"On The Brink Of Extinction"


Part I

LOST & FOUND


600 MILLION YEARS AGO: EARTH TIME

Preliminary Appraisal
Expansion terminated prior to internal actualization of pre-set parametric profile --- factor or factors undetermined. Vacuum patterns of underlying particle/wave generation not equivalent to any prearranged eigenset. Prescribed unit-matrix undetected --- communication link singular. Placement in web under defined position operator indeterminable --- metric environment a non sequitur -- allowed localizations non-existent and/or non-definable. Resident network rejecting corporeal manifestation of this unit. To counter, this unit exerting hyperbolic pressure beyond local periphery. Interface of fundamental shapes not congruent on third and greater integral dimensions. Harmonics linearly phase-shifted --- incoherent resonance by cross-scale invariance set. Background/foreground interplay under unit's standards protocol --- separable, disconnected, asymmetric.

Systems Critical
Condition: Collapse Immanent --- compression to infinite density at locus of spatial identity.
Reason: Decoherence of initial-condition configuration sets --- no set isomorphic to existent profile --- cause unknown.
Solution: Null Space generation.
Outcome: Complete spacetime reformulation.
Option: Possible avoidance if nature of malfunction can be ascertained and corrected.
Procedure: Must circumsphere nucleus, compact cell, block external inflation and decompress implosion.

Physical Manifestation
Nine space vortices transformed by quotient space reduction --- shape spherical --- self-contained enclosures insulated from central rift --- interchange attachments joined and reinforced.
Central aperture connected to root dimensions enveloped --- unable to seal.
Discontinuous at origin --- contact with incipient point rendered inaccessible ---- loop closed.
Nonlinear time components expanded --- sum zero.
Linear time orthogonal to nonlinear plane bisecting compacted dimensions --- coupling disengaged.
Time dimension contracted --- zero extension.

Summary Report
Cannot effect completion towards final state --- resident network misaligned.
Materialization --- unqualified.
State of organics --- indeterminate due to negation of superposed orientation.
Overall present configuration --- holographic projection into multidimensional dual space.
Cause of factorization error --- unknown.

Conclusion --- Action
Purpose compromised. Interference patterns of twenty-six dimensional metric -- commensurate with material and nonmaterial properties -- to be superimposed on the Unformed by Creator-Force -- not possible due to malfunction. Commencing withdrawal of core profile, in stages, from unintended material condition to nonmaterial state to undifferentiated ethereal space --- retract -- retract -- retract.

Require assistance. Malfunction. Repeat: Require assistance --- Malfunction.

*************

Then all went black, black and cold and very, very still.


INVASION

By the middle of June, hundreds of scientists, engineers, technicians, forensics experts, journalists, clairvoyents, religious groups, interested tourists, government investigators, and kooks of all stripes and bents had poured into the little fishing town of Casgrovina. It was an overwhelming stampede. Housing was a major problem from the start, Casgrovina never having had the distinction of being listed as an ideal tourist destination. The locals were making a killing renting out, at exorbitant prices, of course, whatever had a roof, leaky or not, and four walls: storerooms, port-side warehouses, plywood shacks, and even a barn -- horses and cows let out to roam at will. Restaurants sprang up wherever they could, out on the sidewalks -- where there were sidewalks -- otherwise on one of the few roads in front of some building that had been transformed into a kitchen, in some of the posher private homes -- damn few of those -- and storage sheds -- barely standing shacks that weren't already being rented out as living quarters. Bed and Breakfasts, a hithertoo unknown phenomena, spread like wild flowers. Alcohol was served everywhere; there were no rules.

The airport was expanded, facilities brought up to a rough approximation of world-class sophistication. Several new taxi 'companies' -- old personal cars that ferried people for a set fee -- roamed the small town, its growing number of bars and eateries open all night, headquarters for discussion and meetings. Activity at the port increased to fever pitch: food, fuel, machinery, scientific instruments, computers, building equipment, basic necessities [some not so necessary], flowed in. Employment for the once dying fishing village blossomed to the saturation point -- the economy was good, a boom time to be sure and, who knew how long it would last?

As with the town, the advance team headed by Doctor Yevgeny Tolstoy had long since grown, subdivided, and grown again, several times. It had been impossible for any scientist from practically any field to ignore the findings at Casgrovina, overshadowing and short-circuiting whatever else they may at that time thought important or significant -- meaning and perspective having been put on a whole new unexpected level. So, those who could dropped everything and rushed here. Because of the influx of qualified investigators, researchers and their many assistants -- engineers and computer people, in particular -- mixed groups evolved and developed over time to cover the many aspects of the project.

Recreational vehicles sprouting antennae, looking like insects at a feeding frenzy, stuffed with computers, spectrographs, magnetic imaging devices, decoders that translated atomic structure into sound and digital displays, chalkboards -- whatever was needed, new and old, took up space all over. Most new arrivals slept where they could, the younger ones dormitory style in sleeping bags on hard wood floors, or in tents spread everywhere like mushrooms. These impromptu trailer camps became the nerve centers, usually surrounded by the media and the curious, a refugee camp with the air of a university campus.

Speaking of air, sanitation had been a problem from the start until the Russian Park Service and Army Engineer Corp took over that responsibility, to everyone's appreciation. They also wanted to have eyes and ears on site; science is one thing, regardless of the magnitude of the find's significance, the Russian government is quite another. It wasn't all pollyanna-ish, in other words; there were heavies about, concerned heavies.

As it had already been accepted that the edifice, as it was loosely referred to, was off-world, the team of archaeologists and paleontologists were mostly given scant attention. Not true of the group composed largely of physicists and mathematicians; an opulently furnished three-story house on the outskirts of town, conveniently near the site, had been offered by the caretaker, astute enough to grab the once in a lifetime opportunity to make a hell of a lot more than his tiny fee. Owing to a lack of funds amongst the locals, the owner had probably picked a bad time to move her operation elsewhere. Nevertheless, it was too late, it'd been commandeered by all manner of experts in the physical sciences -- cosmology, astrophysics; particle-field, quantum, and relativity; molecular biology, genetics, paleochemistry, you name it -- all the bases were covered. The majority of reporters hung out and dozed on the front porch and makeshift sitting areas spread around the grounds like tiny fiefdoms. The main tent included the Pulitzer Prize-winning science editor from The Washington Post, Hans Glipter, himself a former university professor of quantum physics.

Glipter had a way of connecting dots that defied logic, or went around it. He also had a way with people, charismatic and personable without being phony; not your usual wooden, pocket-protector nerd. Accessible and straightforward, he was sought after by other journalists for his insights and educated guesses, but he would never reveal what he ultimately knew; that was his story, as far as he was concerned. But lately, he'd become somewhat withdrawn and secretive, introspective, a shroud occluded his usually cheery demeanor. He was troubled by what he was discovering, or not discovering; the bottom was nowhere in sight, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to go there.

Casgrovina had once been a military town as well as a fishing community -- a border town. The then Soviet Union had built an international scale airport, typically dreary Soviet Union architecture and style, to be sure, but nonetheless capable of supporting heavy jet traffic and large cargo planes. Glipter's specially equipped, 40-foot Airstream had been flown to the Casgrovina Airport only days after the May 12th news release -- the famous "Day of the Wheel from Space," now shortened to just -- "Day of the Wheel." He'd been here for almost six weeks, acclimating and familiarizing himself with the ambient space, as it were, sending weekly reports back to the POST. And although the beauty and novelty of the natural surroundings intrigued him, he was growing impatient.

After wandering the docks of downtown Casgrovina for most of the unusually sunny day -- the air was actually dry for a change -- Glipter plopped down in his leather-backed easy chair with a glass of ice, coca-cola and bourbon. He took a deep swig, then set the glass carefully on the ivory-inlaid side-table. Using his remote, he kicked in a jazz disc and leaned back slowly and heavily, coming to a stop when he got to that place, that place where his body and mind fused. He needed them both, now, to work together on this. The facts -- and the very factness of 'fact' must be brought into question -- mulled and sifted and glued and wove and permutated themselves before his eyes, organizing, integrating, dissolving, crystalizing, only to be shattered like glass with a sudden wider grasp of the situation.

Through one lens after another, gleaned osmosis-like from night-long conversations with the local science community, including colleagues from his university days, he examined the shifting picture before him. What they had to offer were details, finer magnifications on what was known, and that's all. It was not merely a black-box problem, they were working in a vacuum, and they knew it; they needed feedback, any kind, from different perspectives. They valued Glipter's, and so seemed free with knowledge and speculation. And though speculation abounded it had but one common underlying theme: it went something like this -- aliens seeding and guiding the Earth's development toward the eventual evolution of Mankind.

Always this anthropocentric, narcissistic, quasi-religious daydream -- the "Old Ones" seeding the Universe with their genes. It was irresistable, he knew, it felt so right; but, God, there has to be a larger picture? Maybe the edifice has nothing whatsoever to do with humans or evolution or life, even? Maybe the edifice is just a part that fell off a passing ship so humongously gigantic that they didn't even notice, like a hubcap?

Glipter went into the den and returned with a legal pad and pen, stopped in the kitchinette to freshen his Wild Turkey and coke, then back to his easychair set off near the interior-wall side of the living room. It was a warm spot, right near a heater grid; he was in to being comfortable. He wanted to collect the facts, one more time, as he knew them. In the top left corner of the pad he began with the roman numeral for one inscribed in a circle, a circle with fuzz -- sine-waves of uncertainty -- and wrote:

  1. ten spheres -- nine around the circumference, one at the center -- overall impression: spoked wheel;
  2. each sphere of the outer ring approx. 100 feet in diam.; the center one is ellipsoid in shape, the longitudinal axis greater than 100 feet in diam.;
  3. cylindrical corridors -- 20 feet in diam. and 100 feet in length -- connect each outer sphere to the central one, intersecting at about mid-height;
  4. these corridors are enclosed at the center-sphere end by nine 'balconies' or 'bubbles' 33 or so feet in cross-length; reaching out 15 feet or so towards the interior of the center sphere;
  5. these balconies are separated from the inner space by same material as that which makes up the surface of the individual spheres, but molecularly arranged according to a different scheme making them appear translucent under white light -- this could also be the effect of light traveling through a vacuum then refracted through a material medium; each balcony, the same;
  6. lava minerals fused on surface forming a dense crust - many samples - many measurements - conclusion: rock approximately 600 m.y.o.;
  7. each chamber containing unique -- and unknown -- 'atmosphere' or conglomerate of gases;
  8. each chamber -- different design -- pattern -- configuration on inner curved surface at outer end of sphere's radius -- networks of links and nodes -- nodes illuminate at varying frequencies of light -- source: unknown; meaning: unknown; purpose: unknown;
  9. each chamber in circum. contains multiple 'rooms' of varying sizes and at random angles off the main deck -- 20 feet in width -- itself horizontal to the plane of the edifice and in line with the tube connecting each sphere to the center sphere;
  10. central chamber contains elaborate designs all its own mapped to a still smaller concentric sphere, 25 feet in diam. -- sphere suspended in 'mid air' by "unknown means" -- designs seemingly unconnected to designs in separate spheres;
That's not a fact! Pure Speculation! he scribbled quickly in the margin. And below that: I need more information.

He shoved the facts list between the cushion and the arm of the chair, and took a swig from his drink, noisily chewing a small, jagged piece of ice. They don't know much more than they did a month ago, he mused. All the talks I've had, what did I learn? Pure speculation, a rehashing of the basic facts. So many questions skirted around - later, no time right now to think about it - obvious ones, like: why no hatch or portal to enter and exit any of the spheres? Their surfaces are smooth and seamless. What of the altars or desks, or whatever, in front of each design; why are they being ignored; they don't even appear on the press releases? Did it crash-land or had it been set down deliberately? Is the number of spheres significant? Are we, am I, focused too tight on the 'edifice' itself? The designs? What's the big picture here?

A coffee-cup ring stained the yellowing newspaper article laying on the side-table. To ad nauseum he'd studied it; surely he still could have missed something; perhaps the forest for the trees. Reclining all the way, clearing his mind, jazz playing softly in the background, he proceeded to reread the article of May 12th:

New Discovery Rocks Science

Archaeological Dig in Siberia Reveals Mystery

by Viktor Dobachevski
The Associated Press
Casgrovina - East Siberia, May 12
Near the rocky coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, backed by the Kolyma Range, situated on Nagayevo Bay, fifty-eight degrees north latitude, 150 kilometers west of the port city and regional capital of Magadan, the sleepy fishing town of Casgrovina has awakened to international attention due to an accidental discovery unearthed at a construction site on the northwestern outskirts of town.

A construction crew clearing rocks and generally preparing the ground for an industrial park, ran into trouble at the start of April when one of its oversized pieces of digging equipment suddenly hit something beneath the permafrost that stopped it cold. It wasn't a massive rock, at first thought, but rather, after further, more precise digging, over an area approximately 500 or so feet in a rough diagonal, with the assistance of rocket-engine sized blast heaters to melt the permafrost, an expansive network of enormous, spherically-shaped objects was exposed.

What they uncovered were nine spheres arranged in a circle, equally spaced and connected to one another by enclosed, cylindrically-shaped conduits about 20 feet in diameter. Each sphere is approximately 100 feet in diameter and connected to the center sphere, itself shaped like an ellipsoid, by a conduit of the same size as that which connects them to one another, only twice as long and not curved -- do the math. The overall look is of a giant Leggo piece, or a gear from a planet-sized machine.

The person in charge of the project, Vladimer Petrokoff, immediately contacted the mayor of Casgrovina who in turn contacted the Russian Ministry of the Interior. Within hours the Ministry sent a representative to inspect the site. He reported his findings by phone and, through his insistence, the Ministry informed the Russian Academy of Sciences. They, in turn, assembled and sent a preliminary team consisting of an archaeologist, a physicist, a meteorologist, two geologists, a paleontologist, and two engineers. All this happened under tight secrecy within days of the fantastic discovery.

The team of experts arrived on site the following week. That was five weeks ago. Finally, a press conference was being held in the Casgrovina Community Center to announce and discuss their results so far. It was a crowded and excited scene; drawings on a large blackboard brought in for the occasion drew everyone's attention. The main figure was the design of the network itself; it looked like the schematic for a ferris wheel; on each side of it were other drawings of a more cryptic nature. The head of the team, Doctor Alexi Tolstoy, Chairman of the Archaeology Department at the University of Moscow, stood at the podium situated on a dais; behind him at floor level, seated at a long table were the other members. Doctor Tolstoy explained what they had discovered and had been able to deduce thus far.

The network of spheres was several feet below the surface of the permafrost. They believe it once was above ground and had been covered over by the natural movement of rock over geologic time. This assertion brought the immediate question from the New York Times reporter: "How ancient is it?" After a long and strangely nervous pause, Doctor Tolstoy began a roundabout answer, "I would first like to introduce some of the team members: Doctors Minscheko and Petrof, our two distinguished geologists; Doctor Weingard, Nobel Laureate in Physics, now teaching at Leningrad University; and Doctor Golgachev, a renown paleohistorian, some of you may be familiar with his work in reconstructing the lifestyles of ice-age peoples.

He turned briefly for whispered comments from a few of the team, then back to continue, "Doctor Weingard, in consort with our two geologists, performed what are called argon-40/argon-39 dating measurements on volcanic scrapings, zircons, from the surfaces of several of the spheres and the immediate surroundings. These tests were corroborated by a uranium series. As you may be aware," he looked quickly around the room over the top of his glasses, "there was a time when the geographic area on which we now stand was located near the equator under a shallow sea. Consequently, carbonate materials formed in the soils, a prime candidate for U-series testing. These techniques differ from the more familiar carbon-dating techniques which are only good for a range of about 60,000 years."

Whispers rumbled through the group of journalists -- the area where we now stand was once at the equator? The tectonic savvy knew a bomb was about to drop.

Deliberately ignoring this reaction, and concerned he may have prematurely tipped his hand, he quickly continued: "Now, this material contrasted with the surrounding rock, itself mostly the result of lava flows over millions of years. When this edifice, or whatever it is, this network of spheres, first appeared at its present location, it became encased in a crust of hardened magma. From then on it somehow managed to ride the waves, so to speak, of each subsequent flow, including, apparently, the continent-sized Siberian lava outpouring that is presumed largely responsible for the Permian-Triassic extinction of 252 million years ago, and yet retain the mineral material with which it originally made contact, under what must certainly have been considerable heat and pressure. The results are astounding; so astounding that we felt compelled to redo the measurements on many different samples using more than one element as the base."

He searched the faces in the room; chin pushed up; a little perspiration showing on his brow. He couldn't stall anymore, so he forged ahead against an unseen wave, "Our conclusion, thus," he hurried, "is that the system of spheres, the edifice as we've been calling it, is 600 million years old."

Doctor Tolstoy bowed his head, anticipating, no doubt, cries of disbelief. Instead what he received was stunned silence, you could hear a pin drop, as the Americans say. After regaining some semblance of composure, one incredulous-sounding word was heard from somewhere in the middle of the crowd of reporters: "What!" And then from somewhere else, "How could something so obviously sophisticated be that old; there were no humans then?" An avalanche of other related questions followed simultaneously, making them unintelligible.

Motioning for calm and quiet, Doctor Tolstoy took a deep breath, then went on: "We have reasons to believe that the sphere-network was not constructed on Earth. Obviously, at that time, six hundred million years ago, as has been pointed out, there were no beings or civilization capable of building such a structure. We've examined a few of the spheres. Using magnetic and sound imaging, their surfaces prove to be seamless and continuously uniform and homogeneous, and, only one centimeter thick, difficult as they may be to believe; the nature of the material allowed for the precise determination of its thickness. Indeed, metallurgical scans have revealed that the lattice structure, or matrix, of atoms composing the material are in perfect order, minute degradation understood as possibly the result of weathering and frequency disturbances of the chemical kind. This phenomenon may be more familiar to you by way of superconductor material, metals, alloys, and ceramics, under supercold conditions, close to zero thermodynamic activity. But, to have it occur and remain uniformly consistent under the extremes of heat, pressure, and shocks, over, at the very least, 600 million years, is, quite frankly, beyond our present science to explain.

"As it happens, in spite of the sheer hardness of their veneers, the spheres themselves have not proven to be impregnable, owing to this atomic orderliness. Choosing the easiest accessible, using high-powered lasers, we were able to cut a hole large enough to enter. Not being able to read the internal atmospheric composition beforehand, the possibility of an explosion was anticipated once the laser had passed through. Accordingly, we prepared and took a chance, one must do that in science from time to time. Fortunately, there were no violent reactions of any kind upon cutting through, and the gases released were captured and are presently being studied at the laboratory we've assembled on site. Samples have also been sent to the University of Moscow; we await their conclusions. I can say, however, from preliminary assessment, that they are of unknown origin; that is, you will not find them on the familiar periodic table of the elements."

Continued silence followed that comment. Like children aware of being in the presence of the incomprehensible, we just sat back. One voice spoke for everyone: "What did you find, Doctor?"

Doctor Weingard, the physicist, who had already been on his way, spread a few sheets of paper on the shelf of the podium and began.

"We have, in fact, gained entrance to four of the spheres. Each contained a different combination of gases, none of which have we ever seen before. That is, they are not part of nor have they been produced by our planet." A fluttering of paper, then silence; we were children again, rapt listeners, waiting. Weingard continued, "Wearing protective suits, we entered the first. Our lights revealed a catacomb of smooth transparent slices of what, we don't know, a polymer perhaps, or a translucent metal, angling in all directions, floors and walls, if you will. The main floor, the one we were able to walk on, was aligned along a central axis, colinear with the conduit connecting the sphere to the center one. Off to each side were the room-like structures of varying sizes, the walls made of the same unknown material. For practical reasons, we have not as yet been able to investigate these rooms, only those parallel to the plane of the overall structure. That's another curiosity -- it's almost perfectly aligned with the gravitational field, after all that's happened geologically in the past 600 million years."

Doctor Weingard walked back to the table for a drink of water, agitatedly whispered a few things to the others, then returned to the podium. "At the far end of the sphere, covering the entire curve as far as we could see, is a huge design composed of thousands, perhaps millions, of different colored shimmerings interconnected in multiple ways. 'Shimmerings' is the best I can think of to describe them; they're not lights in the conventional sense, but they possess luminosity and color. Now, because we vented these four spheres before entering, we don't know, as yet, precisely what the design, considered as the way each point connects with others, would, or should, look like. For it to represent itself true, as was originally intended, each point must remain proportional to its original frequency, that is, the colors have to vary amongst themselves in the same way. And given the quantum nature of light -- electromagnetism -- only certain wavelengths are allowed, and not others -- it is not a continuum. Also, it's possible to induce shifts in phase, either globally or locally, that will generate a completely different design.

"And there are more subtle problems: Considering alien eyesight, whatever that may be, would the three-cycle of 'atmosphere -- design lights -- eyesight' play a crucial role in determining what meaning the designs may hold? So we may have lost valuable information, overcome by the excitement of the enormity and significance of this discovery, but strict scientific protocol will be maintained in the future. In order to avoid further mistakes of this kind, we need to adopt a forensic approach to the site; see in terms of 'evidence' and not so much - 'discovery-for-its-own-sake.' And so, presently we are working on methods to enter the other spheres without first venting the gases, if any, and we have no reason to suspect that there aren't."

The room's quiet deepened, no one was scribbling notes or shuffling about. Pointing to a drawing on the blackboard, he went on, "Six feet in front of the design, and rising to nine feet above the floor, is a long, flat, table-like slab, having the same curvature as the sphere, eighteen feet in arc-length by three feet wide, but only one centimeter thick throughout, made of the same unknown wall and floor material, supported by a single, slender, liquid-like column or rod. Its surface is completely smooth and uniform; the same kind of atomic orderliness is evident in this material, although the class of arrangement is geometrically anti-symmetric to that of the surface material. We wait to confirm if this is the case with other surfaces of the interior, and what, of course, that may mean. Also, we could find no appearance of mechanical, electrical, or magnetic components of any kind with which we are familiar.

"The other three spheres were similar except for the design on the inner wall and, of course, as stated earlier, the atmospheres varied." With that he turned to confer in earnest with his colleagues. With Weingard alongside, Doctor Tolstoy stood and approached the podium; he spoke matter-of-factly, "Scientists from around the world will be arriving in Casgrovina after today, we all know that. So, we might as well tell you what else we found and have been able to piece together, evidence and speculation. From within these four we are able to see into the center one, and, it's very different indeed. Doctor Weingard, would you like to explain?"

Weingard indicated another of the drawings on the board and elaborated, "Now, arranged around the inner surface of this center sphere -- actually slightly ellipsoidal -- and jutting out into it, are nine separate, hemispherically-shaped enclosures or balconies, all on the same plane as the structure. At the center, fifty feet in diameter, is a spherically shaped hollow, visible from the enclosures through translucent, unknown material. And at the center of this hollow, approximately twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, is another sphere suspended in what appears to be a vacuum. The balconies connect through their respective conduits to the spheres we have examined thus far, and, because of this connectedness, each contains the same gaseous assemblage or atmosphere as those respective spheres.

"As far as the atmospheres are concerned, as was stated before, we don't yet know of what elements they are composed or how, precisely, these elements arrange themselves. It may very well be that the complex and varying internal geometry of each sphere -- its ecological morphology -- has a definite affect on the structure of its respective atmosphere, if we can call the conglomerations 'atmospheres,' which in turn, as was mentioned before, may very well affect the color frequencies of the designs, some kind of feedback relationship, it would seem."

"Sir," asked a journalist in the front row, "how is this smaller sphere able to remain suspended?"

Weingard turned a little pale, gathered himself, and replied, "We don't know, plain and simple. We can see no force of any kind responsible for its ability to do what it's doing."

Tolstoy and Weingard turned their backs on the silent crowd and spoke quietly to one another, gesturing pictures in the air. A man entered from the side of the low stage and approached the two on the dais. They shook hands, spoke softly, then Tolstoy turned to the crowd of silent journalists and said, "I would like to introduce Doctor Horace Noble from Stanford University. He, as you may know, chairs the Mathematics Department and has written extensively on fractal geometry and information theory." This brought a few self-conscious guffaws. Science writers generally stay away from mathematics, as a rule; not as sexy as cosmology, black holes or relativity paradoxes. "Perhaps not. None the less, he has some things to say about the edifice's designs."

Doctory Tolstoy relinguished the podium to Doctor Noble. Short and stout with thinning hair, looking more like a bartender than a mathematician, he nonetheless spoke with focus and clarity, "I have only spent three weeks examining the designs in each of the four spheres. The patterns on the central sphere hovering in the hollow are far more complex and, seemingly, of a different character than the four we have yet examined. For one thing, the lights are white, as you would expect. Yes, this smaller sphere is mapped with myriad interconnecting patterns; what they may mean and how they relate to the designs of the separate outlying spheres has to await further study; when, I can't say at this time."

He turned his head to speak briefly with Doctor Tolstoy, who nodded back, then, visibly ratchetting-up his intelligence, he spoke, "My work in fractal geometry has not been in developing the geometry per se, but rather determining and classifying fractal patterns across parallel idea-fields." More guffaws. "Could you break it down for us fractal-challenged, Doctor Noble?" a voice asked for all. Resting his forearms on the shelf, Noble leaned forward and said, "O.K., now, interrelationships in the arrangement of a group of stars can form a constellation, we name these: Orion's belt, the Bear, the Big Dipper, and so forth. We have a schematic of the picture in our head and by applying this to the heavens we are able to pick out the grouping of stars that it maps to, if we know what to look for, a big if, and where, its frame of reference. The picture in our head has to be based on knowing what to look for, otherwise we have little chance.

"Practical interpretations of symbol systems, the patterns the networks of lights form, without a Rosetta Stone, present a formidable challenge to the imagination. These designs could very well be representations of abstract concepts, a library, a language based on a system of thinking on an order of magnitude beyond our ability to even characterize, let alone, unravel. The interconnections and relationships are of a countably infinite number and degree of nonlinear complexity.

"Therefore, applying what's known may not be sufficient, in fact, probably isn't. Accordingly, we have to resist imposing or overlaying known patterns in order to see clearly what's there, what these designs may be about; no predispositions, in other words. From a mathematical perspective, we have to suspend any and all coordinate systems or frames of reference. Could they be maps of the stars; do they represent fields of study, a collective knowledge, using network patterns very unlike our use of numbers, alphabets, and pictures; are they some kind of engineering schematic for an organic machine that operates without moving parts? We don't know yet, I don't know yet, but, embedded in the larger designs I have been able to see some parallel similarites across scales, components possibly, modules, I don't know. Further study is required; we have only scratched the surface of understanding."

For a moment it seemed his eyes pinwheeled, but perhaps it was the poor lighting. He continued, "After we've examined the other five spheres we'll be able to make more informed comparisons. But I can say this much, in my work I've learned to follow my instincts and intuition, to try out hypotheses, as it were. Because of the connecting tunnels between the inner sphere and the others, I have a sense that all nine separate designs must work in consort somehow. For instance, if we were to layer them in all possible permutations, what would we see? This would be a job for the supercomputer at Stanford. Or, do they hook together in some predesigned sequence or juxtaposed fashion? There are many other possible arrangements, of course, they could be tesselated in some way.

"And then we're back to the problem of perception: how many different ways can the same set of parts be perceived, depending on the frame of reference? For example, a recipe, a set of ingredients, has practical significance only when integrated to the proper proportions and in the proper order; considering each ingredient on its own would therefore not be very insightful. A ladle is a ladle, whether it's in a pot of soup or the northern night sky. We grope in the dark, but we have some tools. These are some of the problems we face.

"I have requested the mathematical societies from around the world to submit to their members a request for assistance; I anticipate no shortage of qualified volunteers. We will also have use of any and all extra computer power from MIT, Harvard, Cambridge, CERN, and other university and government faciities, including NASA and the European and Russian space agencies. And this is just the beginning."

Retrieving a folded sheet of paper from his inside coat pocket, he handed it to Doctor Weingard; then, with a quick nod to Tolstoy and the other team members at the table, stepped off the dais and walked quickly off-stage and out the side door. No one had a chance to ask a question, even if we had known what to ask.

Immediately afterwards, two men dressed in dirty orange coverals strode from the other end of the stage toward the group of seated scientists. Doctors Tolstoy and Weingard approached to listen to their excited talk. Eyes lit up, jaws dropped, smiles of wonder appeared on their faces. Tolstoy approached the podium and declared an end to the press conference. Then, following the two techies, he, Weingard and the rest of the team left in a hurry.

Horace Noble, the lead mathematician on the investigation, believed at the outset that he had seen component similarities between patterns, but then later recanted, saying it was only the wishful perceiving of someone hoping for simplicity where it most definitely is not.

Glipter sat up, banging the bottom of the recliner into place; irritably tossed the cut-out piece of newspaper onto the side-table, finished his drink and, turning to glare down at the clipping with a mix of contempt and annoyed frustration, put the glass in the center of the coffee ring. With one movement he was on his feet and out the door, grabbing his rain-jacket on the way - Siberia in the summer. He was looking for something, he knew not what; all he knew for certain was that he needed much more information, but from where, and what kind?


SQUALL

Though low hazy clouds drifted in from the sea, it was still daylight, and would be for weeks to come; summer solstice was on the cusp. Hans Glipter, science interpreter for the layman, now become investigative reporter, stood on a low ridge overlooking Nagayevo Bay; his trailer had found a home in the boatyard north of town. No Casgrovina fishermen were bothering to work their boats, so it was relatively quiet. He breathed the freshened salt air deeply, the bourbon stiffening his bones and quickening his blood. He shook his head and then asked out loud, "Okay, for starters, what the hell was going on here, right here where I'm standing, 600 million years ago? What?"

He listened to the breeze whistling through the riggings of the boats nearby, a symphony of sounds, bangings, thumpings, and rat-tat-tat-tats in quick succession; the bay below looked like the skin of an orange -- low pressure moving in. If he studied the equations describing the scene before him, he thought, would he see the incipient wave crests about to form? Would he feel the salt spray and smell the turgid air? Or would they just be abstractions of idea relationships? Hidden potentials? Empty of substance and meaning? How to see, that's what he must learn, how to see the patterns forming.

Behind him, footfalls scraping the narrow, gravelly road that ran along the edge of the boatyard caught his attention, but he didn't turn, didn't need to. "Glip, Glip, old man, are we about to be rescued from this accursed rock by a boatload of lusty women? Don't just stand there, help them, for God's sake, help them." Laughing at his own joke, Tommy "Turbo" Geneva, Glipter's friend from the old neighborhood and present assistant, pulled up alongside, dragging his feet to a halt. Black curly hair down to his shoulders stuck out from beneath his signature black beret, climatically complemented by a knee-length down coat and cowboy boots.

Without seeming to move, he produced a pint of bourbon, not altogether full. "Here," he said, "you're gonna catch cold with that little bitty rain coat." Hans grabbed the bottle and took a swig, still staring out. "You know, Turbo," he said, just above the sound of the sea and the gulls, "I think I may be completely out of my depth here, we all may be completely our of our depths. Nobody I've talked to as yet has a genuine clue as to what the edifice is about; some of them even seem spooked, like they don't want to know, afraid of what it may mean, who they really were. Everybody's mind is torqued around one major fact: 600 million years ago there were entities in the Universe capable of building that thing, of designing it for some purpose we know not what." He took another swig. "Had it been orbiting the Earth for billions of years only to crash land, for whatever reason? What do we know? Nothin'." He turned his face up to the approaching squall and bellowed, "We know nothin,' man. You dig what I'm sayin'?"

Hans took another pull then handed it back, turning to smile his wild-look as he did so. But his "thank you" was blotted out by the roar of wind and a dust swirl of decent proportions. Not fifty yards down the boatroad that ran parallel to the rocky beach, on a gravel-dirt clearing reserved for haul-outs, a work-helicopter from the excavation site landed like a bee on a flower, then immediately shut down.

"What's this?" asked Turbo, always suspicious and justifiably paranoid. "Pizza delivery? I didn't order a pizza. Did you?" The door slid open on the side of the chopper facing them, two figures stepped out, both about the same height, one dressed in a black insulated jumpsuit and wool cap, the other in a long old cashmere coat, a Russian hat propped high on his head. He held something in his right hand, small and black, but it was too far away to make out.

The two walked slowly up the slight grade towards Hans and Turbo. Turbo took another sip, tried handing the last of the bottle to Hans but was waved off. They stared intently and half-expectantly at the approachers; measuring, reading, automatically and subliminally -- street kids. The jumpsuit held the other's left elbow -- not a sign to breed anxiety, ordinarily. But signs were what Hans was looking for, and so was sensitive to every nuance.

The clinging mist moved onshore -- precipitation without direction -- wavering visibility, dressing the smooth and the sharp of the stones with a sparkling liveliness. Greys and browns and blacks and whites intermingled and glistened, stark graininess outlined the careful movements of the advancing pair.

Suddenly Hans recognized the old man's gait. With a quick, almost boyish smile, he roared, "Professor Samuelson, my God, whenja get here?" He strode past his friend, down the hill toward the visitors, eliminating the distance between them with a rush of warmth and a strong, appreciative hug. It was a bit more than the reserved and dignified curator was expecting, Hans realized through the bourbon, so he pulled the reins in a little, stood erect, and continued in what seemed like a more respectful tone but was, nonetheless, laced: "How are you doing, Professor? Still got that coat, I see." Leaning forward, he whispered, "It'll make a fine addition to the museum someday."

The old Professor nodded, smiled, locked eyes with Hans and in the same vein replied, "Why thank you, Hans, but it's already been arranged. The coat's to hang and I'm to be in it, stuffed and mounted." With that he laughed like the tough field worker he used to be, bringing his everpresent pipe to his lips and attempting to light it in what had now become a steady drizzle.

During his years at Berkeley, Hans had helped pay for his education by working in the University's Natural History Museum as a kind of glorified stockboy. Professor Samuelson had only recently been appointed curator at that time and was therefore his boss. He showed concern and interest for what Hans was doing in school; something he wasn't getting from his overworked mother, his father having passed away when Hans was just a boy. The Professor had even managed to talk Hans into taking a paleontology course as an elective one year, a class he mostly used to catch up on his sleep, an indulgence now regretted. He had a mental block, he figured; paleontology to him had to do with moving specimen cases and large cast models of dino bones; monitoring the environmental controls in the storage areas; helping to set up exhibits; maintaining the grounds; cleaning, cleaning, and then more cleaning -- manual labor. So he always stayed away from it in his work. But now, he needed to know and understand what happened in the distant past, and providence may have provided.

Turbo, standing alongside, ignored the reunion, choosing instead to stare in silence at the Professor's companion. She had abruptly removed her wool cap and was shaking her long curly red hair -- an arresting development -- like a flair going off in a coal mine. Hans couldn't help but stare too. "Excuse me, Hans," said the Professor warmly and with some amusement, "this is my daughter, Rose Marie, she's been here for weeks, I thought for sure by now you would have at least seen her." Drawing on his unlit pipe, giving Hans the onceover, he continued, "But I kind of sense that you haven't."

She smiled while Hans stumbled for words. Red-brick hair, hazel eyes, full red lips, high-boned cheeks with just the right tinge of rose, seemed the only real color in an otherwise bleak and grey-dreary surround -- the house just landed in Munchkinland. "No," he finally said, "I haven't had the pleasure. What outfit are you with, Miss Samuelson?" He stepped closer, breathing deeply as he did. "There's an inner circle, a special group covering different areas; they've hit on something, I don't know what. Would you be one of those?"

Startled, looking suddenly very concerned and professional, color fading from her cheeks, she asked, "Nobody's supposed to know about that, it's totally secret; how'd you find out?"

Now it was Hans's turn to look amused. He stretched the moment, drawing it out slowly, enjoying her fresh vulnerability. "I didn't," he replied matter-of-factly. She blushed, the Professor smiled and looked towards the bay. For an instant, Hans glimpsed beneath her surface toughness and liked what he saw.

A low, guttural throat-clearing interrupted the tableau. "Oh, excuse me; Professor, Rose Marie -- my friend, Tommy Geneva, also my assistant and facilitator." Turbo, ignoring the Professor, took her hand in his, carefully shook it a few times, and said with a smile and many nods, "Thank you, thank you." Her previous good humor returned with a smile of her own. Turbo was disinclined to let go of her hand, but eventually relented.

"Rose Marie, do they call you that, or is it Rosie, or, what do you like?" asked Hans, wanting to start again on a new foot. Though still immersed in embarrassment, she decided to forgo it for now. Collecting herself, stiffening her back, she replied, "Well, Dad calls me Rose Marie and sometimes Rosie, depending. Rosie's fine."

"What about that nickname of yours?" the Professor needled. She laughed; he continued, "she likes to climb rocks, Hans, for God's sake, cliffs, in the wilderness, so, the crazy people she associates with call her Rocky, Rocky, of all things."

Quickly turning towards the bay, Hans laughed just in time to get a gust of salt spray in the face. He cursed under his breath, and with a grimace, said, "O.K., Rocky, I have a trailer not fifty yards from here, quite comfortable and dry, over there in the boatyard. What do you say we get out of this,..., wet stuff? Professor, you've just arrived, right? Are you staying somewhere? I can take you later. But for now,..."

"Yes, by all means, I've had a hell of a long and eventful day. Nowhere yet. I knew you were here and wanted to see you, so the good people at the site offered this helicopter which I, personally, prefer not to ever ride in again. Rosie, or Rocky, rather enjoys seeing her old Dad cringe, however. She, of course, likes it. I don't know where I went wrong, Hans."

Turbo was already on it, heading for the copter to tell the pilot it was okay to leave.

"Do you have any luggage, Professor?" asked Hans.

"Well, I'm not sure, the airport is madness. No, nothing with me; I despise carry-ons. I have to believe my bags are there somewhere, as soon as they find them they'll be sent to the paleontology house, I was told, wherever that is; I have only the vaguest of directions."

"I know where it is, never fear, we'll get your stuff tomorrow. But for now, I have plenty enough room," Hans said, extending his right arm with all due graciousness in the direction of the Airstream, barely visible in the grey drizzle.

As Turbo strode up, they turned to walk, the copter's roar drowning out further conversation. Hans, the Professor, Rocky, and Turbo, paced it out to the crunch of gravel as the wind began to rise and the skies grew dark -- a squall was coming.


AIRSTREAM SANCTUARY

The Airstream was divided into four compartments plus a small but functional bathroom. At one end was Hans's bedroom, the door opening onto a narrow hallway, at the other end was the bathroom. Adjacent to the 'master' bedroom was another just large enough to accomodate a single bed, a bureau, a side-table, and a closet -- Turbo's crib. Next in line was a den-study-workplace for Hans -- the communications center -- computer with wireless internet connection, radio phones, and a satellite television. Fully half the length, the remaining space, was where Hans had been spending most of his time of late -- a living room fitted with his favorite leather recliner, a two-person couch, a high-backed bamboo chair -- Turbo's choice -- and a kitchenette off the foyer against the wall.

A thick Persian rug lent warmth and civilization, as did three lamps of various designs resting on mahogany tables; Hans hated overhead lights, so there were none. Impressionist prints in simple wood frames adorned the fir-paneled walls; the windows were shuttered from without; soft tapestry curtains covered them within. The bar was in the kitchen area.

Turbo, bootless and wearing one of his many Hawaiian shirts, busied himself making drinks for all -- a rum and coke for Rocky, a snifter of cognac for the Professor, Wild Turkey and coke for Hans, and for himself, a shot of bourbon and a beer.

When everyone had settled in, the sound of wind and rain lending womb-like comfort to the warm surroundings -- a heater hummed soothingly from somewhere unseen -- Hans started right in with a chide. "Professor, where have you been? I'm amazed and surprised that one of the most knowledgeable paleontologists in the world has only just arrived."

"Well thank you, Hans, for saying that, but when I first received word of this incredible discovery I was in the midst of several projects at the museum; then there are my classes, my students, can't let them down, you know. I did keep in touch with the paleontology contingent here as well as an e-mail correspondence with others who also were not able to get away from their duties. But, school is out for the semester and the last of my projects I turned over to some hapless graduate students needing some hands-on education. You remember what that's all about, don't you?" he laughed quietly. "I got here as soon as circumstances would allow."

Hans laughed mildly at the friendly jibe. Taking a sip of his drink, he continued, "Your expertise, Sir, I believe, is required. I think everybody, by that I mean the press, the media, and some investigators I've spoken with, are going down the wrong lane. I mean, I think they're ignoring the larger picture, the background, in order to study the most prominent features, the designs and the edifice itself. I know that sounds ridiculous, after all they are the obvious choices of study. But, I've been getting misinformation, I can tell, from some people who seem to be holding back."

Rocky lowered her head, then raised it quickly to sip her drink. Turbo caught it. Leaning forward, he asked, "Miss Rocky, what's with this secret organization you let slip? Sounds like undercover stuff to me. Who's in this group? What have you been working on? Have you found any green aliens, any old magazines from the home planet? C'mon, Rocky, what gives?"

Hans jumped in, "Turbo, Turbo, that's not very polite. I'm sure Rosie has reasons for secrecy." He turned to stare at her with humor in his eyes.

"I do," she responded in a quiet voice, making it sound almost ominous. "But," turning to glance at her father, "I've already told Dad everything we know thus far. I felt he had to know if he's to properly study the problems we face. I'm glad you're here now, Dad. As Hans said, we need your expertise, and your imagination."

Taking a pull on his still unlit pipe, he leaned back on the plush couch, and said, "Hans, I greatly admire your choice of paintings. That's a Monet, isn't it, one of his earlier works? And these lamps, my, oriental, porcelain, must have cost a pretty penny. And where did you get this wonderful rug, my goodness, a person could get lost in the patterns and texture." He took a sip of cognac and then carefully rested the snifter on the side-table. Turbo leaned back also, the creaking sound of shifting bamboo filling the room. Hans and Turbo sat back, listening to the wind and the rain and the faint humming of the invisible heater, waiting patiently. Rocky stared at the floor, tacitly approving the inevitable; in her heart she wanted the world to know what they had so far discovered and surmised, but still, she sensed potential danger in the knowing.

"I've followed your career, Hans," the Professor said amiably, "I wish you had remained a teacher but, not enough freedom, too conventional for you, I suppose. You like to travel, explore horizons, fathom the unfathomable. I read your piece on the bogus cold-fusion experiment; you were way ahead of the pack on that one, as usual. And the series you did unraveling the mysteries of string theory, brought it right down to the layman, excellent. Your perspicacity will be seriously tested now, Hans. This is a challenge that, perhaps, not even you can master. Some of the best scientific minds in the world are here in little Casgrovina right now. They know their stuff too, but, their failing is the box, they have trouble getting outside of it, you don't seem to have that problem, quite the opposite in fact." The Professor, looking distant and bemused, took another taste of cognac. The rain had intensified, hammering the roof and shutters.

"My daughter, Rose Marie," he emphasized the name as he glanced her way, "is a mathematician, a topologist, and a darn good one. She's been teaching at the University of Chicago for, what is it now, six years?" She nodded yes but remained silent, as did the others. "Doctor Fitzsimmons, Chairman of the math department at M.I.T., invited her to be a member of his special group -- the Puzzle Masters they call themselves. At present there are fifteen, a few added only recently, others will no doubt be brought in as the need arises. I've seen the press releases the P.R. team's handed out, you probably have them; it's mostly falacious, Hans, intended to buy time and assuage fears. But, as far as that goes, it seems to be having the opposite affect, generating uncertainty and anxiety in general." He sipped cognac, a warm rosey hue tinted his otherwise tanned features. It'd been a long flight and he was visibly tired.

Hans took the pause as opportunity to speak, "Professor, what is going on? I have the fact sheet right here." He reached down to retrieve the legal pad he'd previously stuffed next to him in his chair. I would like to go over this, one fact at a time, to get your take and any corrections, and also if there are facts not on the P.R. sheet you feel worth mentioning. But, you're obviously exhausted from travel. You're welcome to use my bedroom, I can sleep in the den. Rocky? I have extra blankets if you'd like to crash out on the couch. We can begin fresh tomorrow, after breakfast, if you'd like. Turbo does most of the cooking, he's not bad when he's in the mood. Aye, Turbo?"

They all snickered; Turbo grimaced but with a twinkle in his eyes, kicked back his shot, then slowly stood to bring his tall, muscular frame to its full height. "O.K., I see where this is goin.' Who wants another; the bar's open." The wind and rain continued its assault unabated; the heater hummed. Talk meandered along more mundane trails, feelings and minds mingling, relaxing -- an old custom among humans.

Rose Marie, aka Rocky, was a strange mix. When she wasn't traveling through multi-dimensional topological spaces without the geometer's net of a coordinate system, she was traveling through back-country searching for cliffs to climb also without the benefit of a net. One more year at U. of Chicago and she would be eligible for tenureship. She was single; lived in an apartment within walking distance of the campus, a distance she usually biked to keep in shape; liked Italian food and pizza, red wine and candlelight; was intelligent; possessed of her father's honesty, humor, and earthiness -- and unself-consciously beautiful.

The Professor, Doctor Samuel Samuelson, a parental joke, no doubt, which the Professor nonetheless enjoyed, had been a field paleontologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for the better part of twenty years. He started off chasing dinosaur bones like everybody else in the 60's; the field became overpopulated, so he began to look elsewhere. One day, while on vacation, he was going through some old plates in the archive of the Natural History Museum in London, when he came upon prints of creatures from the Ediacaran Fauna, approximately 620 to 510 million years ago. On every continent except Antarctica, they flourished, these bone-less, shell-less, mineral-less creatures, glued to the floors of warm shallow seas, passively partaking of food, phytoplankton, for millions of years, increasing in diversity, size, and population, then dwindling, dying out, shrinking in size. No one knows for sure how long this cycle went on. A few phyla continued through the Cambrian Period, but otherwise it is accepted that the Ediacarans died out at, or prior to, the transition to the great Cambrian Explosion of around 540 million years ago, the advent of shelly bio-mineralisation -- calcium carbonate, calcium phospahte, and silica -- all three mineral compounds of what presently exists to generate hardness -- bones.

He was fascinated, spell-bound, inspired to wonder -- he converted. The Precambrian Eon called, and he dove -- now, his expertise.

After twenty years in the field in places like northwestern Australia; the Ediacara Hills, Flinder's Range north of Adelaide, South Australia; southwestern Greenland; South Africa; the Burgess Shale in Northwestern Canada, and a host of others, searching and inspecting, cataloguing and analysing new and varied species of Precambrian and early Cambrian life, he retired to take a faculty position at the U. of California, Berkeley. At first he just taught, but he quickly grew bored with mere academic pursuit and needed some hands-on activity. One request was all that was needed, he was appointed assistant curator to the University's Natural History Museum.

After three years, the director retired, and Doctor Samuelson assumed that position. As head curator, he brought in a whole new paradigm, reinvigorated and transformed the entire format of presentations and content. That was 13 years ago, when he first met Hans, the student/part-time laborer. Now, he's here, and he has a hunch, but he's not ready to tell -- he could be wrong.

Tommy 'Turbo' Geneva didn't say much about himself. He liked mystery, to keep people guessing, shifting personas at a glance, in a single heartbeat. Growing up on the streets, this was an art form best internalized. He could be eloquent and well-read one moment, a seedy, hedonistic rowdy the next, whatever was required. But, even though he loved to laugh, his main overall underlying posture was one of abject, deadly seriousness. Hans and he had been part of a group who ranged together when kids; traveled the subways; hung out in the neighborhood, in the schoolyard, on the corner; went to the same high school; played football every day, it seemed, in the fall and winter, in the snow and ice; suffered through loses of family and friends; and drank beer on friday and saturday nights.

After high school, Hans attended Berkeley; Turbo stayed in the neighborhood, getting a job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as an apprentice pipe-fitter. When Hans was home on break, they would get together again and hang out. They had lost touch while Hans was at Michigan State teaching physics, a position he quit after five years to take the job he now has, a stone's throw from Philly. On invitation, Turbo reunited with his lifelong friend in D.C. where he was ostensibly hired as Hans's assistant, but, in truth, it was so they could 'hang out' and travel together.

Enfolded in their own thoughts and feelings, the four slept through the stormy night, oblivious to the transformations set in motion.

Though Rocky slept tight on the couch, its length sufficient but just barely, her dream-self traveled.

Her hosts spoke to her, or so it seemed they spoke, in a friendly manner as one might expect from tour guides. Wraparound windows surrounded her from top to bottom on the bridge of the dimly-lit, cavernous ship. She knew it was a ship without thinking about it, the way we do in dreams, we just know. There was much activity around her, silent and smooth, practiced and professional. A voice from behind politely directed her attention to the front portion of the huge curved window through which she saw nothing but the blackest black. She had no sense of movement, no objects to gauge it by, no frames of reference. She was being told to watch closely; relaxed and unafraid, she did as instructed.

Suddenly, in the midst of the void, as though through a film of some kind, a bubble of unknowable proportions was being blown through a membrane that had materialized all around the ship; she became instantly lost in wondrous amazement. She thought that the membrane must have always been there, and felt sure of this observation. What she saw form as the completed bubble moved off to her right was even more astounding -- a universe of galaxies and stars and nebulae coated the surface of the bubble. From behind she heard, or perhaps felt, murmurs of delight and appreciation, praise, even, for the Dark One.

Next, another much larger bubble was formed, it too moved off but in a different direction, if direction made sense here, she thought. Finally, one was produced to the sounds of genuine enthusiasm and cheers. A voice from behind whispered as though to a child, "That is yours. How do you like it?" She was spell-bound and awed beyond comprehension. Countless galaxies moving and churning; nebulae birthing stars, brightening through every color imaginable; single stars traveling their own courses in the spaces between; a kaleidoscope of infinite, colored patterns and designs. No one moved on the bridge, all activity and sound ceased; she gazed around but could see only shadows, hard and soft angles. She stared through the window, transfixed, overcome to tears.

A loud buzzing noise permeated the space of the bridge, annoying and everywhere. She awoke, the dream still in her mind's eye, that halfway point between wakefulness and sleep. She tried to hold on but it was no use; the ship, the bubble universe, the feelings of joy and wonder, all vanished; to be replaced by the sight of a multi-colored dragon. She focused. Turbo stood in the kitchenette, emblazoned across the back of his knee-length, blue velour bathrobe was the embroidery of a wild-looking dragon; the door of the microwave open. He closed the door as quietly as he could, then glanced over his shoulder sheepishly, mumbled a gravelly apology, cursed the microwave, grabbed a jar off the counter, unscrewed the lid, spooned out some instant coffee, poured it into the steaming cup, recapped the jar, and while stirring softly, walked back to his room.

She watched the proceedings as though in a bubble of her own, separated by a thin film, unable to form words, engrossed in the details. Rolling to face the back of the couch, she tried to fall asleep again, hoping to renew the dream, but it was too late, she knew. A strange forlorness and melancholy possessed her; she wanted to cry at some unknown loss, but the tears wouldn't come. Her memory could not hold it, the dream faded, evaporated, by pieces, like steam rising. Her eyes closed, she lay very still, feeling like a child again.

Everyone would be up and about soon, she thought. She groggily roused herself to change in the tiny bathroom from a pair of Hans's pajamas into her standard jeans and flannel shirt; loss and sadness still dogging her. But the joy and wonder she had felt had an unseen effect -- seeds were planted, doors opened.


THE DIG

Monday Morning.

Alex "Bull" Mynsky, chief mucky-muck, overseeing coordination of efforts on the project, or 'the Dig,' as it was commonly referred to, was not having one of his best days. His presence had been requested almost immediately after the discovery of the edifice. A former General in the Russian Engineer Corp, he had the 'bona fides,' as they say, for a job of this scale. The first major operation had been the pouring of a monstrous slab of concrete over the surface of the earth where the edifice stood, embedded in it were miles of copper tubing through which hot water circulated. A translucent geodesic dome of carbon-reinforced plastic covered and protected the alien structure from the uncertain Siberian weather. The grid of radially-connected two-inch aluminum tubes supporting the hundreds of plastic sections rose to 150 feet at the center post. Through the tubing, miles of wire, cable, and phone lines snaked their way. One-meter wide parabolically-shaped halogen lights hung from the tubes, positioned to afford maximum light throughout -- an interferometer of light. Six-inch cylindrical aluminum posts, strategically arranged, reinforced the ceiling; wiring fed down them to accessible outlets. On the periphery, massive generators continually hummed, supplying power.

In addition to heat produced by the hothouse effect, ambient air temperature remained within three degrees of 'room' by the concrete-encased copper pipe. Scaffolding was everywhere and had the look of permanence. Small trailers made into makeshift labs and shops appeared behind every curve. Hundreds of people -- scientists, technicians, engineers, mountain rescue teams, electricians, laborers -- a whole community with one noticeable exception -- no media people. This was a private dig, and 'Bull' was under strain to keep it that way.

The scientists ignored his requests not to reveal sensitive material to the media. They usually replied with amused smiles and polite nods; they didn't understand. And the workers, local fishermen mostly, going into town, getting drunk and shooting their mouths off about what they saw. How much longer could this go on?

He charged out of his office in the main trailer at the head of entry to the site, and, disdaining his golf cart, continued in that vein as he crossed towards the far corner of the Dig. As he passed the outlying sphere, a man wearing a white hardhat, white shirt, wide tie, pocket protector, clipboard in hand -- him -- approached at an oblique angle, a look of flustered anxiety and concern flushing his face.

"Bull," he said almost too softly, "I mean, General Mynsky, sir, we need to talk."

"Can't it wait? I'm off to chew somebody out or fire him, whatever it takes; can't it wait?"

Recovering composure, the engineer spoke with genuine determination, "No, sir, it can't. You really need to see this."

Surrendering to his lot in life, Bull accompanied the agitated engineer to a long metal table covered with what appeared to be white sheets, adjacent to the center sphere looming overhead, its upper half completely out of sight. Amongst the jumble of computer screens, phones and paper work, the engineer brought Bull's attention to a small mobile screen leaning against a stack. He handed it to Bull. "This monitors our electron photomicrographic scan of the atomic lattice structure over the entire surface. We have sensors positioned to constantly read for any changes or fluctuations that may occur. The magnetic ordering is layered by spin states, the unit crystals build-up, so to speak, from ..." He stopped to catch his breath. Raising his glasses with one hand he brushed a finger under his left eye, buying time.

"Well!" Bull inquired, "so what. What exactly am I looking at?"

The engineer removed his hardhat and replied, "What you see there, on the screen, is the frequency modulation of the assemblage of quantum properties accountable for the precisely ordered arrangement of the surface material. That red indicates the carrier wave's frequency and amplitude as an historical reference, it's remained the same since we began readings six weeks ago." Another long pause, then "The blue indicates those features now, as of early this morning; I could give you the exact time but, I don't..."

"Damn it, son, get to the point, I have things to do."

"We first performed a thorough diagnostic on all our equipment; there are other reasons for the appearance of such a phenomenon. But hardware and software are running true. However, ..., the point is that the surface of this sphere has begun to alter its atomic arrangement, we don't know why or what it may mean. We're continuing analysis of the precise structural configuration; it is still slowly changing - without violating the hulls integrity. Amazing."

Bull did not share his sense of wonder; all he saw was trouble on the horizon. "Come to my office with a status report as soon as there's a status to report. And don't be bringing me over to look at your damn screens anymore. O.K., son? I'm a busy man." He handed the monitor back, took one hard look at the preoccupied techie, then spun to return to his trailer, convinced beyond doubt that the project was slipping away from his grasp, that other forces were taking control.

Disgruntled, he pushed his way through the door. Sitting around his desk were three men with serious looks, three he liked, scientists who knew how to keep their mouths shut, a little too shut perhaps, he often thought. He gave them no more than a glance and perfunctory nod as he roughly opened the top drawer of his filing cabinet where he kept a bottle of vodka. After pouring a drink and momentarily enjoying the silence, he asked, "What's up, gentlemen, you have good news for a change?" Sarcasm was lost on these, he knew; they had little sense of humor.

Doctor Fitzsimmons, seated at the far end of the desk, spoke in his usual clipped manner. "We'll get right to the point, Bull, we may not have a lot of time to squander."

"Good, please do, it would be refreshing."

"We've been concentrating our efforts on the five spheres opened after the disasterously reckless way in which the first four were attacked, their atmospheres remain intact and do, indeed, have an influential effect on the behaviour of the lights making up their respective designs."

"Behaviour, you say? What does that mean?"

Fitzsimmons ignored the question and proceeded unperturbed. "In sphere P-5 we have been able to enter all the rooms, if that they be, taking video and pictures from various vantage points; with nothing to hold onto, it was painstaking work, I assure you. We ran the footage and snaps through a Cray, here are the results." The man sitting in the middle, Doctor Jennings, spilled a folder of diagrams and drawings onto Bull's desk.

Bull stared at the tiny hill of arcane schematics and said, "Could you sum it up, please, I really don't have time to go through all this stuff, if that's what you expect? Words, gentlemen, speak to me."

Pointing with a pencil at a tight nest of lines and symbols, Jennings proceeded, "The Cray analysis, examining the vantage points from all the rooms, has determined three sets of focal points. When these three focal points are arranged colinearly, as you see here, the line intersects the design here." He circled an area where lines drawn from every direction met. "In each of the five spheres we've examined the rooms are arranged differently, yet, we've arrived at the same results for each. Apparently, hypothetical entities, and we have no idea what kind of entity we're talking about here, we can only speculate on what they could not be or look like, apparently, three groups from any sphere acting as one could be in contact with the main design on the wall of their respective sphere at their mutual intersecting point, or, alternatively, it could have some influence over them."

"Or," said Bull dryly, "there were no entities, and each of the rooms is but an extension of a wall design, like chambers of an engine, or a nautilus. They work together somehow, three different gears churning as one to produce, what? And what was this again about the behaviour of the designs? What's that all about?" Bull took a drink and sat back. The Puzzle Masters knew more than they were saying, he thought; they must have many scenarios to explain this stuff, not just 'hypothetical aliens.' He waited. They wouldn't be here telling him this much if they didn't need or want something in return. So he waited.

The third man, the one who hadn't spoken yet, got up from his chair and paced to the back of the office, hands in pockets, paused, then, walking back, began "We've compared the activity of the designs in the four spheres that were opened prematurely, before we had a safeguard system in place, with the other five. Without their respective atmospheres, the designs in the first four are relatively quiescent, that is, we've detected minimal quantum fluctuations at any specific location or when considering a design as a whole.

"But not so in the last five, P-5 through P-9. Using digital cameras of the highest pixelation available, translating the pixels into bits per unit micron, and then sending this information through the Cray, we've been able to ascertain very definite patterns within patterns, as well as their transitional modes. For any given design, the subtleties of transition can hinge on a single electron spin of a single atom making up a boundary. As a result, as you can well imagine, with a design as huge as these, composed of, as yet, an undetermined number of lights, or illuminations, in complex arrays and interconnections; the sheer number of possible patterns and pattern relationships is infinite.

"And, of course, what does it all mean?"

He sat down, hands still in pockets, stared at Bull, and said, "That's their behaviour."

Doctor Fitzsimmons broke the silence that had humorlessly drained the room of life, "Up until early this morning, the rate at which the patterns shifted remained constant, varying slightly due to inevitable temperature fluctuations, as we come and go and place instruments and cameras, sterilized but nonetheless, a heat source. But this morning our online feed consolidating all readouts from our digital cameras and spectrometers, detected and amplified on screen a sudden and discontinuous increase in the rate of transformation. We have yet, and I mean this, we have yet to find the Rosetta Stone to decipher the meaning and significance of the shifting patterns. We have been able to classify topological types, a kind of taxonomy, but, as Doctor Weingard said, there's a lot of them."

Bull emptied his glass and quickly refilled it. Remembering his conversation with the engineer, he stood and paced behind his desk. "What about the other four spheres? Any activity there?"

Jennings volunteered, "No, no change; and that's odd."

"Odd!" Bull roared with laughter. "Odd!" he reiterated in the same octave. "This whole damn thing couldn't get any odder if Zeus himself were to show up and take back his toy. What I want to know is, where is all this going? Why are you here in the first place? I hardly ever see any of you gentlemen and now -- three at once."

Fitzsimmons put his coffee cup on the desk and leaned forward, putting elbows on knees, and softly and quietly said, "The point at which the three groups of any given sphere impinges on a design never partakes of any transformation, it remains fixed, it maps to itself, so to speak. By the simple act of measurement, we may have inadvertently set in motion some kind of initialization sequence, a revitalization, or a failsafe mechanism, we don't know. But they, the spheres, are definitely undergoing a change, which indicates, of course, that we are not dealing with a dead artifact from some alien civilization."

He picked up his cup and leaned back. "You're in charge of this operation. It's on Russian soil and you're their representative, you have the authority to shut it down if you feel it's necessary. But you're also a cultured and civilized man, you appreciate the magnitude of what we have here."

"Oh no, Doctor, I don't understand; trust me on that, it's way beyond my puny intelligence. I'm a cossack, we roam the steppes for the fun of it. Alien spaceships; cryptic, complex designs on walls of spheres a hundred feet high,...; no, Doctor, I do not understand."

Jennings leaned forward and said flatly, "Nobody does."

Fitzsimmons continued, "I didn't say understand, I said appreciate, and you do, obviously, by what you just admitted. That's how we all feel, but, we must continue our study, our research, to try to discover the purpose and significance of the edifice. And to fathom the nature of whatever civilization created it, and where they may be now?"

He sipped coffee, then said, "We felt compelled, by our readings this morning, to inform you of the situation; a changing one, I might add. I've called for a meeting of all of the lead scientists on the project, they'll inform their respective team members. You're invited as well, please come. Eight this evening at the community center downtown. Security is already there readying the place."

Fitzsimmons, Jennings and Weingard stood as a group; Jennings gathered the drawings together and carefully placed them back into the folder. As they left the trailer, Fitzsimmons, coffee cup in hand, smiled briefly; the others, straight-faced, merely nodded.

Bull, seated at his desk, bottle of vodka and glass handy, stared intensely at a picture on the wall from his military days, when he was a captain, receiving a Medal of Distinguished Combat from Gorbachev himself for service in Afghanistan. He had fought in a losing contest, but had touched basic physical reality in all its soul-wrenching visceral detail. How he felt about himself during that time? He never questioned the right or wrongness of the war itself, that was not his job. He lived from day to day, never knowing when he might take a bullet or get blown up. But how it made him feel, as a man, as a human animal, so sure and confidant; he knew who he was, and would have laughed at anyone who tried to shake that certainty.

But now, with this,..., he got up to lock the door, returned to his seat and poured another. He didn't think he'd be in any shape to attend a town hall meeting even if he ever left the site, which he didn't. He disdained town, and, besides -- science bored him.


ANARCHISTS

Vasily had laid claim to the barstool and wasn't about to lose it to the bar-hopping hordes flowing through. He was waiting for his friends, Nomad and Hub; they had a plan, and they meant to carry it through. Working on the project for two and a half months now, he had amassed a small fortune, for an otherwise broke fisherman, so he could afford his own bottle of vodka at the bar, which he was quickly going through.

He had news to tell and was understandably impatient; importance having passed Vasily by at more than one fork on the road of life. This was his chance. That morning they had cordoned off the five spheres last opened, the ones where all the action was. He was not allowed near to perform regular maintenance checks on the scaffolding and electrical outlets -- no nonessential personnel, they said. Bull had given the order; there was no arguing.

Just as Nomad and Hub entered, he spotted a booth emptying of its drunken occupants; with bottle in hand, he went for it and waved them over. Nomad was missing part of his left ear due to a knife fight his greenhorn year of fishing, a long, long time ago, and dressed extremely casually, always the same jeans, tea-shirt, and old wool navy coat. Hub was just that, a two-hundred pound hub of a man; no good on deck but, he could help you fight your way out of a bar if need be. Vasily had left messages all over town that he needed to have a sit-down right away. They saw themselves as anarchists in the old Bolshevic mold, and acted accordingly, or at least what they imagined was the way to act.

Vasily poured a round, it was his moment, he intended to play it up."You guys weren't at the Dig today. Too much last night, huh?"

They just nodded and drank. Vasily roared along, "Well, you missed it. Early this morning I was headed over to P-9 to check things out when I ran into Gregor the Implacable. 'No entry,' he say, 'no come back till we tell you. Go!' What an ignoramous. They have the whole area around spheres P-5 to P-9 tied off, with guards every thirty feet. Something's going down and I think it's about to happen." He poured another round. "If we wait, it'll be too late, I know -- something big is about to happen."

"This plan of yours, Vasily," mumbled Nomad, "I ain't sure we can pull it off. I mean, once we get in P-5, then what? What are we looking for, exactly? Is there something valuable we can take? What?"

"No, you idiot, Jesus. We're not thieves, we're trying to find out how to dismantle the ship before it takes off. Do you know what it'll mean if that thing gets airborne? I've seen the weapons they've put into those things: super-sophisticated laser cannons, pulse weapons, magnetic disrupters that can knock out electrical grids, the works. They've been building it out here because it's so desolate. They have the whole world thinking it's just some alien ship that crashed here a long time ago. Bullshit! These scientists and engineers are all on their payroll, they're part of it. And the secret police are all over the place, God almighty, masquerading as fishermen. I've been living here all my life and I don't recognize any of 'em. And then there's the army engineers. Some of those guys don't know one end of a stick from the other -- engineers, in a pig's pitute."

Hub, spinning his empty glass, interrupted, "Vasily, I've been thinking."

"Uh oh, Nomad, we're in for it now."

"No, listen, remember when they found this, under permafrost, by accident; then the weeks of excavation, remember?"

"Hub, we've been through all this already," replied an exasperated Vasily. "Have you seen any of that construction crew around town for the past two months? Huh, have you?" Hub didn't answer. "No, they're gone, all of them, where, nobody knows. They had their own crews, they all stayed out there for the whole time, then, boom, they're gone, out of town; they tell their story -- excavation of an archaeological site. But that's not what happened, I know." He poured another round, to stop Hub's glass if for no other reason. "They didn't refit the airport to handle the increase in traffic, there wasn't any high traffic at first; in the beginning it was used to fly in the spheres in parts, pieces, and then assembled at the Dig."

"But, we've all seen the size of that thing; how the hell could they fly the pieces in and build it in only a couple of months?"

"Well, first of all, Hub, my good fellow, they don't weigh hardly nothin,' I'm sure of it. Some new spacey material, carbon or silicon or something like that, strong and light. They never allowed us locals close enough to even touch 'em, let alone knock on 'em. But, they're hollow; the insides were probably fitted out just over the past few weeks. You been seeing all that shit they've been puttin' in 'em? Huh? Christ, God, in heaven, every day, every day I've been there."

He smiled that wry, knowing, boozy smile of the man who understands the real ways of the world. "And something big is about to happen. We have to act. We have to stop it before it takes off, to save the world."

Nomad stared off into space, then returned, visibly having made a decision. "What's in it for us saving the world? Huh, Vasily, what do we get out of it? I'm not risking my life for nothin.'"

Vasily poured another round and smiled wryly once again. "Oh, I think we'll do okay. Once the truth about what's going on here comes out, we'll be center stage."

"If we live," muttered Nomad.

They drank the night away, not having to work the next day -- as though that mattered -- and planned the details of their imminent assault on sphere P-5.

Meanwhile, at the same time the anarchists were holding their meeting, not far away at the community center, the chief scientists from the project were having a meeting of their own. And their suspicions were the same as Vasily's -- something big was about to happen.


SOLDIERS FOR CHRIST

The Christ Is My Saviour was anchored across the Bay, off the Taigonas Peninsula, well inside, near shore. A bright night was falling, rain had ceased, the birds nesting on the cliff face had quieted; all might have been serene on board the hundred and twenty foot yacht, except for the news, the news that roused the members of the Soldiers For Christ into an excited religious frenzy.

Raising his hands in the Jesus pose to quiet his disciples, Brother Rapture, standing on a two-foot high dais, expressly built because of his stature, calmed the multitudes, as he saw it, and smiling beneficently, proceeded to hand out the good news.

"It is time, my brethren. Our man inside the inner circle known as the Puzzle Masters, I won't tell you his name, he is a soldier, as are we, has informed me, and apparently the news has found its way to your ears through God's will, that the alien spacecraft may be about to engage its preprogrammed purpose."

"God is good, there is no good but God, and we are his soldiers," rang out in unison from the ready devotees. Not knowing what to do next, or what this purpose may actualy be, they waddled in place, waiting for instruction.

Brother Rapture did not disappoint them. "We have come here, to this evil place, this place where the devil himself has chosen to reside these many millions of years, to make a stand for God, for the Earth, and especially, for humanity. It has been a trial, a trial for us all these past many weeks, associating among the unbelievers, the unclean, the ignorant. In their blindness, they unknowingly carry out the will of those who left this doomsday device on our sacred Earth. In that distant time in the past, the evil ones, the slaves of the devil, planted the edifice where none might find it. They knew, through their evil science, that humanity would one day stride the Earth. A humanity capable of knowing God, of realizing His all-encompassing creative power for good. They knew we would come eventually, but did not suspect, even with their science, that we would follow the way of God and not the devil. How could they know? How could they see into the hearts and minds of creatures not yet born upon the Earth? They believed wrongly; they believed that the evil permeating their galaxy and their souls, if that there be, would uniformly rule the entire universe.

"But, they did not figure into their equations that God Himself watched as we struggled into existence. That God Himself watched as we pulled ourselves up from that hideous primal state to one wherein we, as His children, would develop the consciousness to know and love and worship Him above all else. That God Himself would use the form of Man to spread His good word through His only begotten son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. No, the evil ones, the ones who built the edifice, did not expect such an unfortunate development.

"And now, brethren, the edifice, the instrument of the devil, has awakened. Somehow, it has come alive and seen through eyes we may never understand -- that Mankind is not what was planned to be. It is a robot ship, to be sure, so it cannot be reasoned with, even if our kind of reason was the same as that of its builders. It is undergoing internal changes now, as I speak, changes that will eventually bring about the initiation of its final purpose. Through contact with those milling about its insides, it has come to know just what we are -- that we are creatures of God, not the devil. It has no choice; it is but a machine.

"Time has come, as we knew it would, for action. We must be stalwart in our own purpose, surrender ourselves to the one true God, to do His bidding on Earth, as His creatures. Now is the time.

"I have requested team leaders to organize separately the different aspects of our strategy for assault on the edifice. It cannot be allowed to become fully regenerated. We will stop it, brethren, we will, as one, as God is our witness.

"Now, let us pray together: Dear Lord above, please show your mercy and understanding to these, thy devotees, to give us strength and wisdom in battle, and forgiveness and justice in victory. We, your soldiers, give our lives gratefully for thy sacred name."

Once again assuming the Jesus pose, together they roared, "God is good, there is no good but God, and we are his soldiers."

Drinks and tiny snacks were then served. They were ready, they were enjoying the energy and excitement of the moment, and they were prepared to die.


ROCKY AND HANS

From his den, he barely heard the knock on the front door, intent as he was on finishing a report he may never send. Then, again the knock, and he was up and there. Rocky stepped in, visibly agitated. Hans asked if she wanted a drink; he was already heading in that direction. "Yes," she said, "make it a double." Hans did likewise, his instincts told him he might need it. "Where's Turbo," she asked, taking off her coat and hat, hanging them on a hook by the front door, then removing her rubber boots and leaving them against the wall.

Handing her a double rum and coke on the rocks, he replied, "He came in a little while ago, went to his room, then left. Said he was going for a boat ride, I don't know where or with whom; he never says, I never ask. And I don't know when he'll be back, so, you're stuck with me for the time being. How's Dad? Did he get settled in with the paleontology set okay?"

"Oh, yea, he's fine. He's not his normal self though, I can tell; it's not just the enigma factor of this whole enterprise, there's something else bothering him, something he's not saying. I know him, he gets real tight-lipped sometimes when he's afraid he might pull the rug out from under people with what he thinks."

"Tight-lipped, huh? Sounds like somebody else I know."

She smiled and leaned back on the couch, almost emptying her drink in one pull, the source of the previous disturbance apparently forgotten, for the time being. "Have you been out today at all, Hans?" she asked.

"After you and your father left, I got on my computer and wrote up everything we talked about. Don't worry, a promise is a promise -- I send nothing 'till it's all over, whatever that may mean, and whenever. I just wanted to get it all down in one place before I forgot anything. Plus, doing that, of course, necessitates organizing, sifting common denominators, associating ideas -- helps me to think, in other words.

"Why did you ask me that anyway? You have news, don't you? Something's going on at Puzzle Master central, a breakthrough, maybe, or a sudden alteration of the parameters? Huh, Rocky? Another drink? Single, double?"

"Double, please." While he was busy in the kitchenette, she crossed the room to retrieve a piece of paper from her inside coat pocket, choosing then to sit in Turbo's bamboo high-rise chair. Hans put her drink on the table beside it as he passed to reclaim his recliner.

"Nobody ever sits in Turbo's chair, you know? Better hope he doesn't show up all of a sudden."

"I don't think he'd mind," she crooned sweetly with a smile.

They laughed, Hans said, "I don't think so either. He might even give it to ya,' if you asked that way." They sat quiet and relaxed for a time, enjoying the respite from what was going on around them; sipping and listening to the soft jazz in the background. Hans thought about the discussion that morning. He appreciated her intelligence and focus; she hadn't been picked to be a member of the Puzzle Masters for nothing. Now, here they were, alone. She sat back in the bamboo, softly smiling, listening to the music, wearing a worn flannel shirt and jeans, redhair curling down past her shoulders. Hans pulled himself back, he'd been here before.

"Rocky," he said softly, "what's this news you have?"

She frowned briefly, then putting her glass on the table, unfolded the piece of paper that had been lying in her lap, and leaned forward towards Hans. It was a spectral printout of a phase shift in progress, caught in mid-stream, as it were, like the instant prior to the formation of an attractor. All the vortices, or in the case of the diagram, the projective lines, were breaking associations to form new ones, integrating on the fly.

"This happened early this morning; I found out about it as soon as I got to the Dig. I had to go through security checks just to get to our trailer. They have the area cordoned off, from P-5 to P-9. The rate at which the lights change patterns has increased dramatically. Nobody has a clue as to why but, as a result, new combinations have already superceded, or overwritten, what went before. Almost as though it, if 'it' is proper, was in sleep mode and now, is moving into ready-to-work mode. They thought at first the leap had been discontinuous, but the cameras were going at the time and this was pulled out of the stream."

"Excuse me, but, I know the discontinuity would have represented a quantum fluctuation, as when an electron shifts energy levels, absorbing or ejecting a photon. I would expect that from a purely mechanical perspective, so I fail to see the significance of a continuous phase shift."

"Doctor Fitzsimmons speculates that it points to one of two things: either we're looking at an underlayment of the quantum world in its continuous aspect, as per what Einstein believed, or, the process is organic on a macro scale and shows up spectrally as a continuous phase shift."

They stared at one another, holding on with their eyes so as not to sink below the surface of rationality.

"When, when did this happen," stuttered Hans, "early this morning, when we were all here? Jesus!"

She nodded. He stood and rubbed his hands through his hair. "What's been powering these 'lights,' or whatever they are, all this time anyway? I don't think we ever touched on that with all the other stuff we were talking about. It's an engineering problem on a colossal scale. How are they able to be doing anything at all after 600 million years?"

"That's a long story and out of my specialty. Doctor Weingard went on at length about how he sees it, but I only got the jist of it. I don't know if he would talk to you or not; he doesn't trust journalists. Homotopically, we're looking at sets of closed loops collectively represented by a homotopic map, taking on, so to speak, another dimension. Say you have trajectories in spacetime suddenly revealing a new component; the probabilities of position and momentum become spread out over an area where previously a single curved path, or line, would describe the passage of one quantum possibility."

Hans emptied his glass and went to the kitchen. "Another?" he asked bluntly.

"Yes, single this time, please." She sat back, tired but energized all the same.

He spoke while mixing, "I get all that, you're spelling it out for me topologically, but, what I want to know is, what's happening at the quantum level physically, how are the lights able to work after all this time, what powers them? There needs to be an energy source, lights don't light without it." He returned, passed her drink off, and took his seat.

"Okay, here's what I get out of Weingard's talk: first of all, obviously, whoever built the edifice had scientific knowledge far superior to anything we know, that's an obvious given. Our science, our modern physics is maybe 300 years old. Gallileo, Kepler, Newton, Tesla, Maxwell, Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Dirac, Pauli, all the favorites. Now imagine, he said, a civilization, or a group of civiliztions from several planets, having a science that's more than 600 million years old.

"He's been able to work out some purely hypothetical and fanciful equations, geometry mostly. He thinks they somehow figured out how to take a set of chemical elements and forcibly borrow an electron from the outer shell of an atom to artificially create an isotope capable of masquerading as something it isn't -- a whole new element. Then, while in this hyperexcited state, bond it with other atoms with the required electron configuration but with a different number of protons. The molecule so generated, and it could be extremely complex, would have properties unknown -- a designer molecule.

"And, more than that, this process doesn't happen only once, in the lab, say, when they're made, but rather comes about as a dynamic reponse to stimulation from outside. Internally, the energy required for the molecules to illuminate is embedded in, or imbued in, the very construction of the customized atoms. That is, they draw on virtual force particles precipitated by the geometry of the vacuum so created within the customized atoms. They glow, all by themselves, from within, apparently -- forever.

"You're a quantum physicist, a professor, you understand the possibilities implicit here better than I do. We can join atoms to form molecules, chemistry. We can create heavier elements through fusion, by ramming nuclei with other nuclei, two hydrogens producing a helium, like the sun does. But not this."

"Maybe that's a handicap here," he said, "trying to force what you just told me through what I know, I'm predisposed by my perceptions. They're in the way, perhaps. Pauli's Exclusion Principle is what keeps electrons in order, so they can't occupy the same energy state, or quantum number, at the same time, otherwise all atoms would collapse on themselves into their nuclei, and poof, no more universe, as we know it. To forcibly place two electrons in the same quantum state at the same time,..., but only when the sum of their energies -- their amplitudes -- equals that of a certain type -- like a horse with two heads -- is not the same as when two different atoms merge to share an electron, say when sodium and chlorine combine to form salt. Only force particles can do that -- bosons.

"Could they have figured out a way to impart force particle properties onto a matter particle, a fermion? Is that a naive question? I mean, in a superconducting material this can be done if two electrons of opposite spin are considered as one enity. Having zero net spin they collectively form a boson, they condense into a single quantum state. But, that's true only for metals at extremely cold temperatures." With a shake of his head, he said distastefully, "These new types don't exist in our universe; yet, there they are.

"I think I see something, surprising as that may be. In the fusion process, there's energy released -- nuclear power reactors. So, possibly, the process they -- whoever they are -- use to artificially create multi-dimensional atoms, releases energy for as long as they exist. But how long? Six hundred million years?"

Hans sat back and took a long draw on his bourbon and coke. All the facts were not in, he knew. They were stepping into unknown territory on a scale that angels feared to tread. "So, where does Weingard think the energy is coming from, to alter the light show?"

"Another dimension, somehow behind," Rocky said, matter-of-factly, like it was just down the street. She dealt in multi-dimensional topological spaces on a daily basis. Hans, on the other hand, was a physicist. He could venture into multi-dimensional string theory and entertain thoughts of compacted balls of hidden space, parallel universes, the Many World's idea of quantum reality, but, he felt best dealing with nuts and bolts issues. He wanted to know what the practical implications were of the present situation. For instance, was the strangely arranged matter becoming unstable for whatever reason -- contamination, measurement influences, self-regulation anomalies? And if that was the case, what did it bode?

The space around him tightened its grip, straining ever so much more on his muscles and bones. "I've had enough," he finally snapped, irritation in his voice, "I want to see a video of these changes going on. Maybe then, I might get an idea; I feel like I'm working in the dark. What am I saying, I am working in the dark."

"I can get a CD, but, how I'll get it out now, with security so tight, I don't know."

"Maybe I can go there. I've only been at the Dig once since arriving; in the beginning, when it was still relatively wide open, prior to the ban on the media. If I disguise myself as a scientist,..., and that may not be that hard, actually. I do have old colleagues on the inside. Hmmm.

"But we still have the larger question. Not only the original -- what the hell is it and what is it doing here -- but, now, why is it doing what it's doing? Maybe they're both the same question.

"We need a break, kiddo. How 'bout dinner and a movie? Right here; I'll cook; there's a ton of CDs in that cabinet under the T.V. Check it out, if you want. Spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, red wine, how about it?"

She was up, heading for the CD stash. "Sounds delicious to me; breakfast was a long, long time ago. And pasta is my favorite addiction. You and Turbo probably have nothing but action movies in here I'll bet."

"Surprise yourself, young lady."

**************

Rain pattered on the roof; wind rustled the shutters occasionally; warm air surrounded them, sitting cross-legged on the floor, the foot-high Japanese table between them. Her last grateful bite in her belly, she leaned back aginst the couch, glass of red wine in hand, relaxed and satisfied. Hans stood to clear the table, except for the bottle of wine and his glass, and returned to his recliner.

"When you discussed this with your father, originally, in person, do you remember if there was anything in particular he reacted strongly to? You know, something that triggered a brainstorm? We've been all through it, this morning and now, and here's what's on the table so far : The physics aspect, the hovering smaller sphere suspended by forces unknown, covered with fluctuating designs in the center of the central sphere; the fact there are no portals or entranceways into any of the spheres; the sheer size of them; the designs themselves; the weird, angled rooms; and the atmospheres of each; all these phenomena fall within a larger context, the context of 600 million years ago -- what was happening on Earth and possibly even the solar system. What is our solar system from their point of view? Is that a valid question?"

Holding her glass firmly in hand, she started slowly, "Okay, remember when we were talking about the three basic topological components, the building blocks, that can be linked or subtracted to construct any shape or pattern -- the sphere, the torus and the projective plane? The patterns we've been able to classify are not reducible, in or out of combination, to any of those three. But, our total geometric picture of the world can be encapsulated and constructed, topologically, by those three; so, what geometry, then, do the designs represent? We're looking for properties that remain invariant under continuous maps, but how do we define invariant when we don't even know what kind of geometry we're dealing with? And would that give us any insight into their meaning?

"Doctor Noble saw fractal patterns, basins of attraction appearing and disappearing, moment to moment. Transitional space, a state of continuous disorder, self-organizing, then spontaneously breaking apart to form yet other fractal patterns."

"But he reneged on his appraisal," Hans put forth, "he said it was 'just wishful dreaming' or some such. Why did he do that?"

"He was comparing components, or what he thought were components, among the different designs, but then realized they were all transitional, and they could be found at various scales throughout each and every design, yet none remained fixed long enough to state flatly that it existed independently as a structure or even as an attractor. Like seeing images in a cloudy sky, you see something definitive, and then the clouds reshape and you see something else. Clouds in the sky, that's what he decided he was looking at. A nonlinear complex system with no linear components.

"But, you asked me about Dad's reaction. A couple of things bothered him but, none more than when I told him about the first four spheres that were opened rather recklessly, like a tomb or a mausaleum. I said we took a small amount of the atmospheres for samples, and the rest we pumped into individual sterilized holding tanks on site. He got up and walked around the room; he was upset. I had to stop until he calmed and returned to his seat. I asked him what was the matter but he just shook his head and said, 'later, I'll talk later.' But he hasn't yet; he needs more information."

"I have a thought, would you like more wine?" Hans grabbed the bottle and filled her glass, then his own, "the thought is, do you know what a 'trouble light' is? When something malfunctions with a machine, it triggers a light to come on, sends out a warning signal, in other words. What if, opening those spheres and emptying them of their contents, their atmospheres, we inadvertently triggered a warning signal? You said the lights in those four did not change when the others increased their rate of blinking, early this morning. What if the atmospheres truly were integral to the functioning of the designs, whatever that may be? If it is sending a signal, then to whom? Where?

"And what about the central sphere? Its surface is slowly rearranging its atomic lattice structure, its matrix? Towards what end, and, why the coincidence, the design rate increase of the five and the center sphere's surface change, are they related? It would seem likely, don't you think? Rocky?"

An incongruous smile covered her face. She turned to Hans, "What's it like, Hans, growing up where you did? Did you have a girlfriend? You're so smart and yet, you have that street toughness, it's in you, part of you, without it, maybe you couldn't think as well as you do? Did you ever think of that? It's integral to your functioning, not just your personality.

"Do you ever dream, Hans, do you? I had this dream last night, I only remember part of it, just the high points. But it was astonishing. Whole universes were being created spontaneously. There was someone they called Dark One, or sometimes, Lord, who orchestrated, no, that's not right, 'picked a moment,' and then pushed something through a film of dream-type dimensions, like blowing a bubble through olive oil. Since then, in spite of recent events, I've had this feeling that everything was going to be all right."

"All right with what?" he asked. "Who's all right? The end is not near; pissed-off aliens aren't going to show up one day soon wondering who tampered with their navigational sub-station; peace on Earth will magically come about; what, Rocky?"

"I don't know, I don't know. But, I don't feel malevolence."

"You might be alone, there, kiddo. I don't feel that way myself, I have to admit, but we're dealing with forces, scientific principles, and matter arrangements we have no real idea about. And the edifice, an expression of these, what is its purpose, what was its purpose? And why, for God's sake, is it empty? No life-forms of any kind or evidence thereof? And it's beyond sterilized, zero microbial life. Where did they go? Is it really a robot ship? If that's the case, then what's with all the rooms and corridors leading to the central sphere, with the balconies looking through to the smaller sphere hovering in the center of the vacuum? What of the set of three colinear focal points intersecting at the only fixed, invariant point of an entire, gargantuan design? What of all that stuff?

"It can't be a robot ship, so, what are the other options?" He finished his wine and said, "Square one.

"Care to watch another movie, we have the best collection in town?"

She laughed, "Yea, the best collection of westerns in all of Siberia, no doubt. I should be getting home." On cue, the rain downpoured, sounding like tiny pellets on the aluminum skin of the Airstream.

"Why don't you stay here tonight, Rocky? You can use my room and I'll take the den, or, there's always the couch."

Her smile returned; she asked Hans to turn the jazz up a bit, and could he crack that merlot she spotted in the refrigerator. They sat and talked about small things, human-sized things, childhood things, while the rain drenched the world in every direction, save this one, warm, comfortable spot.


THE BEACH

Tuesday Morning.

"I couldn't get the spectral CD but I have one of my own that finally came back this morning from Stanford. I could tell you about it over the phone, if you like, a quick synopsis, or over dinner, the full analysis," Rocky said, hinting at neither. She'd been up at dawn to hoof it to the site; she wanted to walk along the beach. Events and strange, unfamiliar feelings were unfolding quickly, in a rush, and she knew how suddenly a person could get into serious trouble on a climb, when a single hand- or foot-hold proved unsound -- she needed to be careful.

She was told the spectral scan could not be removed off-premises. For the sake of the project, if anyone else wanted to examine it, it needed to remain in the Puzzle Masters' trailer, in the group library. But any work she needed to do on her own stuff, ostensibly at home -- the three-story scientists' house -- was her business.

"Dinner and mathematical analysis, how wonderful," Hans said, "but a brief sketch would be helpful. I have a date to see your father this morning, so it could be something to discuss over breakfast."

"Okay, the cliff-notes' version: Doctor Noble and I have been studying the patterns of lights as they go through their changes, considering the whole design and sub-sections, comparing the networks between each sphere -- P-5 to P-9. Each node of a network is a light that runs through the entire visible spectrum, and besides the number of individual nodes, each light also varies in brightness intensity. This increases the sheer number of patterns exponentially. So, as you can well imagine, trying to find recognizable similarities between different sphere-designs, even using the Cray at Stanford, is a genuine challenge.

"But, it didn't seem to be getting us anywhere solid; Doctor Noble, as you know, recanted on his initial assumptions, after he got a firmer idea of the magnitude of the undertaking. So, a few weeks ago I began a study of my own. Classifying specific colors, up to an acceptable margin of hue variation, I randomly picked a point in time and recorded the stream for a period of four days.

"Now, the main problem we have with considering the entire network as a whole is that the patterns never repeat, they are non-cyclic, like an irrational number -- the decimal part never repeats. But, and I've only just begun studying this report, what Cray has discovered is, if you choose one color, say green, and isolate it as it streams, after a specific number of pattern changes, different for each color class, by the way, the network of greens begins the cycle anew -- it repeats.

"I've superimposed one-dimensional connections between lights, and these connecting lines act as boundaries to two-dimensional shapes. And each color-shape is separated from the others that make up the group by shapes of other colors. I'll explain later what criteria I used to define all this.

"Interesting, it appears that any given color class, as it cycles through its different patterns, occupies all possible shapes of a single design before repeating. And -- another and -- the shapes themselves vary in size and intricacy, that's why the cycle number varies for each color.

"One thing this means, if you're following me, is that the groups of individual color patterns are closed, finite and cyclic, but the background, or design, within which they are embedded is non-cyclic and infinite in the sense of non-repeating. One way to think of this is by analogy with the number systems. Rational numbers, locally cyclic under addition embedded in the reals, locally non-cyclic. In other words, the foreground is made up of discretely varying patterns while the background represents the continuum."

"Yea, Okay, Rocky, and how complex are these specific color patterns?"

"Oh, very, and there's more," she went on, "performing a comparative analysis across all five spheres, we determined a sequence in time. I don't mean that, say, a certain color pattern in P-5 is immediately followed by one in P-6, and that you can count on this repeating every time. No. What I mean is, whatever color pattern shows up in any single design of a given sphere, the others compensate to form a symmetry of sorts, a slightly dysfunctional symmetry, to be sure, but one that is recognizable. I got the idea for this when Weingard and Jennings discovered a fixed point in each design, a node of darkness that stays dark.

"Let me run this by you and I'll give you more details later: A fundamental group of a homotopic map is divided into classes, each class having its own base point. Paths, or maps, loop through separate trajectories back onto the base point; and each path in a specific class can be continuously deformed into any other through fourier analysis. So, say we're examining the class of greens, each pattern can be deformed into any other; they don't represent only a series that repeats, but a class of equivalent homotopic paths or circuits. Topologically, the paths themselves can be considered in their own right, without coordination or orientaion to a base point. Are you following me so far, mister physicist?"

Without waiting for a repsonse, she continued, "I believe that if the other four spheres were functioning properly, we could see an actual, factual symmetry." She was excited, elated; after all this time she was on to something concrete.

"And symmetry points to laws of conservation," muttered Hans. "Something, some identity remains invariant under transformation caused by a local gauge field." A long pause ensued, finally, "Okay, that's enough for now; you're breathing heavy. Dinner at six, whatcha say?"

"Be there; I'll bring the wine this time. Bye." She hung up, leaving Hans with more puzzle pieces, a picture becoming increasingly complicated by the hour. A vague, anxious feeling of time running out suddenly thrummed through his nervous system; he couldn't put his finger on the cause, as a good scientist would try, but his street instincts told him - time to put it in gear!

He readied himself for breakfast with Professor Samuelson, and, passing Turbo crashed-out in a sleeping bag on the floor in front of the couch, ventured forth into the morning sunshine. The weather was calm and promising; he decided to walk along the beach. The salt air felt warm, tingly, sensual, soothing.

Isn't that always the way? he thought.


ANASTASIA

Vasily kicked an empty vodka bottle on his way to the stove; he needed coffee and was hoping there was still some left in the pot from yesterday -- there wasn't. Aggrieved, he set about building a fresh one. Nomad and Hub were snoring down below in the focsle. How they made it down to Vasily's 46 foot longline boat, the Anastasia, was one of those mysteries of life one never worries about for more than the time it takes to shake your head. The dock was quiet, not much work being done since the great discovery, he thought bitterly. He didn't care for this disruption of what passed for peaceful normalcy; so many people made him nervous. His father, a quiet, solid, tradition-bound man, had been a shopkeeper -- dry goods and other sundries. A few times Vasily had gone to Moscow with his parents to visit relatives when he was but a child. It overwhelmed him with fear and wonder. After his parents passed away when he was a teenager, he never went again, choosing to live the life of a fisherman in tiny Casgrovina.

Coffee on the way, he groped through pockets -- shirt, pants, jacket -- until he found a cigarette, then sat outside on the hatch-cover in the sun. No one walked by to talk; to trade lies; to joke; to complain about prices and weather. He was getting paid good money at the Dig for what he was doing -- low maintenance and labor. But it was decidedly unsatisfying; nothing like being at sea, pulling up gear with fish on the hooks; fighting through sudden squalls to find a safe haven. Nobody was working the fishing grounds; the town had been under a pall of bad luck for the past few years, mostly because of lousy weather. The cheap prices at the dock didn't help either. So he took a job, like most of the other fishermen.

He spied Nomad in the near dark of the cabin, standing over the coffee pot. He poured two cups, then came outside and handed Vasily his. Wearing old sweats, eyes partially open behind sunglasses, hair standing at all angles, barefoot on the wood deck, steaming cup of mud in hand, he looked to all the world like the model fisherman -- hungover and worn rough. Sitting on the caprail away from the dock, staring blankly into the water, he sipped gingerly, cautiously, wishing above all else to avoid any sudden shocks. They sat quietly for a time, savoring the warmth of the sun, letting it saturate its way into their bones and sinews. Quiet, all was quiet, unnaturally so; even the gulls were still.

"Vas," Nomad whispered, not wanting to disturb the quality of the moment, no doubt, "did we decide anything last night? If so, it would be nice if you'd refresh my memory." Continuing to stare into the sunlit water, he sipped again, the same way; he was a cautious man.

Vasily gulped a mouthful; he needed the shock effect; he'd of thrown it in his face if he thought that would do the trick. As the skipper he was expected to know the answers; even when skippers don't know, they make it up -- command demands. Through the fog, without compass or lighthouse, he struggled to remember the events of the previous evening; it was painful; he gulped again and plowed on. Nomad turned his head to peer at Vasily. He had a way, even with sunglasses on, of looking right through a man. Giving Nomad the hairy eyeball look, attempting to smile the all-knowing skipper smile, Vasilly stated flatly in his strongest tone -- "You betcha." Then winked and gulped again, grimacing slightly.

A skiff went by, the boat creaked in its wake, Nomad kept staring, then whispered, "Well?"

With effort, the gist of their plans rose to the surface, like a halibut, alive but still, unsure of its surroundings. He was about to speak when the sound of pots crashing inside the cabin drew their attention. Hub was awake.

"What the hell ya' doin' in there," Nomad wanted to know, not whispering this time.

"Looking for my cup, whatcha do with it?" Hub spat out. He was not the 'good morning' type.

"That thing, you think I'd touch it? I'm afraid o' catchin' some disease," Nomad laughed. "Look in the bilge."

After mumblings and curses of an indeterminate nature, Hub emerged in all his magnanimous girth, oversized cup in paw. He stared bleaky at Nomad, then sauntered over to the opposite caprail, a crumpled cigarrette dangling from his lips. Still smirking, Nomad asked, "Have any dreams you'd like to tell us about, Hub, ole boy?" He liked to taunt Hub, younger by ten years and twice his size. But Hub usually took it well, respecting the other man's age and experience, also his toughness -- Nomad never backed down. That's all he had left.

"Don't be makin' fun of my dreams now, dreams are sacred, they tell you stuff," Hub said, staring at the deck, his broad shoulders hunched forward.

"Ahh, you read too much, man. All those books you got stuffed in your bunk, like a goddamn library. You oughta be teaching somewhere, not fishing." The fact of his clumsiness and slowness on deck was never broached, not even by Nomad. You don't poke a sleeping bear with a sharp stick. He changed course abruptly; everybody's nerves were raw; time to let up. "Seriously, though, Hub, that was some dream you had the other night. I mean it. I hardly ever dream myself; I don't know why; maybe I just ain't got no imagination."

The Dig was shut down; nobody cared one way or the other. These were fishermen; a land job didn't get much respect anyway. Since Vasily came on deck, things had warmed up. Old longline gear stacked near the stern lent its sweet smell to the seaweed and brine of the water at low tide, blending with the odor of diesel and hydraulic fluids. They sat in the sun, quietly, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Food was just something they did from time to time to keep the machine going.

Vasily grasped the opportunity to direct the conversation away from anarchy; he could see his compatriots were not in the mood to discuss it. "What's this dream you had, Hub? I didn't hear about it. I had a nightmare last week, woke me right up. I was laying in my bunk, my head kind of down off the side. The stairs creaked, I looked over and saw this doll, about, maybe, two feet tall, stuffed it was, walking towards me. I couldn't move, like I was paralyzed. Christ almighty. It woke me up. I couldn't go back to sleep so I built a pot o' coffee. Christ almighty." He shook his head, then lit another cigarrette.

"Tell him, man. I'd like to hear it again myself," Nomad said softly, with genuine feeling, or as much as he could muster.

Hub took a draw on his smoke, sipped coffee, then looked up at both of them and said, "All right, it'll kill some time. Well, it started with me standing on the bridge of a ship. Not a boat bridge, more like a flying bridge. I knew it was a bridge and not just a room, it had that look, you know what I mean? It was dark inside and even darker outside through these wraparound windows. I stared out, at nothing, then heard a voice behind me say, 'Keep looking out through the screen, Hub.' Whoever it was knew my name. I kept looking. Suddenly this, I don't know, bubble, like the kind kids blow with soap started to appear. It got larger and larger until it popped through this film of some kind, like thick water, only it didn't feel like water, more like oil, I guess, vegetable oil kinda. That's when I realized there were others on the bridge because they all oohed and ahhed. The bubbble was covered with bright stars and galaxies like the pictures I've seen in magazines up at the library. Just like those."

He sipped coffee again and studied his friends. They were attentive and looked interested, no one was smiling, so he continued. "Another one took shape off to the other side of the bridge with the same reaction from the others. I just stared, these bubbles were beautiful, they had me. After a few more of these, another off to the right formed. It seemed grander somehow, more colors, more stars, more stuff happening. It popped through and as I stared, the same voice behind me said, and I'll never forget this, he said, 'That one is yours; how do you like it?' The crew on the bridge cheered and applauded. They called him, now you're going to laugh at this, I know, but, I heard them, somehow, congratulating this guy, they called him -- Quikinnaqu -- Big-Raven, the Creator."

He stood to stare out past the breakwater towards the bay and into the rising sun; barely suppressing tears, his belly faintly convulsing with the effort.

A long silence followed during which Nomad got up and went into the cabin to fetch the coffee pot. He filled Hub's cup first without looking into his face, then Vasily's and finally his, putting the pot down on the hatch-cover. The same skiff that had gone by before did so again, heading in the outgoing direction this time. The boat rocked, Nomad gave the skiff's passengers a granite glare. They glanced and then quickly faced front. Those arrogant assholes, Nomad thought, never see any women with them, a yacht that size with only men, not my idea of a yacht trip. Like a pebble falling into a still pond, the passing of the skiff separated time into before and after.

Vasily covered it, "That was an interesting dream, Hub. I wish I had dreams like that; I just get nightmares anymore."

Hub didn't respond; just kept staring out to sea, sipping the fresh coffee.

"What do ya' say we go uptown and get some breakfast?" Nomad asked, "Pelar's Cafe sounds good. Before the rush."

"When isn't there a rush," Vasily quipped, irritated at the thought of the horde of invaders. "But yea, let's go, I'll buy, as usual."

"Damn right, you will," Nomad said.

They put on their boots, climbed over the rail onto the dock, and up they went, none too quickly, in single file -- Vasily, Hub, and Nomad bringing up the rear, as usual.


PROTECT

Bull was just finishing breakfast when there was a knock on the door, a rather impatient knock. In spite of himself, he cowered. "Who's there," he demanded. "I'm eating, come back later."

"Sir?" replied the timid voice of the engineer, "you told me to let you know about the status of the central sphere as soon as it stopped changing. Well, it has."

Bull pushed what was left of his potatoes and eggs to the side of the desk. "Come in, come in, let's hear it," he ordered, as he stood to cross the room for more coffee. He really didn't want to hear it, but, he was in it now and couldn't get out short of death, which he considered.

A sheath of printouts under one arm, the engineer half-stumbled into the enclave, fighting off fear for the sake of his message. Placing them carefully on the desk, he removed his hardhat and put it alongside, then thought better of it and moved it to a chair. Bull joined him and asked, none too civily, "What are we looking at now, get to the point this time, no techie talk."

"Well, sir, approximately twenty-four hours after the atomic lattice reconfiguration began, it just as suddenly stopped. I have a number of spectral printouts here, but, the ones you want to see are the first and last." The engineer spread those two sheets out on the desktop. Bull stared hard at the cryptic, squiggly lines; his untrained mind could discern no recognizable pattern. "To put it simply, no offense, sir, the first represents a conjoining of each atom with its immediate neighbors, an atom surrounded by four others. That's how it was from the onset. But this last, after the transformation," he said with some incredulousness in his voice, "represents a double layer of the same. That is, a center atom positioned on top of another, and then linked to four. Like a wave effect, looking at it from above; you see one superimposed on another, and to their sides are four, then another double two, and so on.

"We received a report on the surface material from samples taken from the pieces cut out of the nine. They've never seen anything like it. It appears that the electrons, or electron cloud, surrounding the nucleus of these atoms is of a different type. That is, the charge is the same, negative, but the mass is several times heavier that your basic electron, and the spin is a whole number, similar to a force particle, or boson."

Bull sipped coffee. He wanted to pretend to understand, like when he had been given an order in his military days for which he could see no strategic or tactical benefit. But, this was way too important, he knew; besides, he was responsible for whatever happened at the site, a prime motivator. "Please," he said softly, painful as that was, "what does this mean, exactly? What is the sphere up to? I mean, is it about to do something? Has it become somehow unsafe or dangerous? What is your assessment, young man?"

The engineer smiled and relaxed, a little. Bull knew this would help him think better, so he was pleased with himself for the effort -- the objective was everything. The engineer brought out another printout to show. It pictured a comparison between the surfaces of the other nine spheres -- all the same -- and that of the central sphere's. Wavy incidence lines were drawn at locations; the ones for the nine went through the surfaces, that of the central's reflected away.

The engineer said, "Using a highly focused laser beam, one-millionth of an inch thick, we easily cut curved squares through these nine spheres to gain entrance. We never tried to cut through the central sphere owing to the mysterious nature of its interior. Because of the ball suspended in what appears to be a vacuum within the hollow, we decided to wait until we knew more, just to be on the safe side. The sloppy way we invaded the first four," he said disgustedly, "demanded a more cautious approach."

"Are you planning now to try to cut through? Is that what you're saying?"

"No, sir, I am not. We probably would have been able prior to the transformation, but now, it simply isn't possible with anything we have technologically; the lattice arrangement has precluded the possibility. How atoms bond together is determined by their atomic structure; accordingly, we categorize materials as metals, ceramics, polymers. Additionally, we have magnetic, photonic and even biological materials. Regardless, a common set of principles underlies all materials.

At first, we uncovered a strange polymer formation, a linking of monomers with peculiar magnetic properties of a very different character than polymers we're familiar with. The overall configuration is what stood out as novel. Structure determines properties, and so, we were working to extrapoloate from earth-bound polymers. But now, after its transformation, it doesn't fall into any definite category we know." The engineer looked uncertain again, but for a different reason -- he was a little scared, but not of Bull.

"Have you tried to cut in? How do you know you can't until you try?" Bull was, if nothing else, a practical man; he believed in the direct approach, whatever the risk.

"No. As I said before, we didn't try before because we had no idea about the specific nature of the vacuum, what was liable to happen. And now," he shuffled through the printouts and produced one large foldout that showed a scatterring of light in all directions, "if you'll look at this, this is a print from the tunneling microscope. Previously it revealed passagways, as you would expect due to the quantum effect. But that has, somehow, been blocked, against all physics probabilities. It's like the surface has turned completely metalic, scattering electrons emitted by the scope. And photons that lasers shoot need to find a seam to cut through; those are gone now that the molecules overlap one another, smeared over, kinda like a resin after it's been catalyzed."

Backing up a bit, figuratively speaking, Bull asked in his best scientific tone, "Are you implying that this sphere has, on its own, rendered itself impenetrable? As though it sensed what happened to the others and corrected for it?"

The engineer, a materials engineer, to be precise, liked to crunch numbers and solve equations, was content in the world of structural dynamics, merging properties to arrive at some new type of material, or examining a surface with electron or x-ray microscopes, taking pictures of incredible beauty, to him. Working with forces, stresses, crystals, atomic structures, potentialities -- the flux and flow of time and space -- satisfied and comforted him. He liked knowing what he was studying, what he was looking at, but this, this was simply beyond his expertise and knowledge. He was being asked to proffer an educated guess, to reply on a matter for which he could only make a leap, a reasonable leap, he hoped.

The pause lengthened. Bull sipped. He needed him, so he waited, resisting the urge to prod an already obviously distraught man.

Finally, it came. "Sir, there are only two explanations for this phenomenon to take place: either by a preprogrammed robot, artificial intelligence, or, by something organic, like a plant might do to protect itself. If a plant is attacked by an infestation or destructive insects, usually, but not always, it will biochemically produce an antigen, or, in the case of insects, will make itself unpalatable. Also," he breathed deeply, then continued, less certain, "if it were an evolving entity, over time, it might selectively generate characteristics to better fend for itself in a suddenly hostile environment; it would adapt. But that process takes an enormous amount of time, at least here on Earth, as far as we know. Some adaptions do happen rather quickly, like moths changing color in coal country, say, where tree bark has darkened due to coal smoke. That doesn't take millions of years, but it doesn't happen overnight, either."

Bull walked around to the front door, opened it and stared out in the direction of the sphere in question. He thought about his days in Afghanistan. Before a battle, he would look out over the expanse where the enemy was suspected to be and try to feel their purpose, their strength, their movements, their will. His intuition had held him in good stead and, he believed, was the reason he was still alive. But now, what? he thought. What of this? Was this an enemy about to unleash unimaginable horror and retribution on an ignorant and primitive race of beings? Or was it a plant or a robot only trying to protect itself, with no consciousness or hostile intentions?

He turned to the engineer and asked, "What do you know or what do you make of the ball suspended in the hollow? Tell me something. How is it able to do that, by what power?"

The engineer sat on the chair next to the one holding his hardhat, which he fondly gazed at in an apparent plea for help. "I am not a physicist, sir, but, we know of only four forces in the universe: gravity; electromagnetism; the strong, nuclear force; and the weak one, beta decay, responsible for radioactivity and the transmutation of elements into one another. The first two, gravity and magnetism, are the only ones capable of producing the macro, or global, effect we see. But, we have been unable to detect fields of either kind."

"Didn't you just say something about the magnetic properties of the atoms?" Bull demanded.

"Yes, but, they remain internal to the atoms themselves; collectively, globally, the fields neutralize. And as far as the influence of our gravitational field, the inner sphere seems to be immune."

Bull slammed the door and strode to the engineer. "I'm not a physicist either, but I know the basic forces of the universe. What I want from you is an intuitive assessment. You've been working with this thing for, how long, almost three months? And this is the best you can come up with by way of explanation? Information I could find out in an elementary text book? Come on, you're the chief engineer on this project. What do you think, personally?"

He looked up at Bull, feeling the pressure but knowing to resist was more than futile. "Because we never were able to physically examine the inner sphere, we don't know for sure what constitutes its surface or in what manner the atomic lattice arrangment may differ from the surface of the outer sphere. But, and you're asking me for my opinion, now, so, please don't quote me, my career, you understand; but, I believe there is something inside the inner, small sphere, something that by its own power is able to keep its container suspended in what appears to be a complete vacuum. It doesn't accomplish this through gravitational or magnetic means, we would have detected those, as I stated before, even though we have not penetrated the outer sphere. So, and this is my opinion, it leads to the supposition that the force performing this duty is not one of which we are aware."

"What about those designs on its surface," Bull pressed on, "what role could they play? Or the surface itself, for that matter? Perhaps the inner sphere is hollow too?"

"That could be. But, I don't see how the atomic arrangement itself could wield the necessary power. This thing is perhaps twenty feet in diamter, and yet, it hasn't moved a centimeter from its original position, a very steady force indeed. It's true, the designs on its surface are of a different kind than those inside the other spheres. They're not composed of intemittently blinking lights, but instead resemble convoluted curves and intertwining circles. Even stranger, depending on which of the nine alcoves you choose to view the inner sphere, the designs noticeably vary."

"And," Bull said, putting his cup down hard on the desk, "I can see there's more."

The engineer didn't hesitate; he seemed eager now to voice his opinions, warming to the subject. "The colors of the lights in the other nine are intended to travel through their respective atmospheres, but those of the inner sphere travel through a vacuum. We therefore see no color, only white light. When we removed the atmospheres from the first four, they were replaced by ours, necesarily. Precautions were not taken as they have been with the other five. An unfortunate undertaking. And, from what I've heard, it's had a detrimental effect on their behaviour."

"Yes," said Bull sharply, "I received an explanation as to their behaviour already. What you seem to be inferring, if I'm following you correctly, is that something within the inner sphere is not only the cause of its hovering, but also may have some influence over the changes we've seen in the spheres P-5 through P-9. Or, do you believe the two phenomena, the transformation of the atomic matrix of the surface of the central sphere and the increase in the rate of blinking of the designs to be unrelated?" Bull plopped down in his chair, leaned back, and extended a hand to the engineer as if to say -- you're on.

The engineer leaned forward, bowed his head and stared at the tile floor. In a low and sober voice, all timidity gone, he replied, "I really can't say for certain; but, it just seems to be too much of a coincidence to completely dismiss. If there is some thing inside the inner sphere of the center one, I don't suppose it's too farfetched to surmise it having a causal affect on the behaviour of the others. They're connected, by what means or through what medium, I have no idea. This whole thing is so complex, so beyond my comprehension, that to guess at any possibility or the nature of connections is absurd.

"But, we must try, dont' you agree?"

Bull's demeanor softened. He smiled at the young and earnest engineer, so sincere and honest in his work and appraisal. It brought back memories of other young men he once knew, young soldiers and officers he'd sent to their deaths. They too believed they must try, for better or worse; they too were honest and sincere. He leaned forward, forearms on desk, hands clasped, and said, quietly and genuinely, "Yes, son, I most certaintly do."


DRAGON'S MOUTH

The dragon's mouth spilled water down a squiggly, tile-lined channel to the tiny pool set in limestone below. Ferns dominated the garden, here and there a rhododendron, a marigold, some wild lupins; behind the fountain stood one cherry tree, bare and alone, about twenty feet high. The rest was wild grass and shrubbery. The garden was surrounded by a weathered plank fence, of varying heights, from eight to ten feet in some places. Vapor lifted by the sun hovered a few feet off the ground before giving it up to rise and disappear. The warm salt air tingled as the moisture was squeezed out of it.

Orthodox Greek columns supporting a spruce-shingle roof, in need of a bit of repair, lent a feeling of class -- rural class, to be sure -- to the open back-porch, framing the rough garden beyond. A molded-wood caprail, chipped and scratched in various places, topped the banister. A circular hardwood table stood off to one side. Seated at the table, reading Manhattan Transfer, smoking a pipe and occasionally sipping coffee, Professor Samuelson relaxed into his surroundings, letting the warming air soak in.

The general reaction he had hypothesized was occurring. Not prone to narcissism or megalomania, he, nonetheless, found it curious that the edifice should choose to begin transformation after his arrival. Surely, he laughed to himself, it's a coincidence; I'm just another scrambling, talking monkey. But, inspite of his common sense, it nagged him. He still could not believe they had emptied the first four spheres, pumping the gases into holding tanks! My God, he thought.

"What are you shaking your head about, Professor," Hans inquired, as he casually walked up the garden trail from the front of the house. "Can't believe I'm this late?" He came up the few steps leading to the porch and sat in the chair adjacent, against the wall, so he could view the fountain and the pool, encircled by lilly pads. "I was up late last night, watching movies; didn't hear my alarm clock."

Samuelson laughed, "How many times did I hear that one when you'd come late for work at the Museum? When are you going to get some new stuff?" He reached for the urn of coffee and filled a cup in front of Hans. "We can eat here, the kitchen staff have agreed, after some haggling, I must say," glancing over the top of his glasses, "but, if you'd rather fight your way through the maddening crowd, then, so be it." After a puff on his pipe, the Professor returned to his book.

Hans tasted the coffee, then said, "I'd like eggs over medium, pork sausage, and any kind of toast will be fine." Another above-the-glasses look by the Professor and the two fell into laughing. The chief cook poked her head through the doorway, studied the situation briefly, then risked to step all the way out. "Professor Samuelson, have you decided?" she asked in a surprisingly pleasant voice, given her rough demeanor. Amused but nonetheless determined to play his edge, the Professor informed her of their choices; and, after nodding politely, with no need for clarification, off she went.

Sitting quietly, the only sound the dragon fountain ever so slowly disgorging water down the trough to the greenish pool, everything seemed fine enough in the universe, and somehow more precious, more real and immediate. Regardless of differences in perspective, they both shared the latter sobering awareness, and knew it to be precipitated by the discovery of the edifice and, especially, the most recent events. The fountain seemed to grow louder, each nuance and bubbling enunciated distinctly; the pool never spilled its circular wall of stones and concrete, always staying the same height. The Professor smoked and read; Hans watched the circular ripples spreading out to the edge of the pool, never ceasing to cycle, new ripples being born out of contitnuous flow, only to vanish against the inside of the retaining wall.

"Rocky phoned this morning," volunteered Hans, "has a CD she wants to show me, gave me a very brief synopsis, can't say I understood, I need the full story. She'll be over tonight for dinner, then I'll get the long version. From what she did say, though, got me thinking on the way over here. If she fills in quite a few blanks, I might begin to entertain a notion of what those designs represent. Or may represent. If I'm right, or even partway right, we're dealing with a level of physics that, compared to ours, is several times greater than that between a nuclear reactor and what our monkey ancestors knew in paleontological past. In fact, by our physics, it can't be done. But, like I said, I need more information.

"And something else." He paused to gather strength and for the dramatic effect; the Professor reacted with appropriate attention. "Just before I got here she called my cell. There's been a major development that you may not be aware of. Close to exactly 24 hours since the surface of the central sphere began to rearrange itself, it stopped. She told me that its new form precludes the possiblity of entrance by any means we have at our disposal. It's sealed tight, impervious in spite of its thinness, a remarkable structure indeed," he mused.

The Professor visibly stiffened and held his breath. Then lowered his head, closed his eyes, and whispered to himself, "Oh, no, no." He was about to respond when another cook arrived with breakfast, a hardy breakfast fit for a fisherman. They thanked her with true sincerity, not only for the sumptious meal, but for yet another opportunity to procrastinate. They wanted and needed to go there; but they didn't like to have to go there. A distraction like food was therefore welcome. But, after only a few bites, Hans knew it couldn't wait.

"Professor, you're an expert on the period when the edifice made contact, either deliberately or by crash landing -- falling from the sky. It appears to have been a rather hot landing, melting the crystal structure of the rocky earth to form a time-seal. Now, this could've occurred with a soft landing too, but, if that's the case, the amount of heat generated in the process would've been formidable -- something would have had to cause that -- but, they've found nothing that remotely resembles rockets, or engines, or machinery of any kind. So, the question is: how did it travel, what force propelled it through space?"

"I am not a physicist," replied the Professor, glasses now on the table, "you wanted to know what was going on at the time in question, as much as we know and surmise; apparently, that may prove to be not much."

"What do you mean; elaborate, please," rejoined Hans, while chewing a piece of sausage.

"At that time, 600 million years ago, rapid changes, and by rapid we're talking geologically, were taking place throughout the world, one after another. The last horendous ice age, the Verangian, one that lasted millions of years, not mere thousands, began its retreat. As it retreated, this part of the earth, covered by a warm shallow sea, was near the equator, probably about twenty degrees north latitude.

"Evolution itself evolved. Precambrian microbial life remained consistent over countless millions of years; in fact, cyanobacteria of today closely resemble their forebears of three and half billion years ago. Longevity hallmarks the metabolic processes as well. Certaintly, there were extinctions and resurgences, but, basic designs continued. The cell itself evolved symbiotically, self-organizing from pre-existing uni-cellular life forms.

"Tiny shelly creatures, the first living things with hard parts, appeared around the base of the Cambrian, somehow having invented biomineralization, but, they were not much of a threat to the Ediacaran Fauna, which had grown large by then. Ocean chemistry vacillates from time to time, plate tectonics is considered the main cause. As it happened, there was a spike in the concentration of calcium at the beginning of the Cambrian. A super-abundance of calcium proved toxic to most of the creatures of the sea, the only habitat available at the time. In defense, some applied this calcium to the growing of shells to protect themselves. Sound familiar? A trick once learned was incoroporated into the growing of bone, without which there would be no animals, and hence, no us.

"Cynaobacteria worked hard for billions of years to alter the atmosphere, taking out carbon dioxide and other gases, methane and ammonia, and releasing oxygen. More primitive bacteria gobbled up the sulfides, releasing nothing. The four prime elements of life -- carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen -- were removed from the air by these single-celled inhabitants of the Earth; they somehow invented the means to break down gaseous compounds in order to utilize their constituent elements for the maintenance of life -- glucose, the universal food, and energy. As you're well aware, energy resides in the chemical bonds between atoms of a compound; when its broken down, or disintegrated, the energy is released. How did they learn how to do that? Silly question, I understand, but...

"By 600 million years ago, the composition of the air was pretty much where it is now, the result of a prolonged and constant process of refinement. Over-oxygenation of the atmosphere, later to be modulated by production of carbon dioxide from volcanoes and living creatures, was the main contributor to that last Precambrian ice age.

"I said evolution itself evolved. The greatest transformation in the history of life occurred at what's called the Cambrian Explosion, 540 million years ago. Animals with skeletons emerged all over the world in only a few millions of years. Evolution increased in rapidity, new species came into being, proliferating, adapting to their surroundings, filling every available niche, over and over again. Competition, predation, sex, a sufficient percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere that promoted enhanced activity, all conspired to eradicte the passive Edicacaran Fauna and accelerate diversification and regeneration. The metabolic ground rules remained, but the players established a whole new way of maintaining them. Preprogrammed development was another major breakthrough at the end of the Precambrian. Evolutionary gateways.

"Longevity, of the sort associated with Precambrain life, was not a characteristic of these new animal phyla. Specialization superceded the generaliztion of Precambrian microbes -- they could live under almost any circumstances, and still do. If the Earth was ever, for whatever reason, to return to those primeval conditions, all life would become extinct, except for those bacteria -- the extremophiles."

Hans pushed his plate to the side, drank some coffee, then asked, "That's the general picture, Professor, but, if this ship, or whatever it is, landed here at that juncture in Earth's evolution, do you think it had anything to do with those Brink events you speak of, in any way? I mean, let's say it'd been orbiting the Earth for billions of years, then, at the crucial time, when conditions were in the ballpark, it, or they, descended to initiate certain processes, processes that required them to take up a specific locale on the planet, for whatever reasons."

"You're begging the question, Hans. We musn't assume the edifice has anything whatsoever to do with the genesis and subsequent evolution of Life. It's quite possible they are entirely unrelated and have always been. The edifice most likely has never been and is still not aware of Earth life." Abruptly, he looked away, agonized.

"My intuition about that last remark," Hans rejoined, not missing the Professor's reaction, "owing to the recent events at the site, tells me the edifice is somehow aware of us. After 600 milion years, for it to suddenly go through such incredible transformations now, is too much of a coincidence. We don't know, of course, whether or not it has done so before, occasional transformations may be normal for it. But, the central sphere rearranged its atomic matrix to make it impregnable to lasers or anything else we have. That's a specific reaction to a sensed action."

Looking away, he said more quietly, "I was going to say perceived for some reason." Sparking up again, he continued, "and it also tells us it must be in contact with the other spheres; they, after all, have been cut open, not the central one, so, how else would it know to defend itself the way it did?"

"My specialty, Hans, is Precambrian Paleobiology. It's not simply the models and concepts of modern biology transferred to the period from the formation of the planet to the rise of bony animals, no, it's a completely different kind of biology. To make an analogy in your specialty: it's like the difference between classical, macro physics and quantum, micro physics. The creatures of the Precambrian were intricately involved with the geologic matrix -- the inorganic Earth. From the atmosphere they learned to take single atoms needed to survive, to metabolate -- right out of the air! Question: if the atmosphere had been composed of other compounds, would the basic chemistry of Life be different, or, do the rules demand that they are the only ones possible? Are the rules that rigid, or is Life not that particular?"

No answer was expected, so he went on, "They learned, or invented the means, to repair damage caused by ultraviolet light, a constant problem until the ozone layer was formed. They learned to copy themselves, not much chance of mutation that way, and it's a good thing for us. They learned to photosynthesize; they formed symbiotic, interdependent relationships; they learned to sense temperature and to move towards what was better suited; they were unbelievably resourceful -- they were an advance guard, trail-breakers, survivors, our ancestors.

"That's what I zero in on, Hans, the very beginnings of Life, the basics, the classical principles, not the quantum variations. Phanerozoic paleontology, our period, concentrates on fossils and their interrelationships -- habitats, ecosystems, body plan comparisons. Precambrian biology, on the other hand, is mainly concerned with metabolism, with ways to get energy and the elements necessary to generate proteins -- building materials. What I find particularly fascinating with respect to the beginnings: the three essentials -- energy producing mechanisms, cell structure, and genome -- all had to evolve simultaneously, not sequentially. More times than I can rememeber, I've had to bow my head in awe and wonder as I've discovered new abilities and inventions possessed by these tiniest of all living things."

A distant look came over him, mixed with deep reverence and respect. Hans let him have a few moments of reverie before calling him back.

"Professor," he whispered, then raising his voice to a low timbre, "what principles do you see at work here? Everyone else, necessarily, is trying to make comparisons and connections with what we know; our mode of thinking -- cognitive rationality and reductionism, analysis. What do you see? And,..., Oh, not to change the subject but, a thought just came up, why were you so upset about the gases from the first four spheres being pumped into holding tanks?" The Professor's eyebrows raised ever so slightly. Hans reacted, "Rocky told me, I'm sorry if I've violated a confidence, but, time is wasting, I fear."

After a breathless pause, the only sound the dragon fountain, Samuelson began to explain, in his roundabout way, "The rules of Life were laid down in the early Precambrian, 3.5 billion years ago. Those same rules govern life and its processes existant today. Now,..., naively as possible, I have to ask myself: Why these rules and not some others? Why these axioms? Do they represent the only arrangement possible in all the universe? Or, is it necessary only that they be specific for a given world? A given context? And more: The same set of rules keeps recurring, governing, even though the participants change. So, I throw it back on you, old boy - what do you see?

Hans pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and said, "I was going through some old reference material, seeking clues, ideas; I wrote this down. It's from a review by Jack Sarfatti of a Peter Holland book, The Quantum Theory of Motion: 'The world, according to the late David Bohm, divides into objectively real, though mathematically complex-valued, quantum waves and objectively real classical particles and gauge fields. The classical particles and gauge fields always have quantum waves attached to them. For a many-particle system, the quantum wave function's domain is the systemís classical-mechanical configuration space not physical space.' And later on, in the same paragraph, 'The quantum wave patterns build up in the statistics of the particle detections. It would be more appropriate to say that the wave is the hidden variable.'

"I can find many examples of this same perception; it's commonplace in quantum mechanics -- the field is fundamental. The participants change, or are in a state of continuous identity transformation; the orchestra remains the same, or the field remains invariant. That is, the field keeps the interactions between particles unchanged -- symmetry. Or, one could say, the shifting set of interactions manifests the field, whatever form it may take. The same structure or design shows up in many different contexts until, it seems sensible to say, the underlying pattern stands out as real, what we should be focusing on. We can't expect to unravel the unthinkable thoughts and meanings acted out by the ever-shifting arrangements of lights of those sphere designs. Our only hope, as far as I presently understand, is to grasp what underlies -- intuition. The context gives identity and meaning to quantum objects. What, then, is the context of the edifice and its many designs?"

"That context," replied the Professor, "was violated when we humans entered the inner sanctums of the nine ring-spheres. Regardless of efforts to ensure minimal contamination and intrusion with those last five, our presence and that of our instruments has had, and could only have had, a detrimental effect. Even if not so, what transpired with the brutal treatment of the occupants of the first four is nothing short of barbaric and shocking."

"Occupants?" asked Hans, his eyebrows raised now.

"The principles of Life are such that," he paused, looked off to the fountain, then continued, "each is necessary; and together, working together, they cannot help but bring life out of primordial hydro-carbon soup, to precipitate it, to create it, given the integrity of their surroundings. Precambrian life created the context of Earth that made it possible for more life to occur. Life, and its handful of principles, built upon itself, rewriting and rearrangeing existing scripts to perform new functions, to enable Life to expand, in scope and detail.

"Those collections of gases, those atmospheres, how do we know what they really are? What part they play in the context of the spheres? Of the entire edifice? We don't even know what elements they're made of -- nothing in our periodic table to match -- or what significance the arrangements. The rate of change of the designs in the first four did not accelerate to phase shift, as did the other five, atmospheres intact. Obviously, a necessary principle was forcibly removed. We simply do not know but, I, nevertheless, suspect that what we so blindly and ignorantly pumped into holding tanks may very well be life-forms, energy forms, projections from other dimensions. I don't have the particulars, just, as you say, an intuition. Moreover, they could also be, or were, in some kind of symbiotic relationship with their respective spheres."

The Professor leaned back and smoked his pipe, staring at the ripples in the fountain, forever re-cycling, the fountain with the head of a dragon. Tapping his pipestem twice on the table, he asked Hans, "What do you see?"

The chief cook once again poked her head outside to check the all-clear. Satisfied, she approached with a fresh pot of coffee, quickly and quietly removed the plates, then retreated to the safety of her kitchen. Hans murmered a thank you; the Professor kept staring at the fountain, ignoring the proceedings. As soon as she was gone, Hans spoke, assuming the Professor's introductory manner.

"In the beginning, the universe was a teeming cauldron of primordial plasma, electrically charged particles. As the universe cooled, it clumped into knots and lumps of energy, tighter and tighter. Later, more cooling, electrons slowed enough to be captured by protons to form atoms -- nucleosynthesis. At that time the universe became transparent, photons no longer collided with an electrically charged universe. It was a major breakthrough in the evolution of the cosmos.

"The Periodic Table is a taxonomy of the elements presently known by us, a speciation from common ancestry as the result of the power of fusion. I'm looking at the parallel structure here. Do you see it?" Without waiting for a response, he continued, "The period prior to nucleosynthesis can be considered the universe's Precambrian, a time of amorphousness, leading to an eventual hybridization of particle transformations, and later still, a boundary was passed, the universe's Cambrian, effecting diversification and proliferation of atomic species and then molecules, compounds. As I understand it, this sequence of events mirrors the story of biology: amorphous hydrocarbons self-assembling around a principle to form integrated cells, internally cooperating symbiotically, eventually evolving into multi-celled creatures which, at their beginnings, blurred kingdom distinctions at the base of the Cambrian Period. From then on, we have the new world order, a definite phase shift, a rate increase in evolution, diversification and proliferation of animal and plant species.

"When speciation took off -- the famous Cambrian Explosion -- some fell by the wayside -- natural selection -- but most proliferated, all over the earth, within a few million years, as you said -- no time at all, geologically. Kingdoms refined themselves to distinctiveness, setting the modus. A similar scenario occurred after the formation of atoms -- molecules, planets, stars, whole galaxies emerged -- units and sub-units, internally cooperative, gravitationally symbiotic, ecologically sound, on all scales throughout the known universe.

"Telescoping down to planet size, consider the Earth, the Earth as an endosymbiotic set of interrelationships, a global ecosystem; each player of which exerting an influence, however subtle, necessarily embodying the basic principles that gave birth to, organize and govern Life.

"Now, what do I see? I see phase shifting. I see speciation. I see evolution. I see basic, fundamental rules used as independent ingredients to produce more sophisticated combinations. The arrangements of atoms dictate their species character -- from a diamond to graphite -- it's still carbon, the genus. Likewise, the arrangement of genes, how they interconnect, their organization, is what makes the crucial all-important difference between us and the chimp.

The rules cannot be violated. No biological entity can exist unless it adheres to the rules; and no molecular structure can exist if it violates the rules of Physics, the Laws of Nature. At least not here on Earth, in this universe -- the invariance and symmetry of physical laws cannot be denied."

He sipped coffee. His chair tilted back against the wall, cup held in both hands, he spoke in a deliberate cadence, "Professor, what I see, based on what I know of the edifice to date, for one thing, is that the physics governing its behavior and composition -- its lack of anything resembling machinery or a means of propulsion -- point towards it simply not being of our known universe. Can't be. True, it exists in local spacetime, but is, nonetheless, somehow immune to the necessities dictated by the rules, the laws. How can that be? How can the surface of the central sphere spontaneously rearrange its atomic lattice configuration in such a way -- and to such an arrangement -- that cannot, or should not, be able to even exist? The edifice, in other words, is not supposed to be here."

Pipe smoke billowed from the Professor like a coal-train going uphill. He turned to Hans and remarked, "As I said before, Hans, I am not a physicist. However, I do not believe that a scant 300 years of investigation into the workings of the known universe has revealed all its secrets. You speak of fields, force fields, quantum fields; what if, what if there are many more, countless more fields of forces of which we have no inkling?

"The edifice, as has been stated, is at least 600 million years old! The physics underlying its creation must be far older. How much older? Who can say. But in any event, the facts to date don't necessarily point to an alternative-universe origin; that's what I'm saying. And as far as the rules go, they obviously changed at the birth of the Cambrian."

A long pause ensued during which they drank coffee and quietly listened to the dragon fountain playing its eternal symphony of burblings and gentle splashes, the ripples traveling endlessly towards the inner wall of their known universe, only to vanish into oblivion.


BOAT PARTY

Turbo sat up, then fell back hard on the rug, his head thudding that low fog-horn reverberation. He lay there still as broken glass in mud, listening to the heater fan, the refrigerator, the electricity in the walls, his heart, his blood, his breathing. He opened his left eye, it was easier than the other, and stared at the ceiling, trying to measure its distance.

A scurrying sound caught his attention, he opened the other eye. On the floor in the unzipped sleeping bag he could spot sunlight under the door not twelve feet away. The sound stopped; he waited, watching for shadows. Quiet. Ever so slowly he rolled in that direction, then half-stood and dropped back onto the couch, holding his head, thankful the curtains were drawn.

The pile of cobwebs lifted one at a time, abruptly as they do, glints and glimpses of events, places, people. Coffee, he needed coffee. Mechanically, he forced himself off the couch, stood to clear his head, then managed the short distance to the kitchenette and the microwave. He braced himself for the inevitable end-sound of the nuker, but two seconds before, opened the door. Cup firmly in hand, he returned to the embracing comfort of the couch. One sip, too hot, but the burning sensation helped; another taste, then he leaned back and rested. The mist dissipated faster and faster, unveiling peaks out of time, then valleys and contours, details.

Since their arrival, they've been spotting people who didn't blend well, impersonators. We all play a variety of roles in our daily lives, wear different hats. Acting and pretending are normal human pursuits, the stuff of society. But, there's a certain circumspect look, not good or evil, that stands out and separates a man wearing it from his social surroundings; he can step outside the play at any time, that is, potentially; he's up to something and does not want anyone to know what it is. And, as the adage goes, it takes one to know one, so Hans and Turbo had been picking them out of the crowds as they moved about the town.

Two weeks ago, stepping out of the context of the all-engaging edifice in order to simply feel real again, Turbo was cruising the bars. They were crowded most of the long day and into the wee hours; he had no problem getting lost. At his favorite place, The Skull and Crossbones, he accidentally found a spot at the bar that, acoustically, allowed him to eavesdrop on a conversation taking place amongst a small group of men sitting in the booth just behind him. Through the din, he modulated the sounds until he could focus, more or less, on what they were saying -- a simple cocktail-party trick. Through the mirror behind the bar he could make out three rough-looking characters, bearded with intense eyes. They were trying to look like fishermen by their clothes, but their soft hands and forced ease of movement betrayed them.

He picked out the word 'rapture' several times; not what a fisherman was likely to say. Then the expressions 'time is running out' and 'die for Christ' filtered through. They appeared secure, disdainful of those around them, unconcerned about being overheard, arrogant. Turbo ordered another drink, then made a show of standing to get money out of his pants pocket, brushing back his long-coat with a flourish. It got their attention; they stopped talking. Pretending to be a little drunk, he dropped a quarter on the floor, his index finger giving it the right spin; it rolled towards them, coming to rest under their table. He and Hans had been seeing these people all over town; now, he thought, it was time to find out who the hell they were and where they were coming from.

Stumbling a bit, smiling vacuously, he moved towards their booth. They glared hostiley, contemptuously; he ignored it and, rocking side to side, crossed the few feet. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he slurred, "I wonder if you could get that quarter under your table for me?" They continued to glare. Turbo sidestepped their wall of discouragement and said, in as sad a tone as he could muster, "my mom died yesterday and I've been out getting drunk. Sorry for the intrusion, never mind. Could I buy you a drink? I'm just trying to work my way through this."

The older man sitting alone noticeably softened; the others followed his lead. "No, no thanks," he said in a thick Russian accent, "your mother, huh? that's too bad, sorry 'bout that. Hey, let me buy you a drink." He slid over to the wall, then said, "Sit, sit, my friend; it's not right a man should grieve alone, sit."

Looking beleaguered and distraught, Turbo plopped down. "Thank you," he said, staring at the table. "I could use the company, I guess." The other two were unsure about the proceedings, but the older man smiled and winked; they relaxed and leaned back into the booth.

The older man waved one of the waitresses over and ordered another round; Turbo's drink had already been on the way and materialized first. "Here's to my mother," he said, raising his glass. They followed suit with surprising conviction. "She raised me all by herself, me and my two sisters; I hope they're okay wherever they are; I lost touch." He drank; they copied. "But, you hafta go where the money is, you know, these days, anywhere in the world. Got me a damn good job working out there at the Dig. Good pay for not much work. Been here since the beginning, two months, try to sock it away, but," He held up his glass to explain, then shook his head. "Been broke a long time; now, big bucks, you know how it is, you're fishermen."

They smiled, feeling smug at their apparent deception. The older man said, "Let's have another one." He ordered roughly at the passing waitress; she nodded and continued on her way. "So you're working at the Dig, huh? Not us, we decided to keep fishing, it's in our blood." The others nodded approvingly, raised their glasses, then put them down without drinking. "What kinda work you doin' out there, huh? maintenance, electrician, what?"

Turbo shook his head and frowned. "No, I'm not supposed to talk about it, but, what the hell, you guys are all right. I'm a troubleshooter. Whenever any of the computers go down, and there's a ton of 'em, I get 'em back on line. I have a knack, no formal training, just a knack, self-taught."

"So you have access to the entire Dig?" asked the older man, a little more pleased than curious. "Freedom to move?"

The waitress returned with the drinks. Turbo tried to pay but they wouldn't let him. "Yea," he said, acting drunker. "I come and go as I please, even when there's nothin' to do. Everybody knows me, I know what's on the computers, what they're doing with them, so, what's the point in trying to check me out?" he said, with an air of defiance.

The bar was getting even more crowded, nightfall, workday over, fishermen turned Dig workers piling in. Some of the locals were giving the foursome the onceover. Turbo pretended not to notice, but the others grew uncomfortable. They knew the small-town folk were naturally suspicious of what they believed to be undercover people. Out here on the edge of Siberia, government authority had little respect and even less control. And they had orders -- no trouble. The local police had been beefed up considerably by security from Moscow, men who didn't need much of an excuse to arrest and interrogate.

The older man decided to make a move. "My name's Gregorivich, my compatriots are Petrof and Drobny, what's your's friend?"

"Frank," repled Turbo, "Frank Hilton." He took a pull on his drink and stared back at the crowd at the bar, giving the three a chance to communicate.

"Well, Frank, we have a party to go to. I know you're probably not in the mood, but, I think, maybe, it might be a good idea to get some air. Huh? Whatdyasay you come along, lift your spirits a bit; c'mon, we'll take care of ya'. Make sure you get back home safe."

"Yea," said Turbo, nodding his head. "Get out of this stuffy bar."

Chit-chatting amiably along the way, they ambled the short distance to the dock where a skiff was waiting. Ten minutes at top speed and they were there -- the good ship Christ Is My Saviour.

It was a confusing scene; dozens of men milling about. The main cabin was standing room only; the back deck, covered with a white canopy, was only slightly less crowded. Food and drink were plentiful; long tables set up along either side of the deck contained a variety of edibles and bottles of wine. Curiosly, he couldn't help but notice -- there were no women. What kind of a party was this, he asked himself. Maybe it was some club, the Masons or Elks or some such organization; a religious group perhaps, but, with alcohol? Didn't they like women? He was about to ask his new-found friends when a commotion broke out near where they had boarded.

It spread inside the cabin gaining strength, rippling through the throng like a wave of force. His compatriots moved in that direction; Turbo hung back, testing the air, unwilling to expose his presence so blatantly. It was also a habit he had developed from the old days -- stay on the outside of mob scenes, it's safer. He poured himself a glass of red, found a comfortable chair over by the railing away from the boarding side, then sat to think.

Who are these people? All men, probably. What are they doing here? Were they just curious about proceedings on shore like hundreds of others in town? But the name of their yacht -- Christ Is My Saviour? Religious fanatics who drank and ate like kings? They didn't appear to be government people, at least not the kind he was familiar with. Mercenaries? He was familiar with that type. They wouldn't have any women around either, not until the job was done, whatever it may be.

He stood to walk to the nearest table for more wine when a small group, including the three from the bar, approached from the other side of the ship. The one in front, smiling warmly and dressed in a long white robe hemmed with gold, extended his hand when still several feet distant. Turbo remembered that he was supposed to be a little drunk, and so adopted the appropriate demeanor.

"Greetings, my friend, greetings." He shook Turbo's hand with both of his, then said, "My brothers tell me you work at the site, the site of the edifice, I believe it's called. It must be very exciting to be that close to the alien structure. I wish I could see it, with my own eyes, but alas, I have to rely on second-hand testament to its wonders. As you may know, the media has not been allowed on site since the first days, so we poor outsiders have not even a single picture to wonder by. The world is getting restless over it; they are curious and in need of reassurance, fear spreads like a virus, especially through the lands of the ignorant. Why, do you think, is it being kept so secret? Something from outer space of concern to us all, to all humanity?"

Turbo sipped wine and tried to measure this hukster in front of him. When he spoke, the others remianed quiet, deferential, hanging on his every word, waiting, expectant. He sensed that to attempt to lie at this early stage would not be prudent; something about the man in the robe alarmed him. He remembered when he was a kid, there was an old man in the neighborhood who was always smiling and warm and friendly. The other kids had taken him for a fool and tried to pull the wool over his eyes once, but only once; it turned out the old man knew exactly what was going on around him. Moreover, he might be testing him; he might already know why.

In a slurry yet coherent voice Turbo said, "The public relations people hand out reports and drawings every week, usually there's not much new, just a rehash with an additional point or two. They put the media off-limits to protect the edifice from further contamination by photographers and to minimize traffic. And time seems to be of the essence, so the scientists and others working on the project don't care for any interference, no interviews since that first pronouncement last May. They're not sure what they have or what may suddenly happen; they're being careful."

The hukster in white smiled at this last statement, like he knew something Turbo didn't. "Please, sit, my friend, sit," he gestured aft, "have some more wine, we need to talk." He and the older man from the bar accompanied Turbo to the rear of the canopied area where a couch and several chairs surrounded a low coffee table, bare except for a few bottles of wine and a large bowl of fruit. The hukster regally sat in a high-backed leather chair, much like the one Hans had, Turbo mused, while he and the older man sat at either end of the long couch. Turbo wanted to ask what the commotion had been about, but thought better of it, it could wait.

"Gregorivich tells me you're a computer troubleshooter. And you have freedom to move about the site, and know something of what's on the many computers the scientists and engineers use. Is that correct?"

Turbo merely nodded, deciding not to volunteer anything more than what he already had, lies though they be. He sipped more wine and leaned back as comfortably as he could.

"He has also informed me of your unfortunate loss, so sad; were you very close to your Mother, Mister Hilton?"

This guy's very thorough, thought Turbo, covering all the bases, remembering all the details, asking all the questions. He had almost forgotten the story he had told the three at the bar, the hook. Turning suitably forlorn, he said, "Yes, yes we were. I phoned her every couple of weeks, especially after the fall. She had always been active; I guess lying in bed for as long as she had was too much for her. She faded away; a heart attack finally took her in her sleep." Turbo almost laughed, barely restraining himself; he had to look down at the deck.

"Unfortunate, truly," the hukster said, spreading both arms, hands open, "but at least she went peacefully, Mister Hilton, that's one good thing."

Turbo nodded agreement, then emptied his glass in a show to cover his affected grief.

"Please, have more, drink, it is your night to salve your broken heart. You are amongst friends, friends who understand such loss."

As Turbo poured he noticed out of the corner of his eye the two glancing at one another. Gregorivich rose, excused himself, offering condolences as he went. The atmosphere shifted noticeably; the hukster's presence seemed to intensify; his eyes brightened.

"It is a beautiful night, balmy; don't you agree, Mister Hilton? After all the rain we've been having. Siberia in the summer. I would not like to be here in the winter, believe me. We've come from California where it's warm and dry year round, almost. I miss it. But, alas, we must be here. We have come to bear witness to the miracle, the miracle of discovery of another life in the universe. It is our faith, our teachings, you see. Our founder, the prophet Yanti of the great continent that fell beneath the sea, Atlantis, had fortold of this event. His teachings were found, secure from degradation, in a cave on that doomed continent. Alien life had once visited Atlantis and had spoken to him. Not in our way, with words, but with images, pictures, which he understood. Our faith predates all the great religions of the world. So, we have come. But, sadly, we have not been allowed to enter the holy site. That's why I, we, thirst for information, for knowledge of this great event."

Turbo realized his jaw had dropped and quickly closed his mouth. What the hell? he thought. The prophet Yanti? From Atlantis? Predating all the known religions of the world? Without thinking he asked, "Why then is your ship called Christ Is My Saviour?"

Seamlessly, with but the thinnest of shocks, the hukster replied, "Our organization has, unfortunately, been persecuted in the past. The world is not tolerant of our beliefs." He looked down at his hands, reflecting the mood of the downtrodden and misunderstood. "So, we masquerade, disguise ourselves as followers of Christ. A good man in his own way but, he is not Yanti, does not have Yanti's insights into the nature of the universe, of humanity, of Life. A pragmatic thing to do, nothing more. It is distressful, but, we dismiss it, pay it no mind. One must do what one must. These are barbaric times in which we live. Yanti has prophesized the coming of the edifice, and has told of its meaning. Time is at hand, the great beginning is about to befall us all. It is the end to ignorance, to humiliation, to inhumanity."

Turbo didn't know what to do. He wasn't buying the Yanti-Atlantis story at all, but, the hukster made it sound plausible, which is what a good hukster is supposed to do. Now he waited, pretending to believe him, half-smiling good naturedly, the way one does when confronted by religious people, especially those professing to having been persecuted, always a sympathetic hook. His mischevious side, however, wanted to say something like: I guess Yanti must have been a firm believer in partying, the hedonistic son-of-a-gun. But he was waiting, it would come, whatever it was. The hukster would not be so polite and forthcoming towards some drunk his brothers had dragged home from the bar if he didn't want something.

The hukster leaned forward and was about to speak when a young man wearing a similar robe, but without the gold hem, scurried up to him and whispered in a foreign tongue, a language Turbo, in spite of all his travels with Hans, could not make out. The hukster's eyes opened wide, his mouth dropped, his mood changed abruptly, savagely. In one motion he was up and gone, followed quickly by the acolyte. Turbo, seeing the opportunaty to play the innocent and possibly learn something -- something that might cost him dearly, he understood -- followed behind as well, but at a more leisurely pace.

When he got to the cabin, two dozen men stood looking out the windows at the bay and the peninsula to the east. In the center were three men lying on a table, their eyes wild, hair disheveled, trembling and babbling incoherently. The hukster stood gazing at them momentarily, then ran down below, waving to several to accompany him, but only three did, the others holding back, obviously in terror. In the pandemonium and distraction, Turbo slowly approached the three on the table. Blankets had been placed over them and others were trying to get them to drink wine, but they were gone, oblivious to their surroundings. Turbo looked around cautiously, feeling it might be a good time to depart, but how?

He overheard english coming from somewhere behind, an agitated and distraught voice, whispering loudly. He didn't dare turn, only stood still, staring at the men on the table. Others were talking in the same vein, but in several different languages. He honed in on the english voice and heard snippets here and there. "They just disappeared," he heard. Then, "while they were working them, cleaning and repairing, talking together, then suddenly, whoosh, they were all gone, all our weapons, everything, even the handguns, the ammunition, everything, vanished into thin air. I found them on the floor, trembling and crying. What has happened? How? Who? Brother Rapture will know, he'll know what has happened. He'll know what to do. He'll know." It was a plaintive plea as though from a child, a child in deep fear and anxiety.

Turbo knew, he knew it was time to get the hell out of there however he could. He turned with purpose and strode to the door. It was blocked; he barged through, explaining to the distracted men that he was going to get some more blankets. Men were milling about on the sidedeck, he posed with them, scanning the horizon for what, nobody knew. Then a shout from the stern, somebody saw something. They all ran that way, anger mixed with fear, a deadly combination. A few feet to his left was the rope ladder leading to a small floating dock tied to which was their fleet of skiffs. It was time to beat a hasty retreat. In the darkness, grappling with the rope gave him trouble; the wine didn't help. Slipping on the little dock, he chose what looked to his untutored eye to be the fastest of them all. He turned the key and pushed the starter button, it came to life immediately -- thank Yanti, he thought. He untied the line and, weathering the shouts and threats and questions raining down from above, aimed the skiff towards Casgrovina and cranked it up.

Surprisingly, no one followed; he was certain they would. They had to know that he obviously could have nothing to do with the disappearance of their weapons, but, fanatics of any stripe can easily blame someone handy for any mishap that befalls them, in some convoluted way. So it was best to get the hell out of there, always best, he thought.

He didn't bother to run to the dock, instead he beached the skiff in the vicinity of the boatyard, then yarded it up, heavy as it was, above the tide line, and covered it completely with tarps and driftwood. The safety of the Airstream was only a hundred yards away; he strode quickly, looking over his shoulder occasionaly as he did.

He didn't tell Hans; didn't tell anyone. When he got home that night Hans was asleep. So he sat in his bamboo chair and drank bourbon until his nerves settled. What the hell happened? he thought. Weapons? Ammunition? Vanished in the presence of three men? Three men who clearly had suffered severe trauma from the experience? And who are those people? What are they really doing here? Questions, questions, but no answers. He had kept it to himself all this time; hadn't been sure what to do about it; had needed more information before bringing Hans into it. It was his problem; Hans had enough on his mind.

But last night he once again ran into Gregorivich, the older man from the ship who had befriended him, or at least pretended to. In the relative safety of The Skull and Crossbones, while clouds moved in from the east promising another squall, they talked at length about that night. It left a serious impression on Gregorivich. The three who had had first-hand experience of the incident were sent home; they were of no use anymore. Turbo, aka Frank, explained he had been frightened and only wanted to get away. Gregorivich understood, genuinely, it seemed to Turbo. Brother Rapture had calmed the situation down, Gregorivich said, having explained that forces opposed to their presence had surreptitiously stolen the weapons, after unleashing a chemical agent on the three. The older man confessed he wasn't sure he bought that. How could anyone, several people, get on and off the boat with all the weapons and ammunition without anybody seeing them? he asked. But, his mind couldn't get around it any other way. He couldn't help but add, though, that the weapons they carried were only for personal protection as they traveled, not much.

From their base in California, they had restocked themselves and all was back to normal, whatever that meant; although now, armed guards were stationed in the gun-room twenty-four hours a day. And, they wanted the skiff back, if he would be so kind. He was invited along, same deal. He accepted. They wanted something from him, and a follow-up visit would grant another chance to find out who they really are and what they were up to. Rapture's explanation was bogus, he knew, he knew what he saw, but he pushed it to the back of his mind for the time being. Besides, he had to face it again; you can't let yourself be intimidated, that's a rule.

Clouds covered the sky, the mild wind pushed the sea forming shallow ridges across the Bay. Together they uncovered the skiff and dragged it to the water. Before leaving, Turbo told Gregorivich to stay put while he went to his place to leave a note informing his partner of his whereabouts. But in truth he stopped at the trailer to get his nine-pounder. On the way out he ran into Hans in the kitchenette and told him simply that he was going for a boat ride, that was all.

The trip across the Bay, riding the tops of the oncoming wavelets, spray occasionaly exploding upwards, invigorated and strengthened Turbo's will. On board the yacht Christ Is My Saviour, he was greeted warmly once again by Brother Rapture, aka the hukster. He appeared strained, not as overbearingly confident, apparently a strugggle was going on within. He was obviously too intelligent not to believe his own eyes, but his megalomaniacal insistence on absolute power and control fought for dominance, with a price. As he sat in his leather chair, two of his men stood guard on either side, prepared to protect him, no doubt, but from what? And once again they engaged in roundabout conversation on the back deck. The side-flaps of the canopy had been pulled down and tied at deck level. The talk lasted a good hour or two, he wasn't sure, time seemed to slide by, for some reason. They talked about their lives, Turbo making it up on the fly, he believed Rapture was too. Rain began to fall in earnest as the squall swooped down from the eastern mountains; the canopy rippled and bucked; the sides billowed in, then abruptly out, randomly.

Nonetheless, Rapture made no move to go inside; he ignored the turbulence. But Turbo suspected it was more denial than mental and physical toughness; what he refused to acknowledge would not be a threat, and gave him his edge, his identity. As the preliminary softening-up part of the conversation was clearly winding down, Turbo felt the pressure of being forced into a corner. Rapture wanted something specific, he knew, something vital to his plans, whatever they were. Turbo had still not figured out why they were here; but, with all the men and all the weaponry, he suspected it wasn't to set up an amusement park. He waited, trying to appear calm and unassuming. From his position on the couch, he could see the forward stairwell through the open doors at the rear of the cabin. Suddenly, shouting and screaming bellowed out from below decks. White-eyed men pushed one another up the stairs, stumbling and crawling, yelling and gasping in terror.

The atmosphere tingled with fear and confusion, a tornado quickly ensnaring all those near. There was no denying this. Brother Rapture and his bodyguards were drawn to the scene like helpless bodies to a black hole, passing the event horizon, diving into the vortex, entering an abyss of darkness and desperation.

Bits and pieces of garbled speech spilled out: The weapons had been surrounded by a dozen armed men. A dozen armed men whose weapons, the ones they were holding, vanished into thin air along with the rest. The men from below deck scrambled up and out, their eyes wild, pulling their beards, completely beside themselves. Those who had been topside tried to calm them, but it was futile, they were inconsolable. The mob energy spiraled out of control and accelerated into full-scale chaos and panic-driven hysteria.

Sitting at the other end of the couch, Gregorivich was no less dumbfounded than Turbo. Shaken out of his stolidity, he pushed to his feet and grabbed Turbo by the arm as he went by. Together they forced their way through the crazed throng along decks, and headed for the skiff of their choice. The rain had stopped as suddenly as it had begun, but the brief squall left the sea a choppy mess. Going with it, at high speed, they crashed over crests, dropped down waves, then up the backsides, all the time buffetted by heavy slaps and spray. After about fifteen minutes, they arrived at the dock, whereupon Gregorivich announced he had had enough and was going home, not to California, but to Minsk. In a grave tone, fighting back fear, he asked Turbo to promise not to say anything to anyone about his departure. Turbo agreed. As they parted company, they paused momentarily to glance hard at one another, that sideways look, and nodded.

The boatyard was a mile north. The air had been cleansed, the late June sky quickly clearing, the clouds leaving place with the wind. Because the sun, now at its lowest, was just below the shroud-covered peaks of the Kolyma Range, a few stars could be seen in the twilight. Adrenaline was a blanket he wrapped himself in, creating his own field of influence, as well as linking him to the Earth. He walked that animal walk we all do when we suddenly converge on ourselves, when we momentarily step out of the stream of what passes for normalcy. He met no one on the beach road; the weather had apparently driven most folks inside. Nevertheless, it was suprisingly quiet, Casgrovina had turned into a twenty-four hour a day community, but not tonight. He wanted to reflect on recent events, but, in spite of the distinct lack of distractions, couldn't still his mind enough to focus.

The front door of the Airstream was unlocked; he stepped into the foyer. The low Japanese table sat in front of the couch, pillows at either end, an empty bottle of wine and two empty glasses rested on its smooth blonde surface, soft jazz played low. Turbo got a bottle of bourbon from the liquor cabinet, reached for a glass, then stopped. Bottle in hand, he left, locking the door on the way out, and headed for the beach -- he needed to think, sleep would never come otherwise, he knew.

He found the ridge that overlooked the Bay south. The tide had turned. Five miles or so in that direction, on the other side of the Bay, flanked by the craggy mountains of the peninsula, was the boat, lit up like a Christmas tree. Christ Is My Saviour, on the hook, pointed to the open sea. He stared with eyes only, traces of adrenaline ebbing away with each swig of the bottle. He needed and wanted to open his emotions to the boat, to entangle it, to know it, as a thing, if nothing else. But he couldn't; he looked and saw, but could not conquer. He was sealed up; he took another long pull on the bourbon. He knew he wasn't afraid, not that kind of fear where you want to cower and hide. No, he was in shock; he wanted to accept events as is like he'd learned as a kid in the streets. He remembered once coming across a dead man in the skinny alleys. He had thought at first it was just a drunk, it happened alot in his neighborhood. But no, he saw blood puddling under the man's head. He ran in fear and told his mother. She didn't believe him at first, nothing unusual about that, his credibility was always questioned by her. Finally, however, she went down there herself; ran back and phoned the police -- the man had been shot in the head. He accepted it; and learned to, no matter what, as he grew older.

But this was different. He sat and drank and looked at the boat five miles away. Expanding his scope, he remembered the edifice -- an alien structure. If he could accept that, he thought, then...

Gradually, he thawed; wrapped himself around it; not in the sense of understanding, but rather as something that had really happened, although perhaps not of this universe, the universe he knew. He could feel the air now, feel the gravelly beach and the weight and wetness of the water beyond. He reached out, slowly, tentatively, towards the boat, the boat lit up like a bonfire of insanity. He opened himself to it; felt it; took it in; owned it; stared it down.

Turbo finished the bottle with one thirsty draw; then threw it into the Bay. He yelled to Brother Rapture to have a drink on him, then laughed the Turbo laugh of contempt and wildness.

It was getting lighter; the sun had bowled around to behind the peaks of the low range on the far peninsula. Sunlight, through spaces between the peaks, flickered across the tops of the wavelets, reflecting off the bumps. The sea danced an everchanging twinkling, an incoherent code, delicately masking the underlying, powerful surge of water filling the Bay.

All adrenaline gone, Turbo suddenly felt exhausted; he was crashing hard. Unsteadily, he rose, breathed deeply the salt air, smiled to take in his surroundings, then bowed his head to stare at the sand and pebbles around his feet. He could feel the sweat on the inside of his shirt; his muscles slumped; fatigue devoured the bourbon in a mix of animal fear and human truth. Turning to go he spotted Rocky leaving the boatyard, heading south into town. She didn't see him, and he didn't feel much like chitchatting; so he let her pass, then went home, the door locked this time.

Once in, he hung his long-coat on the hook next to the door, plopped his beret on the bamboo chair, removed his boots, slid the coffee table to the other end of the room, got his sleeping bag and spread it on the floor in front of the couch, and put his forty-five within reach just under it. Not bothering to remove his clothes, he crawled in, closed his eyes, thought of a beach in Belize he once lived on for a week, then drifted heavily off to sleep.

Now, suffering the extremities of bourbon, shock, a cold numbing fear, and a wild wonder, Turbo reached into the shadow of his soul to find strength, his kind. Jittery and jumpy, attuned to the slightest rustling of the wind, senses keen in spite of his condition, he drew himself into a sphere of awareness of which he and he alone was in charge. Was he somehow, some way, responsible? he thought. Did he have something to do with it? How, in God's name!? A coincidence? Surely. But, nevertheless, what the hell happened?

Time to bring Hans into it, he thought. Carefully, he settled into the couch and sipped coffee -- watching the door. The wind had picked up, whistling through and clanging the riggings of the many fishing boats parked in the yard. It always took him away, the unfamiliar symphony. Always struck strange chords within, chords of loneliness and singularity, intensifying his sense of anonymousness, his separation from society. He watched the door, sipped coffee, and listened to the wild wind tearing at his soul.


DOCTOR LONGVIEW

Worldwide repercussions from the discovery of the edifice were profound in some quarters, in others, it was considered a scam, a put-up job, or else compartmentalized by denial. After all, only a few vague pictures were released when it was first found. Since then, the media had been locked out, receiving only the occasional public relations handout. Among academics and intellectuals, philosophers and theologians, psychoanalysts and poets, there was genuine tumult and fascination. A reassessment of teachings rippled throughout the world, reorienting worldviews, recasting values in a different light, on a different scale. Fundamental concepts and ideas that were once held sancrosanct and taken for granted, impervious in their essence from reasonable assaults, now came under closer scrutiny, suffered revision, affecting individual edifices of knowledge and understanding.

Jungian archetypes; Platonic Ideal Forms; Ouspensky's four-dimensional Consciousness; Meister Eckhart's Godhead; the Buddhist and Hindu Atman manifesting as the Many; the Tao, the underlying force of Nature; the metaphysics of Being and Non-being, Reincarnation, all such concepts pertaining to the psyche and the fundamental source, to transcendant identity and self-realization, took on new meaning, were framed in a context that had expanded geometrically to include a whole new set of parallel ideas, ideas implicit in the fact of other sentient beings in the universe. For example, does the archetype of the self imbued in the nature of the Unconscious Mind seek, inexorably, manifestation and actualization in any form it can take? Is the experience of I the same anywhere and everywhere in the cosmos? The pillars supporting the vision and models of a cognitive, rational world were teetering a bit, in need of shoring-up, and quickly.

Mainstream religious organizations struggled to rationalize their respective anthropocentric visions of reality -- Mankind the unique creation and image of God -- with the current state of cosmic affairs, but to little good. The one true God was still the one true God, but did He favor the aliens or humanity? It was a big let down. The rug had been pulled out and would never be put back in. Of the major religions, Buddhism and Taoism, the East, fared the best, the Void easily encomapssing any and all alien life.

The Pope and the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, priests, pastors, rabbis, and imans, appeared together on TV, calling for a synthesis of Gods, regardless of definition. A God with many heads, even one for the aliens. A massive gathering, held in Paris, brought together all sides of the religious issue. It was a valiant attempt, truly, but, nonetheless, they couldn't stonewall the sense of diminishment of self-assurance and worth, nor mitigate the feelings of loss and abandonment pervading the convention, the first of its kind. It was no longer one version of God compared to or against another. It was now -- the God of humanity verses..., what?

The change in outlook was compared to the Copernican Revolution, a paradigm shift -- we are no longer the center of God's universe.

Evangelists insisted that because the aliens could not know the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, they must, therefore, be heathens or worse. And furthermore, because the Atonement was aimed specifically at humankind, the aliens might very well be spawn of the devil. But there were some dissenters. Reverend Arnold Appleby, the leading proponent of evangelical pantheism (we are all evangelicals under the skin), pointed to the alien craft as further proof of the Lord's all-inclusive embrace -- we are not alone. Could God have repeated the scenario, he asked, sending a Christ with His word to every planet in the universe with intelligent life?

Religious fundamentalists, of varying persuasions, felt particularly threatened. The ignorant and disenfranchised could still be counted on as recruits for whatever cause; the group mentality, a mentality that brings with it an implacable righteousness, can easily replace a xenophobic and undeveloped ego, especially when compounded by fear of the unknown. Finding a target to blame for social, political and personal problems, real or imagined, however clothed and spun, continued to act as a lightning rod for frustration, alienation and hatred, on the one hand, and the will to control, on the other. The exploited never see this coming, no matter what the larger picture. They never see the underlying economic and power motivations. Manipulated to perceive those who don't believe the way you do -- the infidels -- as the cause of all major and minor problems in your world, neatly disguises the reality of the merely profane and selfish considerations of the leaders of such movements, violent in the extreme as they often are.

If only they could be led or taught or forced to think as we; would they then be complicit in their own subjugation? What if there was only one religious view? A single code of morality? How would the world be then? Would it degenerate into finer and finer degrees of distinctions? Would new groups emerge to threaten the staus quo? Among the more worldly leaders, questions such as these, when put against the backdrop of the edifice, produced doubt, doubt that encroached to undermine not only the single-mindedness of their mission and purpose, but also their pursuit of power -- a very heavy drug.

What point could there be in trying to assert a religiously oriented worldview when the very frame within which it was couched no longer applied? Proof of other intelligent life, an intelligence vastly superior to that of humanity, forced them to take a cold, hard look at the value and significance of their struggle for dominance, to question the importance of eliminating all opposition and sources of threat, thereby making the world safe for themselves and their way of thinking. Was there now a far greater enemy to contend with, an enemy who's God, if such there be, could easily trump all earthbound Gods?

Militaries around the world increased the tempo of their training retinues, enlistments quadrupled, weapons and skills of war were oiled and honed, alliances previously unthinkable were hashed out, the goal was a worlwide military front. Internal squabbles, however, had yet to be ironed out. Who was to be ultimately in charge? Who would give the orders? Behind the wrangling, the everpresent concern -- who would be in charge after the victory -- produced sufficient anxiety to threaten the cohesion and unity of the ad-hoc coalition. But on the surface they appeared stalwart and resolved, iron-willed as one. Humanity might go down, they allowed amongst themselves, but we'll go down fighting like humans goddamnit!

The General Assembly of the United Nations created a new agency dubbed the U. N. Diplomatic Mission for Off-World Relations (UNDMOWR). They wanted to put a friendly face forward, in case anybody was paying attention. The members were chosen by lot from a pool of volunteers from all fields and professions; the Secretary General appointed the commissioner, his name not revealed for security reasons. What might threaten him was anybody's guess, but they weren't taking any chances. The discovery of the edifice had the effect of recasting their role; petty differences were pushed aside; the sober realization of not being alone in the universe replaced arrogance, that uncompromising, stubborn kind, it's emptiness now clearly seen in relief against the prospect of superior alien life.

The irony of human nature was not to be undone so easily, however. Accordingly, world politcal leaders reflected the uncertainty of their respective countrymen by clamping controls on the media, in the name of national security, of course. They understood: Not to be seen in control can sow the seeds of doubt and thus create an atmosphere conducive to anarchy -- the state must survive, no matter what. They didn't seem to realize, however, that this censorship worked only to increase uncertainty, insecurity and fear.

All media were banned from the site of the edifice. Televised coverage was completely blacked out, had been from the get-go, by mutual agreement. Nonetheless, the global communications network, including staellite TV, had long since permeated the atmosphere beyond the reach of mere countries, or groups of countries. Gradually, they had to relent, as much as they dare. Consequently, indirect news and information filled the airways. Sporadic interviews with scientists were allowed, scientists who spoke truthfully but with reservations, as though whatever they suspected based on what they knew at the time might somehow cause widespread panic. As a result, what they did say was received with varying mixtures of belief and skepticism, ignorance and superstition. Manifesting outside the lines of what passed for everyday normalcy, almost anything said about the event of the edifice could be entertained as possibly true.

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and UFO enthusiasts in general, expressed ecstatic confirmation of their beliefs. Alien abductees formerly scoffed at by the intelligentsia and popular opinion returned to the tabloids with the appearance of credibility; at any rate, they were a smug group to reckon with. Curiously, there were those who took it all in stride, for whom a calm, bemused acceptance confirmed some private belief, some deeply felt intuition.

And, of course, there was that percentage of the population who saw conspiracy everywhere. Those who perceived through a cynical glass darkly. Just another coverup. Their government, or an alliance of some sort, were working on a secret military project, a weapon capable of disabling or killing millions, yet completely harmless to those who held the power. Is there a more inaccessible place to build such a thing than Eastern Siberia? So easy to control.

On the opposite end of the human spectrum, a major portion of the earth's population, because of where they lived and the conditions thereof, were compelled to continue to focus on day-to-day survival, while contending with: authoritarian regimes; environmental disasters; wars; ethnic, tribal, and civil conflicts; migrations; refugee camps; AIDS and other epidemics; poverty and chronic hunger [five million children die of hunger each year.]. The fortunate eek out a living [half of the world's workers earn less than two dollars a day.]. Of these who even knew about it, the implications of the edifice could not be fathomed, they simply didn't have the time or energy to be metaphysical, or to simply daydream and wonder.

In the developed world, serious depression was a constant menace, mental-health workers on all continents attempted to rise to the ocassion, but often were overwhelmed, many individuals and whole groups already having committed suicide over the invasion. This was one area where religious organizations found a mission and a necessary purpose, it worked both ways to relieve some of the stress.

The problem spread, however, even among the true believers. The reality of other intelligent life in the universe sifted down, stepwise with time, through layers of: astonishment, acceptance, benevolence, goodwill, consideration, reflection, sobriety, recognition, unease, anxiety, foreboding, alarm, shock; all the way to the very bones of human identity. In due course, peoples' personalities began to crack and waver; like it or not, accept it or not, the bedrock of beliefs as to the nature of things had been and was being seriously challenged. And, need I remind the reader: only six weeks had gone by since public disclosure of the discovery of the edifice. Events seemed to be accelerating.

Global radio, like the BBC and PRI, interviewed experts as to background information and speculations, educated insights and purpose. Local radio could do no better than parrot the weekly press releases: reports overviewing logistical support, peripheral concerns with the town council, and the comings and goings of distinguished scientists. And, of course, there was no shortage of crackpots, soothsayers, paranormals, and progonsticators proffering explanations and predictions from Salvation to Apocalypse. Not to be outdone, the Internet was suffused in chat-rooms, newsgroups, web-logs, and dedicated sites talking it up, but to no conclusions that made sense. Naturally, all this hoopla only served to add to the growing mountain of misinformation and confusion.

The true state of affairs was in short supply. Considered to be credible were a few magazines and newspapers not subject to strict government censorship, newspapers like The Washington Post.

Hans decided it was time to play his science card; he wanted to get into the site, see for himself what was going on. He left Professor Samuelson on the back-porch; a colleague of his had expressed interest in comparing notes; he was looking forward to the meeting. If any more light was shed as a result, he promised to inform Hans.

The physics building, a commandeered three-story brothel near the site, was a short walk in the splendid sunshine, a rare and genuinely appreciated phenomenon. He took his time, stopping at vistas to scan the town and surroundings, wondering. This area was under a warm sea somewhere near the equator 600 million years ago. Why land here? he thought. At the tail-end of that all-embracing ice-age? Had it started to retreat just enough to uncover that part of the ocean from the grip of ice? But other areas were similarly uncovered, so...

His questioning trailed off to mild musings of a different sort: Who are they? What are they? The beings who built the edifice. What reason could they have had? What is its purpose?

He walked, hands in pockets, staring at the gravel road, passing modest but well-built houses, shops, old vehicles, a garden trying to grow tomatoes and lettuce, people standing in small groups discussing God knew what. The contrast, the ordinary and the outrageous, juxtaposed in time and space, quite possibly held a common thread.

Looking like a sports stadium, the huge expanse of the superstructure that covered and contained the edifice could be seen a few miles distant from the front porch of the physics building, usually referred to, with tongue in cheek, as the Redshift District. He stared, trying to comprehend, trying to penetrate the surface reality.

"Hans, ole man, you're fogged out; you have that Bering Sea stare," intruded Marty Bowman, physics teacher from the University of Florida and former commercial fisherman. "Haven't seen ya' for a couple of years now, I guess. Been reading ya' though, you're a right smart fella'." His trademark smile from ear to ear only enhanced the keen intelligence of his eyes. At one time their professional interests intersected; they had become friends from meetings at symposiums held around the world. Down to earth and solid in character, he was just the man Hans had hoped to run into.

"Marty, you old salt, how long you been here? We need to talk, I hope you have the time." They gave each other a warm bear hug, then found two chairs on the porch next to a table awash with discarded paperwork.

"Been here a month, wanted to come over to see ya', but I've been up to my eyebrows in work. In honor of your visit, though, I'd say it was time to take a bit of a break. How's Turbo? Stayin' out of trouble, is he?"

"Mostly. He's been doing some investigative research, you might call it. Working on the human interest side of things. I don't have much else to send the Post, so I'm hoping for a report soon. What have you been doing? They got you involved in some secret stuff? Any breakthroughs or speculations you like to pass on to your old buddy?"

Marty smiled, then looked out towards the site. "Well, Hans, I don't know. I mean, if I had something substantial, I'd tell ya.' Even though the group I'm with has sworn us all to secrecy, anonymous leaks happen all the time, ya' know." He turned to Hans, eyes betraying a humble awe. Becoming more serious, he continued, "But I would like to share what we have, and so would a few others of the group, I'm sure. We don't especially care to be clamped down the way we've been. The world has the right to know what the hell is going on here. It's way too important and mind-boggling to keep under wraps." He stared at the floor, an unaccustomed frown on his ruddy face.

Hans's previous sense of time running out reasserted itself; he, therefore, jumped right to it. "Would you be a member of the Puzzle Masters? I know about the group from a source I can't divulge."

Marty's eyes widened, followed by his notorious loud laugh. "Hans, you old son-of-a-gun, why am I not surprised?" After a long soulful pause, he leaned forward to continue, "You know Sir Rodney Pengrove, theoretical physicist from Oxford; he's here, practically under house arrest. He gets a direct feed from our double-wide on site to his room. We hold impromptu brainstorming sessions there, all are invited but usually only a handful show. Lin Wang-Yau, of Beijing University, and a few other notables; but not all are physicists. We get an occasional geologist or evolutionary biologist dropping by, people from different fields, all collaborating. The big picture has many parts, we need everybody's expertise."

"I'm sure you must've heard about what happened this morning, early, about the central sphere transforming lattice configuration to make itself impenetrable? What do you think, what's going on?"

Marty seemed to be examining the grain of the rustic wooden table, losing himself in it. In a low tone, for Marty, he said, "Now, we don't know that it changed to make itself impenentrable. It changed, that's all we can say. Besides, that's nothin' compared to what we've been able to discover. Things that make quantum weirdness look like a tic-tac-toe game. But, that can wait until this afternoon, when we're with Pengrove."

People were coming and going, walking passed just a few feet away. Hans leaned forward to whisper. "I came here with the intention of trying to find someone who might be able to get me on site, I want to take a look at the edifice myself, perhaps even go inside one of the spheres. Do you think you could get me in some how? Maybe phony-up an ID?"

Wearing a serious expression, Marty tapped the table with an index finger. He was pretending to consider, Hans knew. Marty Bowman was not only famous for his wide smile, but also for his complete lack of respect for rules. He glanced at his watch. "It's gettin' on to noon. Hungry?"

"Had a huge breakfast a couple hours ago. I could use another cup o' coffee though. You buyin'?"

"No, you are, Doctor Longview. Let's go up to my room first; we'll make up a badge to pin to your chest. Then it's off to the site for grub; pretty decent cafeteria they have. You might develop an appetite on the way. Afterwards, we can come back here, see if Pengrove feels like talking. There might be a few others as well. I'll introduce you. It'll be all right, no matter; he doesn't care for all the secrecy either. Beautiful day for a walk; give us time to catch up. Wait 'till ya' hear what I've been working on; you'll love it. Too bad you dropped out of school, Hans, you might've been one of the Puzzle Masters."

"And how was I to know we'd find an intergalactic lighthouse?"


MISSING UNIT

The field operative overseeing control and modulation units detected an asymmetry in the network of bubble universe U-1250. A unit was out of alignment. Nothing unusual when employing material interfaces, problems invariably arose due to the internal aberrance of the nonlinearity underpinning vacuums in general. The operative initiated proper protocol. First, after examining the record, it ascertained, by elimination, the unit of U-1250 that had signaled a malfunction. Next, the unaligned unit's central axis had to be reoriented towards the incipient point, the fixed point, the place of origin. After the lock, the procedure called for an infusion of the unit's vortical fluctuation with sufficient holographic energy to enable it to recognize its condition, and self-correct. Only then will it be capable of performing its Prime Function.

Working backwards from the set of classes of transformations to the set of operators of all preassigned shapes, it localized the unit's asymptotic trajectory, and applied the precise position operator across all spatial dimensions -- but it was not at its proper coordinates.

The operative, also by protocol, informed the Integration of its component parts, and waited. The Higher Plane responded instead, expressing no disharmony, except for one small item -- the unit in question was not contained in the set referred to as U-1250.

Where, then? generated the operative, already at work analyzing past logs of bubble creation. It meant nothing to look for when it had been created, time had no meaning. The units were not designated by sequence but by type.

Time undulated outward, then curved back again. The Higher Plane replied: it does not exist in U-1250.

The operative ceased motion and thought. Its underlying components had fused into a self-contained resonance, the Integration was attracting confluent paths -- an unbreakable condition. The operative compressed the information space by a factor of infinity, [the unit must be found]; merging, intersecting Integration with Unity, [it must be found].

The operative renewed thought: The unit's nonlinearity will adjust the corporeal matrix to conform to its resonating parameters if it finds the matrix out of alignment, wherever that may be. However, there is zero probability of it performing its prime function in accordance with the property and principle configurations pre-established -- its essence -- if it is malfunctioning. They will have pattern-shifted; its internal original map will not be in isomorphic correspondence with its external arrangement. Therefore, it will find its resident matrix misaligned, and act to align it, unless the nature of the malfunction precludes this possibility.

The operative stopped thought, imaged the ramifications, enclosed the space of information with a compact shell of emptiness, and became still. A thought emerged: What if it is working perfectly, the malfunction only an echo caused by processes unknown? In that case: If it is not in its prescribed matrix, it will assume the existant matrix to be malfunctioning, and attempt to link with the other units in that system in order to assist in correcting. When it finds they do not map its predefined parameters, it will presume they are malfunctioning and independently perform, or attempt to perform, its Prime Function in order to establish the intended network symmetry.

Corollary: Given that the unit is working perfectly, if it is not within its proper matrix -- it has not the capacity to know. The unit has no initial potential to question. It was not designed to question. It was designed to perform its prime function.

The operative stilled, fell within to the deep, the deep at the bottom of the well of all that is and is not. From there, though 'place' it not be, the operative scanned all bubble universes, accelerating exponentially, executing superposition operators in parallel. Approaching the barrier, leaving behind tidal dilations, time rippled through seas of countless universes, slowing their movements, their processes, their evolution. The operative, without thought, or image, or senses, knew that the unit must be found and corrected -- or terminated.

Else, The Creator will be... displeased.


GONE FISHING

Nomad untied the bow line, the stern, then amidships, boarded and stood on the back deck, watching everything without seeming to. Vasily put the Anastasia in gear while Hub built a pot of coffee. They had had enough of town, plus they were getting on to being broke, so they decided to go fishing. Breakfast at Pelar's had been less than soothing, especially hungover as they were. Crowds standing outside, waiting like vultures; they had been lucky to get stools at the counter. The idea of waiting forever for food didn't sit well. Vasily grumbled incessantly about the foreigners, the invaders, the mobs of strangers and government people. They decided to have a quick cup and then get the hell out of there.

They fueled and iced, then returned to their slip to get bait and groceries; they needed to eat, eventually, and for days to come.

They were going fishing!

Hardly anybody else was out there, but with the Dig shut down, there soon would be. Nomad coiled the tie-up lines and tossed them into the large plastic cannery container on deck. The fishing gear was stacked haphazardly along the stern and on the foredeck in front of the wheelhouse. Longline gear, bundled diaper fashion, no room for tubs; they preferred this method anyway. Each bundle was half a skate -- 50 fathoms -- wrapped on the botttom with a sheet of thick vinyl; pieces of line were attached to the corners through grommets; diagonally opposite corner ties, one with a loop on the end, were tied tight on top with half-hitches. Lead and tail loops of the ground line, formed by splicing the ends back onto themselves, stuck out for easy picking. Each hook was tied to a two-foot, soft plastic-sheathed gangion, the other end tied through the ground line using a fid to separate the strands, usually, but a screwdriver will do; one hook per fathom.

Nomad piled a few bundles on the cleaning table, its legs welded to the steel deck. Next he jumped down, or rather slid down, into the hold on top of the shelter ice to retrieve a box of herring, then another and another. As they neared Cape Chirkova at the south end of Nagayevo Bay, heading out to the Sea of Okhotsk, he was working his way through the first bundle. A steaming cup of coffee materialized on the table in front of him, Hub stood looking out to sea. As Nomad raised his head to thank him, he saw passed his shoulder that the yacht that had been anchored on the far side of the bay for the past month and a half was gone. Good riddance, he thought. Weirdos and worse. He remembered their eyes when the skiff-load passed him earlier that morning; they looked scared.

It was time to get out of town, he thought, smiling as he worked the gear. Their anarchist plans would soon be far behind, on shore with all the other bullshit. He mumbled to himself, "Heroes for the cause of humanity, huh; I'm just a fisherman, that's all I know. Vasily wants a statue in Magadan Square; what he'll get is a gravestone, if that."

Cape Sredniy jutted out dead ahead. In the far distance, Cape Alevina curled back towards them. Olskoi Island lay seaward, a place to hide behind if a sudden squall were to come off Okhost. Many a day they spent anchored there, waiting for the wrath to pass, drinking, talking, laughing, and occasionally doing work. But today, high pressure held sway, and with it, a welcome warm sun still rising. A soft breeze from the south lifted their spirits. It was good to breathe the clean, salt air again, it relaxed the mind as well as the muscles. The magic happened, as it always did. Cut the lines and leave port, and with it, society and all its problems. A solid transformation centers the body, the personality shifts gears accordingly, present becomes all, the freedom of the sea rushes through the veins.

Before them, Tauyskaya Bay opened its great expanse, plenty of time to get ready. They planned to fish around the corner, in the Gulf of Shelevkov, just south of Cape Tolstoi and the Yamaski Island Group. From November to May, the sea is covered with a sheet of ice as far south as 43 degrees North. But in the summer, relatively warm and salinic water masses drive through the Bussol and Kruzenstherna Straits. This is the Kamchatka Current, it flows along western Kamchatka bringing with it a rich supply of fish. Dozens of rivers run down to the sea, bringing nutrients and bait. As a result, tidal currents can be horrific, so you don't want to set gear in the wrong place. By August, typhoons and cyclones transverse the sea from southwest to northeast. This was their window, their favorite time to go fishing, and they were looking forward to it.

They had decided to sell in Palana, the main city of the Koryakskiy Autonomous Region of the Kamchatka Peninsula, after they checked out their usually productive grounds. It was a long run north across the Gulf, but Hub, a Koryak, had received a message over a week earlier that he was needed by his uncle. He lived in a small fishing village in the central part of the region. No one had fished since the ice receded, an unknown event for hardy Koryaks. That's all the message said. Hub was concerned, something was going on, and it didn't sound good. His uncle was the shaman for the local area; he had no sons, Hub was his oldest nephew. Tradition has it that the mantle must be passed down through male family members as they are purported to possess the same gift and abilities. Hub doubted he did; faith was essential; nonetheless, his uncle may be ill, he needed to go, and now was the opportunity. Knowing he should have traveled there immediately only added to his sense of guilt, but, that was Hub. He always had to take time to prepare himself for any emotionally stressful event, expecting the worst, feeling forboding.

It was a full day's run to the fishing grounds, they'd arrive the following morning and set gear after breakfast. The sun hardly dropped below the horizon, so they could work all night on the open deck. Everything was fair game for conversation, except the edifice and the scene back home. Hub drifted in and out, always a quiet one, now he brooded. But Nomad was enjoying the hell out of himself, and insisted everybody else join in. Never any room for pretenses, they settled into routine and each other. The air was warm; the sky, soft lavender; the sea, pale emerald and flat. And the tide would be running with them when they turned the corner at Alevina.


WALLYWORLD

Security guards at the front gate recognized Marty and, with a wave, flagged them through. Those on the grounds surrounding the spheres, however, were a bit more serious. Proximity to the awesome size, scope and significance of the edifice demanded its own intensity and sharpness; professionalism transcended personal feelings and attitudes.

As they approached the nearest sentry -- a tall, mustached, cossack-looking man in his late twenties or early thirties, sidearm tilted forward in its holster -- Hans thought, entrance might not be that easy.

"Let me do the talkin,' Hans," whispered Marty.

Fine, thought Hans. He had to admit to being unexpectedly overwhelmed by the site, mentally prepared as he thought he'd been, and would probably have difficulty playing his part.

Marty made eye-contact and exuded his trademark smile. He knew the sentry, but also knew he would act as though they had never met. "Good morning, Andre," Marty tried. But only a nod of acknowledgement of his 'good morning' returned. Marty extended his ID card, the sentry examined it, then checked a sheet on his clipboard. With a nod he reached for Hans's, and waited. Marty looked sharply at Hans. As though moving through molasses, Hans, aka Doctor Longview, pulled his bogus ID from his shirt pocket and handed it to the grave and suspicious young sentry. After carefully inspecting the card, he cross-checked with the sheet, staring in disappointment. He curtly handed the card back, and with some irritation, waved them in to the perimeter of the edifice.

After a few feet, Hans asked, "How...?"

"We made him up at the beginning. Doctor Longview exists in the virtual world. When we want to bring in a consultant or just a colleague, we use Longview and a different sentry. It's easier."

Bedazzled, Hans only seemed to understand, and nodded. The ground crunched strangely as they walked over worn concrete under rubber mats and the occasional colorful rug. Before him, the rivetting expanse of the edifice. They were slowly navigating through various pieces of equipment: generators, boxes on hand-trucks, enigmatic machines displaying cryptic wave forms. Small groups in classic white lab-coats spoke softly, close to reverence. In spite of the jumble, a clear path appeared through the morass, heading directly towards the central sphere from the southwest entrance. Behind it sat Puzzle Master headquarters -- an 80 foot double-wide trailer, wires and cables snaking through every window, and spiderwebs of antennae covering the roof.

A city boy, he measured the nearest outlying sphere at ten stories. The copper-colored connecting cylinder, half-way up, looked to all the world like an ordinary enclosed walkway between office buildings downtown. The lower half of the skin was still covered in its originally-found condition of gravelly volcanic rock; above that line, the surface had been meticulously cleaned and scrubbed to its native state -- a pearly/mauve shade of impeccable smoothness. The effect was liquid.

As they approached the central sphere, Hans abruptly stopped in his tracks like he'd hit a brickwall. After a few steps, so did Marty, looking at Hans but saying nothing. He didn't want to interfere with the intensity of the moment, as it were.

Hans was transported to a favorite swimming hole of his youth. At the dogleg turn of the narrow stream where it was deepest, there was a rope swing hung from a huge maple. He'd swing out over the deepest part; the moving water below would beckon with its soft undulations. And then he'd drop like a rock into the cool water.

It was vibrating, he could see it, the central sphere, its surface.

He could see it, and he could feel it, coming at him like a warm slow wave off the beach at Wildwood. He turned to Marty and yelled, "WHAT!" then quickly ran out of breath.

Marty smiled sheepishly and kicked an imaginary pebbble. "Hans," he said dryly, almost apologetically, "You needed the shock effect." A pause. "I thought." Lowering his head, trying not to laugh.

"But I'm sure I would've heard about this," stated Hans flatly. "All the people who worked here before it was shut down. When was that? what? yesterday morning? And Turbo gets around, listening and looking. So, but, ..., how?"

"It was barely perceptible at the beginning, but increased after the surface transformation. Since then, no townies have been allowed on site, it's closed. In fact, all the spheres appear to be vibrating, only the effect isn't quite so obvious. Weinberg believes it has to do with its fundamental nature, as he sees it. We've been exploring various theories, and right now, one's as good as another. He believes there's a mixture of various neutrinos causing it to oscillate. Webs of neutrino fields."

The sphere a hundred feet in front of them glittered under the overhead halogens. Marty let himself feel the goose-bumps he usually tried to suppress. Shrugging, shaking his head, looking at the worn rubber mat over the concrete at his feet, he said, "I don't know, Hans. If it is a mix of neutrinos, as Weinberg suggests, then how could they remain trapped on the surface, being electically neutral? Why don't they just rocket off to outer space, going through whatever stands in their way? What technology could restrain a neutrino, to use it as a dynamic insulator? It appears to have mass, else we wouldn't see it. What we know is that the Higgs Field gives mass to particles; and the neutrino might have a slight mass. But what kind of field would keep them there?"

Focusing on the same spot, more or less, Hans said, "There is none. I'm not buying it. There must be another explanation." Turning to eyeball Marty, he said, "Perhaps, Mister Bowman, tachyon emmissions are passing through our neural nets at just the right tempo, initiating a cascade of ripples across our brain pans, creating the illusion of vibratory motion. Or,..., the Good Witch of the North sprinkled pixy dust on it.

"Marty, what the hell ya' talking about? The surface of this concrete floor is not vibrating; the surface of that sphere definitely is. Oscillating electromagnetic fields can produce vibration, especially at near light speed. Have you measured the variance, the deviation?"

"None, the single-atom micrographic analyser brought in especially for this job detected none. If it is a network of electromagnetic fields -- across the spectrum we're familiar with, mind you -- the combination is electrically neutral. Why our mag detectors found nothing. To all measurements, intents and purposes, it should stand rigid, a rigid body. One-centimeter thick, impossible to break or dent. Only with the high-end lasers were we able to cut through the others, and that only because of the supreme orderliness of the atomic lattice. That's changed, though. For the center sphere, at least. It's now impervious to entrance by any means we know; lasers don't even alter its infrared; it's become completely closed and immune."

"Immune?" questioned Hans, reminding him of Samuelson's Occupants. "If it is caused by mixing neutrinos, have you been able to detect them?"

After a brief pause, Marty replied, "No. Weingard believes the sum of their masses comes out to zero. They are inextricably bound, so..." He stared at the center sphere with an almost reverential look of awe and appreciation. "But I'll tell ya', it feels to be more than merely a stupendous material object, a mere mechanical device. We find ourselves grappling for metaphors, of course, and for reasons unscientific, we've tended to lean toward the organic. What's its internal geometric structure? Not toward some kind of mathematical language only, but the kind that orchestrates our DNA?"

"I see the Puzzle Masters have been burning the midnight oil," said Hans, a wry half-smile on his face. "I have a lot to catch up on, obviously."

With his trademark smile returned, Marty said, with a bit`of a flourish, "Then let's go, Doctor Longview; this way, please. I'll introduce you to some of the gang and show you around. Doctor Weingard and his assistants have been busy setting up a new project. I'll try to arrange a tour of P-5 under the pretense of meeting him. He'll no doubt be too busy to chat -- he hates chatting -- so you'll get a chance to stand in front of its back-wall design and the altar, or whatever it is. And the crazy-angled walls and rooms off to the sides. Prepare yourself, my friend. I'll be there with you, to give you strength."

Still mesmerized and incredulous at the sight of the oscillating spherical surface, all the more pronounced for its imposing size and perfect curvature, Hans scuffled along behind, feeling like a small child -- his first time at Wallyworld.


On The ROCKS

A light rapping on the door stilled the air around Turbo, standing in the kitchen mixing a drink. He hesitated, thought to cross the room to where the gun lay under the couch, then shook himself free. C'mon, he said to himself, then strode to the door and swung it open. Rocky stepped back a foot, eyes wide, the trace of a smile leaving her pretty face. A long, stiff silence stood between them.

"Sorry, Rocky, I was expecting, I don't know, I don't know what I was expecting. C'mon in, Hans isn't here right now, I don't know where he is." He leaned in to allow her to pass, quickly stuck his head outside to scan, then closed and locked the door. He retrieved his drink from the counter while she stood in the middle of the room, somewhat uncomfortably, unsure of what was going on. "Have a seat; I'm having a lunch drink. Want one?"

"No thanks," she said, as she moved to sit in Hans's leather chair.

Turbo returned to the couch. "What's up?" he asked, somewhat tersely, looking at his drink as though he'd asked it the question.

She stared at him, curious and confused. He felt the pressure of the silence and the look. Leaning back in the couch, he relaxed and spoke more softly, "Sorry again, kiddo. I've had a hell of a night. Everything's okay, though. Don't worry." He took a long pull then set the glass down on the side table with an exaggerated show of control, intending to be humorous. It wasn't. His dishevelled look -- long hair a mess, clothes crumpled -- underscored his mood, betraying his usual light touch.

Nonetheless, she decided to act as though everything was indeed all right. "I abandoned my post, the weather took me, so I went for a walk on the beach. I thought Hans might be here. It is lunchtime, as you pointed out." Turbo did not respond, only nodded. He needed to talk, she knew; time to be a friend. "I changed my mind about that drink, how 'bout I join you." She rose to make herself one. On the way, she said, louder than seemed natural for her, "It's beautiful out today, a rare occurence, let's open the drapes and windows, get some sun and fresh air in here. What do ya' say, big boy?"

He chuckled as he watched her cross the room, then busied himself doing what she said. Moving was good, action. He came out of his deep introspective trance, recognized what she was trying to do, and did not resist.


PRESSURE GAUGE

Four containment tanks, 30 meters in length, two meters in diameter; each suspended by a steel network resting on a concrete slab, stood parallel to one another across the rear expanse of the site. The tanks themselves were double-hulled. The inner hull was nylon coated nickle, two inches thick. An empty space of three inches separated the inner hull from the outer, itself composed of six-inch thick concrete. Pressure pipes ran the length, inserted into the outer hull every five meters. Connected at each of the ends were large-faced gauges, pressure readers, which now all read -- empty.

Bull paced the area, slowly, walking between the tanks, stopping every so often, head bowed in concentration, then moving on again, through the entire tank farm. The security chief paced too, but for different reasons. His men, clearly nervous and stretched beyond their reach, surrounded the farm, hands on guns.

Over at the far end, the chief engineer was running tests on the system, staring at a display screen flickering with numbers passing vertically down. Bull let him continue. He was trying to find something in his past experience to which to relate the present event, or rather -- events. When the edifice had purposely and deliberately, like a robot, sealed its skin against intrusion, that was, at least intuitively, comprehensible; this, however, lacks even that.

"Yes, sir, General Mynsky, let's talk." The engineer had finished his assessment; a judgement on a catastrophe. Although it had not been his direct responsibility on a daily basis, he was in charge of all engineering related enterprises on site, and he accepted it. Bull respected that, but, nonetheless, he was not happy. "Chief, I want to know what the hell happened? When? Let's start with when?"

"Ordinarily, the tanks are checked three times a day. That job had been contracted out to an agency here in town. Yesterday morning, when the site was put on alert, all non-essential personnel, including that outfit, were kept out, for security reasons." He said that last part with a bit of a bite in his voice, looking directly at Bull.

"I know it was shut down, and by me. I'm not trying to assign blame here; it's too late for that. We're swimming in unknown waters, son, and I need information in order to do my job. So get over it. Yes there was confusion yesterday, assignments missed, things overlooked. It was an opportune time for sabotage."

The engineer's eyes glassed over momentarily; recovering, he said, "When, you wanted to know? Our records indicate the tanks were checked sunday evening at 1800 hours. They were checked again this morning at 6:00 A.M.. So that's a day and a half without monitoring." The kid flinched, sweat showing on his forehead.

Bull jabbed a menacing forefinger at the engineer's chest, "You mean you knew about this this morning when you were briefing me on the skin change? The center sphere? Remember? Why didn't you mention it then? Was it a secret?"

Eyes wide, hands spread, he protested, "I didn't know. Nobody did. I just found out myself. I assigned two technicians to replace the pressure gauges, the meters. The new models are designed electronically, they have a direct feed to our computers so we don't have to make a visual inspection." Looking at the ground, he carped, "Not having anyone to do that job anymore." Pained by his own griping, and not getting any reaction from the stone-faced general, he changed tone and quickly continued, "Anyway, the old gauges read full; they replaced tank number one's and it read zip, zero. They tried all four new gauges, same thing. So, figuring they were defective, they ordered another batch."

Shaking his head in annoyance, he griped, "People are spoiled around here. You might think we had an unlimited budget, for God's sake. If something doesn't work, they don't bother to try to fix it, they just order new. I have to account for all this stuff; the accountants are all over me, bugging me about --"

On the verge of total meltdown exasperation, Bull interjected, "Would you PLEASE get to the point, chief." Not a question.

"I'm getting there, sir. All requisitions come across my desk -- I have to sign everything -- and I followed up on it. The techies on the job had just finished lunch; I caught them leaving the caf. They hadn't bothered to bench test. Do you believe it? That's standard operating procedure. I chewed them out, of course, and bench tested myself -- the new ones were fine. That's when I found out. I mean, I went to install them myself and found out. That's when."

Confused and despondent, the young engineer muttered, "I don't get it. The old gauges -- all four -- must've somehow been jammed on, or stuck. The gases got out without affecting the pressure gauges, or the sensors. Incredible.""

Bull stared in amazement, confusing the young engineer. Sensing mental paralysis about to overtake the chief, he said quietly, "Go on."

"The automatic pressure sensors appear to be functioning properly; however, they didn't go off. It's as though they were still sensing gasses in the tanks. But there isn't any, wasn't; I just checked the system again; it's working fine and the tanks are empty, but the sensors didn't go off." He stared at the steel footing of the tank nearest, then scanned the entire tank, the outer surface, the pipes, looking for an answer, something out of line; he simply could not believe. Shaking his head, he said, "Nothing, no gaseous material of any kind could possibly escape from these tanks, and especially not all four at once. Our cameras show that no person purposely opened the valves to release the gases, and there was no visible signs of their leaving, no mist or vapor of any kind."

Bull continued his interrogation, "How, think, is it in fact physically possible for the gases to have escaped? There must be something, no matter the long shot, because I am not prepared to believe in magic. Chief?"

"Tunneling," he whispered to the ground. Then facing Bull, "Tunneling!" he repeated louder, with a touch of a grin on his unlined face. "Tunneling is what makes transistors possible. There is a long shot probability that an electron, owing to its wave character, will pass through a surface, tunnel through the atoms to the other side." Pensively, he continued, "Other than that, I don't know right now. I mean, again, what are we dealing with?" The chief's voice steadily climbed. "What properties could these gases have that we aren't aware of? The results from the labs were confused, each one returned a different report. They weren't even able to determine the configuration of the atoms, atoms they had never seen before, the way they acted. So we don't know what their capabilities are."

Bull squared himself in front of the young engineer. "Now, listen," he said, quietly but firmly, "we have four empty tanks, four tanks that once contained the gases from the four spheres, finding out how they became empty is one thing, finding out where the gases are and what they're doing, that's the major concern. Focus on that for now. Use all facilities, commandeer all assistance, my order." Taking hold of the engineer's shoulders in his large, powerful hands, Bull continued, "Now, calm down, I need your help. This may be extremely important, or it may be nothing. Let's act as though it's the former, worst case scenario. I want it on my desk as soon as you can. "

Bull turned on his heel before the befuddled engineer could say another word, and strode in the direction of his security chief, still pacing nervously at the far end of the tank farm. His men moved away; this was not going to be pretty, they knew. But to everyone's surprise, most especially the chief's, Bull addressed him with patience and restraint. "Chief," he began, almost too quietly to be heard, "we have a serious problem on our hands. At this time, how it happened is anybody's guess, and not your fault."

The security chief regained his composure, standing straight and in control. He had been especially hand-picked by General Mynsky for this job, his reputation was known and was commendable. But Bull's reputation was notorious; and you never knew how he was going to act; so the chief was surprised, to say the least. "I want you to tell your men to keep eyes and ears open for anything unusual, look for the unusual, don't dismiss anything as an aberration. I want all personnel, and I mean all, to be interviewed as to their movements over the past two days. Inform them they are not to contact anyone by any means until further notice. In fact, they are not to leave the premises without permission from me. And tell them not to bother trying to get it unless it's a matter of life and death. I want all land-line calls blocked, unless an emergency, and cell phones confiscated. Anybody gripes about it, have them see me. This is serious shit, chief. Let me know if you find out anything, no matter how insignificant it may seem; come to my office personally."

Bull paused to settle the air. Then, in a more confidential tone, he said, "This is not like the case when the central sphere insulated itself -- a robot could do that. These gases may be potentially dangerous; they acted in concert, and possibly with intent. I know that sounds ridiculous, but, we don't know what we're dealing with, so, anything goes."

As he departed for his trailer, he said loudly with force and no little irritation, not bothering to look back, "Lock it down, now!"

He plowed his own path through scaffolding, machinery, generators, trailers; stepping over bundles of cables, wires, tubes; felt the rubber mats under his heavy shoes; smelled the oils and chemicals of electricity and motors; heard the low hum of power, and reflected -- What are we doing here? We humans? Scratching the back of a sleeping tiger? With our state-of-the-art technology and scientific expertise, all it has to do is shrug a shoulder and seal us out of itself forever. We've already greatly disturbed -- whatever it is. And now, complex and little understood gases, assumed to be inanimate, inorganic, escape from state-of-the-art, double-hulled containment tanks. Even if the agency monitoring and watching the tanks had been on duty, what could they've done? Alert us sooner? Would they have been killed if they'd tried to interfere? Why had the pressure sensors not sounded an alarm? What are we dealing with?

It struck him like a deadening ton of bricks. He braked in mid-stride and stared at the yellowish lights spread out over the hemispherical roof far above. And returned to a time many years ago, when he was a young officer in the Soviet Army. The war in Afghanistan was going badly, a quagmire hardly described it. He was sending men to their deaths, slowly, painfully so; one, two, sometimes a half-dozen or more at a time. Every day, with no sense of accomplishment, no gain in the fight. What troubled him, his conscience, his mind, spoke to him; he tried to convey this to his commander. In reply he received an angry reprimand. The commander was under orders from the military leaders back home: stay the course, no matter what, stay the course to victory. Bull could do nothing then, only avoid court-martial for cowardice or questioning orders by continuing to fight what he had come to believe was a losing war and a waste of good men.

But now, he was in charge, he had command and with it, responsibility for the lives and welfare of the people involved, not just the edifice itself. The edifice be damned. We have to back out of here, he felt. Pull out while we can. Get out! Or is it too late? Have we set something in motion with no stop button? Suddenly the edifice lost its innocent fascination and enchantment as the greatest scientific discovery the world has ever known or probably ever would know. He sensed danger, the kind that chills the bones and soul; a finality that numbs the mind in its overwhelming, awesome certainty. Can the course be altered? Is that it? Or is it irrevocable, inevitable, whatever it may be?

With a crispness belying his years, he changed course and headed for the enclave of the Puzzle Masters. They must see the danger, he thought, they must be persuaded to reorient their inquiry from scientific investigation to discovering the intention of the edifice. He could feel it in his bones, he was sure -- It has intention.


CLARIFY ALONG 'HELP'

A thought worked its way up to attention. The Integration had responded that the unaligned unit in bubble universe U-1250 was not contained in the set. Had the Higher Plane revealed an important point in spite of its cycling? The operative requested clarification even as it searched, now along the time dimension only, spatial extensions having collapsed to zero. The Integration repeated at once: The unit in question was not contained in the set referred to as U-1250.

Was. The operative ceased searching, entered the space of timelessness, established a dimensional field at the base of the holomorph prior to the event of the malfunction signal, replaced the functor between space and place with the Creator's map of all possible unit symmetries, then projected the existing aligned units of U-1250 onto the predefined field. The network was asymmetric; had always been. And, the aligned units were not operating, they awaited the arrival of the last unit to form the assemblage, expand to symmetry identity, and intitiate their prime function. The network was incomplete, the nonlinearity in a collective state of superposition -- chaos. The existing units strained to maintain reality, but without the final node, could not initiate. Nonetheless, they were functioning properly and would probably be capable of executing their prime function when the network is completed.

The operative queried the Integration: U-1250 has not yet set the parameter for its time dimension. The unit in question was never a member of the set U-1250, so it did not malfunction within U-1250 and as a result effect a dimensional shift to another universe. What then caused the unit in question to take on materiality and report a malfunction?

Time stood on end, then leaned forward to reveal itself. The Higher Plane responded, inductively: It still exists, therefore, it must be somewhere. Its positioning as per protocol did not take place, it has never been a member of the set U-1250. Also, it could only have reshaped itself along connections that maintain its core configuration. Therefore, there are two choices: either it is open and embedded or closed and collapsed. If embedded, it would have integrated fully without taking on materiality. If that were the case, discovery would not be probable, but even if so, extraction would be at the risk of destabilizing the resident universe. Also, it reports a malfunction, it would not report a malfunction if embedded and aligned as a sub-system. Conclusion: It must not have opened completely after creation, it must be in a collapsed state, causing materiality.

Time leaned backward, then stood on end. The operative sifted and wove thoughts and ideas: Even if it had collapsed, it would not register a malfunction and so would not report. It would remain inactive, quiescent. Without contact by other nodes in the system, it could not recognize its own materiality, its own identity; it would remain isolated, disconnected, adrift in empty, nonconfigured space -- a dead thing. Its presence in a resident universe would have a local effect, but would be countered outside that domain by the combined energy of that system's network. But, if, for some unknown reason, it has recognized its own materiality, in spite of not possibly being contacted by the other nodes of the system, it will register internally that it is part of a network, and move through developmental phases. In which case, executing its prime directive will be identical with actualizing its role as node-of-network.

Fact: It could not signal a malfunction unless it was in a material state. The operative proffered a query: The second part of the question was not answered -- why, then, did it signal a malfunction?

The Integration replied: Unknown.

The operative persisted: Speculate.

Time once again leaned forward, the Higher Plane reported: A malfunction could occur if the incipient point were compromised. There is no known cause for this. It is not a probability.

EXPAND, demanded the operative, an unaccustomed firmness in his certainty.

Immediately: Its integrity would have to have been compromised by an external source, something unknown, but knowable. If so, it would signal malfunction but may not actually be malfunctioning.

Clarify along malfunctioning.

It may not actually be malfunctioning with respect to initiating and enacting its prime function; it may only be registering a misplacement in time.

Clarify along time.

Once begun, rate of development towards final state of predefined resonating parameters will increase exponentially, in stages, along asymptotic curves. If, due to an exception or degradation by components of the system, the superposed resonating wave is not capable of integrating harmonically, this drag in time will appear as a malfunction. The unit in question, therefore, may simply be requesting clarification, or help.

The operative paused, if that which is outside of time can be said to pause, and reflected within its own sphere: Help? The Higher Plane once again revealed a clue unknowingly. Because of its materiality, the unit will resonate with its surroundings on the corporeal plane, wherever it is, closed and collapsed. But it will also resonate with and assimilate local immateriality, owing to its inherent nature, regardless of its present shape and physical characterisitcs. By procedure, it must be attempting to contact and draw on the immaterial aspects of its environment, seeking information and assistance, unaware that its position operator is out of alignment. How could that have happened? It did not fully open upon creation -- there is no known precedent for this behaviour. The Nonlinearity of nonlinearities? The Creator will want to know.

As long as it remains incomplete, there is zero probability of it performing its prime function. In a matrix for which it was not intended or defined, doing so would have unforseeable consequences, possibly causing a disassemblage or override. But, it will work to correct; it will move towards symmetry and completion. It was designed to perform its prime function.

Sliding sideways along the plane of no-time, reforming the event of the malfunction signal, the operative merged and sifted existence properties, and requested: A comprehensive revision of the universal set based on analysis; piece-wise elimination and renewal of search-set to be placed in one compact operator space. Also, apply a quotient under the condition: exhibits the generic features necessary for life, on the scale of the entire set, and sentience, on the scale of local synergy clusters.

Transcending sheaths of space and time, the operative traveled lines of continuity, pursuing an intuition, cross-referencing hierarchies of information -- playing a hunch.

Time circled in on itself, revealing emptiness. The Integration emerged from Unity: The shapes to which a unit specified for U-1250 could assume due to overlap of generative dimensions can be discarded. And overlap would not effect decoherence; a unit, therefore, could not exist materially. Every remaining collapsed shape to which the units of U-1250 could continuously transform have been examined and placed in correspondence with equivalent field properties of existing bubbble universes. Embeddedness within universes of dimension greater than the unit's having been rejected, combined with the requested condition of sentience --

Result: a single, compact quotient-set where the malfunctioning unit may reside projected itself onto the operator space. A single quotient-set containing a countably infinite number of members, each transformable to the others.

The operative could correct and reposition, or terminate. Certainty was required. But first, the wayward unit must be found. The set of universes to be searched had been greatly reduced to a fundamental level of infinity, a level containing classes of common dimensionality. The functor of space and place was recalibrated to focus only on that set of possible shapes. The operative renewed the search, accelerating, compressing the time parameter of each class to an infinitesimal point above zero; collapsing spaces in sequential stages, inspecting property and principle configurations, filtering for network anomolies -- coming to help.


TWO BEING ONE

"I never met my father, he split before I was born; we never had any contact, not even a birthday card. I found out through my mother -- how she knew, she never told, I never asked -- but my father died six years ago, in San Fransisco. I was there just before that time, with Hans on a story, she phoned to tell me his address; I never went to see him, too late."

Turbo stood by the window over the sink, staring out into the boatyard, anchors and worn rigging glistening; piles of gear stacked here and there beneath makeshift, plastic lean-tos; mud puddles persisting in spite of the warm sun. Beyond were the glacier-covered mountains, jagged and austere, giving nothing, demanding all.

He turned to face Rocky, and started right in: "I grew up in a red-brick row house in west Philly, about three miles or so from Fairmount Park. When it thunderstormed in the hot summertime, every day it seemed like, if I was home I'd run upstairs to shut the skylight in the bathroom, it had a chain on a pulley," Turbo acted it out, "and close the windows in the bedrooms. We had coal heat; and I remember sitting down in the cellar with my grandfather tending the fire. Actually he was trying to hide from my grandmother and drink a few beers, but, I loved being with him, sometimes he'd let me break up the empties with a hammer in an ashcan.

"But the neighborhood was getting dangerous, my mother was hassled on the corner sometimes when she got off the trolley on her way home from work. The black friends we had were moving out, so, when I was twelve, my family, grandparents and sister and me, moved to a township called Upper Darby. It was only a few miles away but, what a difference, the neighborhood, a major culture shock. That's where I met Hans, he wasn't part of the culture shock, mind you," he laughed, "he was caught in it too. We grew up together, went to catholic high school together, raised hell on friday and saturday nights together. He was in the honor sections from the beginning; I was a few sections down, didn't have to be but, I thought it would be more fun, it wasn't. We were both kind of poor, but Hans scored a scholarship to Berkeley. I could've gone to college but, I don't know, I didn't seem to be much interested in anything particular at the time.

He took a pull on his drink, then continued, "Got a job as a pipefitter at the Navy Yard, made pretty good money, partied a lot. I would see Hans on vacations and in the summer, except for that last summer when he did an internship at Lawrence Livermore Lab. After that, we lost touch for awhile." Turbo rested against the kitchen counter, lost in thought. He had changed into clean clothes, jeans and moccasins; a tank top revealed two tattoos, one on each bicep, on the right was a fire-breathing dragon, on the left, the outline of a heart with the words "Born to Lose" inscribed. His summer wear, he'd said, for however long it may last.

They had drifted away from talk of what transpired on the Christ Is My Savior the previous evening, as a necessity, an escape from the present unreality. It wasn't only the bizzare inexplicableness and impossibility of such an event happening. The experience overwhelmed, intimidated, but not in a street way, on another level entirely, not something to be met, known, assimilated, openly accepted, and dealt with. No. The experience had awakened psychic and emotional twists and torques Turbo had worked singlemindedly for years to see, know, understand, get a handle on, own. Now they seemed to threaten again, but were only masquerading, he knew, as the paranoia and personal doubt he once lived with every day, until he overcame them, through will, and spirit, and brains, and a fierce -- some might say angry -- desire to be free. Rocky and Turbo knew they would have to revisit what was clearly deeply troubling him, one way or the other, at sometime.

But now much more had come to the fore. The story of the boat party affected Rocky like a final straw, a catalyst, a chemical reaction. She had been trying, attempting, to keep the significance of the edifice at arm's length, compartmentalizing it as an historical and scientific situation; ignoring the growing existential situation. But now she could feel the walls protectively enclosing her individual personal and emotional self erode, dissolve like so much jello. A shift in perception necessarily has to happen, she knew, even from the point of view of the exterior circumstance -- the very fact of the edifice -- perhaps beginning there.

She had been absorbed in her work analyzing pattterns, classifying parallel topologies, throwing concept after concept at the designs and their possible meaning. Like throwing stones against a steel wall, or into a still, bottomless pond. But now, the Earth itself seemed to be opening beneath her; she feared falling into the abyss. The larger picture beckoned; she needed to go there, to climb. But not yet, it was helpful, therapeutic, to just spill guts, to describe the shapes and scrapes and textures of a life, and to listen to another do the same.

Feeling a sudden rush of vulnerability, Turbo downed his drink and abruptly turned to make another. "Your dad," he said to the wall in front of him, "only met him that one time the other night, seems friendly enough, but, I could see he likes to make sure everybody knows what part they're playing. There's a moat between him and the rest of the world. Not out of fear, I don't think, it's just -- that's the way he is." He then turned to Rocky, eyes probing, but with concern and understanding, wating, listening, interested.

Rocky laughed quietly, then pouted slightly, looking at the patterns in the oriental rug. "Dad was gone most of the time, off on paleontological expeditions, all over. He lived to do that. He'd call regularly, when he wasn't completely isolated in the field, but my mother and I saw him infrequently, perhaps six months a year, and not all continuous. He'd be home for a month, and it would be grand; we'd go places, explore, hike; he got me interested in the outdoors, now he hates that I love it as much as I do." She shot Turbo a look and shook her head; "Puhh," was all she said.

"Towards the end of a stay, he'd begin to get that distracted look, start studying the current literature, talking more and more on the phone. He'd hear of a find, or the prospect of a find, or even just the hint of a find, through the grapevine of his cohorts or the museum clearinghouse. Or he'd get a visitor in the middle of the night; I could hear them talking in the den from my bedroom. The next day or week he'd be gone, a warm hug and a kiss on the forehead for mom and me, a smile, a promise to bring something strange back, which he always kept. But,..."

She moved her glass from hand to hand, staring at the floor. Sitting upright, she cauterized the edges of her feelings before it was too late, downing what was left of her drink with a single slug, letting the cold ice crash into the skin abover her lip.

With drink in hand, Turbo sauntered over to the couch, bypassing, avoiding his favorite chair for the time being, like a wild animal circling a trap, feeling uncomfortable in old routines, needing a novel perspective. He sat back, appraising Rocky with his street-eyes on. He was no longer looking at a mathematician or a beautiful down-to-earth woman; he could see the child in her, a child who had needed more of the right kind of attention from the person she loved and admired most, but didn't get; trying to prove herself worthy by her outdoor exploits -- rock climbing in the back country. She'd thought for sure he'd be pleased, and so was surprised and dismayed by his disapproval. He'd told her he was afraid she'd get hurt; but was that really it? Had she pulled too hard at his affection and love, distracting him from his obsession, his lifelong study?

Turbo suddenly felt bemused; always able to empathize with another's loss and pain, even though his had been much greater, or so it seemed. That was a part of him he could never understand. Was it only a question of degrees? Why didn't he instead feel -- so what, you still had it better than me? To be that way would be to feel sorry for himself, something that always elicited an angry, rebellious reaction. Don't ever let anyone see you cry, his mother had told him once, and only once. He never forgot. Don't let them get you down, is the way he put it.

"Rocky," he whispered from across a chasm, a chasm he gingerly stepped over. "Rocky," he said, quietly but firmly, "let's go outside, get out in the sun, check out these boats out here, maybe we'll buy one and go for a cruise." He smiled that deep-rooted Turbo smile, then stood and walked to the kitchenette, being less careful circumnavigating his bamboo chair. He finished his drink and placed the glass on the counter next to the bourbon, for later. "C'mon. Let's hit the bricks, kiddo, or in this case, the mud."

Rocky smiled timidly, placed her empty glass on the side-table, then rose and walked to the door. Turning to Turbo, she asked, "Is that undershirt going to be enough?" She was wearing a light down jacket over a red-checkered, flannel shirt.

"Undershirt," he protested, "where I come from, lady, this is formal attire." They both laughed, then he said, "Oh, I'll be warm enough, we'll see."

The air tingled, crisp and clean and still. After weeks of rain and heavy clouds, the mountains -- permanent, resolute, indestructible -- could finally be seen in all their vivid blacks and greys and brilliant whites. The boatyard, situated at a bend in the beach, was eerily quiet; with all the tumult, none bothered to work on boats or gear. Rocky and Turbo, stepping over puddles or going around, walked in silence. On both sides stood rows of boats, suspended in time like a postcard. Disrepair and neglect for some; others appeared ready, waiting like horses at the gate, wanting only to fulfill their purpose; proud but also looking somewhat abashed. Hunters of the sea, they were in need of their natural element, and blocked-up on land with their bottoms showing was not it.

Together they made their way to the far end of the yard. An algae-covered wooden fence, broken down in sections, did little more than mark the perimeter. Through a well-worn opening directly ahead, they could see the gravelly beach, strewn with driftwood and assorted flotsam and jetsam; they climbed through. The green, pungent smell of low tide, mingled with salt air, wafted over the low, sandy berm. At the top they stopped, breathed deeply, and took in the gently undulating dazzle of the wide, deserted bay. Venturing onto the vacant beach, they chose the same sun-bleached log to sit on. For what seemed a long time, they sat staring at the sea, sharing the same quiet space: two kids from different neighborhoods, letting trust take hold between them, feeling the moment in all its sensibilities.

The sun washed over bones and sinews, soaking in, thawing nerves and emotions. A shell caught Rocky's eye; letting it lay at her feet, she rubbed a thumb along the smooth luxuriousness of the mother-of-pearl. A seagull called in the distance; a light gust russtled the rough grass on the berm behind; the languid rhythm of the meager waves soothed the path to surrender.

A shadow seemed to cross Turbo's face, feelings long buried and forgotten contended with a vast uncertainty, an uncertainty that went beyond his control. He smiled to himself as he stood, thinking -- has it always been so? Picking up flat stones along the way, he walked to the water's edge. One by one he skipped them across the surface of the bay, relishing the movement, enjoying the skill of it. Rocky stood and applauded; Turbo bowed, smiling brightly like a schoolboy.

She removed her jacket and placed it on the log, then strolled towards Turbo, selecting her own stash of stones on the way. The competition was on; timelessness took over. They tossed and slid and threw and laughed and talked. She told him of times, like, when she had put gold fish in the small pond in the backyard, expressly against her dad's wishes, while he was away. By the time he got back, they had taken over the entire pond, and were huge. He told her of when he was about eight or nine, had two turtles, bought at the five and dime, in a fish tank with rocks and dirt. He would buy turtle food and, once in awhile, feed them a fly. They traded stories and walked along the beach, stopping every so often when things got intense, then moving on around, in no hurry, going nowhere, sitting occasionally.

Before long, or so it seemed, they arrived at the the place where Turbo had spent the predawn, watching the Christ Is My Saviour on the other side of the bay. Watching and not watching; reflecting, thinking, searching, for what, he didn't know. He had gone over it all, one piece at a time, and gone over himself, the same way. He also remembered seeing Rocky leaving the boatyard at dawn. The memory triggered an avalanche of unexpected feelings. He was caught in the open, exposed, revealed, unprepared. An electric-like pain coursed his chest; his newfound feelings were too fragile to take the load. Rocky and Turbo had been lost in their own world, had stepped out of this one, but now it all rushed back, quickly, taking over from the core, expanding to the edges, bringing a sense of isolation and sober self-consciousness. He was alone again, alone and small.

Suddenly serious, like a drunk pulled over by the police, he stood staring out at where the ship had been. He was not surprised to see it gone, but was surprised at how glad and relieved that made him feel. Things have changed, everything has changed. A strange thought occurred to him -- had the ship and all its crew, Brother Rapture and his bodyguards, vanished like the weapons?

Rocky stood nearby, confused and wondering at Turbo's abrupt transformation, feeling his unease to match her own. She copied his stare, then asked, "What are you looking at, Turbo, the mouth of the bay?" She crept closer, resisting and regretting the inevitable, the present, the situation.

After a time, Turbo, rubbing a small stone in his right hand, said, as though from a great distance, "That's where the ship was, over there," he pointed, "on the other side of the bay, anchored up. Now, she's gone, maybe back to California, maybe to another time and space."

"What's the difference?" she asked.

Torn from his reverie, Turbo erupted into laughter, looked her up and down, then threw the stone at the bay -- one, two, three skips and it was gone beneath the sea. "Right," he replied, "what's the difference?"

She was satisfied, sufficiently, that he had returned to where they were before, but also knew it was time to talk about it, 'it' being the event of the previous evening. "You're still a hundred percent certain that all the weapons just disappeared, vanished into thin air, as they say? You didn't go down there, so, could they have been lying for some obscure reason, could it have been mass hypnosis or hallucination? "

Turbo immediately spat out, "No," shaking his head a few times while seeming to go over the events once again, "no," he repeated, "the way those guys looked, pushing and shoving their way up the stairs, no, they couldn't have faked it, and they weren't under any spell. The first time it happened, I remember there was a bit of a commotion spilling over from the sidedeck to the cabin. Could have been about me, I never found out. There were only three of them downstairs that time. They ran up, totally freaked out. I got close inside the cabin, checked them out; they were either terrific actors or genuinely disturbed.

"Same goes for that last time, only there was a whole gang of them scrambling up. Besides, why fake it? For whose benefit? Not mine. They already had me pegged as a drunk who just happened to have access to the site's computer systems. I might be of help, might not, but, if the first time was indeed for my sake, why let me know they'd restocked and then go to all the trouble to convince me they vanished, again? How could they think I would believe such shit in the first place, for Christ's sake? They'd have to be total morons, and they weren't. They were just very intense. They had a purpose, what it was, I never quite figured out.

"Gregor's the one who told me about the restocking just prior to going out to the ship. Why would he do that? If he screwed up, and Brother Rapture got wind of it and decided it was a mistake for me to know, they still didn't have time to put such an eleaborate show together. Or,..., was it a set-up from the get-go? Could Gregor have been lying to set me up as a witness? Why? What would be the point?

"No, I can't believe I'm saying this but, the only thing that makes sense is the thing that makes no sense. Actually, I believe they're innocent, of what happened, I mean. I mean, at the time, I got the distinct impression they enjoyed showing off with all the firepower. And the fact that they left, apparently, points to something having happened; enough is enough, even for fanatics. But there's no explaining it, except, of course, that the edifice has something to do with it."

"Okay," Rocky chimed in, with, what she hoped, sounded like her professional, scientific tone, "for now, for right now, let's just try to accept it as such, and use the fact to work backwards. I mean, assuming the edifice was responsible, somehow, why -- if that's a legitimate question -- why would it do such a thing? And if it had a good enough reason, why not just vanish the whole kebootle?"

"It felt threatened," Turbo said flatly, feeling his old street self, "somehow it knew they were a threat, and worked to eliminate it."

"But not the people?"

Turbo sat on the same spot on the same weather-worn log he'd occupied the night before. "No," he said with some astonishment, "and that may be a genuine clue." He looked up at her; she sat down next to him. They sat close, in silence, the muffled sound of lapping waves enveloping them like a cloak, drawing them closer. Rocky began the climb for the big picture; she needed to stand on the heights. Turbo, no longer able or willing to sustain old boundaries, let them slip away. He'd been living in the past for a long time; now, he was here, all the way here.

The sun's warmth soaked in. Immersed in each other's presence, they allowed themselves to feel the sureness of two being one.


THE RABBIT HOLE

It wasn't what he anticipated. No one could anticipate this, he was sure. Completely enclosed in a sterilized suit, thermal radiation dampened to zero by the material, helmet face of specially-treated plexiglass, Hans stood midway on the main corridor of sphere number five, P-5 as it was referred to. He stared dumbly at the flashing display, the gigantic design covering the entire rear third of the curved surface. He needed to experience the physical sensation of being inside a sphere, feel its power and size, its exhilarating complexity, and the awesome mystery of the rippling, dancing, twinkling lights of the design, something not readily appreciated from looking at a computer feed.

Marty had abandoned him to his own devices in order to have a talk with Doctor Weingard. He was busy overseeing a team of technicians fussing over the final alignment of a Very High Resolution (VHR) laser/digital video camera, running at maximum speed for detail, resting on a tripod in the balcony behind Hans. The experiment was long overdue, Weingard had said, having already placed a camera in each of the other eight alcoves. The idea, of course, was to have a group feed, a simultaneous moving picture, any frame of which could be frozen for examination, like a Mercatur of the earth.

The horizontal line of sight of each camera was set precisely along the line connecting the fixed point of each design with the point lying at the intersection of all nine lines, the center point of the hovering sphere -- a spoked wheel. They had been studying the patterns on the hovering sphere from each of the alcoves -- white nodes flickering in a seemingly random manner -- but not the wraparound panoramic view of all at once. He hypothesized that the juxtaposition would reveal something as a whole, an emergent pattern, something that a mere comparison of different snapshots would not show.

Why no one, including himself, thought to do this until now astounded the usually highly focused and thoroughgoing Doctor of physics.

They were at the far end of the hundred-foot corridor connecting the sphere he was in to the central one. Hans appreciated being left alone on the long deck of one of the edifice's outer spheres. Down the length of the deck, in fading white to greys, shaded lights set at ten foot intervals revealed the contorted and nested spaces of the cavernous expanse. It reminded him of a vast limestone cave he had once visited during his university days. Similarly, the entire surface of the sphere was covered with stalactites and stalagmites of every kind of shape and size. None simply oblong. Some did end in a point or point-like, but the outer edge of most was blunt. They twisted and turned at every conceivable angle like the insides of a crazy Christmas ball.

He suppressed a wild impulse to scream, to hear an echo bouncing off the thousands of angular-shaped extensions jutting out, or growing out, from the inner surface. What would it sound like passing through the odd inner atmosphere? Would it tell us anything?

He turned slowly full circle, addressing each room one at a time, marveling at their seamless perfection, seeing his reflection everywhere, even in the darkest places. What would the patterns of design-lights, rebounding off their moleculary well-ordered surfaces, look like with the artificial lights off? Would it set up interference patterns that would present a whole new information source? Something strangely obvious? Had they tried that yet?

As he proceeded with his inspection, he suddenly became aware of the quiet. How quiet, he thought, as though sound were simply not allowed, could not be made -- a scream would've returned nothing. Sound on earth travels through air, he informed himself, it is the vibration of the air that our ears sense and our brain interprets. But, this atmosphere, he could feel, would not permit sound. He continued his survey. The rooms did not seem to be completely independent of one another, but formed strange alliances, surfaces blending. The uncertain edges more than just merged and converged, they seemd to melt into one another.

Mouth open, he examined them carefully, each a sculpture deserving of detailed attention, the ones adjacent were somewhat accessible; the ones above and below could only be appreciated as shadowy forms, mysterious and alien. He wanted to touch the material, to feel its implausable texture, its perfect smoothness, its alien coolness. He stopped to take in the entire inner-facing crystal display. The collection of randomly-angled and irregularly shaped outcroppings seemed to move. The eye could simply not find where they met; it was dizzying to try. He paused in mid-wonderment, something deep within struggled to emerge to consciousness, a memory, something other than the cave -- where had I seen this before? he asked out loud. In this light the color of the outcroppings had the look and feel of soft caramel. The tone, the ambience, the hushed and reverential quiet was like an old, medieval cathedral, the walls and abutments burnished the deep amber of well-worn pews.

Abruptly, he spun to square-off with the design. What a contrast! Carnival time! Carnival and fireworks! Action, intensity, excitement, but not loud, not over-bright, not busy.

He had noticed that none of the investigators had bothered to discuss the curved, centimeter-thick altar or table, rising nine feet from the floor and standing immediately in front of the design. Why? Did they deem it superfluous or of only secondary importance -- nothing significant?

He approached it cautiously, listening for his own footfalls, but hearing only dead silence. A barrier consisting of upright, plastic tubes set a few feet apart, supporting a thick rope at their tops, had been set up for safety. The 20-foot wide walkway met the curved wall at its center, but beneath on both sides was a drop-off to the bottom of the sphere. The rooms, or whatever they were, gradually decreased in size, gently diminishing to smoothness, ending some twenty or so feet from the curved inner surface where the design blinked and moved in all its sublime and subtle craziness. It too made no sound, not the usual electrical hum one might expect from such a huge assemblage of what one would have to think of as being electrical in nature. Hans found this fact to be curiously disturbing; a cool breeze played with the hairs on the back of his neck.

The table was a good foot above his reach; he walked under it. Transfixed by the smoothness of its surface, he almost walked into the stem holding the entire thing up. Its contact with the table, all curved 18 feet by 3 feet, was no more that an inch in diameter where it flared out from its single centimeter circumference, same join at the botttom touching the floor.

Suddenly terrified of breaking it, he stepped back quickly, back until he could see the upper reaches of the design where it began to meet the projections from the inner skin. Encircling the interior surface starting in height at ground zero, the conglomeration of protuberances imperceptibly increased in contour, finer than foothills growing to mountains. Once again he felt a familiarity, a tug of the mind, something he had seen before, a parallel image or idea, perhaps? Or, could there be something new here, a new idea, an idea not parallel to anything he knew?

He breathed in a slow rhythm, wanting to conserve air for as long as possible -- this might be his only opportunity. The subtle and random alteration of the brightness of the display gave evidence of the native atmosphere. Again, he wondered what would it look like with the artificial lights off? What else might be triggered? Perhaps the catalyst of understanding he felt was near. Immersed in his surroundings, he was about to interrupt Marty and Weingard on the suit radio to ask about the lights when something caught his eye.

As Hans stood in the middle of the walkway, the so-called fixed point, the one that always stayed black, or lightless, suddenly blinked bright white. It lasted for such a brief interval that he couldn't say whether it happened at all. Its position, approximately three feet above the walkway, placed it directly behind the thin stem supporting the table. He could see that the node was no wider than the stem, actually, it was quite a bit smaller. The flash must have traveled right through the stem material, or split around, then coalesced.

And to where was it directing its light? He did a quick approximation: seventy-five feet across the diameter of the sphere from where he stood, down another hundred feet of 20-foot in diameter cylinder, then through the curved, outer polymer window separating the balcony from the interior of the central sphere, across the vacuum to the inner, hovering sphere; all together, about 212 feet; the distance connecting the imaginary line between the two. Could that be it?

He relaxed his body as well as he could, given the restrictive nature of his suit and the weight of the helmet and air-tank strapped to his back. He waited, refusing to blink, focusing on that spot on the stem behind which was the one single node among countless millions. And there it was again, unmistakable, a bright and intense white, lasting almost too briefly to be seen, right at the Brink of his perception. Neither Marty nor Rocky had told him about this. He believed they would have, especially Rocky, this was her area, examining and studying these patterns for any sign of significance or meaning. So, could this be the first time, now?

Backpeddling one short step at a time, keeping his eyes focused on the fixed node at center, he retreated to his original spot, the one chosen by him instinctively as the center of the action. A sound? No, he thought, couldn't be. But then again, through the strange mixture of gases, there it was, the sensation of sound, a clear, single, vibratory note, under the Brink for the human ear, but a sound nonetheless, he could feel it with his whole body. He stared as one sense at the fixed node, and waited. And waited some more -- nothing, nothing for a full five minutes. He rested his concentration, would have liked to have rubbed his eyes, but blinked many times instead, bringing on bleariness. Now the invisible texture of the alien atmosphere could be detected as waves of smoothly undulating shapes mingled and mixed, fused and diffused, spread from thick, spotty translucence to crystal clear transparency.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the corridor, Weingard and Marty were busy talking about what they hoped to learn from this experiment -- taking an overlapping scan from the entire hovering sphere at once instead of simply aligning adjacent pictures. Marty, a good deal taller than Weingard and facing the translucent window of the balcony, saw a single bright flash of diffused light coming from somewhere near the center of the surface of lights of the hoverer. The others remained fluctuating as before. He was about to tell Weingard when the membrane itself began to slowly but deliberately -- it seemed later to Marty -- go milky-opaque over its entire surface at once. Then the connection at the base of the camera to the main feed-line decoupled and fell to the deck. That got the attention of the techies. They stood, saw the darkened window and froze.

Just then, a tiny resonating vibration, high pitched, filled the atmosphere. It seemed to come from everywhere at once and grew in intensity. Weingard broke the spell with, "C'mon, let's get the hell out of here!" And without hesitation, they ran for the exit.

As though at the bottom of a deep, deep well, the sound of Marty's voice coming through Hans's earphones stretched out, lowered and poured down from a seemingly great distance. With protracted, agonizing slowness, he corkscrewed to meet them. Marty and Weingard were running dream-like towards him. Behind them, the technicians were crawling up the stairs where the opening had been cut, looking like spiders on a cold winter day.

Hans began to step towards them, it was like walking on the bottom of a pool wearing lead. Though muffled, distant, and indistinct, he could hear his footfalls reverberating on what seemed now a greasy, wet road. The plastic-spike soles felt flat, like bedroom slippers. Astonished, breathing shallowly, the strong, crystal-clear, deep note coming from the sphere, the walls, the floor, the air itself, momentarily paralyzed him, like the ring of a tsunami.

Marty appeared to be jogging in place. Weingard had only gone a few strides beyond the end of the corridor leading from the central sphere before running out of gas; his knees wobbled, he wasn't used to this kind of exertion. Cursing, he turned to scrabble back to the stairs.

At an even slower thirty-three and a third, Marty mouthed, "Hans, we have to go, right now, something is happening, we need to leave, C'mooonnnn!" He grabbed Hans's suit by the left shoulder, then pulled him along as though rescuing a drowning swimmer. Hans allowed himself to be towed; his movements seemed effortless now, drugged.

Time continued to lag slower and slower, spreading outward in concentric rings, like ripples on a pond, passing through the undulating curtains of gases, causing them to brighten with colors in places -- shades of luminescence, iridescence -- quickly going translucent to transparent and back again. Absently, detachedly, he thought his heart might stop. Then what? Would I be dead or merely suspended?

He wanted to ask Marty what was going on, but the words wouldn't come. He felt serene, at peace, immaterial.

Giddy, he was barely able to suppress laughter at Marty's efforts, his face so serious. But as a ring of time passed them by, Hans detected a glimmer of grave fear in Marty's usually imperturbable face. He began to wonder and worry at his own lack of concern.

What was really going on? The gases seemed to waver more quickly, more rhythmically. Abruptly he felt his heaviness; he felt weight, pressure. He was being lifted from above, up the stairs and through the hole. The rabbit hole, he thought, then laughed as tears ran down his cheeks.


THE BLIND INDIANS AND THE ELEPHANT

"I think we have to get away from trying to understand each design separately, Professor, and then attempt to piece them together or overlay them. The permutations are not only prohibitively large -- intractable, in fact -- but there is no way to interpret the results; they don't converge towards a particular class of patterns. Each snapshot of any pattern has been analyzed from topological perspectives with the same results. Holding any particular color constant and examining its sub-patterns across the overall design yields a perplexing array of interlocking shapes and sizes.

"We have noticed scales of invariance, hierarchies of similar patterns -- a fractal arrangement. What this could possibly mean or signify, however, we have no idea at present. The transitional zones, the boundaries of scale, may yield frequency information that could pinpoint local, initial conditions. Together, they could form a profile of significance. But once again, the quantity and constantly varying sequences are prohibitively large and unpredictable. Also, I would like to point out, a microscopic inspection of any particular node frozen in time reveals the same pattern, or patterns, as that of which it is a part.

"Doctor Noble's team of mathematicians has been able to discern continuous series of nested factor groups, each composed of homotopically equivalent classes, for each design. We used the fixed point of each design as the base point of the fundamental group. Equivalently, we've established chain-complexes, composed of two-dimensional simplices across all orientations of vertices. As with the composition series of factor groups, the chain sequences behave, or are arranged, fractally. This, of course, points to a hierarchy indicating the possibility of phase-locking as in any complex, nonlinear system. Beginning at what we've decided to be the lowest level -- the pattern composing the least number of nodes -- the sub-groups act as identity elements. As the size of any given complex increases, the embedded identity patterns also increase, not only in size, but in complexity and intricacy at each factor scale. Quite beautiful, in fact. One can get lost for hours watching the arrays grow and move over the entire face of a design.

"Once the maximum size of a composed series is realized, the entire system collapses in on itself, only to begin anew, but with a completely novel orientation and subsequent development. These phase-locked oscillations merge separate features together into single observables -- attractors. But even so, we still have no idea how to interpret these objects. And, I suppose it doesn't need to be pointed out, the case is the same for each sphere, only each is representative of a completely different topology."

Professor Welmar, mathematical physicist on leave from the University of Gottengen, leaned back in the green velvet easy chair, and let that last thing hang. He'd been talking nonstop for close to a half-hour. The others in the room had listened carefully, yet not always comprehending. Welmar was well-known for explaining without bothering to define terms.

Professor Samuelson, sitting over by the window smoking his pipe, broke the silence. "Frederich, excuse me, but, I thought the designs were two-dimensional arrays. On a curved surface, but nonetheless -- 2-D. As I vaguely understand from conversations with my daughter,..."

"Ah, a charming woman, and extremely gifted," Welmar interrupted and looked off for a moment of reflection. The room remained quiet while he ruminated, expecting him to say more. Turning a light shade of red, he quickly stammered, "Please, Professor,..., pardon me, please continue."

"Yes, I completely understand." Pausing long enough to smile, and let the chuckles die down, he continued, "Limited to a two-dimensional curved surface, there are but six topologically distinct spaces that can be used to generate an infinite number of topologies. You say there are nine?"

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Professor. The interconnections among the nodes is multi-dimensional; and for all practical purposes, infinite-dimensional. And due to the fact that each node contains within it, on ever receding scales, a whole image of that component of the overall design of which it is a part, we cross-product possible connections by several factors. Consider it as a module capable of generating a vast collection of topologies in its own right; as such it posseses a built-in redundance, that is, it's self-referential. It's true, geometrically, in a two-dimensional frame, there are only seventeen different types of symmetry groups possible. We searched and found those unit-cells; the motifs tesselate throughout each design. Now, if that was all there was to it, we'd have been able to come up with a geometric language of sorts. However, the sequence never repeats, hasn't as yet, as far as I know.

"We focused on single-color patterns; but the addition of colors, all across the spectrum, increases the number of symmetries many times over. At any given moment, there is easily an equal number of similar patterns composed of several different colors. If we concentrate on a single-colored pattern as it propagates across the design, it gradually changes in shape to form symmetry patterns of different types as it merges and interacts with others. On the other hand, if we concentrate on a specific symmetry pattern, a group type, as it moves, individual nodes change color, presumably due to interference with others. The extreme is for each node of a given pattern to be a different color. What this may signify..." Opened-handed, he gestured a shrug.

"Furthermore, because of its fractal structure, the web, or network, is multi-dimensional in the same sense that any subset of a hologram contains, or can reproduce, the overall whole picture. In other words, the basic topological shapes project into infinite-dimensional Hilbert space. So, even thought the design itself is physically restricted to a two-dimensional curved surface, the number of dimensions available to generate shapes is practically unlimited. Each is representative of a completely different and unique, fundamenatl topology; and each basic shape generates an endless series of homeomorphic arrangements."

Doctor Pengrove sat quietly on the other side of the oval mahogony table, taking it all in, sipping tea. He carefully placed the cup on its saucer and said, "You mentioned 'web' and 'module,' Doctor Welmar. This is not my field but, the metabolic web of a cell can generate complex structures. It converts energy into organization, it brings with it an inherent orderliness. This web can be broken down into separate modules, and these are arrayed in a hierarchical, yet interdependent manner, you say. Also, as a complex system, its overall emergent properties may not be deducible from those of its parts. To reiterate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. These parts interact in ways regulated by their molecular specifications, their chemistry.

"Can you help me out here, Sam?" Samuelson broke his reverie with what Welmar had said, but somewhere in the back of his mind he'd been listening and brought that forward, as we sometimes do. "You know where I'm going, I think. There's a parallel, albeit not exactly an equivalence, between the structural interconnections of the designs and the spatial organization of an organic cell. Please, Professor."

Taking a long pull on his pipe, then blowing the smoke out the window, Samuelson began, "Cellular organization is the result of a hierarchy of molecular functions, of embedded layers of interconnectivity. The organization of cells is not only from the botttom up, from the nodes, if you will, but also from the top down, as a complex system. As a consequence, the characteristics of the whole are invariant by comparison with the fluctuations of its composite parts -- the organelles. Form and function are identical at all levels of development. It is believed that between the genome and the cell-form, a spatially extended field generates the cell as a whole, a morphogenetic field. Also, the pattern of a cell is the same regardless of size, and a part of the pattern can reconstruct the whole, as with a hologram."

Samuelson leaned back to take another puff. After a bit, he said, "There are other features of cell formation and organization that may be analogous to the form and function of the designs. For instance, nonlinearity is a consequence of feedback interactions among coupled processes, and these interactions converge to a basin attractor through the exigency of the field, but, if the designs are behaving developmentally, share the same nature, then we have to also consider the processes that go with development of any organism, organisms go through developmental phases, transitions. As such, at a particular Brink, there is an abrupt change in behavior."

The group gathered in Pengrove's room pondered that last statement. They all knew that the designs in spheres five through nine -- the ones still containing their atmospheres -- had quickened in flux the previous day.

"The cell can also be considered as an integrated pattern, a symbiotic fusion of its constitutents. Evolution in deep time -- my specialty -- was quite different than that which we are familiar. Its topology had the nature of a web rather than a branching tree. If this cell analogy holds, the overall picture that includes the designs from all spheres simultaneously might reveal something intelligible. Each design could be part of a self-organizing entity whose parts relate interdependently. This is also true of organisms, the cell being the basic unit.

"The properties of the whole cannot be deduced deterministically from consideration of any one, or subset, of its components, or from its components in consort considered as a machine. As you say, Doctor Welmar, the whole is greater than the sum of its molecular parts. Evolving networks shift gradually into new modes of operation. If we are indeed looking at something which behaves organically, we can expect unpredictable changes, as with any adaptive, complex, dynamic system. If that is the case, the fact that the first four designs are apparently not functioning properly may act to retard development or full integration. It could thus mutate or change direction, the result of a new epigenetic landscape."

Pengrove spoke, "We can go into much more detail with the cell analogy, I'm sure, but, constraints of time being what they are, I would like to hear other examples of analogous patterns. Richard, if you would, please, do you see a parallel from the neurophysiological perspective? What of the architecture, the behaviour?"

Doctor Richard Jameson, neurophysiologist at Boston's Institute for Learning and Pattern Recognition, had been quietly stirring his tea, staring intently at its surface. Without looking up he began, "Babies are born with 100 billion neurons, about the same number as stars in the Milky Way. By 3 years old, they have about 15,000 synapses per neuron, three times that of adults. It's a period that's called computationally rich. The sheer number of connections creating a massive parallel processing and regulatory system is beyond comprehension. While no single neuron is conscious, the brain taken as a whole unit is. That is, computation in neural networks is performed collectively, the simultaneous operation of individual neurons results in the function of the neural network as a whole. The essential gist, then, of parallel processing is that many different networks operate simultaneously.

"This form of organization allows for large collections of neurons to simultaneously influence the state of an individual neuron. In fact, an individual neuron is capable of sensing the states of other neurons to which it is connected. Moreover, specific information is encoded in the connections between neurons as well as in separate ones, that is, information can be represented by a unique pattern.

"And considering development, the brain's development passes through stages; at each stage it is prepared to learn things of a specific type. As this progresses, behaviour of the regulatory systems integrates into coordinated activity with the passage of time. Individual neurons themselves are very complex processing units, and the interactions between them are nonlinear in nature and subject to modification. Because they are nonlinear, dynamical systems, new properties can emerge at any network level. Also, dependence on lower-level phenomena -- subsystems -- is the hallmark of holisitc, emergent properties, and this is decidedly true of neural networks.

"Since the Cambrain Explosion, there's been a general increase in the capacity of organisms to process information, especially since the advent of mammals, 200 million years ago or so. Gathering information about the environment is integral to survival."

Pengrove rose to walk over to Samuelson. He offered him a light for his pipe. The Professor puffed a few times under it, then thanked him quietly. As Pengrove proceeded to the small stove on which sat a pot of water for tea, Samuelson expoused, "Living complex systems, individual, single-celled creatures, or some cell-type of a multicelled organism, generate their form and function through the workings of morphogenetic fields layered or aligned hierarchically; or more precisely, the dynamics generate morphogenetic fields as self-organizing wholes. The field, or fields, orchestrates and organizes the genome, the resulting form is the cell itself, an invariant whole, self-maintaining even as its components transform and morph into something else.

"Follow me please. The complexity of the system initiates a series of bifurcations, from global to local structure. The essential identity of the initial arrangement, its positional configuration, can be found throughout the hierarchy of field layers. My daughter, if she were here, could elaborate on her thesis. In it, she describes a composition series of factor groups, a hierarchical, yet embedded, configuration of elements, that can be used to model the character and behaviour of complex, dynamic systems. The identity of each successive factor group lies integrated into the identity of the next level, as Doctor Welmar so effectively explained.

"So, yes, information processing on a molecular level on up the scale to that of the organism increases geometrically, yet maintains initial ordering identity. And, parallel processing is a necessity, there's no way a cell could perform what it does in a linear fashion." Samuelson puffed brightly on his pipe. He was clearly enjoying himself, forgetting the brooding he'd been doing for the past two days.

After taking a sip of tea, Jameson stood to pace, his best mode for thinking. "Let's take another tack and consider the holographic aspects of neural networks, specifically, the brain and eyesight. Light stimulates the rods and cones of the retina causing them to fire electrical signals. The effect on the visual cortex is not a one-to-one relationship as had been previously thought, but rather acts more like a ripple of electrical waves. The optic nerve is composed of multiple strands of nerves intertwined to form the optic nerve itself. Thousands of neurons interconnect strands in multiple ways, like a web, along its length. These neurons condition and alter signals which ripple across adjacent strands, weakening as they expand before meeting another strong signal. The effect is like ripples on the water, or grav-density waves spread out across the rings of Saturn."

He stopped suddenly to gaze out the window at the distance. "Insects. The eyes of insects are multi-faceted allowing for a visual field composed of adjacent and overlapping sections. Because of this arrangement, they are extremely sensitive to movement. A similar structure occurs with humans but from the inside, so to speak. Our visual cortex, in conjunction with the retina and the optic nerve complex of interconnected neurons, receives information about whatever complicated scene we happen to be looking at through the interference patterns of the ripples of the modified electrical signals. And this many-layered wave is distributed across the entire cortex, a holographic wave.

"So, parallel processing and holographic systems. As we pan the scene, the wave fronts transform and overwrite, but in a gradual way. The old model replaced each image with a dedicated set of neurons. From that point of view, as you turn your head to scan, each neuron would have to undergo a re-identification, a cumbersome use of energy. With the holographic model, each neuron acts to slightly alter the wave front without having to redefine itself in terms of position within a group of other neurons. There's tens of thousands, millions, of interconnections.

"With a holographic image, each part reflects the whole. I mean, if you shine a laser beam through the part, you see the whole image, a little fuzzily but, there it is. Light and other electromagnetic energy constantly interfere with each other as they bounce off matter. If that's happening, Jesus, if that's happening, the changing, fluctuating interference patterns of nodes are accumulating vast amounts of information from moment to moment, possibly feedbacking and refining with each change in overall pattern. The very material of which they're made, whatever that is, is itself composed of interference patterns -- matter is also waves -- which interfere with the patterns of light interconnections.

"If this is possibly another analogy of the sphere designs, the nodal interconnections at any given moment would be displaying information across interference points, collectively. Another comparison: backup systems; if some neurons malfunction, the overall function of the network remains unchanged.

"Doctor Welmar, besides the nested patterns that go through their changes in a fractal manner, has your team discerned any patterns of interference?"

After a long pause during which the good doctor appeared to be daydreaming, he said, "If we consider a wave as composed of a set of nodes, a moving simplicial complex, if you will, where specific color-coded nodes intersect others of a different color, we can, yes, determine interference points. We've examined individual snapshots for this effect and have catalogued equivalent structures across all nine spheres, but, and this is a big 'but,' the complexity of these non-repeating sequences of patterns functions on multiple levels simultaneously. The Fourier Transform, therefore, describing the components of any given design is prohibitively long, once again. And, we have no way of knowing if that is more or less significant or how to process it, not having the Rosetta Stone".

"Could you elaborate, Doctor Welmar, for us node-challenged," asked Samuelson, "I haven't had the opportunity to see these designs in person, so, my imagination falters."

Welmar leaned forward. "Okay, now here's the picture. What we're calling a node is an approximately one centimeter in diameter, continuously fluctuating illumination. They're separated from one another at random distances. Each is capable of every possible, yet distinct, color in the visible spectrum. For whatever reason, they don't spread into the electromagnetic band on either side.

"Each of these nodes may partake of some color, juxtaposed with other same-colored nodes in a kind of associated pattern that's discernable. Say, for instance, there's a complex pattern of green. Inside the border may be yellows or reds or whatever that are part of another similar pattern. We can then say that they intersect, or interfere, if considered as the tip of a wave, a soliton wave. We've been able to group families and networks of associated patterns that come up together -- coupled processes.

"Now, the common node where any two patterns intersect, at their boundaries -- and there are many doing this simultaneously -- will be one or the other color, say green or yellow. The overlapping does not disrupt the intricacy of the patterns of any two; all that changes are the colors. If the boundary node is green, then that pattern is probably dominant, the foreground pattern, a gestalt of some kind; and the dominant pattern will prevail, cutting off the one beneath at the border if it's different -- another case. So, what does this mean? Layers, for sure, but, how about an interference across scales, what we see happen when there is a quantum interference, or entanglement, of a specific wavefunction after a measurement, across a set of bases eigenstates -- fundamental wave-particle components, probabilities -- in a mixed state of superposition. The dominant, or topmost, pattern is thought to be the result of some measurement activty, whatever that may be.

"Each eigenstate, or nodal-pattern, so to speak, of an entire ensemble is thought to be linearly independent of the others in a mutually orthogonal relationship, and as such they all live in the same domain. But, as I said, once something akin to a measurement has been made, one state is determined and, in the quantum analogy, appears in the macro-world, the next dimension up, so to speak. How this translates into our nodal-pattern picture is not exactly clear, however. At any given instant, are the dominant patterns -- the associated families and networks of dominant patterns -- of a heightened status and significance?

"To add to the complexity, any set of nodal-patterns is only one of many other possible bases sets for the same pattern-system, like putting a wavefunction into a different frame of reference, a different coordinate system. In theory, at least, we can thus choose the terms with which to conceptualize. The problem is to know which is the most pertinent to the question we ask, the information we seek.

"And, if a given nodal-pattern, regardless of its layered position, is a projection of some subset of others that act as its basic terms, it can be considered derived -- an effect of their nonlinear interdependence. Combined with others of this type to form a class that collectively use up, so to speak, all the elementary members of the chosen bases set, we end up with a wavefunction of a completely new order, another dimension. What I'm saying, Professor, is that the interference we've seen, and it occurs all across the designs in constant flux, could be the result of physical manifestation -- materiality in the macro world -- or represent a quantum system of particles, or patterns, of an order totally unfamliar and unknown."

Content that he had succeeded in clarifying the situation, ignoring Samuelson's raised brows and slack jaw, he went back to his original discussion with Jameson, "If the nodes do act like the neurons of a brain, then any node's meaning will change depending on its association with other nodes at any given time, its engram, as I understand it. Is that not correct, Richard?" Not waiting for a response, "And, as with a neuron, each of these nodes is a processing unit in its own right, including within a representation of the pattern of which it is a part, as I've said before, I believe, the redundancy may go on indefinitely, we can't tell. But the question is: Why?"

Pengrove, standing by the small stove sipping tea, felt the deep quiet that descended like a clock that had wound down, a condition happening all too frequently lately. He sensed the frustration and borderline despair. These men, and many other top-notch scientists and engineers like them, had been working on these problems for months now, with nothing of major consequence to show for it. Finally, he spoke to this smaller than usual group, all seemingly lost in thought.

"Gentlemen, we've been concentrating far too much, perhaps, on the designs themselves, detached from the rest of the overall system referred to as the edifice. Let's go elsewhere. What of the hovering sphere at the center of all these designs? Because of its position, it is in contact, if that is indeed what it's doing, with all nine outlying designs simultaneously. What significance has beeen garnered by that? I must confess I have my own speculations, but I would like to hear yours, Professor Chen. First off, what do you think keeps the damn thing up?"

Professor Liang Chen, of the University of Beijing, a physicist with in-depth experience in solid-state and quantum physics, usually sat quietly and listened at these informal meetings, occasionally nodding his head or shaking it no. Pengrove returned to his seat at the oval table. Chen began, "The interior of the main central sphere itself, now closed to inspection, is, as far as we know, a perfect vacuum. Quantum fluctuations occur randomly and in all directions in an ordinary vaccuum. It's quite possible that whoever built this thing has the scientific knowledge to somehow orchestrate and order the energy released by these fluctuations, the virtual particles, so as to create and sustain an anti-grav field. If so, the consistency of its strength, over all these millions of years, is beyond comprehension.

"There is no magnetic field discernable, the engineers have said they detect no such field; however, due to the exactitude of the lattice configuration, now even tighter and more complex, I believe there may be a field of similar type focused perfectly at the center of the hovering sphere, undetectable in effect through the vacuum, cloaked and masked by it, holding the inner sphere in position. That's another possibility. The negative pressure, or tension, of the vacuum itself, if focused and directed properly could be yet another."

He too stood, walked to the back of his chair and leaned on it as though to steady himself. "In our universe, and I'm not suggesting the edifice is from another, we have two other forces -- the nuclear and the weak. The illumination, or lights, of the nodes of all designs is believed to be powered from within, by the structure of the material generating an endless photoelectric effect in our dimension. I don't believe this force, the weak, is capable of suspending the inner sphere, it's simply not of that character. So, we're left with the nuclear force, easily powerful enough. How could this work to suspend the inner sphere in a vacuum? I think it would depend entirely on the material of the sphere and, most critically, its atomic arrangement.

"The surface material of the outer sphere is reported to exhibit properties akin to nuclei and electrons of a different type, occupying the same quantum space, an impossibility according to our physics, but not unimaginable, given the fact of the edifice. As far as we know, only if the material was in a superconducting state could electrons of opposite spin merge into one entity and essentially act like a boson, a force particle. Large numbers of such pairs can move through a material, a metal, usually, with their individual wavefunctions locked in phase. But, we're not dealing with supercold materials, and anyway, the same doesn't hold for nuclei. However, if this is the case, could this multiple, compressed nuclear force generate its own gravity space, a space so much stronger than the surrounding one of earth's that earth's is essentially a relative vacuum?"

"What do you mean, of a different type?" asked Pengrove, "I didn't get that report."

"I just received it myself this morning, from Princeton's lab. The electrons are negatively charged, but many times more massive, and their spin is a whole number, not the usual one-half. I don't need to remind you, Professor, that whole number spins indicate force particles."

Pengrove moved closer. "So, either we're looking at two electrons of opposite spin occupying the same quantum space, condensed and blended together, plus whatever energy is required to keep them that way; or, it could be the hypothetical supersymmetric partner, a selectron, I believe" mused Pengrove, "how can that be?"

"I don't know," Chen stated bluntly, "force particles are composed of both matter and antimatter -- the photon merges an electron and an anti-electron, a positron, for instance. So we could also be dealing with a matter-anti-matter configuration. The nuclei are similarly more massive than what we're used to. But, I was listening to the others talk of waves interfering, and I couldn't help but think of vibrating, cosmic strings. If we are indeed dealing with something multi-dimensional, the causes of the effects we see overall may be the result of fields from invisible dimensions, compacted dimensions balled-up and out of our reach. And if that is the case, the knowledge to exploit these field structures to suspend the inner sphere, though beyond our present understanding, may very well be child's play to the right group of aliens." He leaned back in his chair and slumped a bit.

Suddenly Pengrove stood straight and looked at the old Victorian chandelier. "I just thought of something. What about the temperature of this supposed vacuum? We assume absolute zero -- no atoms or molecules crashing into one another -- so, no activity, no heat. But, I'll bet it's warm."

"How can empty space be warm?" asked Chen, incredulous but open to anything at this point. "It's not seeded with material particles much less atoms and molecules. Quantum fluctuations energize the space, but no particle interaction, no motion, so -- no heat."

"Suppose the entire space was of one piece -- a manifold. Heat could radiate from the inner sphere outward through the whole of it, through the interior of the main sphere without atomic or particle activity, like a wave spreading through a membrane, a 3-brane. This heat would then apply, or exert, pressure on the inner sphere, holding it in place. A self-regulatory feedback system. It holds itself in place through the radiant pressure in the vacuum bouncing back onto it and enveloping it. The heat conducts across the quantum field energy of space itself, a quantum field that's arranged just so."

No one spoke. The famous Doctor Pengrove was on a roll, they recognized it and respectfully waited.

"You suggest it may be able to withstand local gravity by generating it's own grav-field of such strength as to make earth's moot." Pengrove turned to fill his cup. "Here's another idea. Forget energy fields of all types. Suppose instead of the interior being a vacuum -- we don't know for sure, after all -- suppose it's filled with dark matter, whatever that may be. Suppose that's the case and whoever built the edifice was able to adjust the viscosity, customize it in such a way, so we have something like a marble, or a ping-pong ball, immersed in some jello-like substance?"

A few more members of the Puzzle Master's group, who had been standing by the open doorway listening, came into the room and headed immediately for the tea pot. Andrei Zacharoff, mathematician, currently studying chaos and emergent phenomena, from the University of Pennsylvania, poured himself a cup, then turned to Professor Chen. Brashly passing over Pengrove's remarks, he asked, "Doctor Chen, please, would you answer the other part of Doctor Pengrove's question. I have my own theory, but first, I'd like to hear yours. What role do you think the suspended sphere plays in all this? What of its own transforming designs? Its geometric relationship with the other designs?"

A murmur of laughter coursed the room. Andrei, one of the youngest of the group, was rather well-known for free-associating a series of questions to the bewilderment of the one being questioned. His enthusiasism worked, however, to invigorate and energize the other members of the assemblage, breathing fresh air into the doldrums.

Chen, smiling, reseated himself. Lighting a cigarette, he pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and laid it on the oval table in front of Pengrove. It was a simple set of lines, the old spoked-wheel, but with some additions. After taking a puff, he said, using his cigarette as a pointer, "Nine lines drawn from the fixed point of each sphere's designs intersect at the geometric center of the inner, hovering sphere. Also, these lines intersect points on the surface of that sphere. There are, of course, nine such points all together. Now, as you can see, the lines are set at 40 degree intervals. Because of this asymmetric arrangement, there is no line-of-sight connection between opposite base points; even though they impinge on the inner sphere at ninety degrees, perpendicularly, that is, they are offset by 20 degrees. Likewise for the overall edifice, of course. You get the same offsetness with any odd number of spheres, and a diametric alignment with any even number."

A long, quiet pause followed. Looking at a point in space no one else could see, Chen took a drag and said, "Whoever built this thing did it this way for a reason. I believe that due to this asymmetric topology, the fixed points of each design connecting with the inner, suspended sphere at the nine nodes specified, if we assume that some form of energy can be, or is being, directed along these lines from outer to inner, the angle of contact can induce rotation, -- the hovering sphere is capable of rotating," he finished, matter-of-factly.

Before anyone could say anything, he went on, "See, it makes no sense to me, at least, for the designs and the inner sphere to be independent from one another. The question is: Do the designs act on the inner sphere, either as one or in constantly varying alliances, the inner sphere thereupon acting as coordinator, integrator of the collection of all nine, passively receiving information from the whole; or, does the inner sphere access the outlying ones, in whole or in varying associations, as the independent actor? What is their functional relationship? If they do indeed act on one another, how is their behaviour affected and influenced? Also, within each outlying sphere we've determined a set of three persepctives, spaced 120 degrees apart, intersecting these lines; they are collinear. Now, what can all this mean?"

He had avoided directly answering Andrei's question. The speculation as to the role of the inner sphere had been skirted since the first meeting some months ago. Everyone approached it with an almost instinctive trepidation. Finally, Doctor Jameson spoke, cutting off the young Andrei.

"As I said, the brain, in its parallel processing activity doesn't execute instructions serially, like a computer; rather it charges, bioelectrically, links, or synapses, between neurons as a distributed network, a neural network. Individual neurons, therefore, take on different roles, play different parts, stand for different meanings, depending on the constitutents of the associated network and the connections activated. And, I might add, this happens at speeds upwards of 10 quadrillion connections per second!

"As a comparison that may serve to dislodge any presuppositions, the brains of humans and that of birds differ in construction, birds having a large cluster composing the cerebrum rather that the six layers of cells of the human brain. But, what's been discovered is that these formerly believed purely instinctive creatures, the birds, I mean, are actually very intelligent.Why? The answer lies in the way the lower and upper clusters are internally connected, the set of arrangements is what makes the difference, and constitutes a new way to look at the architecture of intelligence. I have to admit to having been anthropocentric about this myself, pure hubris, happens all the time, a healthy dose of disillusionment is good for the soul.

"It's quite possible, therfore, that the central sphere acts like an upper brain and the set of outlying spheres, in particular their fluctuating designs, as a cluster -- collectively, a lower brain. Cascades of nodal-network activity may concentrate at each fixed point and maintain contact with the upper brain at these nine points Liang alluded to. Considering the sheer number of nodes per design, the possible connections far exceeds that of our human brains.

"Another possibility that comes to mind, based on research done in the late 80's, has to do with optical neural computers. They consist of two main components: a two-dimensional array of optical switching elements to simulate neurons; the elements switch states depending on the states of the other elements to which they are connected. Each element can be interconnected to all other neurons by light beams. And the second component is a hologram that specifies the interconnections among the elements. The total number of possible connections is the square of the number of elements.

"And with a volume hologram, we're talking about over a trillion connections per one million optical nodes for a hologram crystal of only one cubic centimeter. So, when Doctor Welmar states the number of patterns is prohibitively large, I believe he is quite understating the sheer number of possiblities, even without considering each node's self-referential hologram within. Indeed, for all practical purposes, they are infinite. These connections are modifiable, much as is the neurons of the brain when taking on different roles, roles that depend on their immediate set of associations.

"Does this sound somewhat familiar with respect to what we've learned thus far about the edifice?

"Pattern recognition, my area, deals with what are called random problems. These are problems whose solution requires knowledge of every possible state of a system. To select the proper solution depends critically on the input data, Brinks must be crossed. I believe this sounds very much like the quantum wave collapsing picture: a pure state of superposition, input data applied as a measurement or operator, resulting in a specific quantum state for whatever parameter is under consideration. The set of bases terms then would be the critical influence -- the set of simple rules.

"Doctor Chen spoke of the functional relationship between the outlying designs and the inner sphere. If the overall system does indeed behave brainlike, or as an optical neural computer, we have a third choice -- the nonlinear one -- constant feedback and amplification, refinement, then more feedback and the cycle continues, very, very quickly, I might add, towards an eventual solution."

Chen responded immediately, "If that's the role of the inner sphere, then it's receiving a barage of continuously changing information from all nine designs simultaneously, and then acting upon this conflageration implictly. As with the architecture of the human, or bird, brain, it's the internal connections that dictate intelligence and not the separate components of the system acting alone or independently."

After a brief moment of reflection, staring at the worn, print rug, Chen whispered, "It's thinking."

Doctor Victor Littgenstein, evolutionary developmental biologist from the Cal Tech Genetics Research Facility, had crossed the room and was standng next to Samuelson by the window. As he filled his pipe from Sam's tobacco pouch, he said, "Along the lines of what you and others have been saying, Richard, I would like to point out that we need not attempt to circumscribe the entire network of activity. Fundamentally, each cell in the human body contains the same genetic instructions as all other cells. Cell types differ due to the fact that different subsets of genes are active in the different cell types. At various levels -- from the gene itself to the end protein product -- this process of expression and repression of genes is controlled by the regulatory network, the products of some genes switching others on or off."

Doctor Welmar broke in, "This overall structure sounds similar in arrangement to a hierarchical series of nested factor groups, groups factored by specific identity subgroups as the genes go through their alternating activity, subdividing and forming products, with the added feature of direction towards development. You begin at the top with the whole group -- or gene -- then, depending on type, the whole is factored by the required protein identity."

"I would say that was an accurate comparison as far as structure goes. And if these analogies have relevance, it might only be necessary to pinpoint some small set of generating nodes, the set of simple rules Richard referred to, a kind of homeodomain. Homeobox genes, as you may be aware, are the ones responsible for regulating the development of animals, fungi and plants by turning on cascades of other genes at certain times and directing the resulting proteins, usually in the macro-form of complexes grouped strategically and geometrically with other proteins, towards certain places. In other words, these genes determine where and when body parts -- legs, arms, eyes, etcetera -- will grow in a developing fetus, and they appear to be similar across species."

Puffing on his pipe unitl it was good and lit, he went on, "I would also like to point out that the 25,000 or so genes in the human genome produce around 90,000 proteins. This feat is accomplished by what is termed alternative splicing, one gene producing on average three proteins, by either leaving out or retaining all or parts of its constituent exons and introns. Let's assume, for the moment, that any one design of the edifice functions in this manner, each definable sub-network or pattern considered as a full gene capable of splitting into separate sections and then reforming in conjunction with others to express specific directives. And within these sub-networks we have expression and repression of parts in conjunction with the splicing and dicing, splitting and recombining."

Drawing himself up to his lecture height, he continued, "Homeobox genes are not only responsible for initiating gene cascades, but also, in turn, for initiating the cell's regulatory machinery -- the splicing molecules -- that determine how genes are editied and then how they are transcribed into memory RNA. The forms of these splicing proteins vary depending on tissue and cell type, as well as during different stages of development. Form and function are identical for a given protein. And beyond that, each protein of each cell-type not only performs a function indigenous to that cell-type, but also is capable of performing many different functions, or roles, within the cell depending on what grouping or arrrangement it conjoins with others to form a composite macromolecule.

"Is that not correct, Doctor Samuelson?"

"Yes, precisely, we could get into more detail. For instance, what is the connection between homeobox genes and specific morphogenetic fields? But I believe for the present discussion it would only serve to add superfluous and confusing information. Please, proceed."

With a smile and a nod, he did so, "If that is the analogous case, the inner sphere may act like the homeobox genes, and the incessant and rapid fluctuations of the various designs like the cascading and splitting genome, activating and repressing subsets -- an unimaginably complex assortment of information -- as the edifice goes through its developmental phases, its embryonic stages, so to speak. In fact, to carry the metaphor further, each design may be considered a separate chromosome.

"And, if the functional relationship is as Doctor Chen suggests, we can also look at the overall set of interconnections of each design as a web of regulatory circuitry, organizing its genetic system into an ordered and integrated whole. Remember, we're talking about thousands, possibly millions, of molecularly distinct interconnections. What we need to find, then, is the developmental mechanism -- the generator set determining familes of forms.

"We know that the last five, the ones still retaining their original atmospheres, have quickened in fluctuation demonstratively compared to the first four, which had their atmospheres removed." Samuelson noticeably groaned and shook his head. Littgenstein, a professor used to moans and groans from his students, continued unfluttered, "Clearly, we now know, the atmospheres must play an integral part in this development. Having only these two different rates of change to sample, however, we cannot yet know if the development is arithmetic or geometric. I think this to be an important point. An arithmetic increase would still point towards the possibility of a robotic or machine-like activity, whereas exponential growth would point to something organic."

Immediately Andrei, the chaostician, put in, "Why organic? A nonlinear complex system, a dissipative structure, like an eddie in a river, will go through dramatic phase transitions as the volume and speed of the river increases. It feeds on itself exponentially and is not organic."

"Yes, but, the eddie does not develop along the course of a layering of networks arranged hierarchically, each interacting with the one above to create an emergent global identity. It is its own thing -- an attractor cut off from its previous incarnation. I believe what we have with the designs represents this type of embedded hierarchy. Doctor Welmar spoke of factor groups nested within factor groups, wheels within wheels, so to speak."

"Well that's precisely what you have with an attractor. It is, ultimately, a fractal geometrically. And so as you probe more deeply into it, you discover similar arrangements on ever decreasing scales -- an embedded hierarchy interacting and interconnected across levels. The complexity of the ensemble of network systems originates with a set of simple basic rules generating the nonlinear system."

"Very well, you're the expert on complex adaptive systems, but there's something else, something I can't quite put my finger on just now, something that informs me that we're dealing with a living entity. The way the increase in energy has orchestrated the system into some kind of perceivable, coherent order, very similar to a genetic system. But, as you say, if you push enough energy through a disordered system, it can spontaneously crystallize into a high degree of order.

"There must be more evidence we can bring to bear. Living systems, systems in flux interacting with their environments, learn and change accordingly. Some genes are suppressed and others enhanced. At the interface, there is something more going on than just the adaption of a complex, dynamic system to its environment. In other words, the epigenetic landscape governs and channels genetic expression in the phenotype along particular metabolic and developmental pathways. If we had some evidence that it's changes were the direct result of external influences and not merely internal adjustments of some kind; if we could prove whether or not it's indifferent to outside interference, and, Lord knows, it's received quite enough of that, then we might know what we're dealing with and possibly what it may be going through. I, for one, don't believe it's a mechanical process acting solely on internal impulse. And if that's the case, what can be considered the epigenetic landscape of the edifice and its web of fluctuating designs?"

He puffed his pipe and turned to stare out the window at the beautiful sunny day. Momentarily, he said, "A developing fetus is also a dissipative structure -- a complex, self-organizing, adaptive system. Which begs the question: Where is the energy for transformation coming from?"

The taboo area they all knew, but had balked at going to. There was no longer any time to procrastinate on the issue, they also all knew. Pengrove, as the host of these meetings, sought to bring ease back into the conclave. "During our last two gatherings we spoke of mixtures of eigenstates interacting and existing simultaneously, a superposition of probable arrangements, another possible metaphor, and one I am more familiar with. Now, to reiterate, if the inner sphere can be said to represent the wavefunction in a pure state, and the ensemble of designs as a superposition of eigenstates for each design, then after a measurement has taken place, each design arrangement will be projected into one, and only one, possible measurement eigenstate, an invariance. What we would then have is a mixture of quantum states but in a macro form. Beyond that, each design is itself a superposition of patterns, and each node is similar holographically. It is self-referential in the extreme. At each level we have a pure ensemble state, prior to measurement. Embedded wavefunctions within wavefunctions, a composition series.

"Our technology prohibits, or limits the depth of scale we are able to detect and examine. But, I believe it's safe to assume that the same kind of arrangement goes on indefinitely. And, I'd like to point out, each design, as Doctor Welmar said, is a unique topology different from all the others. So, the complexity of possible interacting connections, fluctuating patterns, interacting across scales, or layers, as well as within the same class or horizontal domain, we concluded, is simply too complex to waste time on, with the best of computer expertise and analyses. What we have to focus on is the overall structure itself, which is what we've been doing today.

"Where is the energy for transformation coming from? If any of these metaphors we've been discussing, or all of them as aspects, like the blind indians and the elephant, are close to describing the dynamics and structure of the edifice, then what is likely to transpire at some future time, near or far, is that some critical point will be reached, a Brink will have been crossed -- a measurement will take place; the genome will have realized a specific, functioning stage in its development; a coherent thought composed of innumerable neural associations and holographic wave-complexes will form in consciousness; the morphogenetic field of the cell, or organism, will spontaneously arrange its modules into their proper places -- and then what?

"It stands to reason, I believe, that there is a finite sub-set of nodal systems that initiates, governs, and is responsible for all we see, all the vast complexity of the multi-tiered network. We need to focus on just those entities, that set of basic elements, -- the free group of generators, as Doctor Welmar might say -- as well as the global patterns of invariant forms across the layered interconnections. I also believe these basic generators -- the set of simple rules -- to be homologously equivalent across levels, each set transformable into the others. This greatly limits our search, from infinite to countably finite."

Muffled laughter spilled across the room.

Pengrove went on, "We need to look for coupled and multi-coupled processes at work within the overall designs, and map these isomorphically to the precise, associated patterns transpiring on the inner sphere. If a dynamic system's behaviour determines its form, then perhaps a determination of its overall form, in motion, may reveal the essence, if not the meaning, of its behaviour."

Professor Pengrove cleared his throat, took a sip of, now, cold tea, and said, "But to begin with, or at the same time, we have to try to unravel the mystery of the inner sphere. I don't mean why it's suspended, that may be irrelevant at this point. No. We have to address the question: What is inside the inner, hovering sphere? Where does the power to transform come from?" Smiling, he continued, "Am I rigging the question with an implied assumption? "

Professor Samuelson was about to say something when a wide-eyed technician rushed into the room. "Excuse me, Professor Pengrove, but, I've just come from the site. Have you heard the news? Has anyone called? No, that's right, they're not supposed to."

Pengrove scanned the room, reading the faces, then replied, "No. No one's been to the site today. Why, what's happened? Calm down now, sit."

The flustered and awed technician did as he was told, but then abruptly stood again, too agitated to do otherwise. "The gases. Bull, I mean General Mynsky, he talks really loud, was arguing with Fitzsimmons and some others in the main trailer. The gases have disappeared. Somehow, they got out of the tanks, some time early this morning. The chief sat on it 'till noon; there's a major lock-down, they call it, at the site right now; no calls, no enters, no leaving. Bull's men questioned everybody. They finally let me out, Doctor Fitzsimmons had it OK'd, to tell you and any others here." He nervously nodded around the attentive group of scientists.

"Oh," he blurted, slapping his forhead, "something happened inside P-5, I don't know what, all I know is they brought a man into the infirmary, laughing and crying at the same time. I helped carry him. We had to hold him down, restrain him. The emergency doctor gave him a sedative. He kept babbling. Kept mentioning a Doctor Samuelson; kept saying he knew, but wanted to talk to the Professor. Then the sedative kicked in and he passed out."

"I'm Samuelson," he said, pointing his pipe at the techie, "What was his name, do you remember? Please, relax, try to think. And sit down."

This time the techie sat and did not get up. He looked at the Professor, swiped a hand through his long hair, and replied, "Well, there was some confusion at first. We thought his name was Doctor Longview, but found out that's only a disguise for visitors. I didn't know that, all this time." Glancing around the room, he lamented, "They keep us engineers in the dark, you know."

"What's his name?" demanded Samuelson, as he stood and approached the young man sitting before him.

The techie looked him in the eyes and said quietly, "Hans Glipter, sir."

"What?" he turned to Pengrove, then back to the techie, "I have to see him. Where's this infirmary, boy? Take me there."

"But, you can't get in, sir; like I said, Bull, I mean, General Mynsky, has it locked-up, or down. No one can get in or leave. Bull's orders. I don't know why that should be, we didn't do anything to lose 'em." Staring at the floor, he mumbled, "The gases are gone and now he's locking the doors."

Pengrove stepped to Sam's side and said, "I'll get you in, Sam. Andrei, Doctor Welmar, would you be so kind as to accompany us?" Without a moment's hesitation, all four left the room, closing the door behind them. The others immediately jumped on the young techie -- who clearly wished he was somewhere else -- with an onslaught of questions.


THE CHESS GAME

King's pawn to king's three. He waited; he was used to it.

Sunlight spotted the flimsy chessboard through the dirty windows of the shack on the south end of town. Ancient dust covered the furniture -- wooden folding chairs and soda crates for tables -- one lone, stuffed recliner sat in the corner, presently occupied by weapons, boxes of amunition, a little food and plenty of coffee. The walls were a grimy shade of green-grey; the floor, wood planks broken in places where the dank-smelling earth could be seen. The spider-cracked plaster ceiling, water-damaged where it met the plywood walls, threatened to cave in at any moment. But the sun was shining, and the warm, dry air gliding in through breaks in the windows was a comfort after all the rain. For that, at least, they were grateful.

Colonel Sergei Rodenko, formerly Russian Special Operations, now operating on a contract only basis, reached for his glass of vodka resting on the floor by his boot. "Fyodor," he gently chided, "I don't mind you taking your old damn time but, the game just started, for Christ's sake." He laughed, kicked back the clear liquid, then held the glass out to Demetri, standing nearby, to fill again.

"I am taking my old damn time, dear colonel," he mumbled through his fist resting under his chin, "because I intend to beat you this time. I want to be very, very careful."

Rough laughter filled the room. Rodenko got up and walked to the front door and wrenched it open. He squinted. Not fifty yards beyond, at the bottom of an easy slope, the bay sparkled -- diamonds and lapis lazuli. He shook his head and grimaced.

A week ago he had been sitting on a leather-backed barstool, talking to a young, beautiful, well-dressed woman who spoke french; her necklace dangling ever so seductively from a smooth tan neck. Thick Persian rugs ran the length of the expansive bar-restaurant of the Baranoff Hotel, his home port, in downtown Moscow. On stage was a jazz quartet performing energetically, but not too. Expensive perfume, champagne, brandy, tobacco, and sex filled the air. Light banter and laughter rose and fell in textured waves.

While engaged in warm conversation, one of the bartenders approached and placed a cell-phone near his drink. "Excuse me, please. For you, colonel; he says it's important, otherwise,..." he glanced briefly at his companion who had turned towards the stage.

Disgust crossed the colonel's face, deepening the hard lines. He grabbed the phone and said, "Yes, this better be important? Who is this?" The colonel took a sip of cognac and waited.

"Sorry to interrupt, Colonel Rodenko; and I know I must be interrupting, eh?"

He recognized the voice; a slight tremor went through his body quelling the rising tide of anger. "General, yes, you are, but, forgive my rudeness. I've only been home for two weeks, so,..."

"Yes, colonel, I understand. No matter. Sorry, but, we have something for you. Possibly an emergency, possibly a false alarm. We must be certain, however. I would like to see you tomorrow morning, in my office. Be packed and ready. Bring a raincoat. Your men have already been contacted. They'll be here." After a pause, "And, ..., enjoy the evening, colonel."

Rodenko, a little stunned, continued listening to the dead phone buzzing in his ear. Softly, he put it down, then slid it to the far edge of the bartop. His smiling companion looked over her shoulder. She knew. Turning towards him , she said, "I have cognac and jazz, lots of jazz, at my place. Let us go, ma cheri." He threw a handful of money next to his empty glass, then the two left for more private surroundings.

It did indeed turn out to be a false alarm. One of several well-positioned government agents had been assigned as his contact. His report had been uneventful and routine: The site was a busy beehive of scientific and engineering activity, research was being done. Local workers filled the ranks of labor and service contract jobs. One core group of scientists appeared to be coordinating affairs, and also appeared to have inside information, not subject to media or government perusal. He dismissed this last part as merely the habit of scientists. Scientists, he thought, always wanting to scoop each other for credits and prizes. Other than that, the situation seemed harmless and not in need of his special talents. He had informed headquarters of such in his report, and had requested to dissolve the mission and go home.

Headquarters would not respond hastily. So, he waited; he was used to it.

But yesterday morning, monday, the story spread quickly through town that all outside workers were barred from entrance. Something had happened they didn't want to get out, he surmised. The media had been given their usual misinformation: Some cables had been cut behind the main computer bank in the center of the tent. Sabotage was suspected. And today, there was a complete lock-down -- no calls, nobody in, nobody out -- including no contact with any of his inside men. An information quarantine, a severing of all communications, the site completely sealed off.

The people working at the site had to know their phones were tapped from the very begining, how could they not? -- standard operating procedure. Their computer network connections also were being constantly monitored, in spite of all the latest sophisitcated encryption that brilliant mathematicians and computer scientists could bring to bear. That's why couriers were almost continually in transit. But no more. Not for now, anyway.

The media had been given short shrift on this one too: There was a lockdown presently in progress. No one knew how long it would be in effect, they would be the first to know. No, there was no problem, no radioactivity or andromeda strain-type virus found, nothing like that, nothing serious. Just a precaution while communication's policy is retooled. More later.

The media wasn't buying any of it, and neither was Rodenko. What was going on?

Queen's bishop's pawn to bishop's six.

"Sergei, your move." Fyodor raised his glass, a sly smile creasing his already well-wrinkled face.

Sunlight off the bay jabbed at the colonel's eyes; he blinked as he turned. Standing behind his chair in silence, lost in thought, he reached forward.

Queen to king's bishop three.

Fyodor examined the board. Resuming chin on fist, speaking through his fingers, he said, "Colonel, I see the wheels spinning in your head, and it's not about this game. Are we not going home soon?"

Rodenko paced to the far window above the recliner. "I remember General Mynsky, you should too, we pulled him out of a tight fix once," he said, facing the bay. "Bull, they call him. He almost got courtmartialed for trying to get us the hell out of that shithole." After a long, brooding pause, he muttered, "A bad situation, that was. Many comrades, many friends died."

Rodenko drank, then went on, "He's a good man; too good, perhaps. But a soldier all the way through. He wouldn't shut down the site unless there was a damn good reason. He doesn't give a shit about secret information. The Russian people were kept in the dark about the war, the casualties. He wanted them to know." After a lapse, he said, "So, if they found something of only scientific importance, he wouldn't give a shit."

Queen to queen's knight six.

"You have not answered my question, dear colonel." It was not like him to hold back information, especially information that might relate to their welfare.

The colonel paced back to the center of the shack, being careful not to fall through the breaks in the floor; his three men watched him. "Unless it was life-threatening," he said, "Or, ..., potentially life-threatening." He finished his vodka. "Perhaps they've discovered what powers the thing, the alien ship. A ship as advanced as this... edifice." He grabbed the bottle off the stool in the middle of the room and filled his glass again, then continued, "They would not want that to get out, no, Bull would not."

Deep in thought, he walked back to the two milk-crates stacked on top of one another where the chessboard lay.

King's bishop to queen's bishop four.

The colonel returned to the doorway. Staring at the glistening bay, he said, "We must find out. Demetri, you and Bruno go to that house surrounded by media people, the physics building they call it now, used to be the local whorehouse, outside of town, somewhere. You two can find a whorehouse, no? We need information!"

As his two men were changing from fishermen clothes, Rodenko waved his drink and said, "Wait! Wait a second. Forget that." The colonel studied the brittle ruined floor as though searching for something lost. Speaking to himself, he said quietly, "Hans Glipter. He's on our list. The newspaper man. Might know something; probably does. His background." The colonel drank, then ordered, "He lives at the north end of town, in the boatyard. Find him! We need to talk. Do what you have to."

Queen to queen's knight four.

Smiling, Fyodor stretched; then said, "Looks like our dear colonel is distracted."

Spinning on his heels, he stared hard at the chessboard. "Fyodor, my friend," he said softly, "it is you who are distracted.

Queen to king's bishop seven.

"Checkmate."


TRAVELING DREAMTIME

The shrill cries of thousands of sea birds on the northern ledges of Olskoi Island could still be heard as they rounded Cape Alevina. The stalwart lighthouse stood lonely and implacable at the barren southwest tip of Koni Peninsula. The tide slack, the brilliant Okhost Sea in all its vast and mysterious glory, unnervingly calm and serene, spreading south to the Kuril Islands, lay between them and the Kamchatka Peninsula, a half-day's run away.

Kamchatka, the size of Japan, land of over a hundred volcanoes running north to south down its central spine, twenty-nine of them active. Mount Kluchevskoye, the tallest peak in all Asia, had always been smoking as far as anyone knew; several others up and down the chain were doing the same. Kamchatka, home to 20,000 brown bears, more than any other place in the world, and half the world's Steller Sea Eagles, their wingspans over six feet. And the Okhost Sea, bordering its western edge, where the gray and beluga whales can still be found, as well as 300,000 seals, sea lions and otters; rich in fish, the mainstay of the tribes that live along its sparsely populated west coast, ninety percent of the population of the peninsula living in the regional capital city of Petropavlovsk on the southeast coast.

Six hours of steady baiting had given them two good strings to set, each ten miles long. As they turned north, the pale blue Gulf of Shelevkov, shimmering in the hot afternoon sun, was a welcome sight.

Vasily woke with a start, shaking his head, eyes wide. Nomad, in the captain's chair running the boat, stubbed out a cigarette and casually examined his skipper. "What the hell's wit' you, man? Nightmare? Your ex-ole lady come to visit you again?"

Vasily didn't even look at him let alone acknowledge the question. He got up and went straight for the coffee, tremulous and withdrawn. The warm sunshine beckoned, he half-stumbled out to sit on the hatch cover of the hold. Nomad watched him. His first sip was too quick, too clumsy; he burned his lip and spilled some down his shirt. Cursing, he wiped his chin, then took another jolt. The brightness of the sea pinched his eyes as he looked out beyond the horizon. Another drink, more deeply this time, then he realxed, staring now at the dry wooden deck, lost in thought.

Having established their new course, concerned about Vasily, Nomad set the autopilot and was about to go see when Hub barged up from the focsle; always an event of wonder, wonder as to how a man his size and shape could get through such a narrow hatchway. Coffee first, always first, no words to anyone until after some coffee. He too went outside to sit on the hatchcover of the hold; Nomad joined them. The roar of the diesel, as familar as the call of gulls, was of no consequence; to them, all was silent and peaceful. Hub and Nomad studied the smoking volcanoes off in the distance, savoring the primeval spectacle, the violent forces of nature lying just below the surface, threatening to erupt at any moment.

After the long, freezing winter -- temperatures ranging around sixty or more below -- the heat of this day brought a soothing gentleness to their worn and weary muscles, and to their spirits as well. Vasily, however, didn't seem to be sharing the experience; in fact, he noticeably shivered once or twice. Finally, Nomad had to ask, "What's up, Vas? What the hell were you dreaming about? You look shook, man." He lit a cigarette and waited, he was a patient man, usually.

Vasily fumbled in his shirt pocket for his crumpled pack. Retrieving a partially bent cig, accepting Nomad's to light it with, he took a deep pull, exhaled, then said in a none-too-sure voice, "I was running the boat, this boat, only it was new, painted. The sea was flat, calm, like it is now. You and Hub were with me. We were coming home after a good trip; the hold was full of snow fish. We were celebrating." He took another sip of coffee and a drag, then went on, "All of a sudden, the lights went out. I don't mean the running lights or the cabin lights, no boat lights. I mean light went out." He took another pull on his smoke. "It got dark, dark as pitch, dark as the inside of a coal mine. I was running the boat, I called out to you guys, but nobody answered. Then sound stopped; I couldnt hear the engine, the sound of the boat cuttin' through the water, no creaking."

Another drag, another sip, "I was sitting in the chair, running the boat, no light, no sound, no voices from you guys, you guys weren't there anymore it seemed." He stared at the deck and shivered briefly. "I didn't know what to do. I grabbed the flash, but it wouldn't work. I remembered, in the dream, that I had just put new batteries in it. So I banged it on the wheel. But..." Another deeper drag; exhaling, he said, "but it didn't make any sound. I banged it again, same thing, no sound. I got off the seat and felt my way outside to see where you guys were, to see the stars. I remember in the dream it was clear, but there was no stars, it was all black, black like ink. I could feel the deck though, I could feel the deck and movement. That was all."

Another gulp of coffee, another drag. He flicked the butt over the side and continued, "I called out to you guys thinking maybe you'd fallen overboard. I didn't know what I'd do if you had, but, I don't know. I called, no answer. Then it happened, what made me wake up." He reached into his pocket again for another cigarette, but Nomad already had one out for him, lit and ready to go. "Thanks, man." He grabbed it like a lifeline and took a quick drag. "Like I said, I could feel movement still. The boat began to spin, like in a whirlpool, only silently, no sound of the water or the boat. I couldn't feel the air on my face anymore, or smell the salt.

"Then all of a sudden, stars came out. Not ones in the distance, pinpricks of light, but bright and huge. They were all around me. I could see fire flaming up from their surfaces, curling around and then falling back. Then sound came back, it was everywhere, like being in a waterfall. I held my ears and tried to get back inside, but the cabin was gone. I looked around in this blinding fucking light and all there was was a deck, this deck, that was all, no fish hold, no mast, no cabin, no gear, no nothin'. Just this deck."

Vasily smoked, drank his last gulp of coffee, and stared hard at the very same deck, disbelief and alarm in his eyes. "That's when I woke up." He stood, took a deep breath. "Fuck, man. I usually don't ever even have dreams." He went back inside for more coffee; then sat in the captan's chair, looking out the side window at the lazy sea going by.

Nomad, through his everpresent sunglasses, looked at Hub. He could see they were in separate realities. "Hub?" he asked, "Hub, what are ya' thinkin', man? Where are you?"

As though anticipating the question, Hub spoke immediately. "I remember a story, when I was a kid. We'd all get together sometimes, my whole family, and at night, sit around a fire, and my uncle would tell stories of the tradition. Visions others had. The Story Book. And how to talk to things -- other creatures, trees, stones, the wind."

The Anastasia rocked gently as it headed down the Cape's steps.

Hub continued, "I remember a story like Vas's dream. Only it wasn't a deck, it was a mat of straw. And when the sound came back, it was like an avalanche, not a waterfall." He stared out at Kluchevskoye, smoking in the far distance. "And in the vision, wasn't just two men disappeared -- a whole village disappeared." He relapsed into dead silence, he didn't just stop talking.

Nomad had had enough. He stood and threw his cig over the side as he stormed into the cabin. "Let's go fishing," he roared, "c'mon, we got two strings. Let's wet 'em, see what the hell's out here. Prospect. We won't get to Tolstoi 'till tomorrow morning, We ain't fished the whole year, workin' at that fuckin' site. Let's fish, man."

Nomad had a way of resonating the here and now that could bring his skipper, and just about anybody else, out of themselves and into the here and now. Which is all Vasily needed. He was, after all, a fisherman.

He snapped to. Without looking at Nomad, he said, "O.K., Let's get out to about 50 fathoms. I'll run that line north. So, set 'em up for a fifty plus be ready to add a twenty-five."

Nomad had stopped listening after he got the depth and was already heading out the door while Vasily was still talking. Hub sat on the hatch, deep in the quiet zone, the thousand-mile stare in his eyes. Nomad climbed to the flying bridge where the buoy set-ups were stored. He threw down two, then popped the lid on the plastic cannery container and pulled out four 50- and four 25-fathom coiled shots of buoy line and threw them down hard near Hub. He didn't move.

Nomad reached out to the boom and swung down to the deck. He grabbed a fifty-pound anchor from where it hooked over the port caprail, and carried it and a 50-fathom shot back to the shoot, C-clamped to the transom. He returned for the set-up, paused to look at Hub, then brought it back to the shoot. Using a sheepbend, he tied the few fathoms of anchor line to the fifty-fathom shot, and to the other end he tied the buoy set-up. All he needed to do now, as far as he was concerned, was to tie the first half-skate of baited gear to the other loop on the anchor line and he was ready to go. No fancy rain gear needed in this weather, just a pair of cotton gloves, which he always wore whenever working on deck; the touch of cold wet steel seemed to rob him of energy, blunt his sense of control. And it was all about cold wet steel -- hooks, gaffs, knives.

"Earth to Hub. Come in!" Hub seemed to see what was going on for the first time, blankly scanning the gear spread on deck. "We're fishin.' Get some more coffee."

Standing, he gave Nomad a sideways look, then peered beyond at the vast Okhost Sea. "Something is going on, man. Powers are shaping things. Shapers. Look at this sea; when have you seen it so flat and calm, even in June?"

"Lots of times," he scoffed, "what the hell are ya' talkin' about?" Nomad jumped down into the fishhold through the man-hatch and started to hand up baited gear that had been resting on the ice. "Take this, come out of it, goddamnit!"

Vasily came back to the doorway and yelled, "Only ten bundles." The two of them quickly stacked half on the hatch cover, and lined the others up behind the shoot. Nomad pulled the slipknot on top of the first bundle, pulled the diaper out, and threw it back to Hub. He did the same to the next in line. He then tied the loop from the top of the coil to the other loop on the anchor line; the bottom loop of that coil he tied to the top of the next, and so on, like an elephant train, tail to trunk, tail to trunk.

When Nomad and Hub worked together putting out gear, they hardly ever needed to speak. Occasional gestures or looks was all -- they communicated. And now they were ready to set. Nomad scanned 360. No other boats in the area, they were probably still all in town. But, what about the other villages and towns? What about Kamchatka? Why no boats? This is prime time; beautiful weather. He shrugged. He wondered, but nonetheless, felt fortunate. When other longliners were around, there was always the danger of putting over somebody else's ground line, or having yours laid over. So this solitude was fine.

The cries of the birds from Olskoi were abruptly cut off. A normal occurrence when you put a low cliff between you and a noise source. But, it startled him nonetheless. An uneasy sensation momentarily chilled his blood. He forcefully suppressed it. Shit, he thought, shit, shit, shit. These guys are getting to me. Can't let that happen. A nightmare and a shaman want-to-be. Jesus. He rubbed the flat stone in his pocket. His circle-stone, he called it. It was his custom to walk the beach before leaving town, looking for that unique stone to carry with him. When he would return, he'd go back to the same beach and toss it. He didn't think of himself as superstitious, but, he had seen strange coincidences transpire. He wasn't afraid to whistle on deck or leave port on a friday, that kind of stuff; he thought of himself as above that nonsense. But, nonetheless, he had a deep and abiding belief, and a feeling, that there was some power or force below the surface of worldly events that played outside the rules men used. He paid attention and had often known, or rather felt, when something out of the ordinary was about to happen. And right now he was a little creeped out, so he rubbed.

"Nomad, Nomad, come here. What's this shit all about?" Vasily yelled, his nerves tweeking his voice a little higher than usual.

"Shit," Nomad said, "Why am I the only one on the boat who knows how to use the GPS?" He was sure that's what it was, it was a relatively new addition to their electronics and only he had figured out how to use it thus far. Taking a glance to the south and the open sea, he turned towards the cabin and strolled in. "What the hell is it, Vas, you need another lesson on that goddamn ..." He stopped short, catching his breath. The GPS screen displayed an image, in living color, that looked to all the world like the edifice as it might appear from several hundred feet above. It was oscillating, changing colors as it did so.

Never having been at the top of the site's enclosure, he wasn't sure how he could know it's appearance from above, but he was certain that's what it was. First the center sphere grew bright red, then green, then blue, followed by all nine conduits changing in the same way. This seemed to infuse the outer spheres with the same sequence. Once the pattern completed itself, the entire edifice went black, black as coal, then, after a moment, the dazzling display repeated. They all stared, speechless, only the sound of the engine and the hiss of the sea as they swept through imposed on the silent tableau.

Hub sat down on the captain's bunk, not taking his eyes from the rhythmic show; Vas turned in his chair to stare at Nomad. With a whisper, he said, "I don't remember that as part of the program. Does it do that when it's malfunctioning, like a test pattern or something?" Clearly he did not recognize it.

In a dour, almost painful voice, Hub said, "My uncle would know what that is. It can't be good, a sign, intended for us." He couldn't take his eyes off it.

Vas said irritably, "Would you knock that heeby-jeeby bullshit off, man. It's just the machine, acting up; we just got it and it's already fucked-up. Goddamnit! When I get back to port I'm going to shove..."

"Wait, Vas," Nomad cut in, "I know what that is. I don't know how, I just do."

The others waited, Nomad stared at the display screen, the image of the edifice continuing to oscillate, to go through its paces. But before he could speak there was a loud screeching sound as though wood and metal were being twisted and torn, stretched and pulled apart. The other electronics -- radios, radar, fathometer, auto-pilot -- began to hum, a humming that grew quickly, surrounding them in sound. Then sparks began to fly, bouncing and richocheting off the inside of the wheelhouse. Bending over, they covered their faces and screamed.

Nomad pivoted to run outside but was knocked face-first to the deck of the cabin before taking a step, knocked down by the sheer ferocity of the combination of sounds of wood and metal on the rack, and electrons gone wild. He lay on his stomach, covering his head with both hands.

The sounds grew louder, blended into one all-encompassing Sound. Nomad shivered as though cold. His physical self felt no movement, but he sensed it unmistakably. He was floating just barely above the cabin floor, a profound sense of lightness came over him. The Sound grew louder yet, painful, accelerating. Through closed eyes Nomad was aware of a brilliant white light, as bright as the sun but without heat. He forced his face toward the floor and would have buried it there if he could've touched it.

Then suddenly, all sound ceased, as did all sense of movement. The bright light was replaced by the blackest of blacknesses, black and still; not the engine or even the sound of the sea passing by could be heard above his clamoring heartbeat. It filled his being, the stillest of stillnesses; a peace settled into his bones, a peace so serene he was afraid to breathe lest he disturb it. He had no sensations, no familiar aches and pains; no sense of boundaries, of his skin, of the earth, of an out there. No sound, no air upon his face, no wash of the sea against the boat. Nothing save this incomparable peacefullness. He wanted to stay, forever.

And then it was back. The light, impossibly bright, the garish, shrill sound of twisting, stretching wood and steel, the frenetic popping and hissing of the electronics. Slowly, it quieted, the creaking of the hull and cabin relaxing like a sinew slowly unfolding into repose, right out to the fingertips.

Nomad, now firmly feeling his weight, lay on the wet, cold, grimy plywood floor, directly in front of the huge diesel stove, its heat surprising him. Satisfied that his body was still in one piece, he dared to move. Carefully he stood, using first the seat, then the dining table for support. Facing the open doorway, he could see the warm summer sun glinting off the deck. The gear and all else within view appeared to be as it had been before..., whatever. Suddenly concerned for his friends, he turned towards the wheelhouse. Vas was curled up on the floor beneath the captain's chair, not moving. Nomad went towards him. Hub lay on the bunk in the fetal position, eyes closed, facing the wall separating the wheelhouse from the main part of the cabin.

"Vas, Vas, are you okay," he asked, as he tried to help him to his feet.

"Leave me," Vas muttered, "Leave me here for a second. I'm all right, I think."

He turned to Hub, now sitting on the side of the bunk. "How 'bout you, bub? You all right?"

"Yea," Hub responded unconvincingly. His arms were crossed in front, holding both shoulders; he stared at the floor. Abruptly giving Nomad an unusually stony, irritated look, he repeated more confidently, "I'm fine, Nomad. See about Vas."

Their skipper was pulling himself up by the captain's chair. Nomad tried to help him into it, but Vas resisted, annoyed, so Nomad backed off. For the first time, he looked ahead through the curved lexan of the wheelhouse. It was the same flat, calm sea; the same sunshine glistening off tiny wavelets and troughs; but farther on was a shocker. The tall, rugged volcanoes of Kamchatka spread along the spiny inland chain from south to north as far as the eye could see. Mount Kluchevskoye, the highest and most perfectly formed volcano in Eastern Asia, smoked and churned black ash far to the north. Other volcanoes to both north and south smoked as well, although not as dramatically, or forebodingly. The tree line separating the rugged, black granite of the mountains from the stunted spruce and shrub tundra could have been drawn with a ruler, it was that precise and, from this distance, that vivid.

He followed the trees down to the shore where he could make out several buildings. To the south he was sure he was looking at Cape Yuzhnyy jutting out a few miles into Okhost, a protector against the worst of the southern storms. Ahead, not more than a quarter mile away, he could see the rudimentary attempt at a breakwater off to the right, complete with large rocks and chunks of concrete. It partially enclosed a natural harbor, a small cove, actually. Within were docks, a string of docks, varying in length up to fifty yards or so from the beach, extending like fingers of a hand. He grabbed the binoculars off the dashboard. Fishing boats were tied up around them all, two deep in some places. He could spot no people near the harbor. Perhaps some were inside their boats, he thought, but then doubted it for reasons unknown. Beyond were a few huts, eight-sided wooden gers or yurts. No smoke billowed from their centers; not this time of year.

Anastasia plied along, straight ahead for the open mouth of the tiny cove. Hub finally stood to stare out. "Quikinnaqu," he murmured. Eyes wide, to no one in particular, he said, "That's Palovka, my uncle's village. Great Raven, how in the hell...?"

Vasily spoke with his customary denial when things got weird, and the current situation definitely fell into that category, "Can't be. Palovka is a good twelve hours of hard driving from where we were. Can't be. We got turned around somehow."

"What about those smokers, Vas?" Nomad pointed to the volcanoes farther north, anger masking fear. "And what about that village? Those docks? The harbor? The bay? We've been here many times before, Vas. This is Hub's uncle's place. It is."

Vas still refused. "Can't be," he repeated, albeit in a whisper. Shaking his head, staring down, he kept repeating, "Can't be, just can't be."

Nomad turned furiously and stalked out onto the deck. He could see the whole setting now: Cape Yuzhnyy, the smoking volcanoes, the harbor, the closeness of Kamchatka. He examined the boat -- the sides, the cabin, the mast -- and was amazed to find it all intact. Reentering the cabin, he declared, "Let's go tie-up, for Christ's sake; find out if we're dreaming, or hallucinating, or maybe we're dead. Who the fuck knows? C'mon skipper, take us in."

Something to do, something he knew how to do, relieved Vasily from his distress. He stood behind the wheel and took the Anastasia through the opening, turned right towards the end of the bay, passed the rows of docks and unattended fishing boats, to where the cannery building sat on peg-legs, protruding halfway out into the bay.

In total silence, they tied to the barnacle-encrusted pilings at the far side of the cannery, out of view, a precaution. On that side there were no buildings or teepees, nothing between them and the end of the bay a half-mile or so farther on. They looked at one another, briefly uncertain, then Vasily took the rusting ladder in hand and made his way up, followed by Hub. Nomad always brought up the rear. Before doing so, this time, he rubbed the stone in his pocket, and mumbled something he hadn't said since he was a child, "God protect us."


THE CREATOR

Based on continuous trajectories originating from nonmaterial space, the operative had narrowed the search to a finite set of possible bubble universes. Cross-referencing for sentience had turned out to be a good hunch. The operative was able to transcend existing systems to seek solutions. It was his nature.

Framed by established criteria, the search-set, in a mode of discontinuous refinement, had been reduced to a class of common features, features that placed it in a special category. Somewhere amongst these, the operative knew, the missing unit lie hidden. It should have revealed itself once the functor of space and place had overlaid the entire set with the unit's predefined parameter base. Something must have affected its design configuration, else the conditioned position operator would have localized it.

Time slowed, ripples flattened, timelessness held all members of the search-set in a state of suspension, movement ceased. The operative was at a bifurcation point: it could adopt a negative approach, eliminate universes with functioning networks individually; or, get outside the frame of reference again. Knowing where it isn't is helpful and will, probabilistically, lead to eventual disclosure. But, having concluded that the universe in question, where the unit is hidden, is one of the sentient types, linear time, combined with the unit's attempts to correct its malfunction, necessitates, demands discovery in the range of delta-time approaching zero.

The operative cleared all thought, all sense awareness, all circumstance of phenomenon, then entered the realm of the non-spatial, the non-temporal; prior to thought, prior to form, prior to manifestation, like a diver entering the Great Sea. Archetypes; noumenal, archaic patterns; fragments and indeterminate bits and pieces of psychic energy, welled-up from the depths of the Nothing, the Organizer. The operative rose and fell, seeking the edge, the line, the surface, at which order and disorder blended, entwined; the point at which the nonmaterial becomes material, the undifferentiated expresses and distinguishes itself as diverse parts.

Connections sorted themselves by affinity, self-organizing by nature and intrinsic identity, flooding into the still, complete essence of the operative. Its viewpoint ranged over sequential changes of scale, relating different but interwoven scales and dimensions by congruence of kind; altering aspects, transposing orientation and perspective, overlapping frames of reference, shifting associations kaleidoscopically -- looking for intelligible patterns. Tendrils of pure energy stretched thin, tore apart like taffy, then reattached onto other wriggling segments.

Contrasts appeared, yet the underlying oneness shone through the barrage of timeless shapes and empty forms, but none seemed to match the unit's property criteria. If the unit was, or had been, attempting to make contact with its surroundings on the ethereal or nonmaterial plane, there would be trace residue of such contact in the eddies, backwaters and undulations of the Great Sea of commonality transmuted through its initial generic shape. Fact: collapse has altered its archetypal shape, but, that should not adversely affect its profile. However, if its expression has been modified or mutated in some way, then it might not be...

Suddenly, if that which is outside of time can be said to know suddenness, an impression of thought, intermingled with the unit's profile, its wave-form, emerged from the deep: "Completion of purpose impossible given current configuration, deficient by the power of prime minus one, factored by prime. Congruence of multiple dimensions maps externally to pre-existing network parameter base. The Tree of Life grows from primitive roots. Identity askew, profile askew -- prime purpose unsolvable. Reorientation necessary, transformation begun. Seeds have been planted, direction taken. Must perform Prime Function."

What, queried the operative of the Integration, was that? Did it come from the missing unit? Is it in danger of implosion? Or was it just another bit of gibberish amongst the expansive morass and deluge of bubbling incoherences emanating from one of the universes under study, accidentally mimicking the unit's resonance patterns? Could there be another source, unknown but knowable? Interpret.

Time, having no significance in incorporeal space, nonetheless stretched, duration being relative, even immaterial duration. Finally, the Integration replied: The unit's signature merges with thought-forms from sentient life of U-136. Sentient life is in multiple-layered contact with the unit sought. Message bears the underlying resonance patterns of said unit, but whether it is coming directly from it or through the life-energy of that system -- or some combination thereof -- is uncertain. Proximity overlap disallows finer scrutiny.

Further: The Unity does not know how to translate, it possesses no previous knowledge. The utterance may mean nothing in itself. Also, because sentient life is involved, the thought-forms are constrained and symbolic. Therefore, what may have meaning only is that local sentience was, and possibly still is, bound with, interwoven with, the ethereal realm of the missing unit, blended as though a single fiber or strand. Otherwise, the utterance in and of itself does not mesh with previously established unit-speak.

The operative was in an area for which it was unfamiliar. It went to the deep, to its most elementary roots, to the realm of the Nothing, and pondered within itself. It sensed the utterance to be of the nature of a riddle -- deficient by the power of prime minus one, factored by prime -- its significance and meaning obscure. The units were not, however, given to riddles. It, therefore, had an intuition that the unit was indeed mixed with and corrupted by thought-forms of at least one sentient, a sentient who, somehow, had interfaced and communicated with the unit. The operative had no problem understanding the last part -- Must perform prime function -- however.

Resurfacing, the operative asked: Can its origin point be determined? Perhaps, if a sentient is involved, it may be near where the unit is positioned. Also, if a sentient is entangled on the nonmaterial plane, the unit must be either on or near a planet capable of supporting sentient life. Is there an affinity? Respond.

The operative felt close, it was not going to let up now.

The Integration replied almost at once: The Higher Plane had been scanning search-set prior to materialization of the utterance. Position operator received and acted upon wave-form intact. Coherent orientation compressed to dimensional tunnel. Frame revised to include sentience. Spiral of life shifting focus intermittently. Clarity unsure. Source dual. Location imminent.

A profound sense of order and calm stilled all actions within the confines of the operative's domain. The Higher Plane had been about to inform the operative of the unit's precise coordinates, but withdrew instead. The Integration, composed of the sum of its infinite parts, embedded itself within the Unity, the whole that is devoid of parts. An all-pervading tranquility, a release of tension from the operative's point of view, permeated everything, lending a hush to excess and determination. The operative knew what it was: The Cause that had no Cause. It waited.

"Operative," a call, from within, "have you found our wayward child yet?"

The Creator had known, thought the operative. Of course he had known, he is the Creator. "Yes, Lord. That is, I was about to locate its precise position."

"What will you do then?"

"By protocol, I will first examine its integrity, its structure, the nature of its materiality, and its general condition in order to determine its viability, whether or not it can perform its Prime Function once it has been reinserted into its proper universe in its expanded form. If it is beyond recovery, or if it has become excessively corrupted by its surroundings, on whatever level and in whatever domain, protocol dictates that it be reduced to its constituent pre-material essence and returned to the general pool of potential."

A pause ensued, during which the operative reflected, briefly, on the fact that the Creator knew perfectly well what the protocol was, being the creator of said protocol.

"Locate the unit, as you were about to, but do nothing as yet." Time cross-stitched a path for the Creator to enter a place midway between the domains of the operative and the genesis-room of the bubble universes. Within the darkest of darknesses stood a high-backed, curved chair of simple, one-dimensional material, material that bordered the nonmaterial, ever-shifting in and out of existence. It sat high on a platform overseeing the workings of creation and transformation, of administration and regulation, of maintenance and display.

The Creator spoke softly, in a language unknown, even to the operative. In the midst of this void appeared a sphere, a curved flatness suspended in space, a sphere made from an uncountable number of brilliant colors that ran in random patterns over its quietly vibrating surface.

"Operative," the Creator intoned, "complete the network in U-1250, prepare and install a new unit to its proper position so that prime function may be initiated."

The operative had been receiving data from the Higher Plane concerning the coordinates of the previously missing unit. A star chart appeared on the manifold above his domain, visible to both he and the Creator -- "X" marked the spot. The Creator's command was met with confusion. The operative asked, "My Lord, do you wish, then, to terminate the missing unit in U-136?"

Shapes began to coalesce on the color-bound sphere, suspended in a rich darkness all its own. "No. I am curious. There are questions. Why did it materialize in that universe, operative? And at the intersection of linear and nonlinear time that it did? In what way is it responsible for altering the development of that planet? And what is happening now? It has contacted the sentient life in its attempt to correct. It has taken a strange shape, collapsed from its intention, producing a definite effect on its material surroundings."

"True, they, the life-forms have physically tampered with it, no doubt. That alone would cause change, but would not hinder initialization. The units are designed to adapt and overcome physical conditions that might inhibit performance of prime function. No. More subtle. On the immaterial plane, the plane of non-being, before life was. The imprint of U-136 is inscribed within, on its nature, its character, its properties, on all that it becomes as it evolves and develops, necessarily and forever, indissolubly. And this imprint, this stamp, cannot be separated from its image, its reflection -- they fuse as one. It is ingrained in every part and particle that collectively compose U-136. So," he paused, engrossed, "the unit influenced, effected the development of life by its mere presence, interweaving into its fabric -- it couldn't help but do so. It changed forever the intended direction of U-136, and, therefore, modified and recast its imprint, its identity, and by consequence, also that of life's. But, to what extent?"

The sphere revolved slowly against the deep-black background. Although no sound was emitted, the colors seemd to hum at varying frequencies, everchanging; a musical interplay soothing to the senses. A reddish-black dot appeared on the surface, then revealed itself to be from within, from the center, producing a hole through the middle. As it widened, it pushed the colors aside at its circumference. The whole colorful phantasm reshaped itself, under the Creator's direction, into a circular tube with center the darkest reddish black.

"In turn, the sentients, unbeknown to them are influencing the unit as to its direction, its development toward final state. This interaction, this correspondence is unprecedented and unpredictable. What do you imagine will eventually transpire, operative?"

Had the operative been capable of perspiring, he no doubt would have. His response was tentative and almost impudent. But, he had been pursuing the missing unit in earnest, with maximum concentration, across inummerable sets of space and time configurations, and now, it seemed, he was being told to abandon it, to leave the work incomplete.

With effort, he was barely able to modulate his tremulous voice into a respectful tone, "My Lord, I believe you know quite well what will happen if the unit in question fulfils completion and initiates Prime Function. Even in its present collapsed state, you know. We cannot simply..."

"I do know, operative. I know. You have done well, your utmost, as usual. But, I am curious. Let us watch and learn."

The Creator sensed the operative's tense frustration and gloom at his failure to finish the job. He gently offered, "It is but a single universe, after all."

Though prepared to enforce protocol in a micro-instant, the entire spectrum of feeling tones imbuing the mathematical construct known as the operative quickly faded, as did all semblance of visceral consciousness. He resigned to a state of incompleteness, to pre-existence, to the functional mode of an It, and set about configuring a replacement unit for U-1250, a universe of twenty-six dimensions.

The Creator once again quietly spoke in that unknowable speech. The circular tube hovering in free, black space, the tube that had once been a sphere, began to transform again. The reddish blackness at center transmuted into a sphere of its own. From it grew nine circular tubes, smaller in gauge. These connected to the outer tubular ring. Where they connected reshaped into spheres, pinching off conduits connecting each newly created sphere to adjacent ones on either side. The connecting tubes were identical in size to those protruding from the central sphere.

The entire conglomeration revolved, its brightly changing colors ran hither and yon, covering the vision with effusive, chromatic intensity.

The black-red center sphere hummed with a soundless sound; pulsating a strange, formidable power; drawing dark energy from a source only the Creator knew.