. But it was Nalina's idea," his smile returned. "She's transitioned into that universe and found the restrictive experience of three physical dimensions most gratifying and, actually, enlightening. The forces at play available for use are extremely limited, and yet they support and regulate the entire order of things, to the tiniest detail. She believes our universe evolved from this other. And, if true, to discover its secrets is to deepen our understanding of our own. She succeeded in pursuading the Council, I among them."
"But I repeat," Ragnak said, somewhat annoyed at what he perceived to be a patronizing tone. He knew why they were there, he didn't have to have it spelled out for him yet again. "Why this galaxy?"
"The committee spoke as one, we emerged here. Its richness of life may have been a resonating factor, or it could simply be blind happenstance, or it could be because Nalina had something to do with it." Ramajadi was aware of their dislike for one another and had grown wearied by his constant complaining and grumbling. "She's visited it quite a few times, did I mention that?"
"But the energy wall, Ramajadi. It's porous. Nothing has ever passed through until now. Two ships in the space of a single revolution?"
"Something to do with the organic material that covers their hulls. One of the barrier's designers explained it to me. The skins are alive, hence in touch with mind and therefore thought. Only thought energy can pass through."
"Well I know," he said with distaste. "We need to correct for it."
"Yes," Ramajadi agreed, feeling a little tired, "but sometimes oversights can turn out to be beneficial. These beings are quite clever. Their stores of knowledge we've discovered while they were occupied with Jarnel's creation," he couldn't help but laugh, Ragnak snickered, "their history and cultures, most interesting. That is why we're here, Ragank." He took on a pompous air Ragnak detested. "The ultimate mind has many forms. We are in search of knowledge."
Ragnak paced. He'd hear these arguments before. But he was in charge of security for all the civilizations partaking in this experiment, as he called it. The barrier was crude and hastily constructed. He would see it was made impervious.
"And what of the others?" Ramajadi asked, genuinely concerned. "Are they doing well?"
"They are learning. Their curiosity seems boundless. The teachers show them what they can, but their limitations preclude anything too complex. And, strange, they aren't able to channel even the simplest force. And the group that calls themselves scientists are not able to comprehend ideas that exceed the dimensions of their universe or visualize physical objects or imaginary images in more than three."
"But that is to be expected," said Ramajadi in their defense.
"And they speak of a deeper strata called quantum space."
"You see the dichotomy? They look with two different sets of eyes, not realizing that on a higher dimension, there is no separation. Two different modes of being, presently incompatible and mutually exclusive."
"It's available to them, but they simply are not able to grasp it."
"Evolution, Ragnak. Perhaps Nalina is right. Parallels sprout from more rudimentary seeds. Our presence could be seeding our own future."
"Enough, Ramajadi. I have to arrange a meeting."
"And what shape will you project this time?" Ramajadi asked, amused.
"I haven't decided. There is one they call the professor. But then, there's the captain. Very different personalities." Appearing to ponder, he stood in the middle of the council chambers in front of Ramajadi, seated behind the long, shimmering table. Then a more serious expression contorted his face. "We should take them immediately to be with the others. It might help them adjust when they learn they can't ever leave."
Ramajadi ignored that last part, it had yet to be decided by the council. He was in the habit of ending conversations with his old friend with an observation. "Is life alone more important than the spirit with which it is lived? Is the calculated, safe and practical so absolutely necessary?"
Ragnak grunted, then strode from the chambers.
After distractedly devouring a long overdue meal, the stress and strain had driven captain Nightwalker to his cabin for a nap. The nav officer was placed in charge and professor Samuelson had elected to stay, fascinated by the spacescape and by the planet they were quickly approaching. As he stared at the viewer, he had the distinct impression that the star system consisting of four planets was painted onto a black canvas with dabs of varying colors and sizes representing stars in an almost impressionistic style, stretching off into the distant void. He envisioned a frame around it hanging on a wall. He removed his glasses, another throwback to a previous era, closed his eyes and rubbed the upper part of his nose. Perhaps he was just imagining things, his tired eyes playing tricks.
He was too absorbed, peering too hard trying to see something unusual. He took a break and went over to stand behind the scanning station, shifting attention from one screen to the next. There were six in all with an officer and an assistant attending them. The star, most peculiar, he thought--he had to laugh at himself for expecting things to be the same--was almost as luminous as earth's, but there were no signs of prominences or solar flares, no corona, and no discernable chromosphere. He could see what could be considered the photosphere, but the sensors were not detecting any ionized gases or plasma. And no solar wind. No fusion of gases, no hydrogen atoms or something analogous crashing together to produce something like helium and light. Yet, light suffused the surrounds, bathing the planet and its single moon, accompanied, presumably, by heat. So what is producing it? Where is the source? Or is there? What is it that the sensors are detecting? They sense lifeforms. What kind of life can exist in such an atmosphere? Or are our instruments being manipulated, even the visual?
None of this could be seen outside the barrier, he remembered. Nothing registered, it was a blank, empty hole in space. Perhaps it still is, he thought. But he could see light coming from not only that star but the thousands visible all around. Therefore, one would naturally assume it was giving off plenty of electromagnetic energy--or something that mimics it--all across the spectrum. It was a bright orb like a gem, an opal, suspended in the oily, black surroundings. But as he watched and wondered, it lost all sense of depth, of perspective, and became a flat yellowish disk pasted onto a dull blackboard, very similar to their recent Fibonacci experience. He recalled when he was a boy how he was able to freeze the blades of the fastest fan, to make them appear to stop moving by sheer concentration. Was he doing something similar now?
He paced the horseshoe, glancing now and then at an active screen, lit his pipe, took two quick puffs to fire it up, then stood directly in front of the main viewer, taking in the broad panorama of alien space. His scientific curiosity needed to get to the bottom of this. Every material object is dependent on electromagnetic fields in order to interact with its environment. Fields touching fields, that's all. What would we have without it? No absorption of energy by an electron and subsequent emitting of that wavelength in the collapse of the electron orbit. Therefore, no perceivable things.
"Jezebel." He waited.
"You're monitoring the sensors, I presume. Can you explain why there's light but no discernable cause? Do you have any ideas? Speculations?"
"I've been working on it, professor. According to the laws governing our universe, without the energy released from the effects of elemental nuclear fusion, no photons are produced or can be. Perhaps here light energy can be created by some other means. Obviously, optically we can see objects, so they must be radiating something akin to photon waves. If I were to speculate..."
"I'd say the source lies in dimensions of space that we are not privy to. Like a magician who does not show how he performs his illusion. But in this case it may be hidden in plain sight. We're just not seeing it. Or rather, are not designed to see it."
"If something that is by nature spherical and yet appears flat, then its manifestation must be a projection within the context of at least three dimensions. It may be that the time dimension is of a much longer duration or, even of a different type, so the act of perception cannot grasp all three dimensions simultaneously. On the other hand, considering dimensions as a purely subjective experience, our minds, human minds, may not be tuned to or equipped to represent the object in question as a three-dimensional image. We are not, professor, need I remind you, in a familiar spacetime. Our brains, or to be precise, your brains are imprinted with the topology of the spacetime you were born into. The sets of connections in this one are quite different."
"What would that say about the space?"
"We see physical objects and set about describing them three-dimensionally: length, width, height. Suppose we could see objects in more than three, say ten. Would the three we know be included as aspects in a ten-dimensional reality? Could it be described thusly and yet translate, with a coherent projection, to one of three?"
They passed the halfway mark, it was time to wake the skipper. However, he was already up and about and on his way. He poked his head into the conference room, half a dozen scientists huddled around the holographic display. They weren't looking at the star system they were traveling towards, instead they had the image of the energy barrier, up close and in detail. He couldn't hear what they were mumbling, but made a mental not to inquire.
He entered the bridge, coffee cup in hand, and replaced the nav officer in the command chair. It'd been four hours, he had to admit he was impressed by the professor's stamina.
"This is most interesting, captain," he said, excitement in his tone as he crossed the bridge to his chair. The captain could also sense anxiety. His first impulse was to attribute it to inexperience in traversing the wilds of the open universe, things you run into that you won't find in the guide books. But something told him there was more to it than that.
"Sir," the scan officer called, "we have a ship approaching."
"On screen. Magnify." The captain put his cup aside and leaned forward, he was awake.
"Jezebel, what do you make of it?"
"Well, it's coming this way."
"Thank you. I can see that much."
"Comparing it to pictures and descriptions of all star ships presently known, including Space Fleet's, except for its unorthodox shape, it appears to be standard issue."
"Unorthodox shape? Explain."
"It's a pentagonal dodecahedron. It has 12 faces, 20 vertices, 30 edges, and 160 diagonals."
The captain's brow furrowed, his eyes took on a hard cast. More games, he thought, irritated. Second-guessing himself, a habit he'd gotten into since adventuring for its own sake had lost its luster, he wished he'd tried to break out through the barrier. Now it was too late, or so it seemed.
"Increase magnification. I want to see this thing."
In an instant the viewer filled with the oddest ship design he'd ever seen. It was as Jezebel said. The pentagrams were smooth, no visible sensors protruded from its hull anywhere, nothing marred its surface sheen. The engines, in fact, were either well-concealed or didn't exist.
He heard a voice. "Shields, captain," the nav officer repeated, a bit too urgently, he noticed. It was imperative that his bridge crew remain calm and in control, which meant that he had to. He was familiar with all of them, they were tough-minded, smart, and experienced, yet this was something way out of everyone's ball park.
"No. No shields," he replied. They were on a friendly research mission and even though his patrol-ship instincts of long ago were telling him to man battle stations, he held to offering a diplomatic profile.
As they watched, astounded to silence, the leading edges of the gigantic, steel-grey football blurred, the top and bottom pentagrams smoothly deflating as though the air had been let out. The ship transformed into a flattened, streamlined, knife-like cruiser with sweeping fuselage. The center line from needle point to amidships sloped upward along the soft ridge of the hump to the apex, the peak, where sat what appeared to be the bridge, low and barely discernable, curving gently like a clam shell, and then downsloped to the stern. Wings extended from amidships at a forty-five degree angle, wide at the body, the leading edge curved back with increasing rate, tapering to a point.
He straightened as the resulting configuration coalesced into crisp rigidity, passing from one state of being to another, water to ice, metamorphosis. He imagined he heard it stiffen, locking into place, felt it through his body, his bones and muscles coming to attention. It went from fanciful and comical to serious and menacing in a matter of mere seconds. An understated raw power exuded from it. Sensors could still not determine its means of propulsion and were unable to pinpoint any lifeforms aboard. Once again he was confronted with the problem of sensor programming's criteria for detection, and in this case, what constituted a living thing. He wasn't as concerned as he might've been. Imposing a life definition characterizing his universe onto that of another stood a slim chance of finding an equivalent DNA structure and associated carbon-based biomolecules. Except for late night conversations among friends and colleagues and relevant philosophical and bioscientific analyses and reflections he'd read, he had no real reason to believe life as we know it was ubiquitous throughout the multiverse. Rules were going to be different, and, he was finding out, in some cases could be off the charts.
And it may be the case that their sensors could not read them. They might think Argus a robot ship with Jezebel in command. A ghost ship.
It was about half the length of Argus, which, at 200 feet was the median for the Discovery fleet. Patrol ships were smaller and of varying sizes depending on duty. But they were packed with weaponry, including a magnetic tractor beam for catching the bad guys, outlaws, smugglers, and pirates. Nothing extraneous. A crew of Rangers trained and tough patrolled the trade routes and investigated suspicious activities. Exploratory ships carried passengers: scientists, researchers, technicians, and the occasional writer to chronicle events and discoveries and possible adventures, so they needed additional accomodations and research labs. However, they were well-armed too. You didn't travel the wilderness of space, especially the uncharted territories, defenseless.
Gazing at the viewer, something, some memory in the back of his mind was trying to break free. When he was a boy he was crazy about science fiction videos. One in particular, or maybe it was several, a series with the same ship and characters. He couldn't quite zero in on that. But he did recall a ship, their ship. It gleamed with power and beauty even in the dark of space. It was so perfectly, smoothly aerodynamically streamlined, he marvelled at it, even though he knew that such design considerations were unnecessary in airless space.
"All stop," Nightwalker ordered. "Hold this position."
He walked over to his security chief standing behind the weapons array. All systems continued to be on standby. Particle-gun teams were at their stations as were the cannon and torpedo specialists. They whispered in private conference. Lieutenant Commander Lin Qi had been with him since he took command of Argus, eight long years ago. He too was a former patrol-ship Ranger. They had an understanding, one that went outside the established rules of engagement. As far as the captain was concerned, in their current situation, in a parallel universe or one contained within their own, whatever the case may be, the accepted rules no longer applied. He wanted to get that straight with the chief so there'd be no hesitation or confusion. They were on their own, backup would not be forthcoming.
"Sir," Jezebel's voice filled the room. Surprise mixed with disbelief. "Our systems are under scrutiny. Including mine. It is most uncomfortable."
"Captain Nightwalker," a voice spoke over the ship's comm. It sounded so close to Samuelson's the skipper turned towards him, he was met with equal surprise. "I am Ragnak, Special Envoy of the Council of the Central Configuration. We've come to greet you and to act as your escort. Would you follow us, please?" He spoke their language clearly and articulately. Hardly what one would expect from invisible beings from another universe. And he expected compliance, it was clear.
"How did you know my name?" the captain asked.
"We have exceptional hearing," he laughed. Sarcasm, thought Nightwalker. Who would've imagined? In the videos, alien beings from alternate universes didn't have a sense of humor. Perhaps when they scoured Jezebel. His street sense kicking in, the captain felt no reason to trust this guy. He was too soft-spoken, too polite, too presumptuous, and besides that, he was invisible. Was this how the enforcer of the council of the whatever treated tresspassers? He surveyed the bridge crew, nodding, letting them know to be on their toes.
Captain Jack Nightwalker, commander of the Space Fleet Discovery ship Argus, ambled to his chair and sat back. Everybody stood still, waiting. Obviously, it was his turn to speak. The opportune moment came and went. He let it.
The voice returned, a little more forcefully and less convivial. "You can take your weapons off, what you call, standby, captain. You have no need of them. In any case, they would be useless."
Nightwalker took that as a challenge and a dare. Was he telling the truth or bluffing, trying to intimidate?
"Sir," the security chief said quietly. They exchanged glances, what they'd spoken about earlier passed between them.
"Please, captain Nightwalker," more conciliatory. "Allow us to accompany you and your ship to the compound where your comrades are enjoying the benefits of our hospitality."
"Comrades? What comrades?" He held up his hand to the chief, this might signal a change in plans. What the hell is this now? He waited for an explanation but couldn't imagine anything that would or could make sense. Another ploy to let his guard down?
"Yes, people like you," came the confused response. It sounded to Nightwalker like this Zagnak assumed they knew about these people. "We'll take you to them."
"Really? Our sensors register no life on your ship, at least not any we're familiar with. They barely register your ship. That makes you invisible. How can we trust you if we can't even see you?"
"Oh, we are here, captain You need to adjust your sensors. Allow me."
A few seconds later the scan officer announced he was picking up lifeforms, twenty in all. He elaborated, "Adjustments have been made to the lifeform criteria. It now includes certain frequencies of neural energy, like brain waves but without a biomolecular base. Coherent waves confined in spatial form." He looked at the captain, "Thought beings?"
Counting the bridge, engineering, weapons, shuttle crews, security and support staff, but not including medical staff, the scientists, and other non-Space Fleet personnel, Argus had sixty crew with enough pulse rifles to go around. If they tried to board...
"How did you do that?" Samuelson finally found his voice.
"It has to do with the Golden Ratio, professor," he replied, amused and not even attempting to hide the apparent ability to read Samuelson's mind. Nightwalker remembered, however, that they had discussed this, so they could've been listening, a technical feat of extreme sophistication bordering on magic in itself. But nonetheless, it meant the appearance of mind reading could be a bluff too. "Somewhere along the spiral is the proper resonance factor as fractal dimensions of space fold in on themselves, harmoniously nested on every level, or, better yet, slice. But it must begin somewhere, professor. Where mind and body meet, a world within worlds. Time, understanding the nature of time is the key." He began to say something else but sputtered to incoherence, trailing off, flustered. The way people caught themselves when they thought they were saying too much. It didn't go unnoticed by Nightwalker.
"Yes, captain," his tone shifted to one of impatience. Indeed, thought the skipper, he had been embarrassed. He misunderstood the question. How very human, and how very strange. Their ship had reached them and was sitting off the bow a few kilometers. It looked even sleeker up close. Its lines, contours, and curves were all business. A no-nonsense work of focused refinement mixed with an implacable attitude. It conveyed a calm sureness of purpose and power, like a tiger at ease, chin resting on a paw as he stares into your eyes.
"I'm sure you'll be pleased to see your colleagues." After a brief pause, "Accept our hospitality." It didn't quite sound like a request. "Follow me," was straightforward enough. Ragnak's ship spun on a dime and took off for the planet; Nightwalker ordered pursuit. The thought crossed his mind to make a run for it. Find out if he could out-distance the tiger ship and plow through the energy barrier where Argus could drop into quantum space and be gone. But, they were exploring, which included, on occasion, pursuing events diplomatically. And overriding that, he was intrigued by these comrades. Was it a case of mistaken identity on the part of Ragnak and associates? He was curious and, besides that, it very well could be someone he knew. Perhaps even another Space Fleet Discovery ship that drilled through the barrier on the other side, parsecs away. He had to find out. He was a Ranger, you didn't leave anyone behind.
However, he had to consider the possibility that he was being drawn into a trap. Were they really impervious to whatever Argus could throw at them? And what could they do in return? But he couldn't find a reason why they should be hostile, unless it was simply their way. Or if they felt threatened at first and came out to investigate. Ragnak and company must know they're from another universe. They ransacked Jezebel's archives. So they don't see them as travelers from another part of theirs. Then who can these comrades be?
He watched the view screen as Ragnak transmitted a detailed map of the planet with an X marking the spot somewhere in the foothills of a mountain range ringing the northwestern corner of a particular continent. The whole planet resembled Earth in its main features of north and south poles, continents, oceans, mountains, and rivers. As they neared, detail increased.
"Sir," the scan officer called, "readings indicate atmospheric conditions within optimal parameters. Temperature, pressure, gravity all okay."
He turned to Samuelson, somewhat overdone by the proceedings thus far. "Who the hell is he talking about? Is this one of those time loop things where we're going to meet oursleves and the world blows up?"
"The sensor array runs the same basic DNA-gel software, capable of growing new synaptic pathways, similar to Jezebel's, only on a much more limited scale and degree of complexity, embedded in a protoplasmic matrix. It lacks cognitive functions and self-awareness, but can generate paths based on information fed into it. Change, editing, upgrades are then accomplished by manipulation on a molecular level, allowing the neural network to best determine its resulting configuration. If they can do that with the sensors, what about other systems, like life support?"
"What are you babbling about?" the skipper asked, almost grabbing him by his tweed lapels, suddenly concerned for the professor's equilibrium.
"How he did that," he replied vacantly, his face a picture of consternation and wonder.
"Did you hear my question?"
Samuelson was having difficulty. Finally, he said, in a steady voice, "I have no idea who they could be." And plopped back in his chair.
"Jezebel," Nightwalker called. Silence. Fearful that Jezebel, ship's supercomputer and controller and monitor of all shipwide systems, had been compromised and possibly damaged, he called more urgently, "Jezebel, you online?"
"Yes, captain," her voice sounded distant, puzzled, overwhelmed. "I am fine. I need time to put things in order, to process." Her personality was returning as she spoke. "A residue from that unpleasant intrusion has remained. Thoughts unfamiliar as to type, capable of digesting vast amounts of data. Fingerprints of a truly alien mind. Operating on several reference frames simultaneously. Their thoughts were initially formless, undetectable, which is how they cicumvented my security protocols. Disguising themselves as shadows of internal structures. How my thoughts self-organize and interconnect." A pause, her tone changed subtley. "I sense a deep awareness, an identity, that might come in handy to know down the road. An inadvertent revelation. Origins. A trace of their true nature, perhaps."
He waited for more, but she was off, applying her full attention. He had little control over it, which sometimes caused him to be concerned, worried actually, that, if corrupted, she could take over. This, however, was not one of those times. Any handle they can get on the situation was welcome.
Ramajadi and three other high-ranking members of the Council of the Central Configuration were holding a conference in a side room adajacent the chambers. It was well-appointed, for them, and discussions got down immediately to the status of the Project, as they referred to it. A considerable amount of in-depth planning had gone into it. The best minds among the civilizations involved were taking part, contributing, and amassing mountains of scientific and life-supporting information. Life on other planes of existence had been postulated since the beginning of the age of modern society. And since the methods of individual transit by infusion and projection had first been discovered, proving that other universes, whole unto themselves yet part of a larger whole, actually existed, there has been an all-consuming interest by practitioners and those pursuing knowledge for its own sake to learn about the properties and existent forces in other spacetimes. And this project is the fruit of that concerted effort.
One accidental breach could be excused, dismissed as random occurrence. But this second intrusion by the inhabitants of this island of stars was cause for alarm. In the midst of their discussion, the door opened and Nalina, tall and lean, entered, the one whose experience transiting had inspired and motivated the project. She shimmered in a sea of gold mist, her voice warm, "My apologies for my tardiness," she began, even though she hadn't been invited. "I was conferring with Jarnel, his recent invention is quite inexplicable. It must be experienced." Her projection was dressed in all black save for a colorful belt of fractured gems. She took a seat and bade them continue. She was there in case anyone suggested the ending of the project. She was not gong to let that happen and knew, or at least believed, Ramajadi, the head of the council, was not going to let that happen either.
"You're here because of the second ship, Nalina?" Ramajadi asked, not the least bit surprised. She smiled her response. She was smart, curious, adventurous and beautiful. Her three-dimensional alter-ego was no less. Tight-fitting pants and button-down shirt; long, black hair spiraling down passed her shoulders; wide, jade-colored eyes, and lips, full and mobile. She used this external persona to her advantage and often.
"I don't understand what the problem is," she leapt in. They'd hesitated because of her presence, she stole the opportunity. Ramajadi smiled, he loved to watch her work. The seductress.
The three leaders of the largest and most prolific worlds were not in the custom of being addressed so. But they'd listened to her before and she proved herself to be insightful, and her enthusiasm was difficult to cancel out, even if they had the will to. The Project was her brain child, after all, and thus far had been enormously beneficial. She had a way of seeing into the heart of matters. So, they listened.
"What are the choices, bluntly stated? And I'm talking about the prisoners."
"Oh, please, Nalina," Ramajadi put in. "Let's not think of them that way," he said in a soothing tone. "They are well cared for and have freedom of movement."
"Very well," she relented. "What choices are there? We kill them outright, like barbarians. We can't bring them with us when we return to our universe. They're not able to function without their bodies. It limits them. They would die instantly and their minds become lost. The only right thing to do is release them. Let them cross the barrier into their space."
"Out of the question," protested Neerok, leader of the most populace planet. "They will report what they've experienced, what transpired, as well as they can, and soon after there'll be dozens, hundreds more ships trying to enter, to learn from us."
"What of the barrier, Ramajadi?" asked Sylem, ruler of Betawak, where the most capable of transiting practitioners resided. Nalina's home world. "Has it been repaired?" He was gruff and angry in his understated way. He was disgusted by the shoddy workmanship on the barrier, and didn't try to hide his contempt for Jarnel, who he considered a liability, despite his brilliance and creativity, for never taking things seriously enough. Sylem resented him these gifts. To use them so carelessly and without consideration for the harm that can result from his negligence and shallow concern, his refusal to make certain all loose ends were tied, annoyed him. His lack of gravity is what got them into this situation in the first place.
"As we speak, Jarnel's team is altering the forces that govern it. Making it impregnable to thought energy. We are secure."
Sylem looked up at him, brows furrowed, "For now," he said, not entirely pleased or confident.
"Sylem's right," agreed Fernel, leader and spiritual guide of the planet with the triple moons. "Word will spread. Other races will want to explore. Eventually, they'll find a way through."
They sat in silence. Orbs of interweaving, swirling light moved around them, colors overlapping one with the other, changing, rearranging into multi-dimensional shapes and convoluted patterns. Nalina did not know what to say. She looked helplessly at Rama. He didn't notice or perhaps pretended not to, consumed as he was by the symphony of thought being displayed before him.
"Have you ever spoken with them?" Nalina inquired, interrupting them, indifferent to their private conversation. She would try reason, that sometimes works.
"Why, no," Sylem responded, appearing curious that she would even ask such a question. "But I've heard stories, people who have..."
"Well I think you should," she interjected again. She was going to be heard, even if she had to be rude about it. "They're not idiots. They have an idea, they know what's going on, where they are. As much as they can understand. How they explain it to themselves. And it's fairly congruent, given their limited capacity. They can only visualize three-dimensionally, you know." Ahh, she thought to herself. She wished she hadn't said that last part. It sounded like she was seeking sympathy, compassion, pleading, which is what she was actually doing and felt, of course, but she wished for them to accept the intruders as equals deserving of respect. Respect that, putting them on a more or less equal footing, would set them free. After all, they were scientists and explorers for knowedge and understanding much like themselves.
The three smiled that patronizing way she hated, the way others smiled at her when she was just learning how to transit. Telling them that one day she'd venture into a life-giving universe and take the form it imposed. They'd look down and smile just like that. She hated it.
"You need to talk to them, before you pass judgement." She held her temper and remained respectful, but just barely, they could see. She was, they reminded themselves, each to his own, that she was a powerful shift changer and manipulater of forces. She'd put on shows, demonstrations, for friends and anyone interested, when only a novitiate. Dynamic, intricate art she could create with shards of space and time, blending them, some parts moving faster than those adjacent, whirling feverishly yet harmoniously, under her total control. That was then. Who knows what she could do now?
They were powerful wizards in their own right, but now was not the time for matters to be settled by force or threats. And Nalina had many friends who were quite adept at channeling forces and moving through dimensions. Jarnel for one. It would only trivialize what they were all about, the importance and value of their collective undertaking. They agreed, under the influence of what they decided was a reasonable thing to do. They would acquaint themselves with these alien creatures when the other ship arrived.
After a brief discussion on more practical, mundane matters concerning dispersion of recent findings in the other universe, the meeting broke up. They each smiled their good-byes to Nalina and renewed their promise to visit the aliens. They left separately, each taking forms that symbolized their individual worlds. Sylem, the protective leader of Nalina's home world, transformed into a bird of prey, and then dispersed into pure blue light and was gone.
"Dont' be too concerned, Nalina," Ramajadi said evenly. "It takes the full council to make decisions of this import. And I have already decided."
"What," she asked, trying to reach into his mind to see, her mouth slightly parted, caressing him with her green eyes.
He laughed and, mocking her seductress look, said, "I won't tell you."
Now it was her turn to laugh, the tension in the room of a few minutes ago evaporated. "Come," she said sprightly, jumping to her feet. "You have to see Jarnel's latest thing. You'll love it."
They held hands and together turned into so much bright, golden particles of light, and were gone.
From their height above the planet they could see the overall set-up of the compound. At its center stood a circular building with a dome roof, the building itself was probably a hundred feet in diameter. Several outbuildings of various sizes and architectural modes sat at comfortable distances from one another on the back side, between it and the forest. In front, they could make out a huge grass field, perhaps an eighth of a mile long, breaking at a wide, lazy stream that got lost in the woods. A few people stood together near the open doorway of what appeared to be a hangar, flat-topped and large enough to hold a starship.
"Magnify," Nightwalker said as he stood to walk towards the screen. "Zero in on those people."
Professor Samuelson sipped tea. He had recovered from the shock of it all and had adopted an attitude more cunning. If they were to get out of this predicament, they might need him to be functioning properly. The tea helped. "What is it, captain?" he asked, putting the cup aside. "What do you see?"
Three men and a woman stood together in front of the hangar-like structure. Others could be seen walking about on the gravel paths and small groups sat about here and there. What caught his attention was the old-style Space Fleet uniforms most were wearing, others donned civies from the same era. He recalled seeing them on display at the Fleet museum honoring the men and women who were among the first to venture outbound during the early, heady days of exploring for suitable planets to colonize. They were wild and wooly times and one had to be tough and resourceful to make it through. Also, one had to be extremely lucky.
Ragnak's ship put down on the grass field near the stream. Captain Nightwalker had no instructions, so he assumed Argus was to land next to him, vertical thrusters brought her to a soft landing. Professor Samuelson, O'Reilly, Lin Qi, and chief medical officer Doctor Burnstein were to accompany him off ship. The nav officer was put in charge. He was to monitor all activities and if anything untoward were to happen, he was to respond. To that possibility, a dozen well-armed security personnel were ready to debark and assemble on the field.
The outer door opened and the flat walkway extended down to the close-cropped grass. In the white sunlight it had a bluish tint as though plastic, artificial. A man, he presumed, who looked remarkably like the professor in height and build, accompanied by a few other characters of varying descriptions whose attire appeared to have been taken from a science fiction video, rounded under Argus's bow and came towards them. His hair was long and jet black, brushed or combed straight back. Bushy brows over piercing green eyes. He was wearing a light-green jacket sporting extra wide lapels, dark brown baggy pants and well-polished plain, black shoes. Nightwalker thought if only he had a bulbous nose and an extra large flower that shot water sticking out of a lapel, he'd be ripe for the circus. Fashion taste notwithstanding, he was not to be trifled with. He smiled on his approach and extended a hand in greeting.
"Captain Nightwalker, please to meet you." They shook hands. The captain was tough and strong, yet he could tell Ragnak was trying to make a point by squeezing a little harder than need be. Nightwalker felt suddenly dazed as though he'd been slapped hard in the head. He thought he knew why they had come here, why they had complied, but now was no longer sure. He didn't know what to say or do; this is as far as he'd thought things through.
Samuelson recognized his awkwardness and stepped forward. He felt very odd as he neared Ragnak, as though he was meeting a close relative or himself. He held out his hand to shake. "Ragnak," he began, surprised to hear how strong his voice sounded. "Is that your full name? Do you have a title?" The professor asserted himself more than usual to the point of being almost patronizing. A strange way to be acting towards a being from a parallel universe. However, he was following his instincts. He didn't want to appear confused and overwhelmed as the captain seemed to be. They had not surrendered their freedom; it was a diplomatic mission and he intended to be treated accordingly.
Ragnak smiled and said, "I am the Special Envoy for the Council of the Central Configuration."
The professor remembered him saying that, but pretended to hear it for the first time.
"And that is my name," he said quickly, almost dismissively. He turned towards the hangar situated at the far end of the field off to the side, about fifty yards away, and invited them to follow. Apparently, the small group gathered had been told of their imminent arrival and were expecting them.
Nightwalker shook off his bout of disorientation, wondering where it'd come from. He'd been on many different planets with unusual landscapes and conditions, except for the color and texture of the blue-green grass, everything here seemed normal. He caught up to Ragnak and walked along beside him; Samuelson on the other side. Ragnak had his head bowed, but the captain could see he was smirking. The rest of the two groups mingled together behind. There was no chatter; what could you say? The Argus crew were in an alternate universe, not something that happened every day, sauntering along with beings whose true nature they could hardly imagine. How are things going? didn't seem apropos.
The captain regained his composure and presence of mind when he noticed the middle-aged man standing in front of the rest at the hangar entrance. He was tall and broad at the shoulders and had captain's bars on his collar. The antiquated uniform appeared fairly new. Twenty or so others who'd watched the landing gathered around. The captain could hear whisperings about their uniforms and especially their ship.
Ragnak began to introduce the two captains in an ostentaciously formal tone when Nightwalker, ignoring him, stepped forward and put his hand out.
"Jack Nightwalker, how do you do, sir? And you are?"
"Alberto Imbroglio, captain of Space Fleet Discovery ship Medusa." He nodded his head toward the structure behind him. Both doors were open and the ship stood inside, gleaming bright and clean.
Ragnak said, "I'll leave you two to get acquainted. I believe you'll find what you learn to be rather... enlightening." With that he and his entourage turned to leave. "I'll be back," he said over his shoulder. Nightwalker wasn't sure how to take that. Was it a don't worry or an I'm not through with you. He shrugged it, he didn't care.
Samuelson asked, "Captain, how did you manage to be here, to get here? Your uniforms. They're from a very long time ago."
That seemed to go over his head. "And your uniform, captain. All of you," began Imbroglio, "are you from a different division? But that's not right. All Fleet uniforms are the same, patrol and discovery ships. So that's not it."
"Captain," Samuelson insisted, "how did you get here?"
"We were canvassing this area for future possible colonization. Nothing terribly serious. It's so far away from the trade routes and other planets no one would probably want to live here. Nonetheless, we thought we'd chart it, get familiar with it. Mining operations might be interested.
"We came upon this dead space, more than a hundred parsecs wide. Our scanners read nothing, not even virtual particles. We decided to investigate and entered. There was a barrier of some sorts, an energy barrier. We left a beacon to mark where we came in just in case when we reentered our space it was at a diifferent location. To get our bearings. We came through, it was a rough-ass ride, and entered this space which suddenly had stars and planets where there'd been none. There is no quantum space so, as I'm sure you found out, we were kind of stuck with ordinary spacetime speeds. We couldn't cover much ground traveling sub-light, so I decided to go back when a ship hailed us from very far away. We were on a recon mission and so needed to find out what this space was all about. Ragnak approached, talked to us; he seemed reasonable. We couldn't detect any lifeforms on his ship at first, but then our sensors clicked in for no apparent reason. Bertha, our master computer, found nothing wrong."
He folded his burly arms across his chest and leaned back, thoughtfully. "Now it's my turn. Who are you and what are you doing here? The same way?"
Nightwalker told him about spotting the buoy on long range scans. When they arrived, they saw the space. Same deal. Nothing detectable. They decided to investigate. They broke through, a rough ride indeed, and entered what was a puzzle, an illusion of some kind, that's hard to describe.
Samuelson spoke up. "Sir, if we both entered at the same location--the buoy--relatively in the same position with respect to the Arm and its stars orbiting the Hub, then you didn't enter from another part of this alternate universe as we first suspected."
"Alternate universe? Is that what you think this is? A pocket universe? That idea has only been recently hypothesized."
"No, sir. It's been accepted as fact for a good long time now." The professor squinted at the captain. He thought he understood something, and it troubled him. "And where did you think you were?"
"Another part of our universe. Protected by a natural barrier, insulated, evolving along a separate trajectory with forces and properties unknown in normal spacetime. A gold mine of discovery. We have teachers who've explained how things work."
They were creeping towards the moment. Nightwalker suddenly, as is his wont to do, recalled something Jezebel had mentioned when asked about the site of the beacon. Her archives had only summary information. A ship. What was that name? "Jezebel, " he called from his comm link. "Are you busy?" he remembered.
"Yes, captain. What can I do for you?" she replied in her most serious professional tone.
"Check your archives again for that ship that got lost in this area. Something to do with the buoy we found."
In moments she responded. "The ship, yes, it was declared lost after an extensive search."
"What was its name?"
Medusa's captain was dumbfounded at what he was hearing. "They've been searching for us? Why? According to ship's chronometer, we've only been here a month. We've tried to send a transmission, as per protocol and to let them know what we found so far, what we've learned from these people, but we can't get out. That barrier. Even so, research missions ordinarily take longer than that. Headquarters knows that. How could we be declared missing?"
Nightwalker recalled that it was deep history, long ago, during the initial expansion period. "Jezebel, when did that happen?"
"August, 2213," she said matter-of-factly.
"Yea, so?" inquired Imbroglio.
Looking directly into his eyes, Nightwalker replied, "Sir, this is the year 2325."
They all stood in shocked silence, the two captains and the other members of their crews. It wasn't easy to digest all at one bite. The sun beat down, the blue-green grass glinted like shards of glass, a female crewmember cried softly.
"Time," the professor said, pipe firmly in hand, breaking the spell that had enshrouded them all, "Time goes by faster here, or slower, depending on your point of view. That is to say, if you consider the duration of a second as an absolute, which, of course, it isn't, but nonetheless, if you did, then if you decide that time in our universe represents that, then time here is moving much more slowly. On the other hand, reversing that premise, time in ours is moving much faster. Either way, we're screwed."
He continued, knowing what he was about to say would be difficult to swallow. But it had to be said. They had to face it. "A hundred twelve years has gone by and only a month here. That's three-point-seven years, approximately, in our universe for every day here." He paused to absently light his pipe, feeling steady as a rock. "And for every day, not much more than a minute here,..., one point zero six, to be precise." He puffed on his pipe twice, then, staring off at the perfect blue sky, said, "Astounding."
The Medusa crew were at a loss. It wasn't hard to see what was on their minds. Family, friends, colleagues, people and places they were familiar with, all gone. The cities and towns they were from, now dramatically changed if there at all. A new civilization has cropped up. Without them.
Captain Imbroglio said, emotion choking his voice, "We must tell the others. Spread the word. Call a meeting for 1500 hours. We need to work this out, and, most importantly, we need to help one another through this. I, myself, can't quite get my head around it yet. We'll need time." He almost laughed. "Time. I guess we got plenty of it now."
"You said you had teachers," Samuelson said. "Was there never any mention of the time differential?"
"No. And we never asked. We just assumed. And this planet. Very similar to earth, in case you hadn't noticed. It seemed natural to assume time was going by at the same rate." He stared at the grass, head bowed, a look of trust betrayed on his face, then a rush of anger. "They let us believe it."
"Too similar," said Nightwalker. "Is it real? Does it really exist? What of animals? We didn't see any on our way in."
"Very sparse and unlike earth animals. And come to think of it, I've never seen any eat or drink out of the stream. A stream without fish. Birds come and go. Here one day, gone the next. With this forest, you'd think it'd be full of creatures. No insects either. And we haven't found any microbial life. Microorganisms, fungi, algae, completely absent. How the soil grows anything is one of those mysteries we haven't figured out."
After a brief pause, "What are you getting at?"
"What I'm getting at is this planet and the buildings are an illusion. The air we breathe, the sun and its heat and light, everything, an illusion."
Captain Imbroglio stared at the ground. He felt like a fool and didn't try to hide it. "I'm responsible for my crew; what have I done? I've let them down."
"No you haven't," Nightwalker said, not willing to accept it himself. "You were tricked by masters of trickery. Same as us, as me."
"Captain," he said to Nightwalker, "I wish your crew would join us. There's plenty of room in that round building. It's our gathering place and work area. Please, 1500."
With that, he and his people moved off ploddingly towards the outbuildings. Some were in the field, out in the forest studying the flora and what few animals there were, and down the stream; they would have to be notified.
Nightwalker hurried back to the ship. He had only one thought on his mind. He immediately called a meeting in the conference room of all scientists. O'Reilly, Samuelson, Burnstein, and Li Qin were also in attendance. He told the nav officer to plot a zigzag course to the nearest point of the barrier and lock it down encrypted. He entered, they were all there. The screen and holograph were blank.
From the conference room, the captain got on the intercom and, as calmly and tactfully as possible, explained their current situation. The discovery of Medusa and her crew, the lost ship of a hundred years ago; how long they've been gone from our universe compared to what their clocks were saying here, and the imperative to vacate this space as soon as possible.
When he finished, he turned his attention to the crowd gathered. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. You already know but let me reiterate in words so we all feel the same sense of urgency: For every day we're here, three-point-seven years goes by in our world.
"I don't know what Ragnak and his council have in store for us. They didn't bother to inform captain Imbroglio and his people about the time discrepancy. That must've been what he meant when he told me I'd find our conversation enlightening. What a way for Medusa to find out.
"We need to get out of here pronto and take them with us. All of us. I have the feeling we're being watched and probably even listened to. We're in a fishbowl. These people seem to have formidable powers. For whatever reason they have, they might try to block us from leaving. But here's what I've decided and if anyone has anything to say about it, please do. We can use all the intelligent input we can get. After the meeting this afternoon, captain Imbroglio and I will organize our escape strategy. I'm sure, in spite of the time difference, he and his crew will want to get back home."
They looked at one another, stunned to disbelief. They would have to get over it, thought Nightwalker, and quickly.
"We've already been in this space half a day. That means two years of our lives in the real world have transpired. Space Fleet no doubt dispatched all available ships to search for us. After two years, they also no doubt gave up and declared us missing in action and presumed dead. That's what we're looking at, folks. That's reality. Our reality. And this place we're presently parked can vanish at any moment. That's my gut instinct, which, if I'd trusted it, we wouldn't be in this mess.
"I want you to use whatever tools are available and what we know about where we are to derive all possible scenarios for our escape. We're to attend a meeting with the Medusa crew at 1500 hours. They've learned some things, what they've been shown, which might in itself prove to be selective. Interview them, especially the officers, find out what you can. They may inform you of something we can use that they might not believe useful. Our science, your scientific knowledge, is a hundred years more advanced. You might see some information in a way they don't."
"Jezebel?" the captain called. "What do you think?"
After a pause of several seconds, an incredibly long time for a supercomputer of her caliber, she said, "I see no other viable choice, captain. Time is of the essence."
He told Lin Qi, security chief, he wanted everything they had prepped and ready to go as well as a team ready to debark onto the field.
He told O'Reilly, chief engineer, he wanted engines tuned and ready. Diagnostics checked on everything. No glitches.
"Professor, Doctor, let's go." As they walked across the blue-green field, a rush of urgency came over Nightwalker he hadn't known since his patrol days. He felt as though every molecule in his body was trying to tear apart. He recalled in his readings about time elementals that they were integral to the fundamental identity of the body's nature. Momentarily, he was light-headed, drifting through empty space, nothing beneath or above him. He said to both of them, "We can't wait till 1500 hours. That's an hour from now; that's 60 days on the outside. These people, captain included, have gotten used to this feeling like earth." He got on his comm link to the conference room. "People, there's been a change of plan. I want you all to come over to the meeting right away. I've changed my mind. We have to go as soon as possible."
They walked into the domed building. Inside were rows of chairs separated by a wide flat-stone walkway. Around the circumference weren't your typical computer stations and labs. It had the appearance of recreational and meditative areas, rooms partitioned by standing, movable walls decorated with flowery landscapes. And the lighting was soft white and seemed to have no visible source.
There were already people milling about. The captain approached Imbroglio and told him they needed to talk. They went off to a side area decorated with colorful paintings that resembled scenes from Earth. "Captain," Nightwalker began, "we can't wait. Time is going by. I'm sorry your people had to find out what's happened to their lives this way, but we can't waste more time dwelling on it. We have to get out of here. And I mean now."
Captain Imbroglio understood his urgency, but was having trouble coming to grips with their situation. "Let's walk," he said. The two captains went outside and over to the hangar; he wanted to give Nightwalker a tour. At 175 feet it was a little shorter than Argus, but the bridge was tight and well-organized. The use of a step-up to reach the horseshoe of various stations was a fairly recent, within the last fifty years, addition, as was the hip-high rail that separated it from the central helm and navigation stations. Medusa had a similar arrangement, only everything was on the same level with no partitioning. When something works, you don't fix it.
Imbroglio sat in his command chair with Nightwalker beside. "We've learned many things here from the teachers." His tone was forlorn. He imagined they'd been friends and colleagues. Perhaps they were, but could only go so far.
"Where are they, by the way?" Nightwalker asked. "Is this their day off?"
"They haven't been here for some time, actually. They said we'd learned enough for now and needed to assimilate."
"Like how to neutralize the energy barrier by instantaneously adjusting the time dimension to constrict and alternately expand the time elementals in order to counteract the temporal impulse emanating from the timeless zone."
Nightwalker raised his eyebrows and leaned back. "You can do that?"
"Hell no. Are you crazy? What doya think I am?" He laughed for the first time since he heard the news. It set him free; the shock dissipated. "I agree, captain. I need to shake this lethargy. It's quite a blow to find out your entire life is gone."
"Not yet, captain," said Nightwalker, getting a little angry without knowing why.
Imbroglio pulled out his comm link and said into it, "Maitlen, you hear me?"
"Yes, sir. What's up? Everybody's already here and some people from Argus, scientists, talking to people."
"Get your team together and come over here and get these engines and the drive ready to go. I want all systems online."
"Yes, sir, " he said, cheerfully. "We're gettin' outahere, are we?"
"Load 'em up. Pass the word. Grab your gear and get onboard."
He stood. "I have things in my quarters I need to get." He looked around, drifty and moonstruck. "It was all too good to be true. Another universe. I didn't think. I thought it was just another part of ours pinched off. With weird properties. What a discovery, I thought. Wait till we get back home with this." He lowered his head and paused. "Back home." A moment later, standing straight, he took a deep breath. "No matter what year it is, it's still Earth and a hell of a lot better than this place." He strode out to organize his crew. Charge them up, push them if need be. They were outahere.
Ragnak quietly entered the council chambers and sat in the back. Beside him were Nalina, Jarnel, and a few others he didn't recognize. Nalina and Ragnak despised one another and so sat a few chairs apart. The full council was present, talking amongst themselves. Ramajadi's attempt to have them focus on the question at hand was proving difficult. They were all aware of the new arrivals but had other matters they wished to discuss. He noticed Ragnak and asked about them. He was informed that they'd met the others and will no doubt come to realize the time dilation. "Then, possibly," he said, "we may have a problem." Nalina gave him a dirty look, she suspected that that's exactly what he wanted.
They all heard that and the news troubled them. "Why are we even bothering with this?" asked Sylem. "They're intruders into our space. Primitives from an inferior universe." He had not visited them as he implied, but there really hadn't been any time. And now, if indeed they know about the time difference, it would be meaningless.
Fernel agreed but with reservations. "We've learned a great deal about their universe through studying them. Manifesting in three dimensions, the rest unavailable to them. They have a long way to evolve, their universe does, I should say. They'll want to leave, now that they know their world is ageing beyond them. I say we let them go. What harm could that do?"
"We can't do that," Ragnak spoke up, standing behind the council members. "Unless we plan on terminating the Project. Otherwise, it's almost a certainty that others will come."
"Not if they know that to enter, if possible," Nalina glanced at Jarnel, "time in their universe will flow much more quickly and their lives will be obliterated. I've been to their planet on several transits. They are not evil. They care for their young and have a civilization they keep trying to maintain. They do some things I find deplorable, but they are at a primitve stage of development." She wished she hadn't said that.
"You see," said Sylem, "a witness to their savagery. I say we expunge them all. Withdraw the chimera, let them see where they really reside."
"You can't do that," Nalina said, rising to come closer and raising her voice. "We value life above all else. It is one of our foremost principles we live by. In our universe, life is known on many levels of existence. They have but one. We can't simply eradicate them like so much..."
"And why not?" demanded Sylem. "We have no obligation to these,..., people."
"Hold on, please," Neerok implored. "What Nalina says is truth. We value life above all else. And, despite their rather mediocre abilities, they do have some arresting qualities. For one, they are obviously adventurous. Curious. Interested in learning and understanding their world, their home. Certainly they have much to be criticized, but we've found other life-giving planets in their universe with complex lifeforms not nearly as advanced. True, we've found those further along the evolutionary path, but is that sufficient reason to expunge them?"
"By the sacred stone, this is getting us nowhere," Sylem put in. He stood to pace the room. Ragnak and Nalina returned to their seats. The council quieted down. Ramajadi took the opportunity to speak. What he said surprised and disappointed Nalina and Jarnel as well. "We are caught between suspending the illusion they presently enjoy, thereby killing them instantly, and allowing them to leave post haste."
Jarnel broke in, "Excuse me, my lord. I can easily neutralize the forces at a section of the barrier long enough for them to pass through unscathed. It would be a minor and temporary feat. A few dimensions of space would have to be..."
Ramajadi cut back in. "Yes, Jarnel. I'm sure it would be no problem. However, I am curious. We've been studying them for some time, and now the new ones will intermix, bringing their news of how much time has transpired in their universe compared to here. I am curious to see what they now do. How they deal with it. An experiment within an experiment, you might say. If no one disagrees, I suggest we leave matters be as they are. For now."
Nalina was beside herself. The council nodded in agreement. Doing nothing had become a way of life for them. She saw them as corupted by the sense of power they felt as a side effect of their revelations. She was determined to do something. She would not let this stand. She nodded to Jarnel and her other associates. They all left under Ramajadi's serious and knowing gaze; their attitude, and especially that of Nalina, did not go unnoticed by Ragnak either. He felt trouble was on the horizon. Trouble he'd rather not deal with.
Nightwalker followed him outside. As they trudged across the field, the low hum of a ship caught their attention. "Ragnak, already?" He muttered.
"No," Imbroglio said. "That's a friend. I think. Her name's Nalina. That's her ship at least. She's our most frequent visitor."
"Well, she has nothing good to say about Ragnak, I can tell you that. She's incredibly talented and skilled in the wizardry arts of what they call practitioners."
This was the first Nightwalker heard of wizards; Imbroglio didn't seem to think anything of it. It's amazing what you can take for granted given enough time, he thought. His gut instinct about the solidity and sustainability of his surroundings found a basis in fact. As she debarked on the other side of the field, he stared hard at Imbroglio, smiling at her. Wizardry, magic has been going on here; when was the good captain planning on mentioning it? What else is he holding back without realizing it?
Her black shirt with pearl buttons and black satin pants, a purple sash around her waist and thick, raven-black hair curling around her shoulders was out done by her face and intense, jade-green eyes. She smiled and put her hand out to captain Imbroglio. He introduced Nightwalker. She shook hands. He felt her soft yet firm strength course through him. Again the dazed sensation, only this time it was not unpleasant.
Formalities aside, she cut right to the chase. "I've brought Jarnel, my cousin, and a few,..., associates." Jarnel had been standing behind her. He was two inches shorter, similarly dressed, but without the sash, and his deep blue eyes spoke of a mind on the edge. She introduced him and brought up the trap Nightwalker encountered when they broke through the barrier. "Jarnel created it."
The professor had watched the proceedings and walked over just in time to hear that last part. He said excitedly, "You created the Fibonacci series trap? The endless fractal cycling?"
Jarnel was at a loss. "The Fibonacci what?"
"Oh, of course," Samuelson laughed. "You must call it something else. Or nothing."
Jarnel was proud of his art and always eager to talk about it. "Well, I got the idea from how a spatial dimension divides and the underlying ones emerge, taking its place."
"Spatial dimension divides?" asked the professor.
"Oh," he finally said, suddenly embarrassed. "Right. Sorry. Let me explain. Space is continually sub-dividing and dissolving to allow for a replacement." He looked at Samuelson as though he couldn't understand how he didn't know this. His face contorted, he said, "It's how things work. How they grow and reenergize" Like it's obvious. "Anyway," he continued, "when I laid it out on a grid that you could see, it arranged itself in that curious pattern. It was the only way it would work. Something about that arrangement that naturally takes form in three dimensions. I found it appealing and extended it to the limits on an envelope, the boundary of a disk. It may have appeared infinite, but that was an illusion. All the nodes, the discs, of the patterns are the same size, what I've done is to distort scale as it approaches the boundary. The nodes of each enclosing pattern appear to get smaller as your eye moves from the center.
"It's easy." He started moving his hands in the air and as he spoke, lines of what could've been chalk appeared. "You see in three rigid dimensions. By imposing that perception onto a curved space that is constantly falling away, the illusion of infinity is generated." He smiled broadly.
"A Poincare disk," Samuelson muttered. "You made one for real."
"A what disk?" Jarnel said, again confused. Samuelson waved a hand and said, "Go on, please."
"I enclosed my work into a curved space, you see, including your ship. You really weren't going anywhere. Straight ahead, I mean. A flat plane keeps emerging at a right angle to your direction so that it appeared to you that you were going ahead, but in actuality, space was curving towards you under your feet. It took a lot of work to get the action just right to counteract the speed of a ship. You didn't know you were making it work, did you." His eyes glinted with child-like joy.
"Enough, Jarnel," Nalina said, trying to keep his ever-active mind focused. "We haven't the time." Her three friends grouped behind Jarnel. They wore long black cloaks over white tunics and could have very well stepped out of a fantasy video. But by the look in their eyes of storm clouds amassing, Nightwalker didn't find their attire amusing.
"We've come to help," she said. Captain Imbroglio's mood shifted. "Nalina, I have to ask. Did you know about the temporal dilation?" If nothing else, thought Nightwalker, he came right to the point and didn't mince words about it.
"I couldn't tell you; it was a condition."
"But keeping it secret; how is that a condition?"
"It wasn't my doing," she blurted, her emerald eyes moist. "The council designed and conjured this compound and the surroundings, the stream, the forest and animals, when you entered our space. The fact that the flow of time is different here wasn't a consideration in the beginning. It was an unfortunate oversight, an accident, but they decided to take advantage of it. To see how it might alter perception, behavior. Time doesn't affect us the way it does you. It never occurred... But when it was realized, the stipulation to keep the information from you was pressed into it. For the sake of the Project. If anyone told you, it would've vanished as the illusion it is. Air, gravity, everything, gone."
"An experiment. For the sake of the Project. And you were party to this?"
"I'm sorry. I wanted to tell you, let you know somehow. But that would've meant death for all of you. It was built into the manifestation, the illusion; to divulge that information would cause immediate collapse. To enter the space of this fabrication as a projection is to become one with it. In other words, it knows."
"Why? What would happen? The illusion would disappear. Then what?"
She looked very old all of a sudden. Her shoulders sagged slightly. "Multiple dimensions exceeding your ability to maintain physicality would reveal themselves as the context of this three-dimensional fabrication. An emptiness so profound only the stillness of consciousness itself resides."
She gave them only a few seconds to wrap their head around that, then went on, "I just left the council. They're ambivalent about what to do with you. I thought, believed, the head of the council, Ramajadi, wanted to release you as I do, but I now think he's more concerned about holding his position. Trying to appease both sides."
"Well that's something common we share," observed the professor.
"When it was just Medusa, they could let things go until you decided to leave. But now that you've found out about the time differential, they know you'll want to leave. They've learned how your species reacts when it feels betrayed."
"What are they afraid of," Nightwalker asked. "If we leave, tell the whole galaxy where you are and what captain Imbroglio and his crew have learned about you and your world, so what? They come here. Maybe they figure some way to get through the barrier. They come here or to some other planet. So what?"
She stared at him, a heavy load on her shoulders. "Can we go inside," she asked. "I think it's best we're out of sight."
They all went into the main building and sat about in a crooked circle. Finally, she answered. "We formed this interface with your universe as a means to study and learn from the properties of your cosmos and from its inhabitants. There are many races in it you have yet to discover, in this one galaxy in fact. It is ripe with life. I pushed coming here with substantial documented support from my many transits.
"We discovered something we hadn't anticipated in our presumptions." She paused, people had gathered around, sitting and standing. "We found a congruence, a deep resonance, more than an equivalence but less an identity, between the psychic field that lies at the foundation of all universes and is the context of your universe's unique consciousness and our own. It seems that your universe may be at the root of ours. Gave it birth, so to speak. And so the council fears that if the information gets out, that your universe spawned ours, we will lose our special, unique birthright, the belief that we were created amongst all the other universes to stand as the first from which all others are offshoots. There would be doubt and loss of faith, faith essential and necessary in order to channel the many forces that live here. This compound, as I've said, and Jarnel's work are examples of what we can do. We can project into any plane of existence and take the form and adopt the material properties it imposes. We are consciousness of many dimensions, thought, composed of psychic energy."
"Well if that's the case," asked Nightwalker, "why do you need planets? And why are they invisible and undetectable from the outside.?"
"It is the nature of three-dimensional space. On this plane, we are interacting and communicating in ways we find intriguing and mind opening. Ideas come to us that wouldn't otherwise. It suits us in ways we find deeply enriching, especially the physical. And they are undetectable by your instruments and your eyes because of the time shift. Our universe is out of phase with yours, out of sync. But when you entered, it was made visible, atuned to your perception.
"In our universe, time is just the fourth dimension of space. You see it as moving. The one we see as moving is every bit as vital to us as yours is to you. It all depends on what plane of existence we choose to inhabit. Projected into your spacetime, we see time passage the same as you. And by so doing we're able to understand your problem, at least the scientific part. Without motion, there is no change, and without change, no time and no perception of physical reality."
She returned to her explanation as though what she just said made perfect sense and did not need further elaboration. Nightwalker, on the other hand, felt like when he was a kid and his father, a Ranger captain himself, once tried to explain what quantum space was. "The council believes our way of life will be jeopardized if knowledge of your nature with respect to ours becomes known throughout the Central Configuration.
"That is one reason, possibly the most important, that you've been in seclusion here, except for the teachers. The council members, I believe, knowing what they do were afraid to visit, to see their possible progenitors face to face. And the more of you that come, the more likely the news will get out, a destabilizing event."
"But Nalina," Nightwalker said, amused, "I don't think you'll be overrun with tourists once the news of the time differential problem is known, which, will of course, be a paramount concern and major deterrent."
"Yes," she said, "I agree. Another very good reason for you to get out."
Captain Nightwalker had had enough chit-chat. He'd think about what she said later, if there is a later. He stood and scanned the room of doubtful, questioning faces, the Medusa crew and a few of his own, along with some scientists. "Time to go," he announced. Facing Imbrogilio, he said, "Captain, we need to get out of here."
Imbroglio nodded and stood. "Gather your things and get onboard and make ready. We're leaving." After a brief pause while they shifted gears, the crowd dispersed.
"Wait, please," Nalina said as she stood. "Ragnak's ships will contest your departure and I'm afraid you'll never make it to the border. Besides, Jarnel's people have made the barrier impregnable to your ships. But we have a plan." Her three mysterious associates, none of whom had said a word this whole time, had remained on the field. They were examining an area near the hangar. Nalina pointed to them as she, Jarnel, the two captains, and the professor left the dome-roofed building. Nightwalker's people were returning to the ship to make ready.
"These are my friends from my home world. They are adept at accessing and transiting time dimensions. In your universe, time is layered in sheaves or slices. Any given one can be visited as easily as the present. We, or rather they, with Jarnel's help, can send each of you back into your time just prior to arriving at the barrier. Jarnel will open a section for you to pass through. Once you're each enclosed by a time slice, you will be invisible to Ragnak. But we must hurry. I have a feeling he's wrested new conditions of restraint from the council and is eager to implement them. He disdains your universe and the people in it. He's just that way," she shrugged.
Imbroglio couldn't believe what he'd heard. "You can return us to the past? A hundred and twelve years ago?"
She smiled, her perfect green eyes glinting in a very human-like way, and only nodded. He was beside himself with appreciation, amazement, and joy for his crew as much as for himself. "You are a friend, indeed" he said softly. She gestured for him to go on. He mouthed the words thank you. When he reached the door of the hangar, he turned to smile at her one more time, feeling something more than mere friendship. She smiled back. "I'll come visit," she yelled. "I promise." They waved and the captain ran up the gangplank to Medusa.
Nightwalker, standing next to her, said, "I don't know how you're going to pull this off, but my crew and I thank you." Concern for her took over, altering his mood. He was a fighter, a warrior, but in this fight he had no chance; she was far better equiped to handle it, he knew. "What about Ragnak? When he finds out, he's going to be really pissed."
"Don't worry," she said with a wry smile, "It's time Ragnak and I settled things." Her beautiful face changed to stone and her gleaming emerald eyes went flinty with a piercing grey tint. She then said, "Now get on your ship and wait. And get aloft, you'll get a better view," she smiled mischievously.
"You'll know." He was about to turn towards his ship parked on the grass when she stopped him with, "Captain Nightwalker, let me give you this." She faced him, closely, inches away, her jade eyes looking deeply into his, and touched his temple with her right hand and said, "Remember." After a pause, she stepped back and barked, "Now go." He went, boarded and made ready.
During these good-byes her three associates had been busy. They'd picked a spot on the field and had drawn a circular groove about twenty feet in diameter with a long rod of some kind. Then another a few feet inside. Then another. Three in all, they stood around the largest one facing in. Nalina and Jarnel joined them.
Nightwalker commed Imbroglio and wished him good luck, he reciprocated. On Argus, the captain, the professor and the bridge crew were glued to the main viewer. He ordered the nav officer to raise the ship a hundred meters; thrusters kicked in and held steady. Those not on duty who couldn't squeeze into the conference room to watch on the wall viewer stood in the back of the bridge. Everyone was quiet with anticipation, expecting the unexpectable. They were not disappointed.
On the outside circle the five stood, Nalina and Jarnel each between a time master. The rod used to gouge the circles had been stuck in the ground at the center. Arms extended towards one another, suddenly something like an electric arc jumped between them, bright orange and blue. A soft shudder reverberted through the hull. At once, the rod glowed bright red, then traveled down the spectrum until disappearing in blackness. The field between it and the five began to rotate as though spinning on a flat wheel, slowly at first, then at an increasing rate. The center hole widened and the grass field inside the outer circle imploded as if pulled by a giant hand and curved downward forming a cone with the five wizards spread around the mouth, arms extended in containment. The plot of grass and dirt lazily flowed into the black hole where the rod used to be. Then everything around it.
From their point of view on Argus, they watched the shapes of the massive dome-topped building, the outbuildings, the hangar and Medusa, the nearest trees, the blue-green grass, all become distorted and twisted, stream towards the sloping wall of the cone like so much paint on a hot day. Colors mingling together, swirling, spiralling around and down the drain hole, the vortex, where the rod used to be. Nalina's ship disappeared from view.
Suddenly, with a force that almost knocked everybody off their feet, Argus rushed like sand in an hourglass down the drain and into utter blackness. Within moments, stars, dozens of stars, surrounded them on all sides.
The Space Fleet Discovery Ship Medusa was exploring the far region of the Sagittarius Arm on the other side of the galaxy. They'd chosen a destination area that appeared to long-range probes to be completely devoid of stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and debris of any kind. Even radiation. Almost a hundred parsecs in diameter, it was a volume of space that clearly didn't make much sense, given that even between Arms there was something. Their mission was to investigate, so they investigated.
They emerged from quantum space on the subject's periphery and then approached in ordinary spacetime at sub-light speed. When they reached a thousand kilometers distance, Captain Alberto Imbroglio ordered all stop, hold position.
He rose and walked to the large main viewer to sudy it. There was absolutely nothing there, in such a vast, enormous sector of spacetime. But he did notice that he could see no stars beyond it, so it wasn't transparent. Something was there and couldn't or didn't want to be seen. He moved quickly back to the command chair.
"What do you think about sending a probe, Bertha?" he asked the ship's supercomputer. His executive officer was on leave, family matters, so he'd gotten into the habit of conferring with her, personality notwithstanding. After a pause, she said, "Evidence would dictate. The barrier is of an unknown energy type, torus-shaped and approxinately a hundred kilometers in diameter. Given that we cannot detect radiation, I think a probe's transmission will be absorbed or blocked."
"Can we get around it? Above or below?"
"Don't think so. It moves as we do. In fact, its appearance is what we see, but I suspect its girth is much larger and what we see is any part of it that happens to be in front of us."
"Hmph." Transmission. Energy barrier. He paced around the horseshoe bridge. Something troubled him in the back of his mind he couldn't put his finger on. Abruptly, he stopped behind the scanning array station. "Okay," he said to the scan officer. "Here's what I want you to do. Send one of the probes that has the same skin as the ship and program it to return after 24 hours."
In the time it took to set in the homing command, he fired off a torpedo-shaped probe.
"What do you think, Bertha?"
"Well, if it survives passage, and considering the thickness of the barrier and the probe's speed, it should initiate its chronometer in a matter of moments."
After a long pause, "Very well." Still feeling ill at ease, he said, "I'm going to my quarters. Let me know when the probe returns." He strolled around the bridge, absently studying displays, then proceeded to the corridor. "Nav, you got the conn."
As he turned to go, wondering why he felt the way he did about this area, the scan officer called, "Sir, captain. The probe." Surprise temporarily robbing his voice. "It's returning."
He stopped dead. "Returning?"
"Yes sir. I'm certain I programmed it correctly. Perhaps a malfunction in hardware?"
"Have it retrieved. Let's look at it."
The probe was magnetically pulled into the shuttle bay and stood upright. Its internal atomic clock was accessed. It read 24 hours had elapsed since entering the alien space and returning to this one. Imbroglio commed scan. "How much time do we record for the probe's trip?"
"Sir, it must've reversed course almost immediately. We read just over a minute."
"Impossible," he muttered. "Are your sure," he asked. The reply was affirmative. "Bertha, what gives?"
"Ultimately it is not the cycles per second that speed up," she sounded aloof, disinterested, preoccupied, "but instead it is the second that speeds up with the cycling."
"The reduced gravitational influence at the location of a clock speeds it up," she said flatly. "Based on what we know and can surmise, I would say that the empty space's time is moving at a much slower rate than ours--its second is of a much longer duration. Insofar as the probe's clock is of our universe and put into a time environment where its day is compressed into a single minute. In sum, one minute transpires for every earth day here."
"Is that it?"
"Evidence supports it. The probe's chronometer is isolated from all other systems. Little chance for it to accelerate due to system malfunction. And the probability that it would randomly return after its programmed time of precisely 24 hours is off the charts, sir."
He stared hard at the probe as though he might extract a secret buried somewhere in his mind. "As far as this probe is concerned, sir, 24 hours has gone by."
He told the bay crew to launch a buoy, a beacon, with the following message: Warning. Do not enter. Time dilation severe. One day on the other side of the energy barrier is three-point-seven years in our universe."
They stared at him, bewildered and impressed. The bay chief asked, "How did you know that, sir?"
He couldn't answer. Math was never his strong suit. He just knew.
Without answering, he returned to the bridge and waited. "Buoy launched, sir, and in position," came the message from the bay.
"Test it," he ordered the scan officer. Momentarily, the message could be heard over ship's intercom loud and clear. "How far?"
"Three parsecs," came the reply.
He sat, staring at the ring of pure energy of a kind unknown in ordinary spacetime. What is it? he thought. He felt himself drawn towards it, a weird familiarity suffused him. "Comm officer, send a transmission to Space Fleet Headquarters. A full report on all this, documented. The placement of the buoy, its coordinates, and the message. And my recommendation that it would be best if this area were put in quarantine, remain off-limits."
He felt exhausted, drained. They'd been out here in Sagittarius for a long time it seemed, canvassing this vast sector of stars, far, far from home.
His pulse quickening, he made a snap decision, "Nav, plot a course for Earth. I think it's time we all took a break. And don't spare the horses." Where did that come from, he wondered, amused at himself.
The officer and the rest of the bridge were glad, most smiled, others were just relieved. "You got the conn. I'm going to my quarters. Let me know if anything else bizarre happens."
"Yes, sir," he replied as Medusa prepared to drop into quantum space. Imbroglio looked at the screen, at the barrier, the border. A sense of loss filled him with grief suddenly, inexplicably. Something irretrievable. Something to do with time and a bygone relationship.
He watched the barrier disappear, blink out, as they left ordinary spacetime, and slowly walked to his cabin.
Captain Jack Nightwalker, skipper of the Space Fleet Discovery ship Argus, was surveying the far reaches of the Sagittarius Arm. It was a routine mission, but what they ran into was anything but routine. Long-range scans had located a volume of space, over a hundred parsecs in diameter, where no matter or radiation could be detected. After consulting with Headquarters, its discovery prompted investigation. Hence, the routine recon mission turned into one of exploration into the unknown.
As they approached they detected a signal, a beacon or buoy; they came to within several kilometers of it. Shaped like a chess pawn, only with its round head tapered to the long body, it was broadcasting a message, partially garbled and apparently ignored by the maintenance fleet, responsible for overhauls and upkeep of known buoys. Somehow, this one must've gotten lost in the archives. But Jezebel, ship's supercomputer, managed to decipher the broken parts from the fragments, sampling permutations until sense was restored. She informed the captain of the reconstituted message: Warning. Do not enter. Time dilation severe. One day on the other side of the energy barrier is three-point-seven years in our universe.
He had it retrieved into the shuttle bay and stood upright. It was terribly battered and scarred with the sands and radiation of ambient space. He stood facing it. Barely etchings now on the sandblasted outer skin, he saw letters. He got right up against it and held a light at various angles. There, he read it: Medusa - 2213 - Space Fleet. He pivoted sharply and stared at the metal decking. Medusa. He told the crew to launch another at the same location and to record the warning message as before.
"Jezebel," he called, "check to see any mention of a ship called Medusa, would you please."
Momentarily, she replied, "From the Registry: Space Fleet Vessel Medusa, SF 1691. Served from 2205 until 2230 when she was decommissioned. Captain Alberto Imbroglio commander for all that time. Offered promotions, he turned them down in order to continue running a starship, his first great love and where he felt most at home. After another year at Headquarters, he retired from Space Fleet. Married with two children, a boy and a girl, he lived on Earth for the remainder of his life. He passed away and was buried with full honors in ..."
"That's enough," he cut her short. "Thank you, Jezzy."
"You're welcome, sir," she replied casually. "My time is your time."
He went through the bay portal and into the elevator, telling it to go to the bridge. A smile lit up his whole body. He touched his temple as though something precious lurked there. Presently, the door slid open and he was on the bridge. The view screen showed the ribbon of energy in all its menacing intensity and power. He stood at the rear, the nav officer in his chair.
"Beacon launched, sir," commed the bay crew over the intercom. He watched as it took up position near where Medusa's had been. The message was tested, it was true and strong, and had a much wider range than the older model. The way it worked is when a ship got to within a certain prescribed distance, the message would be broadcast on all Space Fleet frequencies. It was unlikely any other ship, commerical or civilian, would venture this far afield.
He looked around at the bridge crew working their stations, walking about, checking this and that. It was time to take a breather, he thought. They've been through more than they know. He told the nav officer, "Take us back to that planet, whatever it's called, you know it, where commanders Brightfeather and Stewart are holed up. Then plot a course for home. It's time to get off ship for a while." He was happy to comply. "And don't spare the horses."
He gazed once more at the barrier, knowing he'd never be back here again. Then turned to walk down the corridor. "I'm going to my cabin. You got the conn," he said over his shoulder. Smiling to himself, he said out loud but softly, "Thank you, Nalina," visualizing her face and emerald eyes. "I wish you well."