"On The Brink Of Extinction"

Part II



Sea-washed decks; coarse, chafed bottom-line; fish-slurry and blood worn into weathered woodgrain; oil, grease, rust -- pungent smells liberated by the baking sun. Dried, peeling paint flakes and bleached seaweed stuck to hulls; pock-marked leads hanging on by sheer force of will and solitary bolts; barnacle-covered rudders, wheels, struts, keels; slime-smudged windows and lights; hydraulic fittings, hoses, pumps; clamps, turnbuckles, frayed cable and tie-up lines; boxes of unknown spare parts, coffee cans of nuts, bolts, washers; black, plastic tubs stacked willynilly; a steel washbucket half-filled with rusted hooks and rain water; gangions, yellow and abraded, hanging over the edge; unusable broken tools, electronic parts, electrical wires of every gauge and length; battered skiffs, oars -- here and there -- an outboard with its brain showing; bottom-weights of large-linked chain; a single-fluked anchor, too small to begin with, tied to an eye-bolt through a skiff stem; raingear hanging on hooks, on nails; a wool jacket thrown over a boom, its arms tied together beneath, hugging for dear life; rubber gloves clothes-pinned to a frazzled rope strung between two wood horses; tarred ratlines, wan and pale.

An outdoor exhibit cancelled before completion, artifacts unclaimed; a show in production, props left where they lay; a snapshot of the edge of chaos, background and relief. A staging area for ancient wars; a stepping-stone to future struggles, to momentary, temporary victories. Hard life, weathered life, no-nonsense life. Salt through and through, salt of the earth.

In spite of the site, or the 'Dig' as it was called by the locals, being shut down to outsiders -- the nonscientific community -- the boatyard was deserted. The fishermen didn't know how soon they would be back to work. So, in accordance with fishing temperament, they were taking a break. Consequently, Rocky and Turbo had the yard to themselves.

They acted out characters, portrayed scenes, improvised roles. They were prospective buyers, shipwrights, equipment inspectors, engineers, fishermen, yard workers, tourists from New York. They were on vacation, vacation from the pressing need to know and understand the looming mystery of the edifice, and for Turbo, the mystery of his experience with the Christ Is My Saviour gang. The early-afternoon sun was a welcome relief from the almost constant dreary drizzle. Its soothing warmth soaked to the bone, relaxing muscles braced far too long against the chill and damp of northeast Siberia in the early summertime. A chronic tension running through their lives likewise was thawing out.

"I don't know which is better, really," Rocky was kicking a tire laying on its side, fascinated by the way the water jetted out from its entire circumference. "Growing up without a father, someone not dead, alive somewhere but never in touch, or with one who visits from time to time, somebody you don't really know all that well, distant, you know? Why didn't you ever try to get in touch?"

"It was too late, it was always too late." Turbo, sitting on a bright orange buoy ball, hefted an anchor used to hold ground-line down, testing its weight. "It made it easy to be alone, solitary. I always felt like I was waiting for him to suddenly show up. I remember when I was about six, asking my grandfather if he was my dad. All that time, I guess it just never occured to me."

He threw the anchor into the drying dirt a few feet away. "I used to tell people he was dead. I didn't want 'em to know; didn't want people feelin' sorry for me or worse, laughin' at me, kids, you know how kids can be.The well-to-do end of the family used to look down on my mother, on us, my sister and me. I hated those bastards. When they'd come visit, she'd send me down to the corner deli to get lunchmeat and snowflake rolls. She'd set it out on the dining room table. They'd hardly touch it; never thanked her for it either, as far as I know. My grandparents lived with us; they were on social security plus my grandfather had a bit of a pension from the bricklayers' union. That was their contribution, better 'n nothin'. My mother was always tired from work, so there was a lot of tension in the house, arguments. I hung out on the streets, that's where I grew up."

Rocky exhausted the tire and sat on a low pile of pallets facing the sun, savoring the rare heat, eyes closed, sunglasses in hand. "Solitariness, yea, I think that's one of the things I like about rock climbing. I can go off by myself, even though I may be with a group, I can still be by myself, just me, feeling my body and muscles, working up a sweat, forgetting everything, including multi-dimensional topological spaces," she laughed. "Yea, but sometimes, being alone gets really fuckin' old."

Turbo gave her a quick look, narrowing his eyes. He didn't laugh. She went on, face still open to the sun like a flower, "Loss is not something we transcend or get passed. It becomes part of us. Our bodies, our muscles, the way we move, the way our brain responds. It filters our perceptions, our senses. Live in the present, people say, as though living elsewhere was even possible. I mean, I know what they're trying to say -- concentrate on what you're doing at the moment, in the here and now -- focus. Well, with some things that works, with time. Other things stay forever."

Rose-tinted glasses in hand, she strode to the bow of a nearby boat and studied its surface, lightly rubbing her fingertips over its weathered smoothness, pausing now and again, then moving on as though searching for something. "What erodes away with time is the sharpness, like mountains. Loss is like that. We tend to ignore or trivialize what it was about the person that bugged us. Eulogies in our head are always so completely and conspicuously absent of any detractions. He was so warm and wonderful, caring and considerate. Well, yea, but those times when he wasn't, when he was a real bastard, Jesus! Who could forget?

"I'm going off on a rant, aren't I? Ranting."

Walking to the tire, she kicked it, then back to the bow. "I do that sometimes, I don't know what I'm talking about anymore. What I'm trying to say is: No matter how much you like someone, or love someone, there's always something about them you just can't stand."

Running her hand down the contour below the gunwale, she said wistfully, "You'll be driving down the road and all of a sudden you burst into tears, like a cloud burst. A wave passes through, a remembrance or a picture or something that didn't happen that you really wanted to." Abruptly finished with her inspection, she turned to face Turbo.

Answering her eyes, "Then, where's the loss? Something that was never there in the first place, what the hell. I had two pictures of my dad stuffed in with his discharge papers. He was a B-25 pilot in World War Two. One picture he was with his crew, the other he was wearin' a white dinner jacket, his right hand tucked cooly in the side pocket. It was Burma, you could see jungle in the background. I used to run and go look at them once in a while; why, I don't know. They're gone now, lost with everything else."

He stared at the ground, arms crossed over his knees, gently rocking. "It's just a nagging sense, a numbness, a feeling of not being cared about by someone who can't find the time to write or call or visit or send anything at birthdays or Christmas. But if it's always been there from the beginning -- or not been there -- if you never had, it doesn't seem to bother you. It becomes only a distant curiosity. You see other kids with their fathers and, not being stupid, you know something's missing. But, you're managing to survive, to enjoy life most of the time, without it.

"Who is this person? What is he like? What does his voice sound like? His laugh?

"But we're being really negative here, I think. What about someone you love, had experiences where you shared something special. It may've been something as simple as a walk through the woods, stopping here and there to sit and smell the air, and just be with one another. Remembering that can make you tear up in spite of anything bad you could say about that someone. You know? There's that too."

While examining a piece of strange hardware sticking out of a bucket in front of him, he said, "I think it might be worse having someone like what you had though. Someone almost there, within reach, but not reachable, too busy to care enough." Turbo could feel her pain from a distance, he wanted to hold her, but it wasn't time. "You're caught somewhere between. You have memories, but they're not strong or invigorating or satisfying. Mostly you remember him leaving, promising to do something or other when he got back, then reneging. Your memories don't make you feel loved, Rocky; they don't make you feel good about yourself -- so you go rock climbing."

She gave the tire a hard final kick. "Memories. I'd like to shitcan 'em. All of them. But memories aren't some set of thoughts and images we can toss like that. It's a waste of energy to even attempt to try, to disconnect or repress. What we have to do is adapt." She put her foot on the tire, gesturing with her hands as she spoke. "I think -- here's what I think -- memories reside in our entire bodies, our brain, our chemistry. They drive our metabolism. As we grow and experience, some things have more of an affect than others, for sure. Passionate love -- whatever that is -- traumas, frights, near-death experiences -- I guess that could be considered a trauma -- adventures, ingrained habits, our lifestyles, good times, bad times, you know -- stuff. It all blends together, shaping our lives. We can't get past any of it just like we can't cut out a section of yarn from a sweater. Oh, that's not right; you know what I mean. We have to adapt, is all"

Turbo stood and closed the distance between them -- it was time. He took her in his strong, tattooed arms and held her firmly. She buried her face in his shoulder; warm tears dampened his thin tank-top. With a sweep of his right hand, he brushed her long, loose red hair back over her shoulder. He could smell the salt air in her hair, on her neck; the warmth of her body pressed to his, pliant-like. Lips close to her ear, he whispered, "I'm starving. I haven't eaten all day -- bourbon and coke, bourbon and coke. We need to eat, Rocky, or we'll die. C'mon."

Suddenly, as things unfortunately go sometimes, they were interrupted by the muffled sound of quick rapping on the door of the Airstream not fifty yards away. Jarred out of their private world, they froze, feeling resentment at the unwelcome intrusion. Like kids having too good a time to come in, they hid behind a large tote. Rocky wiped the wet from her eyes. Reflecting off the trailer's silvery metalic skin, the sun's dazzling glare made visibility impossible in that direction, despite dark sunglasses.

"You stay here, Rocky. I'll go see what's up. If I'm not back by nightfall, save yourself."

"No, Heathclif, no." She grabbed his shoulders. "Don't go. Please. The king's men are everywhere. If they find you, it's chains, torture and the gallows. Stay."

Holding her around the waist, looking into her bright hazel eyes, he said, "You're right, Cassandra." She winced. "What was I thinking. You go. They won't torture you. Chains maybe; gallows, probably, but torture? Nah."

She tried to push him back. "You louse. After all the years we've been together." With a shake of her billowy red locks as she turned, she said, all too sweetly, "Stay here, big boy, I'll go chase 'em off." Laughing, she strode towards the trailer; Turbo caught up and walked along side.

Due to the bright glint off the shiny Airstream, it wasn't until they were practically on top of the intruders before they could see them. Two men dressed in black jumpsuits stood a few feet apart at the front door; one, nervous and unshaven; the other, clean, distant, muscular, glancing around the yard through teardrop sunglasses. Turbo touched Rocky's hand and slowed, coming to a stop about ten feet away. "What going on? You gents lost? Lookin' for directions?" The thin, nervous one stuttered an unintelligible greeting, then, appearing to find confidence at the sound of his own voice, asked for Doctor Rose Marie Samuelson. Rocky stepped out from Turbo's shadow and approached the man, not much taller than she, and, Turbo guessed, not in as good of shape. The man's uneasiness amused him, he decided to focus attention on the other, a different breed entirely.

"Well, what can I do for you..." Asking with her eyes for his name.

"My name's Gregory, Gregory O'leary, assistant technician for Central Control's Computer Installation. We've been trying to find you, Doctor Samuelson. The people at the Redshift told us you might be here. Seems there's been an accident at the site, nothing serious, they don't think, but, Doctor Fitzsimmons has called an emergency session of the Puzzle Masters. So he sent us for you."

"Why didn't someone just call me on my cellphone? They never hesitated before, day or night. And what doya mean, an accident. Is my father all right, has anyone been hurt?"

"Something major is going on. The site's been completely locked down. No calls in or out. I really don't know why. Lots of scuttlebutt and rumor through the grapevine flitting around, but nothing conclusive. I didn't see your father, Miss Samuelson, but there was someone in the infirmary being looked over. His name's Longview. Don't know what happened."

The other man continued scanning the yard and the nearby boat road leading into town. Beyond that was the beach, the high berm of coarse sand and ragged kelp-grass he found especially interesting, narrowing his eyes, all senses alert. But for all intents and purposes, he wasn't there, at least as far as the techie was concerned. He never made any attempt to introduce or explain him, clearly preferring he be in the background. To Turbo there could be only one reason for his presence. He looked military, but showed no weapons, possibly didn't need any. Turbo, as was a habit with him since kidhood, measured and wondered if he could take him.

"We need to go, if you would, Doctor," asked the techie almost pleadingly. He didn't care for this assignment, you could tell, but was determined to carry it through. "I have a car just outside the gate. Please, if you would?"

"I haven't eaten since early this morning, Gregory. Can't it wait? I can walk over later."

The other man jerked his head towards her, a suddden movement that caused a ripple in the calm. Turbo tensed, focused, feeling protective, ready for anything, although what, he had no idea. Sweat beaded on the techie's forehead, his color, not too good to begin with, faded another shade or two. "The cafeteria's open twenty-four seven, Ms. Samuelson, full staff. Whatever you want. Please, let's go." The other, who had purposely ignored Turbo from the beginning -- refusing to make eye contact -- dryly scoured the landscape one more time, then nodded crisply to the techie who looked down at the dirt, embarrassed at his apparent lack of authority.

Rocky saw it, didn't care for it. "Okay, Gregory, I'm with you. Let's go." Gesturing with the back of her hand, she asked dismissively, "This your driver?" A crease of a smile flickered across the watcher's wrinkled face at the slight; Turbo could see it would take a hell of a lot more than that to ruffle his goat. "I'll meet you at the car," she said. Without hesitation, the other went first, followed by an obviously relieved techie.

"I'll be okay," she said to Turbo, "don't concern yourself. We need to find out what the hell is going on. An emergency, Jesus! I better stop by the Redshift and pick up my discs and paperwork, I know I'll need it. Once we get locked in at Core Central, there's no telling when it'll be over. Depends, of course." Wrapping her arms around his neck, snagging his long locks, she pulled him to her, kissed him hard on the mouth, then pushed him away -- like pushing a side of beef. Smiling brightly, she said, "Take care, Heathclif. See ya' later."

She ambled through the gate to the waiting black Land Cruiser like a woman who knows someone she likes is watching her.

"Come back, Cassandra. Come back." She didn't turn, but he could tell she smiled even more.

He unlocked the door and went inside to get something to eat. After all, he was starving.


Steak and eggs never tasted so good, that and another bourbon and coke. He was always amazed at how the world suddenly grew crisp and coherent after eating, the edges of things more distinct. A simple thing, but, life is made up of such. Like the soft, cotton, long-sleeved shirt he'd put on for comfort sake, his sunburned skin feeling a bit too cool after the past few hours on the beach and in the yard, his skin puffy white before-hand. However, the interlude with Rocky was already beginning to fade, replaced by thoughts and images from the boat experience of the previous night. It seemed so long ago in some ways, but his body had not yet completely recovered from the fear and shock and disbelief.

Sitting on the couch with the curtains drawn on such a rare sunny day, so quiet he could hear the fridge running, he let himself drift into a kind of limbo. What, exactly, was he doing here? His job was to assist Hans in any way necessary, usually that meant canvassing, interviewing, chitchatting with people in a local area to get background color for stories. But, this trip, Casgrovina and the edifice, a boatload of extremists having their weapons mysteriously disappear, and afterwards they themselves? Who knows what will happen next? By the present rules he could ascertain, anything was as likely as anything else.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he made a determined effort to relax. The memory of that morning's paranoia made him smile. He had gone deep into the shadow, the last refuge, the wall where he placed his back. Rocky brought him out of it, gave him strength, offered a bridge between his aloneness -- the source of his own strength -- and the world of possibilities, of dreams, of life. It was strange, strange and new, and a little scary. He laughed -- scary, Jesus! What's become of the Turbo of old? What would the neighborhood think? Who cares. Food, bourbon, stress, sun, Siberia in the summertime, the edifice, everything, it all came tumbling down. Laying back on the couch, savoring the quiet hum of the small refrigerator, he closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep.

But it wasn't to last. Through the cobwebs of his mind, he could barely discern a knocking sound. At first he thought it might be coming from underneath somewhere, in the cellar. Who would be down there at this hour? he thought foggily. Down where? was his next thought. The knocking grew louder. He was at that halfway place, between dream and wakefulness, the realm wherein we can watch a dream unfold and yet can do nothing about it, like when you're lying there unable to move while a stuffed doll with large round eyes jerkily walks towards you.

"Tommy," he distinctly heard. "Tommy, come to the door, we want to play. Tommy? We know you're in there. Come on, Tom. It's sunny out, sunny and warm. Johnny Dinella and Franky are with me. C'mon, get up."

Johnny Dinella? thought Turbo through the frozen haze, he's dead. Shot in Vietnam in '73, one of the last, a tragedy. Everyone was devastated. I was still in high school. We had a homecoming planned. I was a pallbearer. Dozens of people were there. We smoked pot and drank whiskey all day long, dressed in black suits and ties. Johnny Dinella?

More knocking, louder and more insistent this time, threatening-to-break-the-door insistent. "TOMmy. GET UP! Come to the door. We wanta play. We need a fourth for stickball. The sun's shinin', Tom. COME ON!"

Turbo could feel sweat in his armpits, on the back of his neck, his forehead. He struggled to wake up all the way, but couldn't move. The thought of whoever or whatever coming through the door while he was in this condition terrorized him. He tried to roll off the couch thinking the impact would do the job. No good. It was like he was tied down, strapped to a hospital bed. No sooner had he thought that, but a nurse appeared over him, blocking what ambient light could get through the cracks around the curtains. She was tall, blonde, young, cheerful. "Mister Geneva? We're ready for you now. Doctor Svenson said it shouldn't take but a half-hour or so. You'll be up and walking in no time, six months, tops. Then therapy. Your new legs will feel just like the old ones, the Doctor guarantees it. Now, the sedative will take full effect soon. Feels strange, huh? Kinda like you're paralyzed? Well, those worthless legs of yours aren't helping that sensation any. But, they'll be gone soon. Off with the old, on with the new. I'll be right back, Mister Geneva." She smiled sweetly as she walked out of view.

What the fuck!? WAKE UP, he tried to yell, but no sound came out. He could still clearly hear the fridge in the background. HELP, he screamed, to no one but the inside of his head. The phone rang, the phone in the other room, the den -- no -- Hans's room, he recognized the ring. It rang again, and again, over and over. He couldn't move. Then it stopped; his heart dropped with it. Sweat poured off with his efforts. The nurse came back. Blocking the light, her face in darkness, she said, "We're ready for you now, Mister Geneva." She brought her face close to his. He could smell her perfume, the scent of her hair, her lemony breath. He peered into her eyes -- there were no pupils -- just blue color, no white, no pupils. He wanted to scream, but didn't bother to waste the energy, choosing to close his eyes instead.

Banging at the door again -- three quick raps with knuckles. He hated to look for fear the nurse would still be there, hovering over him with those alien eyes. But the rapping continued -- three more-- with feeling. He dared it, she was gone, thank God. At that instant, the grey murk vanished and his entire body practically flew off the couch onto the floor as though spring-loaded and cut loose from invisible restraints, catapulting, a hard landing, but a grateful one nonetheless. His torso was wet from sweat. He lay there listening to his heart thumping, louder than the fridge. He remembered that earlier he was in just this position in his sleeping bag, looking under the door; the coffee table was still off to the side -- thank goodness -- and his .45 was right where he left it under the couch.

Bang, bang, bang. He could move, he was free, a delicious sensation. He rose easily, all animal now, the door banger had better be good lookin' is all he could think. Ignoring the gun for the moment, he strode the few feet to the door, grabbed the handle, turned it and gave it a yank, ready for anything -- or so he thought.

Two fishermen complete with bill caps, sneakers, rough looking mugs, one smiling too much, the other not at all. He stayed on the top step inside the trailer. The smiler was a good deal shorter; the serious one almost his size. They were both about ten years younger, maybe. His face and back sweaty, Turbo was in no mood for civility, nonetheless, this was their turf, so, as cordially as he felt necessary, he asked, "Can I help you gentlemen?" It came out gravelly, not his intent; but, you never know how you're going to sound 'till you do. What the hell, he thought, they're fishermen.

They stood fairly straight for what seemed a long time. The smiley one bobbed his head from side to side trying to see past Turbo; the grim one just kept staring, emotionless, unmoving. Finally he spoke, "We look for newspaper man. Glipter, Hans Glipter. You him?" He did not smile, this one. His voice raspy from a life of too much booze, the inquiry sounded like a demand with a question mark.

A jolt of ice coursed through Turbo's spine. For the briefest of moments his legs turned to jelly. My legs, he thought. Cast adrift momentarily, he quickly recovered. He'd been here many times before, in the neighborhood and elsewhere. These boys did not want to play stickball. It suddenly struck him, they don't know what Hans looks like -- their blue eyes are blind. Undercover was part of his job, he'd recently played it with the Saviour gang. He had nothing better to do, and he had this strange feeling, an intuition really, that he was supposed to act now. Not being able to help himself, he said, matter-of-factly, "I him. What up?"

No sooner had the words left his mouth then the humorless one, moving at lightning speed with his right hand, cracked a small tube under Turbo's nose. Before he could react, Turbo inadvertently inhaled just enough of whatever it was to immediately render himself unconscious, that is to say -- he passed out. Like a tall redwood, he toppled forward from the step into the waiting arms of the smiler. It was too much for the smaller man; he staggered back, cursing, yelling at his partner for help.

Without waiting to see if anyone else was home, they half carried, half dragged Turbo to a pickup parked nearby. Struggling, they secured him in the back under a canvas tarp. Spinning wheels on the gravel, they gunned it down the road, leaving the door of the Airstream wide open.


Bull slammed the report down hard, barely missing his long forgotten, dried-out lunch. Once around his desk then stopping, he made a beeline for the old metal filing cabinet in the corner, his protest against the computer age. He was feeling older but none the wiser for all his years of strife and struggle. Having given his life to the military, he had never had time for a family, wife and kids, he was alone and now more than ever regretted it. He was not only alone without family or many friends, but was now alone with responsibility, something he bore rather well, though with growing shagrin. How did he get himself into this? he thought, taking the bottle of vodka from its topmost drawer, the only inhabitant thereof. The president himself had requested, through proper military and scientific channels, of course, that he be put in charge of directing operations and security at the now world famous site of a genuine alien artifact; he could not possibly refuse.

After the bitter struggle and nightmare of Afghanistan, living in retirement in a modest and minimally furnished villa overlooking the Baltic Sea where it meets the Gulf of Finland, southwest of Tallinn, Estonia, the quiet solitude he had longed for had been wearing pretty thin. He was, after all, a man of action, a man who preferred being in the midst of things, things of import. But now, he felt the situation was getting beyond his abilities. He was not trained for this, he knew. He had little scientific background and still less could he deal effectiviely and coherently with civilians -- scientists, in fact, people headstrong and used to acting on their own without much supervision. But, he had accepted the assignment and would do his best. One thing he did know and resolved to uphold regardless, something he had learned but had been frustrated to effectively put into practice on militarisitc missions -- the welfare of his people comes first and foremost, period.

Taking a belt, he carefully put aside his glass, then just as deliberately stacked the other engineering reports on top of this most recent one. He was going to sift through them. Somewhere, he believed, or wanted to, there must be a common thread that would inform him of just what the hell the edifice was up to, and consequently, what danger, if any, it offered. Then, he would make his decision to either shut down the site altogether, or allow it to continue in what computer-types referred to as safe mode.

The first and second arrived almost simultaneously yesterday. One from the Puzzle Masters had to do with the sudden and alraming -- not an engineering term -- increase in rate of change of the flickering or blinking -- pulsing -- of the illuminations, the crystals glowing varying and everchanging colors and degrees thereof. Not in all nine spheres, however, only those five which had not been violated -- not an engineering term -- by having their atmospheres or gases removed forcibly. Those four had continued flashing at their original speed. Obviously, the difference was the difference. The gases had something to do with the lights.

Okay. What could this mean? Bull had not been privy to the many inner-sanctum meetings of the scientific types held at the Redshift in Doctor Pengrove's apartment. Also, he had not made any appearances -- had not been invited -- at the meetings of the Puzzle Masters here at Core Central, as they called it. So he had no knowledge of what they thought about it, not being the kind who readily volunteered information. Which might, he mused, be a positive thing. Not being predisposed to perceive through a misguided, perhaps, scientfic prism. For the moment, he put it aside.

The next report from the chief engineer had to do with the occurrence that seemed to him to be greatly more ominous, both in substance and inference. Over a period of an entire day, ending approximately at 6:A.M. this morning, the surface material of the central sphere altered its molecular and hence atomic configuration so as to make itself impregnable, at least to anything that would still leave it intact, and even that was an open conjecture. According to the report, the surface material was actualizing properties completely unknown and, to all intents and purposes, impossible under our currently known laws of physics.

Pairs of electrons occupying the same quantum state thereby acting like force particles, like bosons. Or, the presence of supersymmetric partners, a supersymmetry of boson and fermion held together by some unknown field, perhaps from another dimension not detectable. This condition was made still more complex by the addition of protons to offset the atomic weight as well as an unknown third nuclear particle having no charge but possessing a miniscule mass. Another opinion or conjecture proffered was that the electrons were in fact members of a heavier family, a heavier electron -- muons and taus -- that held stability; that is, did not instantly degenerate into the standard, same-everywhere-in-the-universe electron, or positron, and a neutrino.

The science was beyond him. What did bother him, and he felt it came within his purview as chief administrator of the site, was the distinct, albeit intuitive, sense of purpose and motivation behind the action. Had it indeed sensed or come to know in some way that its fellow spheres had been cut open and were being investigated, measured and scrutinized? If it was capable it could have known easily, the how simply being through line of sight communication between the hovering sphere at center and the fixed node of all nine spheres, those fixed nodes acting as points of transference of information regarding the health and overall state of any particular design, nothing more. Also, removal of the gases could have triggered an alarm somehow. It still, however, did not necessarily point to an organic intelligence, something capable of awareness. He had to believe that. It could, he thought in all honesty, be the reaction of a machine, something robotic and programmed to respond to attacks or threats to its existence and purpose, whatever that may be.

The one he had just been handed and tried to bounce off his desk concerned the tank farm. The chief engineer discovered it early this morning, but had failed to inform him until he'd sat down to a late lunch. Nothing unusual about that, he thought ruefully.

He'd spent the following hour or more in discussion, as he called it, with the head scientists on the project, the inner circle of Puzzle Masters, as they called themselves, insisting and demanding that they alter the direction of their inquiry to focus instead on what the edifice may be up to, or else consider shutting down the site for safety reasons. He suspected that no one knew exactly, or even remotely, what was going on with the edifice and told them as much. He ended the heated debate by informing them in no uncertain terms that if one more troubling action were to be taken by the edifice or any parts thereof -- he was closing shop, and by authority invested in him by the president of Russia himself, would put a full contingent of special forces around the exterior of the enclosure and everyone would be going home until further notice.

This last report was, in its own unique way, the most unnerving. How could gases, or atmospheres, escape from state-of-the-art, double-hulled containment tanks, tanks tested and capable of handling and holding any type of gas or liquid known? And adding to that: This happened to all four at once, and, not only were the gauges stuck on full, but, the sensors whose job it was to sound an alarm at the slightest leak did not sound off. To Bull, a man experienced more with military matters than those of a scientific bent, this implied an intelligence -- bypassing the alarm system. Question: Did they need to? Was it a precaution? Or, did they plan on coming back before anyone noticed? Aha! He paused. Wait a second. If the gauges were jammed -- intentionally or not -- they could have been leaving and returning any time since being put into the tanks. In fact, they could have left immediately and never come back. The tanks could've been vacated all this time.

A deeper question occurred to him: Did they, if they is in fact applicable, care if anybody noticed? Are they capapble of caring, in the human sense? Well, if they didn't care and actually did jam the gauges and bypass, somehow, the sensors, why would they do that? What could we do to them? Do they have a sense of humor? Are they playing a game with us?

Bull poured another vodka. And read. While he did so he simultaneously thought about something else, not entirely unrelated. A habit he developed in the service. He realized that he had begun to think about the gases or atmospheres or whatever as intelligent beings. How did that happen, or, what had happened to cause it? Objectively, he surmised the overall situation as a scientific investigation of an alien craft, an extremely ancient craft and one of inestimable value, not only for whatever scientific and technological discoveries could be had, but the ascertainment of another, however superior, intelligent, self-aware species existing in another part of the universe. He found it impossible to ignore the ramifications for the meaning of life itself. Was it commonplace? Could life be found everywhere? Was the universe postively reeking with intelligent lifeforms? How much does the basic assumption, tacitly accepted, that we are alone and unique in the universe underlie all our other assumptions? And what would happen when the realization that that was simply not the case settled into the minds of the general populace? Was it already doing so?

Bull sipped, almost daintily, preoccupied as he was with matters the nature of which he was not used to thinking about, at least not in the present terms. Perhaps he too had been in denial. He decided to focus for the time being on the engineer's report. A rambler and windbag of sorts when talking in person, his reports were nonetheless clear, concise and well-ordered. Pictures accompanied schematics, explanations and details were not overly technical, a consideration to the layreader, which the General definitely appreciated. He had the bona fides from his days with the Engineering Corps but, nonetheless, preferred the non-technical. Techno-babble tended to obfuscate and camouflage extraneous cost overruns and shoddy, unsafe construction as well as project mismanagement and spurious additions, add-ons not part of the original plan and not approved by an oversight committee. Jargon left him suspicious. He's had to slash his way through one too many fraudulent analyses and follow-up reports from governemnt contractors to anymore feel comfortable with heavy sprinklings of tech jargon. He always felt he was the one being sprinkled on.

Without a rip or tear or crack of some kind, not only in the outer hull but also the inner, he could see no way for anything to get out. A water jacket separated the two hulls. If the gases had been corrosive, acidic and volatile, they could, possibly, have caused an explostion, or at least split a seam. The water would have leaked out first and most definitely been noticed. But that was not the case, and besides, there are no seams on the tanks -- state-of-the-art, the man said.

He finished his glass and was about to pour another when something caught his eye. Wait a second. Several pictures, from different angles, of all four tanks were paper-clipped to the adjoining schematic of the entire tank farm. He spread them out under the desk lamp. Four pictures of the sides of each tank, beginning with the inner side of the one furthest from the wall of the enclosure, included the floor between them. Beneath the rubber mats was what appeared to be a plastic conduit, like one that might contain wiring or cable. It was not included on the schematic.

Had it been installed afterwards as something separate? An improvement or something omitted in the original design? He scanned the two pages of text searching for a reference -- there was none. The bottom of the tanks was a foot above the floor. Examining the pictures more closely he was able to see that the conduits "Teed" off, possibly connecting all four tanks from underneath. He couldn't see any joins at elbows where the conduits left floor level. But he wasn't sure, the picture taker hadn't been concerned with underneath, apparently. Gases don't leak down, they float up.

What would be the significance? he wondered. Wiring would be unnecessary. Perhaps they had something to do with the water jacket, maintaining an equal pressure across all four tanks? He didn't know; it was not in the report. He would have to investigate, personally, and once again question the young engineer; shaking his head at the thought, he took a quick sip. The date the pictures had been taken was not included in the report. A lapse he would bring to the attention of the proper-protocol-driven chief engineer. Just to give him some shit, and to let him know, or at least believe, that the good General didn't miss a trick. But, he suspected they had been taken recently, if not that very morning after the discovery of the break-out.

He closed the folder, took all three reports and what remained of his quart of Stoli, and put them in the top drawer of his filing cabinet, feeling a certain degreee of satisfaction at the solid, rough metal sound it made sliding along the grooved runners to its final slam-click at the end. Just as, his front door opened behind him, it was Doctor Jennings, one of the top mucky-mucks of the Puzzzle Master's group. He hadn't bothered to knock and had a sour, almost combative look on his face. Instead of his usual blue suit and tie, he wore faded jeans and a red plaid shirt. That in itself was enough to jar Bull. Things must be getting either rather casual over at Puzzle central, or much more serious. Perhaps they gave his advice earlier in the day the weight he was certain it deserved. He forgave the lack of manners without a second thought. It all seemed so pretentious and unrealistic now, anyway.

"What can I do for ya', Doc," he asked tiredly, as he walked to his overstuffed chair, an indulgence he brought from home. To sit while the other remains standing is to assert authority, a psychological trick he learned in the service. "I'm a little busy." He glanced at his watch. "I need to get going. I can you give you, say, five minutes." He was deliberately ignoring Jenning's smoldering expression; he'd seen far, far worse in the army.

"Doctor Fitzsimmons sent me," he stammered excitedly, seeming pleased to at least get it out as loud as he did.

"Yes, and how is the good doctor? Doing well, I trust?" asked Bull calmly, "I hope the discussion we had earlier did not cause too much discomfort?"

"You can't confiscate our cell phones. We need them to communicate across site."

"Like we're doing now?" he retorted, a twinkle in his eyes.

"You know exactly what I mean, General."

Mustering patience, Bull's deep-furrowed frown sent a shiver through Jennings, muffling his excessive indignation. The General, nonetheless, maintained his equanimity. Leaning forward, he placed his elbows on the desk, folded right hand over left, and paused pregnantly, one might say. He creased his broad forehead, an attempt at mock entreaty, but also as a mild warning. After what appeared to be the appropriate amount of time to still the atmosphere, he motioned with a heavy nod for Doctor Jennings to be seated on the other side of the desk.

"Now, Doctor, let's begin again, please," Bull said flatly. "What is this all about?"

Collecting himself, Jennings said in as civil a tone as he could, "Your security people have confiscated our cell phones. We can be trusted" -- Bull snickered -- "with not calling off-premises if asked to, but, this is a huge area, this site, we need them to communicate. Especially when we're inside one of the sphere's. Oftentimes we relay ongoing processes to computer central. It's necessary."

"I thought radio waves were blocked from passing through the skin of the spheres."

"Well, yes, but, if you're standing just below an opening, you can get a signal, sometimes."

"What's wrong with walkie-talkies?" Bull shot back. "The modern versions are just as small as cell-phones."

Jennings rubbed a hand through his already dishevelled hair. Peeved, he was clearly not used to being denied. A spoiled child, Bull surmised; frustration did not go well with him. His gears were churning hard, going uphill through mud. Finally he made it. Commendable, thought Bull, albeit a little surprised.

"Okay, I see your point," he blurted, "we can requisition those. And, I see your point about the temptation to call off-base, as it were. Plus, we receive calls all the time from interested colleagues and friends, not to mention family. It would, understandably, not be all that preposterous for someone to spill the beans about the recent occurrences."

No one outside a select few knew of the mysterious happennings in P-5. Something major had cropped up, something possibly critical, that was all. Doctor Weingard and his technical team, as well as a few researchers and technicians who had been in other spheres at the time, had been sequestered at Core Central, conferencing with Doctor Fitzsimmons.

And someone had been taken to the infirmary and immediately cloistered off, surrounded by the private security employed by administration. The General's men had made a pact with them almost from the beginning; it gave them less to do and there was no conflict of interest. If a scientist had been injured while engaged in research, so what. Everything was hush-hush and Jennings had no intention of bringing it up at this time. Not even the administrative head, Doctor Yevgeny Tolstoy, had been informed. Nothing unusual about that however; he was often left out of the loop and preferred it that way. Dealing with his duties, which included the outside world, had proven more than enough of a handful.

"Now, Doctor Jennings, what is your first name? I'm sick to death of calling you people doctor." Giving a shot at his best American accent, he said, "Ain't none of ya' a real doctor anyhow, for Christ's sake."

Jennings was pushed back, not the least of which was hearing what he believed to be a commie atheist use the lord's name in vain. Jennings was from a small midwestern town -- the heartland of good ole U.S. of A. Everything fit into nice, neat pigeonholes where he came from. Everything and everybody acted and spoke the way you would expect them to. So, this was just one more shock to his system, one he really didn't need as he was close to the edge already.

He had spent the last ten years, since receiving his Ph.D., teaching at the university of Michigan, Ann Arbor, his alma mater. When word went out about the edifice and the scientific network buzzed with the formation of a special core group to be in charge of studying it, he submitted his name, without much hope, however. He was well aware that the bulletin was a worldwide offering, a help wanted for heavyweights only, he was sure. He didn't consider himself one, but, what the hell, he gave it a try.

A month later he received an email, followed by a formal letter through snail mail, from Professor Edward Fitzsimmons himself, world renowed mathematical physicist from M.I.T. and winner of the Fields Medal among others. After his appointment as chair of this special collection of mathematicians, physicists, computer specialists, and other scientists from a broad diversity of fields of study, he set about requesting assistance from what the world had to offer.

From universities like Stanford, Cambridge, the Insitute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Moscow, Harvard, Berkeley, the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques, you name it. But, to Jenning's surprise, he was chosen. It seems he has a certain talent that Fitzsimmons believed might be one that was needed or would at least come in handy at some point. That is, besides being well versed in quantum field theory, he was a master cryptographer, consultant to the U.S. Military. He became one of the Puzzle Masters. And as it turned out, he was also proficient at organizing and cross-referencing material, with an eye for similarities, another valuable ability for the particular job at hand. But, bottomline -- you can take the boy out of the country but...

"Michael," he said, feeling somewhat stripped of all protective coloration in the saying of it. But it was too late. He was Michael from Michigan, USA, who he's always been. He shifted in his chair, trying hard to reorient to the informality of simply being himself. It robbed him of what he perceived to be his authority. But he decided to get on with it; he did the only thing he could do -- he sat up straight.

"Michael, is it? Well Mike, can I call you Mike? Eh? Mike, I see three tiers or circles around this event, if you would, the inner one is ironically interconnected to what lies outside the outer. Do you get my drift, Mike?"

Face feeling a little red, Jennings said, "No, I don't." And he meant it.

"Okay, let me explain." The General stood, walked to the door, looked through the tiny, dirt-streaked window for a moment, then abruptly turned to methodically pace the measure of his trailer office. He held his beefy hands out in front of him as he walked and began, "We have the enclosure, the physical plant. Outside and immediately inside I have my men, all experienced former soldiers, they know what to do. But, that's not it." He pulled up short, rubbed a hand through his thin greying hair, then looked off to the distant horizon. "It's on another level entirely. The administration, Tolstoy, is in charge of filtering information to the media -- handouts, press releases, selected pictures. OK. The media is not stupid. They know there's a hell of a lot more going on here than they're gettin'. OK. They're denied access to the site. OK. No pictures, no looking over anybody's shoulder. No asking questions at random of the engineers and other techies wandering around, youngsters mostly, people who would just love to get their names in the paper to show mom and the kids. All right.

"But, the media does not give up, not on a story like this. The first tier is bullshit, not much satisfaction, they can't get through. OK." Bull stopped in front of the filing cabinet, opened the top drawer, stared in for a moment, then shoved it closed with a bang, turned and marched on. "The second tier is you people, the Puzzle Masters and associates, of which there are many, coming and going. Mums the word with you people and, you have your own security force. So it's like an inner wall keeping the outside world further at bay.

The General arrived back at his chair. He placed his hands on its padded back, pinched his lips together, and peered at Jennings. "Then we have tier three."

Jennings squirmed uncomfortably without knowing why. But by the tone of the General's voice, it seemed there might be a reason. He braced himself and tried to look as innocent as possible.

Beginning to slowly walk the room again, Bull said, "The entire scientific community, the entire scientific world, including a long list of assistants and ad hoc associates, is involved, to some degree or other, with this project. We have computer networks spread out through every nook and cranny, from Russia to Australia, Europe to South America, South Africa to the United States. And every place in between. Labs, research facilities, universities, think tanks -- whatever they are -- private scientific and engineering firms, consultants, NASA, for Christ's sake, people, people, people, examining, studying, analyzing, manipulating, searching millions of pictures, images, graphics, diagrams, data from equipment, spectrometers, microscanners, sound recorders, who knows what, the list of people involved with, who are aware of every detail of this project is astronomical."

He paused in front of the filing cabinet, put a hand on it, then turned to Jennings. "Email to special networks of colleagues, interested friends, family. Websites, newsgroups, bulletin boards, chat rooms, who knows -- I'm not computer savvy, don't care about the goddamn things -- people around the world discussing, discussing, discussing, aspects, discoveries, speculating, theorizing, hypothesizing, deducing, making conclusions based on this and that. It's maddenning, insane.

"And what's the point of handing out weekly press releases, anyway? The most the local media will get that outsiders don't is background on new arrivals, why somebody is leaving, what their personal bio is, stuff like that. Otherwise, the pictures and analyses can be gotten from their laptops. The media has so much information dribbled to them, leaked to them, outright told to them in detail, it's.... All they have to do is phone or log-on or email and blab, blab, blab, they get told everything the talker knows, and stuff he doesn't know. The radio, for God's sake, PRI, the BBC -- Jesus -- interviewing scientists and technicians and journalists, magazine writers, other newspaper reporters -- journalists on radio interviewing other journalists -- from every corner of the globe. People who don't even have anything direct to do with it -- they heard something from someone at a party or a reunion or a seminar or overheard a conversation while sittin' on a bench or just walking through the campus and now, now, they're semi-experts on what's happening here -- more than me."

Jennings looked at the floor trying hard to keep from laughing, a broad smile irresistibly spreading like spilled coffee on a white rug. Unable to help himself, pretending to be ashamed or overwhelmed by the travesty of attempting to maintain secrecy on such a wide open operation, he covered his face with both hands.

Again, Bull found himself in front of the filing cabinet, only this time he opened it, pulled out the bottle, went to his desk and poured a shot. "Television. I never watch it, can't stand it, have no interest in it. News shows, people on Talk Shows being interviewed, gabbing about here, the edifice, as though they knew what the hell they were talking about. Rumors that we found dead aliens, that we're cutting them up, disecting them to find out what makes 'em tick. We're a goddamn Siberian Roswell. Rumors that we found out how to make this thing fly; antimatter reactors; that it's not an alien craft at all, that it's a secret government project and everything scientists have been saying about it is just a cover-up, a colossal conspiracy theory. I've overheard my own men talking this way. My own men who are right here!

"I was visiting my men in their barracks. A documentary was on public TV -- they suck it down with a dish -- about the edifice. They had a science-fiction writer they were interviewing. Science-fiction writers waxing like the nut cases they are, going on about what kind of creatures the aliens must be to have built such a thing 600 million years ago. Imagine what they must be like now, and so on and so forth. And then there's the science and nature channels, a ton of them around the world. You can learn more about what's going on here watching TV then you can being here.

"Television and radio broadcasting to the entre world, beyond the world, out into the universe. The aliens who built this goddamn monstrosity and lost it have probably heard about it and are on their way." Bull kicked back his shot of vodaka, poured another, screwed the top back on the bottle, strode to the filing cabinet, carefully placed it in its drawer, then slammed it home with a loud bang. He then circumnavigated his office mumbling inaudably to himself, arrived back at his chair, plopped down, leaned forward and continued, "They're probably pissed off we've been tampering with it. Pissed-off aliens coming here. Won't we be in some deep shit then, huh?"

Glaring at Jennings, almost helpless struggling as he was to keep a straight face, Bull fumed, "Well, Mike, Doctor Jennings, what do you have to say for yourself, yourselves?" Grabbing his shot, sloshing a little of the clear liquid over his hand, he spun his chair to face the wall over by the door as though daring anyone else to enter.

Jennings, facing the opposite wall, smiled with abandon, relieving the tension before his body exploded. He wiped his brow with a hankerchief to buy time while he composed himself. Then began quietly, "General, sir, in spite of what you perceive to be wholesale dissemination of every minute detail of this operation, we, the core group, made a pact at the very beginning, months ago. What the world, what the media, know is superficial and harmless. Rumors, we have no control over kooks and conspiracy-minded folks. They'll say what they will in any event. It's true that we have a dedicated worldwide network of collaborators -- an extended group of insiders. We've had to do that. We need the expertise and input. Also their computer and database power.

At NASA, for instnace, the Jet Propulsion Lab, they have the most sophisticated image enhancement and analysis software and specialists in the world. All the space agencies, in fact, are part of the group -- Russia, Europe, Japan. Universities, Stanford, M.I.T., Cambridge, Harvard, The Max Planck Institute, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Santa Fe Institute; Labs, Lawrence Livermore Lab, Los Alamos, Langley, the Swinburne Center for Supercomputing; Nobel Laureates from every corner -- Doctors Weingard and Pengrove are here -- the list is quite extensive."

"Who? Who was that last name?"

"Pengrove. Sir Rodney Pengrove, mathematical physicist, from Oxford, he ---"

"Never mind. The name sounded familiar but, I don't know him. Go on with what you were saying."

Circling the wagons, he continued, "Their computers and ours are firewalled, but skilled hackers still manage to break in, putting some pictures and info up on websites, selling stuff to newspapers and magazines. This is the computer age, General, and electronic communications are vulnerable. But even so, all pictures and videos of the interiors of the spheres -- the designs and rooms -- we put on CDs and DVDs for off-line study. We send out sensitive stuff to be analyzed by courier."

Warming to his explanation, Jennings leaned forward. "External pictures alone don't tell the real story. And most people seemed to have lost interest after the initial shock and amazement. Even something as fantastic as this discovery, people get bored and get back to their lives. Science mags in our country may only run a single article in an issue anymore. The same ground has been gone over so often that even they are hard put to find new and interesting features to present, new angles, new speculations."

What looked like a glass of water stood nearby on the desk. Jennings smelled it, tasted it. Satisfied, he took a long drink. "There have been two major events just in the past week."

"Three," corrected Bull.

"Three," Jennings agreed. The first two, the increase rate of design light fluctuation and the transformation of the surface of the central sphere, have been explained as the natural effect of the new environment within which the edifice finds itself, after 600 million years of burial."

"The lights?" questioned Bull, incredulous.

"The lights are the direct result of energy absorptioon from the instruments we've been using to examine them."

"And how do you explain the ones of the first four, the ones that have remained the same?"

"Malfunction. It is 600 million years old, after all."

"As you've been saying. Do you believe that?"

"Why, no, but it's what we've led others to believe," quipped Jennings, smiling, pleased with himself.

"Except for the extended group of insiders?" asked Bull, mirroring the smile.

"Well, yes, and no. I mean, no we've not told them what we, here, speculate based on classified information. And yes, we've told them we don't know the causes. Which, actually, is true. We have labs examining and studying light microscopy, spectrometer and quark-field feeds from our computers, attempting to ascertain just what exactly the material is that comprises the surface of the central sphere. Both before and after the transformation. In fact," he took a quick sip, "early this morning we recieved a preliminary assessment from a lab in Canada."

"Canada? Huh. Why do I find that surprising? What?"
"Vancouver, B.C. Yes, it sounds far afield but ---"
"What doesn't?" grunted Bull as he took a delicate sip, somewhat composed, for now.
"Ocean-dwelling abalones ---"
"Abalones? You mean clams?"
"Not exactly, but close. Abalones, like clams, construct their shells from calcium carbonate, a soft chalk. They're able to produce proteins that force the chalk molecules into a different and much stronger orientation, spontaneously assembled. They, the scientists, I mean, applied this principle to the sample material we sent; we assume the material to be the same as that of the central sphere in its before state. When spread on the surface of our sample, the viruses rearranged the lattice structure of the material into perfectly ordered layers."

"Are you saying the surface material is organic?"
"Is calcium carbonate organic? Creatures possess genes responsible for generating shells of this material. Biomineralization has been around for, well, 600 million years almost. Are you familiar with the Cambrian Explosion?"

"The what?"
"It occurred about 550 million years ago, give or take. What happened, inexplicably to paleobiologists, was an unprecedented revolution in biology and evolution."

"Okay, but what about this morning? You were there when I spoke to Fitzsimmons. A few of you were there. Yes, you were there. The gases. They've escaped. What about that?" Bull swiveled back to face Jennings. Put his empty glass down. "What about it," he demanded.

Jennings pursed his lips, looking thoughtful. He started slowly, uncertainly, "We haven't had much chance ---"

"But what do you think?" Bull interupted. "What do you think right now? What are the possibilities? How, for instance? My chief engineer thinks tunneling. Have you heard from any of your labs about the nature of those gasses? You've sent them samples, have you not?"

"Why, yes."

"They tell us they don't know. I mean. They tell us that they're a cohesive mix of inert, non-corrosive fluids. In othe words, they're quite ordinary from the point of view of our chemistry, earth's chemistry; although, unknown in atomic configuration. For them to tunnel through a substance, they would first have to become polarized or form a plasma -- ionized. But there is no way for them to do that without some external force affecting them, acting on them. From the point of view of quantum physics, the wave function of the gases on an atomic or molecular level, upon encountering the electromagnetic field of a containing material ---"

"These were state-of-the-art containment tanks."

"Right," Jennings nodded agreeably, trying not to be condescending in the least. Not a good time for it, he astutely ascertained. "Upon encountering a barrier, there is a small probability that the barrier could be penetrated. But with a mix of otherwise distinct gases, the degree of entanglement of the system would make the process highly unlikely. Especially, as I said, they are inert."

"Could they change themselves, then?"
"That would point to an ability to self-transform."
"That's what I asked, I believe," said Bull in a low voice, impatience lurking not far away.
"I don't know, General," said Jennings, suddenly appearing very tired and crestfallen. "We haven't had time ---"

"Yes, as you said." Pushing himself up with both hands, Bull took a deep breath, let it out carefully, then said, "Your five minutes are up, Mike. I have something to inspect. Thank you for coming. No cell phones. Good day."

Jennings, a little startled at the abruptness, stammered, "Okay, General. As you wish." Then stood, walked slowly towards the door looking a little punchy, then let himself out, quietly closing the door behind him.

"Scientists," Bull growled, "we're in big trouble."


Core Central, home of the Puzzle Masters and associates, was located in a double-wide, 80 foot by 20 foot trailer, refitted for its present purpose, situated just to the backside of the central sphere on that part of the ground that had not been covered by concrete. They moved it in almost immediately after discovery, before the enclosure or the slab. It was surrounded on all sides by smaller trailers housing electronic equipment of various denominations and the teams that oversaw their operation.

Inside the Mother Ship, as it was affectionately called, the layout had not been altered much, just the furnishings. A large kitchen area occupied one end, sectioned off from the living room by two steps. Including the yellow flowers on milk-white background drapes, the kitchen remained intact. The original small formica-topped table was replaced by a much larger, oval-shaped oak conference table; the type with the extra leaf for the middle. Cups generally piled up in the sink until, as if by magic, or elves, they would be found in the drain rack. Running along both walls of the living room were two full-length couches; several chairs of idiosyncratic taste, the personal property of the full-time investigators, took up most of the remaining floor space. The wall separating the room from the rest of the trailer supported a blackboard, now showing strange diagrams with arrows and circled areas, the significance and meaning of which was a matter of insider information.

Down the middle of the room sat a long, heavy, rectangular, wooden table -- teak -- now almost completely covered with computer consoles, laptops, calculators, maps, undecipherable drawings, paperwork, and the ubiquitous styrofoam cups. How they got it in was a mystery and a well-kept secret. The other half of the trailer consisted of three bedrooms off the side of the hallway, the bathroom was at the rear. The bedrooms were no longer being used as such, they instead had been turned into mini-conference and relaxation rooms -- a place to get away from it all. Three doors opened to the outside world, two at either side of the kitchen area in the front and one at the rear. Another equally large trailer set at the rear of the enclosure had been remodelled and served as hotel, hostel and dormitory for the residents.

The middle room off the hall in the aft half of the Mother Ship was sparsely furnished but comfortable, homey, in fact. It consisted of a round rosewood table, four well-padded chairs, a half-size couch, a small boat-stove -- obtained locally -- a blackboard, and a cupboard fronted by two vertical doors. Inside were a few items: coffee, tea, sugar, cups, saucers. Utensils were strewn haphazardly in the top drawer. A TV,VCR and DVD sat in the corner on a small metal table with plastic wheels. In the quiet of that room sat two men engaged in conversation.

The older man tapped his pipe into his left hand, then filled it methodically, continuing on with what seemed an unusual but not completely dissociated tangent, considering the circumstances. "In the dream I remembered an event that happened in the future as though it were the past. I was walking down a country road, trees off to the side, dream trees, you know, strangely bent and convoluted, but the leaves were red and yellow nonetheless. I was preoccupied imagining the meeting I was going to. Three men examining a human-like skull -- sloped forehead, protruding brow ridges, square jaw.

As I walked, the road curved with increasing arc until I could barely make out what was immediately in front. It also narrowed considerably and grew dark, but not too dark, I could still see where I was going. But anyway, it managed to slow me down, my progress, so that by the time I got to the meeting, it was over, I had missed it, they were just leaving and none had a very good word to say to me for being late, I must say. But the point I wanted to make is, it seemed that I was remembering them examining the skull, not that I was imagining what it was going to be like, because I'm quite sure I had never seen the skull before. That was the impression I had, anyway."

"In the dream, you remembered the future?"

"Yes, quite so. The definite sense of remembering, not anticipating and then imagining. Curious, eh?"

After a reflective pause, the other spoke. "I had a similar experience that involved a card game. I was walking to where the game was going to take place and in the course clearly remembered, as you say, not imagined, everyone's hand when I had a full-house. We're all drinking, the four of us, and I'm looking at my hand -- it's a full house. I can see in this cartoon-like balloon the hands of the other three -- I have them beat easily."

"Cartoon-like balloon?"

"Yes. You know, those balloons in comics where the spoken words are placed. In the dream, their card hands were in there but only I could see them. The memory shortly ends and I continue on my way, confidently striding along through a similar woods to the small shack of a house where the card game is, or was, about to take place. In the dream I have neither the feeling of having experienced a prophesy nor does it occur to me that any of the others may have had futuristic remembrances. What do you make of it, remembering the future -- dreamtime?"

"Well, dreams, you know, very strange territory. I do believe, however, that there is some connection between the dream world, the unconscious or subconscious mind, and what may be called wakefulness or waking reality. In fact, it is only recent in human history that civilization, if we can call it that, has separated the everyday from that world, the world of the unconscious, the spiritual realm. And I believe we are the worse for it. What we call neuroses and psychoses did not seem to be the problems in the distant past they so obviously are today -- modernity. Suppression and repression. Unconscious desires, impulses, images, often of a disagreeable or downright ugly nature, trying to force their way to the surface, to give expression to themselves. Identifying them with the devil, with the earth and profanity as though that made them evil, while identifying the realm of the intellect -- rationality -- with God. Schizophrenia. The split of the personality. What do you make of it, dreams and dreamtime?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, last year, Peter Boyington and I, you remember Peter, don't you? That conference in Stockholm three years ago, he gave a talk on similarities between schizophrenia and religious visions? Shamanism? I was covering for the paper. Why, I don't know. They're trying to branch me out. And you, you were there too, for the museum."

"Why yes, of course," the older man laughed, not derisively, "he was a grand hit with his impressive collection of masks from around the world. That was my interest at the time, for sure. What a beautiful and intriguing collection."

"Yes, yes indeed. I ran into him in Chicago last year, at the Hotel Ramshire. He and I came to some interesting conclusions regarding dreamtime and entropy over several drinks at the hotel bar. Well, interesting, I don't know; we were enjoying ourselves and demonstrating the nature of entropy with each successive drink, to be sure. Anyway, in real time entropy tends toward disorder and as such dictates the direction of time. Our physical laws are time-symmetric but in the practical everyday world, the broken glass on the floor does not spontaneously reform itself into the unboken glass it was before -- the reverse video scenario. Entropy increases as time goes by.

"We can stack firewood into a well-ordered appearance from a previously disordered, random pile on the ground. The stack represents a decrease in entropy but, at what cost? The energy we expended, the sweat and muscular wear and tear have actually contributed to an enlargement of overall entropy in the world. The larger picture, the sun coursing the sky, our bodies aging, our clothing dirtied and perhaps torn but most certainly worn out more than before, all add to the larger entropy picture. The truck used to bring the wood, the gasoline, the beer and sandwiches ingested. The wear on the roads the truck drove on, the energy expended to cut down the trees, to buck them up, to split them into usable sizes, and then loading that into the truck. The loss of trees and their syntropic jobs -- photosynthesizing, holding the soil in place, giving homes and sustenance to creatures. The loss of oxygen and the cleansing of the air. All affected as we stand tiredly looking, with deserved appreciation and self-congratualtion, mind you, at the nice, neat stack of firewood.

"In the real world we can't get away from it. Entropy increases in the direction of time, or, time is directed towards increasing entropy, increasing disorder. But in dreamtime, we have a whole other story. In dreams, monumental tasks are performed, or distances covered, with very little sweat. We can fly or glide through the air, effortlessly. Peter's take is that effects in dreams, the dreamscape, he calls it, are realized with a mimimal amount of energy or strain, resulting in a net increase in order and a loss of entropy. As though time were moving in reverse, or possibly that in dreams, time is irrelevant. Up to a certain limit we have entropy, then, out beyond a localized sphere of influence it trails off precipitously to zero. In dreams it's possible to remember the future." He stood to retrieve the tea pot simmering on the stove, then poured for both.

The older man lit his pipe. The room once again took on the not unpleasant aroma of cherry flavored tobacco. "I remember a dream where I constructed this huge rock wall around my house, my house in the dream, on a flat area surrounded by forest on all sides. The rocks -- rocks -- I dare say, boulders are more like it. Each must have weighed between 500 pounds and a ton. I remember the sheer pleasure I felt, the physical sensation at placing each boulder just so, perfectly dovetailing and meshing with the others. This wall was humongous. It completely encompassed the house at a distance of some 30 or so feet"

Taking a puff on his pipe, he burst out laughing. "And it was a rock house to boot. Whatever had I been thinking? My God! I forget the intent of the wall, if I ever knew, obviously something prompted the construction of a wall that high and strong. It must've been a good 10 to 15 feet high, was meant to keep out wild animals or barbarian hordes or some such.

"But when I finished, I strolled back to the house feeling just the merest dampness between shirt and skin. I wasn't even breathing hard. The boulders, mysteriously as it happens, had been just handily lying about, and there were plenty enough. Now, clearly, one can say there was a net loss of entropy in that dreamscape that day." He puffed his pipe placidly with the memory.

"No doubt." The younger man took a sip of tea, then stared at the rug, reflecting with his newfound vigor. "As between the quantum world and the classical, and between the unconscious mind and the conscious, I agree that there may also be a connection between dreamtime and awaketime. All mammals dream, as far as I know. Perhaps all creatures do, short of microbes. I don't know how many times I've watched my cat or dog twitching and making sounds in their sleep, chasing some imaginary prey, or being chased. When we dream, we creatures here on earth, are we unknowingly acting as a drag on inexorable entropy? Are we slowing it down? Theoretically, could there possibly be a critical point where the anti-entropic direction or pull of change surpasses the awake, real time entropy, thereby reversing the whole timestream thing, all processes, reversing the video, reconstructing the shattered glass? What is the connection, if any?"

A quiet pause ensued, a nebula of aromatic smoke wafted through the still room.

Tapping an index finger on the end of his chin, the younger man continued. "Entropy is also measured by the number of possible arrangements a particular system can have -- entropy points to the number of rearrangements of a system's fundamental constituents that leave its overall appearance unchanged, invariant. That is to say, the smaller the group of transformations of a geometric figure representing a system, the lower its entropy.

"So," he took a sip of his now lukewarm tea, "if we consider the evershifting patterns, the arrangements of the designs of the edifice; at their present rate of change they are taxing the ordering capacity of a whole network of parallel-processing supercomputers. If they jump again, if they take just one more energy-level leap, and I, along with everyone else has no reason to believe they won't, their rate of change will reach the next exponential level and they will easily surpass the capacity of any array of computers to keep track of, let alone analyze."

He stood to pace. "Noble's team of mathematicians have already concluded their calculations on the five that have increased speed of change. The rate of change of patterns will approach, if not go beyond, the Planck duration of 10-43 seconds at the next jump. Therefore, for all intents and purposes we could then think of any particular stream of patterns as being continuous -- a video. Each still would no longer be discretely localized and defined as such. In macro-space, the entire non-repeating video will behave as a single, panoramic still -- one long connected picture. Then what? What would we have as far as entropy and time direction go?"

The older man puffed his pipe. "Without knowing the physics, I would intuit that the edifice would have moved backward in time, back to a previous state in its existence, perhaps even to a time when its initial defining conditions rendered all possible arrangements available and accessible. It would have entered a dreamtime of its own -- the realm of the unconscious."

The other sat down and remarked pointedly, looking the older man straight in the eyes, "That's not a bad intuit. Even if we consider each of the overall designs as a single constituent frozen in the moment, and not the enormous number of interfering patterns and clusters of sub-patterns that it also is, we arrive at an extremely high measure of entropy. After a Brink is crossed, there will only be a single arrangement, however -- one whole pattern. Each design will then be operating in a timeless pre-Planckian void, as before the emergence of spacetime, as we know it."

"Like traveling beyond the speed of light, backward along the time axis. Is that correct?"

"Not exactly, not traveling beyond the speed of light. Rather, a supersposition is formed of all possible outcomes, and by doing so, it returns to its incipient state. Which, in a sense, is going back in time."

He was leaning forward now, his elbows resting on his knees, staring thoughtfully at the zig-zags and curlicue patterns in the rug. The older man, pipe in mouth, stood quietly, then ambled over to the stove to replenish his tea. He returned, sat up straight, then tapped the dregs from his pipe into his left palm, dumping the residue into the nearby trashcan.

"We can think of the embryonic stem cell, for example, as in a state of superposition of all 250 or so cell types in the human body. They've tried to reconstitute a specific, fully developed cell's embryonic state, to take it back to its roots, reprogram it, but with little success, as far as I know. Something is missing. Something that's a part of the developmental process, a nonlinear cohesive force that simply can't be accounted for through biochemistry and genetics -- a morphogentic field of some kind, perhaps. Something is lost that has to do with the emergent whole, a quality that once lost through decoherence of the wavefunction can never be regained. Humpty Dumpty -- the details are lost in the details.

"It's not the same, of course, because a cell is already in a macro state. But, the biochemicals of the genes themselves are in a quantum state. Once in a specific context, like a neuron or an organ, certain genes are repressed and others expressed. We have decoherence, a specific cell type is generated.

"Might be that the edifice came up against the same problem. Or will come up against it."

The younger man continued, "Now, if a set of designs quickens to its embryonic state, it will become immune to the Higgs field." He looked up with a piece of a smile on his lips. "Which means that all the different species of particles that make them up -- matter and force -- become massless. They return to the pure state of symmetry -- they become interchangeable."

The older man almost stuttered, "But what will become massless? They're already light -- photons -- I believe they are massless, are they not?" A little twinkle in his eyes.

"Yes they are, of course. But,..., that's it! That's what I'm trying to get at." He stood, walked to the window and spread the heavy motel-style curtain -- large nondesript red flowers on beige background -- to look at P-5 in all its startling improbability, unreality and too perfect curvature, almost directly behind them at the rear of the enclosure. Excited by the prospect of discovery, staring in obvious awe, he went on, "One of the things I saw. Consider just a single configuration plan of one design -- one distinct, infinitely detailed and holographically self-referenced pattern set."

He turned to face the older man, sitting attentively, pipe in mouth. "The network of connections is the information, the properties. Each unique pattern of connections encodes information. It's the information. With protein molecules, for instance, information is stored in terms of their geometrical arrangement. The same goes for neurons, information is stored in the connections between synapses. Whenever we measure anything, we come away with a property list. But the thing we measure is usually something concrete, something real. So, what do these designs and their convoluted patterns of illuminations represent in the physical world?"

He returned to his chair, moving it slightly so as to see straight through the window. He continued, "There are subtle variables at work that have to do with how things are connected. You can have randomness on one layer and a complex order -- info-rich -- on another, possibly deeper. So, each individual snapshot of any design may appear random, but when an entire collection is stacked on top of one another, so to speak, the combined moiree effect could reveal a remarkable order and cohesion, maybe even meaning of some sort."

He folded his arms and leaned back. Looking hard at the older man, he asked, "What then is the physical reality behind the designs, what do they represent?"

With a puff on his pipe, the older man pursued his prerogative. With a deep sigh, he asked, "Do you remember what you told me about what happened in the sphere? Are you certain about that last part? The redshift? It may have been a trick of the light, do you think?"

After a lengthy pause, the younger man said in hushed tones, "I saw it, right past Weingard's back as he bent to run. I'm sure the spectrometers picked it up. A definite redshift, accelerating, as the sheath of membrane across the alcove went opaque."

"But, I have a question, I don't get it. You said you saw the lights of the hovering sphere go red -- redshift -- just as the screen was going opaque. You said you saw this over Weingard's shoulder as he bent to run. But, he did so only after seeing the screen go dark. How then ...?"

The younger man smiled. "I believe I got caught in the line-of-sight of something like a gravity gun -- a gravity stream -- right out of Buck Rogers; a field that slowed time and seemed to be drawing me towards the hoverer -- downhill. From my point of view, I saw circular ripples of time-differences flowing that way. Beyond Weingard was the crest of one, and beyond it I saw the lights from the sphere go red as the membrane slowly, to me, went opaque."

"What could account for that, I wonder? You know."

"Which thing are you talking about? The redshift almost certainly was caused by light having to climb out of a gravity well, a very suddenly produced gravity well. What can cause opacity? Increased excitation or energetic agitation of the atoms -- the vibrations of the particles -- within a material, or that go to make up a material, previously transparent or translucent. It's not heat produced, however, so it wasn't the molecules bouncing around, like a gas. Something energized that material from within, on the quantum level, increased its index of refraction. When the universe was only recently born, it was opaque due to the ionization of particles and free-streaming electrons. Photons didn't have a chance. And as far as the redhsift goes, it tells us for certain that there's a quantum field at work."

"Why?" the older man asked bluntly, quickly emptying and then repacking his pipe, warming to the discussion.

"If there were no quantum field, there would be no gravitational field, hence, no redshift." He stood again, stroked his hair with his right hand, then said, "And when you add gravity to an otherwise uniform, homogeneous and therefore high entropy mix -- like the countless number of arrangements of design patterns -- it flip-flops to one of low entropy, high order. It's the clumping that produces an increase in entropy when a gravitational field is involved. If some subset of patterns were derived downward from a progenetor or generated upward from a set of bases patterns, there'd be a clumping, a congealing of matter due to the compressibility of information"

He paused thoughtfully, lowered his head, then continued, "Something else happened on that sphere." Once again he stared hard at the sphere, awe replaced by childlike fear in his eyes. "The whole insides, the crazy mixture of stalactites and stalagmites of every shape imaginable, the walls and angled spaces -- the rooms -- took on crystal appearances, they... seemed to melt like ice-sickles on a warm day, coming closer, closing in from all directions, then just as suddenly changed again to something I remembered -- it rang a bell -- I saw it. It made me laugh, for some reason."

"And now?"

Hands in pockets, suddenly appearing tired and drawn, he shook his head. "And now, it's like when you awake from a dream. Dreamtime through a prism of consciousness. Dream-sense disintegrated by rationality, forced through a sieve of what makes sense in the macro-by-the-rules world. Like the quantum world pushed through a filter to the classical."

The older man changed his seat to the couch where he could sprawl his lanky arms and legs. "I remember coming on site this afternoon, the first time. I must say, I was shocked, stunned. I've seen pictures, but, there's nothing like in person. I have to confess to expecting some damage. Abrasions, bruises, scratches from granite rocks and stones having scraped over them, more than once, I might add. The pressures and enormous weight of glacier action, churning and grinding. I expected to see indentations, gashes, washboard wear and tear. But,..., it's unbelievable, incredible. I mean, the surfaces are in excellent condition. They gleam with an appearance of newness. How can that be? After 600 million years?

"At the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago, great volcanic eruptions took place in this part of Siberia. The region was known as the Siberian Traps. It was what is called a flood basalt, the lava is ejected, seemingly much more sluggishly, from long fissures in the ground. The lava covered four million square kilometers of eastern Siberia to a depth of 400 to 3000 meters and went on for a million years, probably longer in spurts over millions more. The gases released: carbon dioxide and vast amounts of methane from the trillions of tons of coal beneath the surface is recognized as being responsible for the greatest of all extinction events. Ninety percent of all life in the sea and close to that on land ended or was seriously curtailed. We're talking whole families and genera. Some sea species that'd been around for 100's of millions of years -- trilobites, for instance -- vanished entirely at this time. The end Permian extinction. The temperature, the heat, the corrosive effect of the atmosphere.... Basalt forms between 1100 and 1200 degress centigrade, higher than the formation temp of granite."

Lost in wonderment, the older man stared into an unknown space somewhere between him and the sphere visible outside. In a soft voice filled with awe, he said, "And so much more it's gone through. How --? Anything manmade would have been crushed and ground to dust, or fried to a cinder. But these spheres,...., all of them, they're... impeccable, like they were built last week. And they shimmer! Where does this shimmering effect come from? Do you have any idea?"

Staring out the window from his perch on the edge of his seat, the younger man pondered. He glanced sideways at the older man reclined but tense with interest on the flower-upholstered couch. Squarely facing the sphere he had so recently visited, he breathed deeply, let it out regretfully, then said straightforward as hell, "It isn't really there."

Just as dryly, the older man asked, "Would you mind elaborating?"

"Think about what you just pointed out," he insisted. "Think about the fact that the surfaces of all the spheres are not much more than one centimeter thick -- one centimeter. Proportionately, thinner than an eggshell. Even taking into account the exotic structure of the atomic lattice, overlapping from all possible orientations, outside to inside. Even considering the fact that this material, whatever it is and however it was constructed, and by whom, is relating internally in ways that defy what we know about physics and has therefore rendered itself impregnable to any cutting technology we have, anything short of a blast that may, or may not, destroy it entirely, even considering all that as well as what you pointed out, the question remains, how could something that thin last that long under those stresses and extremes of physical torture and still be real, still be a product that obeys the normal mechanical laws of nature, of our universe? Granted, rearranging atoms and molecules, forcing them, with enough of the right energy, through a Brink whereby they behave collectively, brings on emergent and unpredictable properties, but still -- "

He went to get more tea. An unease and frustration rumbling just below the surface suddenly grew to discontent and annoyance, frazzling his calm demeanor. He placed his empty cup on the stovetop with a noticeable bang and eyed it suspiciously, expecting it to suddenly move or vanish or disintegrate into nothingness without warning. He didn't know if he could trust anything at the moment, to depend on any ordinary physical object to retain its substantiality, to maintain its existence -- to obey the rules.

He abruptly turned to the older man and said quite frankly, "It shimmers because it's perpetually in a state of quantum fluctuation, constantly emerging then falling back into a sea of quantum energy. The surface projects into our three dimensional space from somewhere within. When I was inside, I got the idea to turn the lights out, the ones we put in there, to see how everything looked by the intermittent lights of the design alone. The way light works: The appearance of every object in an environment depends on every other object, because light bounces around. That's always been a problem with video games and computer simulators. They can't reassemble quickly enough to account for shadows, reflections, indirect lighting and other effects. It takes too much memory and the algorithms are simply not fast enough. Rays of light really are independent. If done properly, simulated richochets of light rays look natural. But, no matter how sophisticated -- and I imagine we're up against the ultimate in sophistication -- it's still possible to tell whether a scene is real or only a projection, a make-believe facade.

"But, we never got to do that experiment, unfortunately. So, because it is, or I think it is, a projection, I believe the edifice is completely impervious and indifferent to the goings-on of its local environment. In a very real sense, it's indestructible; whatever it ultimately is exists in its own space and time."

The older man appeared to accept the lengthy explanation without blinking, as though he'd been anticipating something bizarre. But that last part he protested. "It may be impervious to the physical laws in its immediate environment in order to maintian its resolute facade, but, why is it going through the changes it has in the past few days? And that brings up another question. Why has it waited till now to do anything? Since its discovery last April it's been exposed to our presence and fumblings. So, it must be reacting to some recent event. We've committed an irretrievable act. We've triggered something. You don't poke a sleeping bear with a sharp stick is an old saying."

"Now wait a minute, wait a minute. Let's not get carried away here. We don't know for sure that its actions are a direct result of our interference and tampering. It could simply be going through certain processes that it normally would based on some internal schedule. Besides --" He broke off, faltering. He was trying to suppress what he knew in his heart and mind, but to no avail. "Okay," he finally said, weariness in his voice, "I agree. Something's been set in motion. What, I don't know."

"Really?" The older man had hoped differently despite his conjecture. But he knew how the younger one worked, how he thought, how he was able to somehow sense the background and connect the dots. If anyone could get outside the lines of common ordinary reasoning, it was he.

Resignedly, the younger man poured half a cup, then walked back to the window. "We humanize the universe; it's a human universe only, as far as we're concerened. Our minds and bodies are stamped by the Big Bang. They have evolved and adapted to our surroundings. We therefore give expression to the cosmic genes of the material world; breaking it up into cognizant chunks by our formal logic. Our ability to understand the way we do is an inheritance. And mathematics, as part of that inheritance, gives structure to this reality, shaped and blended and transformed to the cognitive mental space of our minds. And we are therefore limited. That's what I mean by humanize the universe. Being human not only makes us part and parcel with the world -- a product of the universe like an apple of a tree -- but it also constrains and delimits our experience of reality through the prism of our minds.

"And, from another point of view -- it strikes me as significant -- we can't dismiss or trivialize the role of contingency in all this."

"Here, here," said the older man, as though relieved of some burden.

"In spite of that, an alien race probably, most likely, would have a completely different way of reasoning about space and time, reality at large. What are the laws behind the appearances? We have to get past our lenses, our superimposed coordinate systems, our perceptual reality. Scientific reasearch is an act of perception. The physical laws are symmetric in time and space, our physical laws. They lay behind what we know of the world. We work our way back to find the mathematics of it, the set of relationships that describes what we perceive to be the governing processes. Symmetries with asymmetric proclivities. Invariant elements of the nonlinear field. We abstract these unchanging features from the environment to create mental maps. It's a jig-saw puzzle. When fitted together, they tell us how objects of reality appear to us through the lens of our logic structure, not how they are in reality."

He was rambling, free associating, hunting for clues and directions, looking for the door that would open onto clarity.

"Mathematics. The edifice is using existent physical laws to channel its manifestation. It is, after all, essentially mathematical. The other end of the cone of projection lies superposition. The edifice sees everything in states of superposition and therefore it can exist in this matrix. We don't know how the edifice is really connected. Mathematics is immaterial reality. The edifice is mathematical. No! It's mathematics itself. It understands that way. It creates, or tries to create, representations of the true nature of the mathematical reality underlying our world -- a realm of non-spatial, non-mental, timeless entities. Its materiality acts as in a pre-Higgs field situation -- all particles and forces are massless. What we see is an illusion -- a holographic projection -- as everything is massless. The surface is therefore a good rendition of substance, only constructed using rules which defy our reasoning, our understanding. Photons and mesons are mixtures of matter and anti-matter. A particle of light, for example, can be thought of as an electron and an anti-electron working together.

"It's not so far fetched as it may sound, and, I can't take credit for it. An off-shoot of string theory speculates that our universe in its entirety is a holographic projection. A boundary of particles producing, through appropriate transformations, a higher-dimensional reality. We can cut holes in the sphere, send pieces to Labs around the world to investigate, and the projected material, the substance of it, will not and has not suddenly vanished into the quantum space that surrounds us. The projection capability must, therefore, be distributed throughout, as one would expect with a holospace of this exotic nature. Or, another way of looking at it: whatever fields or collections of interlocking fields the edifice is radiatiing impinge on our minds, our brains, they create the sensory impression of materiality, of physical substance occupying space and time.

"It obviously has more components underlying it than what we're used to. Holograms we create lack substance; they consist of illusory images only, like the ghosts of the Haunted House. But with the spheres, we not only can't put our hands through them, we can't even cut through right now, the center one at least. The rest will change too, sooner or later. Probably sooner, I would think.

"Now suppose, just suppose, that the designs as a collective system are entangled. At a certain point, when enough energy infuses a system, entrainment, mode locking sets in -- the designs will then become synchronized, like fireflies in a field. Once generated, it would be impossible to separate the state vector into its constituent parts except by invoking an indeterministic collapse."

He stared hard, almost menacingly, at the sphere. Face twisting in concentration and intensity, he finally blurted, "That's it! Several orders of symmetry are nested in the map. Weingard's digital scanning camera. In order to precisely calibrate distance and refraction, first fires a laser beam at the object and times the reflection, the way we calibrate the precise distance to the moon. He was planning on all nine firing simultaneously. Perhaps,..., perhaps the collective effect, impinging on the entire surface, all 360 degrees of it, would have prematurely triggered a cascade towards a quantum definition.

"Or, equally likely, his experiment might have cut off the lines of communication. It felt threatened or perceived itself to be so, or,..., knew itself to be so. Whatever. Up until then only ordinary diffused light had been used. In concert, the lasers could have acted like a reference beam revealing a scattered beam of interference patterns -- revealing an image. To reveal is to activate prematurely. Before the edifice is ready. Perhaps it, I almost said he, did us a favor the magnitude of which we cannot possibly imagine.

"In living as well as non-living composites, information is stored in terms of the geometrical arrangement of parts. Proteins. A distributed holgraphic system. All the designs taken together build up a series of overlapping holographic patches, like a quilt, a quantum quilt."

He smiled at that. His eyes glistened. The older man sat back in rapt and still attention.

"Cells in the visual cortex respond not to patterns themselves, but to the Fourier components of patterns, the sines and cosines. Within each part lies the awareness of the whole. How else would each part know what to do to bring about the whole? Unconnected, their oscillations may fluctuate out of sync, but they will begin to beat in unison if they couple together."

Forefinger pressing tightly under upper lip, he spoke as though merely repeating what he was listening to: "By absorbing the entropy from our universe, it regains its inital wavefunction intact. Which would include the morphogentic field. It's turning back time in some context. Amplification of a singularity leads to a collapse of the wavefunction -- an irreversible act. But towards what end?"

The older man had forgotten his pipe hanging loosely in his hand. He interjected, "You say our universe. Does that mean you still think it may come from another universe?"

Absently gazing at the rug, the younger man said slowly but with determination, "Maybe not a completely different universe, but, it could be from a domain so distant and strange... a domain with a very different geometry. Far out in the cosmos, beyond the bounds of our observable universe, space may possess a different number of dimensions. Because the structure of the elementary particles and force fields depends sensitively, almost too sensitively, on the geometric arrangement of the compactified dimensions, these forces would differ dramatically from one domain to the other.

"Plus, throw in problems like wave motion and electron orbits. Electrons have no stable orbits in spaces with greater than three dimensions. No stable orbits, no chemistry, no life. The rules governing the very existence of particles of both force and matter turn out to be intimately dependent and related to the fact that our sector of the universe, if not the whole thing, has three dimensions of space and one of time. There is a deep connection, in other words, between the fundamental laws of physics and the overall topology of the universe. Different geometries, different particle masses, different interaction strengths, different fundamental constants.

"We're not seeing it as it really is, in other words, we're seeing it in terms of our space based on our science, imposing our mental pictures of how we understand reality, the nature of things. Between the perceived world and the real world lies a gulf, a breech. Just as we're about to apprehend our surroundings or an idea, it transmogrifies into a mental image or an understanding. A leap is made, a discontinuous leap -- a leap of faith. In the act of perception, one pattern superposed amongst many, or intermingled amongst many, spontaneously emerges, forms and reveals itself, based on the invariant features we, personally, are familiar with and more or less anticipate seeing, or want to see, our predilections. We have a general pattern in front of us, but by emphasizing certain preferential connections and associations, and dampening or treating as irrelelvant others, we reinforce our preconceived notions, our prejudices.

"Occasionaly, however, we're able to see the entire layercake, from bottom to top, all at once, in a flash of insight or intuition. Directly engaging the outer realm on an emotional and unconscious level, we pass through the screen of time on a higher frequency, a different mode. I once read: all deep structures or internal substrate levels are archetypal when apprehended collectively. I don't know where I read that, but, I've always remembered it.

"Perception is a very subjective endeavor, of course, wholly subjective. Consciousness acts as a buffer and modulator. It filters the incoming raw material into nice neat symbols and images and ideas. Maybe not so neat and precise, but, nonetheless, it generates a whole from the perceivable parts. Conditioned by culture, education, experience and native intelligence and common sense. In time and place. We can't exactly step outside our minds; but we can sure as hell question accepted assumptions and dispositions, as well as our own parochial worldviews. It's important, I'm sure you'll agree, especially for a scientist, to have a healthy dose of skepticism in your toolbox. That and a growing self-awareness."

The older man redirected talk, the role he accepted and was rather familiar with. He asked, "Something you said about the surfaces rang a bell; I heard it again this afternoon at Pengrove's suite. What was it now? Oh yes. You said, quantum fluctuations constantly emerging then falling back in on themselves, back into the sea of quantum energy. Welmar, the mathematician. A brilliant man, doesn't suffer fools lightly. He was talking about the designs themselves. I believe he said a series of pattern changes would grow to the highest level as they propagate to the outer edge, then collapse onto itself, only to renew, but with a different orientation. I don't know how I remember that. Something my daughter must have said also."

"Yea, well, that's what I believe those designs represent: quantum field fluctuations. We tend to think of quantum fluctuations in terms of separate, individual virtual particle-anti-particle pairs exploding onto the scene, then annihialting one another and falling back into the quantum sea in less than Planck time. But suppose instead they emerged in patterns, assemblages we don't have the tools to see. Analogously, each light of the designs could be a property of some particle-pair, forming configurations with others, patterns we've determined and catalogued in tetrabytes of computer graphics and mountains of print-outs, and then falling back into,..., what? The center sphere? The small suspended one in the middle of a vacuum of its own devising?"

He paced around the table once, coming to a stop in front of the window to confront and wonder at the sphere outside, not a hundred feet away. "When I was an undergraduate I had a dream of floating above the vacuum of interstellar space, a vast void of emptiness. I could see stars and galaxies far away in all directions, spinnning and cartwheeling slowly, majestically. I could see the fluctuations of particle-pairs sparkling below and around me, below having no real meaning, of course. They sparkled at random at first, then I began to notice patterns, here and there, breaking up into fragments, then coming together to form much more complex, interwoven designs. Like a kaleidoscope. When I awoke I wrote down what I could remember, didn't want to lose it like we ususally do.

"Suppose now, use your imagination, we had the capacity to be able to observe immense regions of space all at once, volumes of so-called empty space, alive with latent energy as it is. And in the process, we determined patterns that grew and overlapped and interfered with one another on out across the entire cosmos, or at least our local observable domain. After all, quantum fluctuations generate quantum space, which in turn creates gravity through ceaseless virtual interactions of the so-called vacuum. Would that help to explain the humongous structures we see? Walls and sheets of galaxies and clusters of galaxies arranged like tendrils and filaments, with equally vast regions of empty space between? Like waves rippling out to the distant horizon -- gravity waves. The matter we know, the five percent of the known universe we're made of, being the foam on the crests?"

He quietly spun the glass ashtray lying on the table, looking distant and a little sad. "Fitz told me about the gases getting out of the tanks. He wanted to know if I had any ideas as to how. Remember our talk this morning? Seems a million years ago now. You called them occupants. Well, when I was in that sphere, I heard a note, a sound, clear and deep and resonating through the whole ship; the whole ship vibrated with it. The gases, they had some relationship with the sound, I'm sure. They sparkled and scintillated, changed from transparent to translucent to iridescent and back again. The motion was quick but not jerky -- smooth. They were beginning to take on density or a thickening. It was localized, individuals were showing themselves. They looked like giant puzzle pieces or cookie cut-outs -- gingerbread men -- heads and faces; though, in all honesty, I may have to attribute that to the strain of the moment -- creatures in the clouds. But nonetheless, I'd be willing to bet they had something to do with the sound I heard. I wouldn't say they caused it, but, they did something to affect it, I don't know. Do you --"

Before he could finish, the door flew open. "Dad, Hans. Hope you don't mind me barging in like this." She obviously didn't by the look of her.

"All that money wasted on charm school," drolled the professor, peering over his glasses. Rocky swung the door closed. "Hans, I heard what happened." She eyed him from head to toe. "You're in one piece it looks like, thank goodness. Are you all right, I mean mentally etcetera?" She moved to the window-side of the table and placed her laptop and small bag in front of her as she sat down. Both men stared in appreciative wonder and amusement; thankful for the arrival of her down-to-earth energy. Unperturbed by this lack of response, she went on, "I had a hell of a time getting in here. It's like a war zone out there." She opened and turned on her computer and removed a handfull of discs wrapped in a rubber band from the canvas bag.

She glanced at the two men; they said nothing. "Okay, I interrupted something. Go on, then. Go on with what you were talking about. Just pretend I'm not here. I have stuff to tell you, but it can wait, but not for long." She busied herself examining discs, waiting.

"I'll bet you have an idea how the gases got out of their containment tanks," Samuelson asked, "And possibly a guess as to when, if not why."

Still watching Rocky go about her perusal of discs, stacking them in separate piles, mumbling softly to herself, Hans sipped cold tea, then said off-handedly, "Bose-Einstein condensate. If not that then something very similar." He sipped again, still watching Rocky, a smile engraved on his otherwise serious face.

"A what?" asked the professor, doing his best to ignore his daughter, knowing all too well the games of attention she played.

"In a superconducting state, spin-paired electrons having no net spin essentially form a boson -- a force particle. Collectively these pairs of electrons can condense into a single quantum state. The result can be a macroscopic number of overlapping electrons moving through a metal lattice with their individual wavefunctions locked in phase -- like a laser. A Bose-Einstein condensate acts as a gas of atoms with even-numbered spin."

Busy stuffing his pipe, the Professor replied, "Would you mind translating that into english?"

"Like fish swimming through a kelp bed. The metals with their free electrons, water with its H-2-O molecules bouncing around, any physical barrier the gases encounter, to them it would be like there was nothing there. No barriers, in other words. And as far as when goes. Who can say. Since their incarceration, they could've been coming and going as they please."

"You said a superconducting state. Doesn't that imply, or isn't it necessary for the material to be supercold, almost absolute zero? And what of the valves and alarms? We're talkin' purposeful action, intended to deceive -- very humanish, if you ask me."

Hans strolled around to peer over Rocky's shoulder at the slideshow on the screen. He couldn't help but smell the sea in her long, curly red hair. It overwhlemed him momentarily. He wished they were elsewhere, far away on a warm, sunny beach, idling their time, sipping wine. He forced his mind to refocus on the task at hand, chagrin coloring his mood.

Rocky's screen displayed multiple rows of images arranged horizontally by what appeared to be sequences in time, and vertically by similarity in appearance, as far as he could tell. "I have no answers for either of those questions, Professor. Look at the wierd configurations of the surfaces and the window-membranes separating the chambers from the interior of the central sphere. How did it accomplish that, and, what in fact did it do? Stacking layers of perfectly ordered lattices of atoms on top of one another in varying orientations, completely blocking and filling all space. Any two adjacent atoms dovetail mirror-image properties together in groups of four. In fact,..., that may be the role, or function, of the mysterious third nucleon. They're not joined by bonding electrons as in your basic chemical situation. No, these are whole atoms in a state of macro-superposition. Which means there must be something more comprehensive, some force capable of holding and compacting -- forcing together -- artificial molecules against the repelling forces. To the point where there is no open spaces in the matrix. A mixture of particular wavefunctions nested within others. How is that possible? I don't know.

"Like I said, it's an illusion, not real, yet, it behaves real, reacts real. In fact, it behaves and looks too real, as though it was above the messy nuances and idosyncrasies that go with maintaining a nonlinear universe. And as far as the alarms and the pressure gauges go; again -- I have not a clue." He stared at the blank wall above the stove and gestured. "There was a plaque or handmade sign or something -- I forget the frame -- but hanging above the blackboard in my high school biology class was a sign that read: problem -- probe -- learn -- adjust -- solution -- adaption to new circumstances. Maybe that pretty much sums it up."

"That'd sum up a lot of things," the professor added, "in fact, if we --"

"Okay. Enough. I had my cell phone confiscated by Bull's commandos and an intense briefing by Fitzsimmons. He suggested there's more only the inner circle know, we'll find out at the meeting. I stopped for a quick bite at the lunch bucket -- I was famished -- and Pengrove pulled me into a small conference he was having out in the living room. The techs are setting up overhangs, and security has completely encircled the mother ship and all the satellites. That's two phalanxes of guards I had to get through. A lot of sh-- stuff is happening and it's just getting crazier."

Stopping to catch her breath, tightening her jaw, she shook herself imperceptibly, sloughing imaginary skin. Regaining composure, she said, "I have some slides to show you Hans, so I hope you're not too exhausted from your experience."

Gazing into her wide, hazel eyes, he responded, "No, by no means. In fact, I feel more alert and focused than I have in years. I'm not sure why; but I'm running with it. By the way, how's Turbo, you seen him? When I left this morning he was in his bag on the floor. Musta had a rough one. He does that sometimes."

"He's O.K. I went over to your place for lunch but, you were busy being sucked into a vortex on P-5. Turbo and I spent the afternoon walking and talking. When I left he said he was going to make breakfast. He was fried around the edges so I imagine he's crashed. He had a hell of a time last night on that boat, Christ Is My Saviour, I think he called it. Some weird crap happened that shook him pretty bad. So I hung out. We talked."

Astonished, eyebrows raised about as far as he could get them, Hans said, "Shook? Turbo? Let me use your phone."

"They took it I told ya'. They took everybody's." She could see that Hans was genuinely bothered by the news. Not that he was worried, but rather that he was incredulous. "He'll be all right," she soothed. "Let's have dinner at your place tonight, the four of us. We need to regroup. I'll cook this time."

"Ohhh," her father moaned, shaking his head woefully.

"Be quiet, you. I'm a good cook. Good enough for these guys, and you. They live on spaghetti, canned beans and steak and eggs."

"What's wrong with that?" Hans pleaded. "Steak is a good thing; and I love spaghetti, so does Turbo. Who doesn't love spaghetti?"

She could only grimace. "I'm making something completely different tonight. You'll love it, maybe even more than spaghetti."

Samuelson gave Hans the hairy-eyeball, then directed his attention to the safety of his pipe. "What are these slides you want to show, Rose Marie?" he asked, "Let's continue, please." He got up from the comfort of the couch to stand next to Hans. He had no idea what he was looking at except that the images on the screen were of the designs in the spheres. They appeared all the same to him, but his daughter could somehow distinguish every detail, or so it seemed. Because of the size of the screen, only six pictures could be displayed in a row, for a total of five rows -- a five by six array of design images.

"What sphere are we looking at?" Hans wanted to know, anxious at the thought of it being P-5.

Changing to the professional mathematician, she said, "This is from," she glanced at the label on the case, "P-7. We just got these back from NASA, Ames Research Center. Very fast, those guys. They have the best image resolution and enhancement software in the world. We're using the latest video equipment, 250,000 stills per second. Yet, these patterns are pushing that envelope. They're blinking just a tad longer than one-two hundred and fifty thousandths of a second. One more leap, and they go continuous, a single design pattern."

"A macro superpostion," mused Hans.

"Each frame with its millions of lights lasts for less than nanoseconds," remarked Rocky, "yet the pictures are as crisp and sharp as..." Motioning with her hand toward the screen, she said, "Across you see six design patterns. The set represents part of a sequence of twenty-six. This is the anomaly which only began to appear after the designs increased in speed last sunday or monday. Prior to that, countless zillions of video miles have produced nothing but complete randomness, no repetition, no periodicity, no logical sequencing, no order, no meaning. What we got back this time, however, is a series of twenty-six fully-developed patterns in a row accompanied by a gradual shift in orientation. Each individual picture is a still or snapshot of an outward expansion caught somewhere near the middle -- in mid-rippling, as it were. We did this for purposes of averaging."

"What Welmar refers to as the growth to the edge and then the collapse," interjected Samuelson, "only to begin again but with a new orientation?"

"Yea," replied Rocky, "but then it was random, now, we have this order and periodicity. For twenty-six events in a row, we have a definite sequence based on the repetition of factor group arrangements."

"What happens in between," asked Hans, "is there an in-between."

"What happens in between is total randomness, no sequencing that makes sense. Like the so-called junk DNA of a genome." She turned slightly to address them in her typical frontal fashion. "Although it's been coming to light lately that the junk in our genes ain't all that meaningless and junky. It's more like a library or archive where a functioning gene will go to retrieve a string it can paste in or incorporate in some way. Splicing and dicing. One gene can produce many proteins. I don't think we've yet scratched the surface. Our arrogance at the beginning, excuse me, hastily labelling all those nucleotides as needless, discarded garbage. That never sounded right, you know."

She pointed to an image in the center of the screen. "See here, small as it is -- I have poster-size blow-ups of some of these -- but, I think it's good enough to tell. Here, and again here, you can see groups and subsets of groups -- factors -- proceeding outward, increasing in detail and transforming, fanning out, into similar group structures -- homomorphic images -- on out to the boundary where they jam up towards a countably infinite number of touch points. If we're talking simplicial complex, what we're seeing is the direction of refinement -- more and more vertices joining up as we head to the boundary. Events, we've been calling them. Otherwise known as Welmar unfolding-collapse sequences. The colors vary."

She looked off into space. "That's one thing I had to get over -- putting too much emphasis on the color differences. It may or may not have meaning, but, it isn't necessary as far as analyzing pattern and movement. I can't even guess at their significance; it'll have to wait until we've sifted through the mass of spectral returns."

"If we have the time," murmured Hans, as he leaned over Rocky's shoulder to see the row on the bottom. "Is there a connection otherwise with these pictures?"

"Well, if that's the case, let me go on with my presentation then, if you don't mind?" Nobody did, of course. "What's intriguing about these twenty-six, as I just mentioned, is that after that number we get into a long stream of randomness, no rhymes, no reasons. The ordered twenty-six are a tiny percentage of what otherwise are random, individual events, varying indeterminedly; that is, we can't find any order in the numbers separating our nice, cyclic sets of twenty-six. There are geometric curiosities as to how any given sequence transforms, of course, and if you'll examine the vertical arrangment --"

"What about these, Rocky?" Hans interjected, gesturing towards two pictures on different rows near the center. "Are these identical except for colors, or have I gone past the saturation point already?"

"I just got these this morning so I haven't had a whole lot of time to study them yet." She enlarged the two images, juxtaposed them, and then pulled a folder containing the accompanying report from her bag. After scanning the directory for the page having that info and finding it, she read, "'Eighty percent of pairs of sequences reveal the possibility of innerconnections between rows, possibly attributable to the fact of curvature, given where they show up.'

"'The twelfth picture in a set compares remarkably to a congruence, if not a precise equivalence, with the thirteenth of the next row or sequence, except for color differences.'" After quickly reading the remainder of the material to herself, she summarized, gesturing towards the screen: "These two designs are not exactly identical, but close with respect to the most important features. If you look here, for instance, this group of patterns on twelve of row three matches this group on thirteen of row four. Spread out over the entire surface are factor groups nested within factor groups, embedded, separated by incoherent transitional zones. It looks something like the inners of a biological cell with its thousands of specialized sub-units, each having a specific function. It's modularized, in other words."

"Or like fireflies from the point of view of a high cliff, looking down on a grassland," mused Hans.

"What's that, Hans?" She asked.

"Oh, just a memory from my youth, first time on a camping trip out in the wilds."

Rocky leaned back in her chair and studied the images on the screen. "What's interesting,..., is that,..., what's interesting is that these rows begin with a completely, well, not all that completely, I suppose, but sufficiently different orientation and topology, and end the same way, and yet,..., right smack in the middle we have two that are practically the same. It certainly does point to some kind of inner connection."

"Did they say anything about the why of it? I mean, are we looking at pairs of curves, trajectories intersecting and generating two-D planes? Or, is it more like a merging, a phase agreement? Wave components coming together and then phasing out to massive interference? That would explain the long strips of random sequences."

He walked away, searching for the cup he knew was somewhere. "It's too exasperating, that tiny screen." Gesturing to the skies, "I need to see foot-square blow-ups, all twenty-six, taped to a wall, row after row as far as we could go so we could see pattern arrangements across entire sets. Then we might be able to --"

Rocky had thumbed through the report, pulled a page and interrupted, "They already did that, kind of. They compared a sampling of a thousand series looking for any and all relationships or similarities. Beginning at about image five or six, ending around twenty, twenty-one, they found close equivalences among factor groups of invariant properties. They consider features that hold the whole thing together invariant. These carry over into homomorphic images, on a local level, of course, given the complexity. Now this didn't occur on every row; some were unique or strikingly singular."

Hans plopped down on the couch, grousing; the professor returned to his chair and said with mild satisfaction, "Rose Marie, the cell metaphor you used has a nice ring to it. It definitely points towards the organic."

"Yes," she said, "we have a few models going at the moment: there's the optical neural network crowd; the genome and genetic expression group -- the patterns being governed by cybernetic regulatory circuits; and the metabolic pathways development gang -- the cell people; they overlap in places with the gene people.

"Certain ideas are common to all of them. For instance: the designs behave as a nonlinear complex system and they're self-organizing. This means there may be equilibrium points scattered throughout. The edifice taken as a whole, or in its entirety, is operating as a single unit, that is to say, it's integrated functionally; and the network of designs must be distributed in a parallel fashion. If we could find out how it behaves, put our finger on it, ..." She drifted off, looking almost sad. Her father coughed. A cough she'd heard before, many times. It had the desired effect. She picked up where she'd left off.

"For the neural-net-ites we can even add to the pot the way neurons themselves emerge from the center of the brain and then migrate out to their proper position. And here's another one that was thrown out the other night by Andrei that runs along similar lines: A design's progression and activity, from center to outer edge, looks like something boiling from within. That same kind of turbulence with attractor order. Assuming that's the case, the question then becomes: What is the source of the convection currents? And what is their nature?" She paused while they absorbed the image, then went on. "Whatever it's doing, it certainly --"

"You said singular?" Hans trumped. "Sounds like an envelope, multi-dimensional, no doubt, of a family of curves, or in this case, surfaces. Points to control. What about the first four spheres? Have their patterns been analyzed in this batch; what role do they play in the overall scheme of things?"

She faced him, hands on knees. "Random nothing; maximum entropy. They didn't increase frequency when the others did, you know that. There's been no change in their behaviour at all. It's as though they were completely disconnected from the rest of the edifice. Reminds me, another factoid about neural newtorks: If some neurons malfunction, the overall function of the network is not affected."

Hans spoke, once again sounding as though he were merely repeating what he was listening to. "When they come online -- whatever that may mean -- I'll wager my next year's salary that we'll see a near perfect match, or mapping, between vertically adjacent images. Plus, the frequency, and hence the energy, will leap another quanta beyond Planck time, generating a superposition of twenty-six dimensions."

Silence followed. "The atmospheres," whispered the professor. "When they return --"

"Return?" queried Hans, strangely annoyed at the thought. "You're still convinced they're organic, aren't you? Intelligent, willful?"

"Always have, Hans. Since the beginning; before arriving, in fact. Why? I'm not sure."

Rocky raised her hand.

"Need to go to the bathroom, young lady?" the professor jibed, looking grave.

"Would you like to hear what I think the edifice is, the whole enchilada, not just any parts thereof?"

Samuelson's pipe-hand paused in mid-ascent; Hans turned to face her, both hands clasped on one knee. They both gave her their undivided attention. Enunciating every word for effect, she said, "It's a nonlinear, self-organizing, positive amplification and negative feedback regulated, control mechanism, balanced, or attempting to balance -- working towards it -- between stability and instability along the edge of chaos." She smiled, took her first sip of tea, then finished with, "It's a nonlinear control relay."

"Sounds, crudely, like an operational definition for Life," said the professor quietly, almost to himself. Hans didn't argue.

"And if that's the case," she went on, "the harmonic oscillations will drift in frequency unless a correction signal is applied to the oscillator, keeping it in the same phase and frequency as the target signal. It's looping between the designs and the hovering sphere. I'll bet that's the central control mechanism, that's the modulator, the regulator. Not having those first four operating properly; it may be fortunate for us, not knowing what will happen when it achieves full development and stability."

Tap, tap, tap. They stared at the door as though unsure what to do. "Meeting's in five," came a squeeky voice, followed immediately by receding footfalls.

"What's this going to be, Rocky? He's your boss. Are we looking at a pep-talk or hard facts?" Hans said, academic cynicism oozing out in spite of himself.

"Considering what's been going on," she replied soberly, "I'd say a mixture, mostly hard facts though." She closed the lid on her computer, stuffing the discs back in the bag. "At the end he asks for questions and discussion." She stood to leave.

Hans looked like he wanted to spit and only needed where. "I have a question," he blurted, frustration charging his tone. He went over to the window and stared menacingly at P-5. "What does it tell us when these everchanging, infinitesimal, intricate designs come to a stop?" Head down, he paced around Rocky, then back to the window. "Forget trying to unravel the infinite number of sub-network relationships. Forget eigenstates, neurons, simplicial complexes, factor groups, genomes, cells, whatever. Forget all that stuff!" He turned to face them standing by the open doorway. "What happens when it finally lands on the configuration it's moving towards or searching for,..., what happens when the kaleidoscope makes its last twist,..., and stops?"

He got no answer, of course. Didn't expect one.

They proceeded down the hallway to a convention of some of the brightest minds in science, bubbles of conversation percolating up and over the room.

Doctor Fitzsimmons, Co-Chair, along with Doctor Weingard, and organizer of the Puzzle Masters group, was sitting at the oval breakfast table in the elevated kitchen area. Hans surmised that he must generally speak from there, using it as a dais. A few others sat around the dishevelled table, paperwork and print-outs strewn about. He recognized Doctors Tolstoy, the Head Administrator, Weingard, Jennings, Golgachev, the paleohistorian, and a few geologists whose names he could't remember. Others milled about from downstairs to up, almost bouncing. They spoke to one another crisply and with brevity, pointing at diagrams, circling words and phrases with ready pens.

The living area was full. Metal folding chairs had been brought in, but except for a few, were leaning against the back wall, people preferring to stand, talking in groups and pairs. Hans easily spotted the tall Marty Bowman surrounded by several casually dressed and bespeckled scientists. He looked disengaged and distracted, allowing the talk to wash over him. Hans approached but before he got there Marty turned and gave him his trademark smile. "Hans, you old salt," he bellowed above the din while taking his hand to shake. "You're looking a hell of a lot less rubbery. You were a little delirious, had me worried, babbling incoherently, as the doctors say. Do you remember much?"

Hans shook his head and shrugged. "I don't know what I remember, Marty; I don't know what I forgot. Except for one thing, which, unfortunately, I can't remember."

Marty closed one eye, peered down and asked quietly, "How many of those little pink pills did you take, ole buddy? Two or three ought to be enough." Marty smiled and gave Hans a jarring slap on the back. Accidentally, of course.

"Do you recall if I did, in fact, jabber something strange or non-sequitur before or after exiting the sphere or consciousness? It might be helpful, you know, about now -- the sooner the better -- to understand just what we're up against. I do remember seeing something familiar right at the end, something from long ago, but..."

Marty gave him a concerned look, growing serious for the moment. "It'll come to you," he assured, "we didn't start taping your talk to Fitz in the infirmary until after the doctors were certain you'd be okay. So we might've missed something important. I can get my hands on the disc, though; we'll check it out. I do recall you saying that you understood, but needed to talk to Professor Samuelson first. You neglected to say what that was, however. Right afterwards, you went under, sedation."

Hans nodded and changed the subject. "What's the excitement with the PR people? They're running back and forth like chickens?"

"News reports from around the world. Strange, unexplainable events have been happening. In some cases, a couple of months ago. You would think we would've heard about at least some of them, but they've been going on in such out-of-the-way places that the radar didn't pick them up. Not as significant anomolies anyway. I mean, you know how pods of whales or porpoises suddenly 'll turn up on a beach somehwere, inexplicably? Or they'll find a dead zone in the mid-Pacific -- no explanation. Or some bird or mammal long thought extinct will be spotted in his old area, in spite of the flora having changed dramatically? We tend to take these events in stride. But, lately, they've begun to mount up and not be all that easy to take in stride. They've been downright bizarre. So, Fitz has his PR team collecting and cross-referencing, trying to make sense and see if there's any possible connection with the edifice."

He paused and put a finger against his nose. "I'll tell ya' what, though. If we wake up one morning soon and the earth is covered with ice -- " He nodded deeply, eyes wide and telling.

"Gimme a for-instance," Hans asked as he lifted a cup of coffee from a nearby tray.

"Okay, furcrabs discovered off Easter Island; been extinct for 50 million years, now they're back. And my personal favorite -- trilobites -- found off Madagascar, millions of them. Starfish and sea urchins are mostly gone from that area. Or, try this one: the Great Barrier Reef, northeast Australia. For several hundred kilometers, all the modern versions of molluscs, you know -- snails, bivalves, gastropods, squids, octopuses -- have all vanished along with modern coral, and been replaced by types from the Cambrian to the Silurian periods. Such things as ammonite species from as far back as 400 million years, species from the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, and from the Devonian to the Triassic, have been showing up, feasting on crustaceans and small fishes. Ammonoids went extinct about the K-T boundary. But now, they're back too, in profusion. From what the marine biologists on site have been able to tell, the entire reef in that zone has been transformed by classes, genera and species from hundreds of millions of years ago and, surprisingly, they're flourishing quite well in spite of competition and what has to be a completely novel atmosphere and ocean composition. They're robust and vigorous, in fact. The chemistry of the earth -- air and water -- is different now, of course, from when they first appeared, yet..." He drifted off. Maybe to where he'd been when Hans first spotted him.

"Can T-Rexes be far behind?" muttered Hans to himself.

Doctor Fitzsimmons stood to face the group of scientists and handful of laypeople. He held a sheet of paper, and looked nervous, uncharacteristically so. But, he gathered himself together, and as he spoke, the throng grew silent. "The events of the past few days have been greatly disturbing, to say the least." He paused, saw Hans, smiled and nodded towards him, then went on. "What we know of the world, how it works, what it's made of -- its physical laws -- directly depends on the questions asked. They channel and guide our inquiry, our study, our investigation, our experiments, and the results of these help to shape further questions. This applies equally well to the extensions of that research, whatever tools and instruments we may devise to aid us on our way. The telescope, the microscope, the computer. If we ask questions with an optical microscope we will not see and therefore will not get the answers we would using an electron microscope. So, confronted with the problem of the edifice, a structure with a dynamic nature -- as we're finding out -- and of alien origin, the problem is one of what questions, precisely, should and need to be asked, and what instruments need to be invented, if even possible, to help us in that endeavor?"

He turned to take a drink of water, then continued, "Something right in front of us we won't see or notice without the right lens and without the proper perception, without the proper point of view. We've had to rid ourselves of any and all relevant predispositions and assumptions. Not all, however; we have to trust our own physical laws, we need them as a benchmark and a reference, but, we have only just begun our questioning, our invesitgation into what no doubt is the greatest discovery and mystery the world has ever known.

"As you may be aware, a rather extreme event occurred today. As Doctor Weingard and his team were in the process of setting up an experiment, the windows that encase the alcoves or balconies separating the exterior spheres from the main, central one turned opaque, essentially sealing the inner sphere from observation on all frequencies. Now, as you may not know," the good Doctor's voice took on a more conspiratorial tone, "General Mynsky has threatened to close down the site, evict all, and surround it with a squadron or whatever of Russian soldiers if anything untowards or even remotely threatening happens again. By again I refer to the event of early this morning, the gases or atmospheres managed, somehow, to escape their containment tanks. I don't have to tell you, gentlemen and ladies, how absolutely imperative it is that we continue our investigation. We cannot simply walk away. We cannot forego our responsibilities to the people of the Earth, not to mention science itself. We have inadvertently triggered a reaction in the past few days; we've set something in motion, I'm convinced, the consequences of which are completely unknown and unknowable at this time."

A murmur reverberated through the room. Fitzsimmons turned his attention to a small group of men near the front, sitting around the center table. "Fortunately, our colleagues from the Russian Academy of Science, and in particular Doctor Poincare of Steklov Institute of Mathematics, have promised, that is, they've given their word, not to report the events of today to either General Mynsky or the academy in Moscow. They agree that we cannot walk away and rebury the edifice in the hope that whatever is currently going on with it will magically go away or prove innocent. We can't take that chance. And so, we need to reorient our directions of investigation. We need to put aside, for the time being at least, pursuits of a purely academic and scientific nature, and concentrate instead on trying to discover what we have accidentally initiated."

He retrieved a small piece of paper from his inside coat pocket, unfolded it and said, "To that end, I have put together a brief and simply-stated list of five questions. Gentlemen, and ladies, our inquiry from now on must focus on these five. If anyone has additional questions he believes pertinent or important that he feels should be added, please let us know."

He took another sip of water, then went on, "Question number one: What is it? It, of course, refers to the edifice. Question two: Why is it here? Three: How does it work? Four: What is its purpose? And five: How do we pull its plug if we deem it necessary?" He folded the paper back into his pocket with the briefest of smirks on his face. "I think you'll agree they couldn't be couched in a more minimalisitc way, yet, they are all difficult if not impossible to answer at the present time. But, glancing around the room at the representatives of the scientific community here assembled," he nodded especially to Pengrove, Noble and Welmar, "and considering the many others off-site who are devoting their time and energy to this endeavor, to this inquiry, I sincerely believe that --"

The door burst open. The chief engineer and two of his assistants hurried in, a look of embarrassment and awe rapidly crossing their faces, stopping them in their tracks. Doctor Fitzsimmons, quick to assess urgency when he sees it, stepped down to greet them. "What is it, chief." Aware of how easily the young man was intimidated, he always tried to assure him through a kind of paternal respect. The engineer looked his way, then at the crowd of scientists, uncertainty creasing his brow. "It's okay, young man. Please, what is it? You wouldn't be interrupting otherwise, I know."

Swallowing hard, the engineer spoke directly to Fitzsimmons. "Sir, we have a problem." The crowd once again went abuzz, but not with information -- they had none -- with anxiety. "Something major has occurred on sphere number P-5." When Hans heard the number, he approached, in spite of himself. He felt a strange affinity, if one could call it that, for this particular sphere.

Fitzsimmons remained perfectly calm, a teacher trying to persuade a student to open up. "Go on, chief," he said, "please. Would you like some water, perhaps?"

"No, no, thank you, I'm fine, I'll be all right." A chair was offered and he took it.

Removing his helmet, he said, "We had a problem on P-5. Our video and scanning equipment suddenly went blank, stopped running." He sipped water from the nearest cup. "I sent two men to find out what was wrong. To fix it." He paused, eyes glazing over momentarily. "Fifteen minutes ago, we lost contact with them, radio contact I mean. We thought because of what happened to the central sphere, when its surface changed -- blocking all electromagnetic frequencies -- that the same thing happened to P-5. But that's not it. Not entirely. I sent two more men to investigate, these two, sir." He motioned towards the men who came in with him. "Somehow,..., the opening sealed itself, cutting all wires and cables going in. Wires and cables attached to reading equipment."

The engineer leaned forward. "My men are trapped inside, sir. We tried cutting another hole but, nothing. It dampens radio frequencies as well. We checked the other spheres -- same thing. All nine spheres are sealed tighter than a drum, as tight as the center one." He put his hands over his eyes. That was it.

Doctor Fitzsimmons lost his usual demeanor. "They're trapped!" he said, incredulous, voice rising. "I ordered all spheres evacuated until further notice. All work halted. Until we can figure out what the hell's going on. Why did you go against my orders!?"

The chief said nothing. Nothing to say; it'd been a routine operation. He'd requested volunteers; the men volunteered. No one suspected anything dangerous might happen.

Fitzsimmons strode to the kitchen area rubbing one large hand over his balding scalp. He turned sharply. "Okay, what can we do? How much air do they have? Chief? How much air?"

"One hour, I think. Full tanks, one hour."

Fitz turned to the group of men. "Okay, gentlemen. Start thinking. That's what you get paid for. We have two men trapped in P-5. They need out, and now. I want answers."

The agitated group spilled outside, heading towards their various satellite trailers and alcoves. Hans and Marty none too nicely helped the chief engineer to his feet and out the door. Professor Samuelson and Rocky accompanied them back to the chief's office. Marty and Hans were already talking up an idea. Hans had a hunch, that was all, just a hunch. But it might work. They needed the engineer's help and today's sound recordings from P-5.


Creeping along the hard ledge invisible at his feet, he hugged the rough wall. It was cold. The stars, what stars there were, remained indifferent to his fate. The lights from cars and buildings and storefronts far below looked even tinier and more remote than they. He stopped breathing and pressed his cheek against the coarse surface of concrete, resting. How did he get here? What to do? The eight-inch wide slab of stone under him began to crumble and disintegrate again. He hurried on, unknowing what lie ahead. He came to a window. Lights, furniture, a chair, a dresser, a bed dishevelled and empty. He banged on the glass but no sound reverberated. Dumbstruck, he realized he couldn't hear the noise from the street below either. He pounded again. Suddenly, a person appeared, a woman -- his mother. She was wearing a slip over her underwear, that was all. She walked purposively to the dresser, sat in front of the mirror, and proceeded to apply makeup and lipstick. He watched in amazement, stunned and stupified, wondering why she was there, wherever he was.

He hit the glass hard, enough to break it, screaming mommy, mommy, but no sound issued forth. The glass waffled under the onslaught, but that was all. Abruptly, she stood and walked directly towards him. Joy and relief coursed through his tense, frozen body. She had heard, saw him, must have. She would open the window, let him in. But no. Without giving him so much as a glance, she pulled the shade down, a faded, old, yellowish hotel shade. Mommy, he screamed. Too late. The ledge crumbled directly under his right foot. He moved on, as quickly as possible, had to. He was coming to the corner of the building. He dare not look down now.

Sound. Suddenly there was sound. He could hear the noise of traffic, of the stone breaking off and hitting the wall and glass below as it fell, his own heart and respiration, the scraping of his clothes, tight against the pocked and broken wall of the building. It too was beginning to fragment, dissolve and fall apart. He let go his hold. He ran. Turned to face the corner and the empty blackness of the night, and ran to it. Shortly he arrived and did not stop, did not hesitiate. He jumped, full speed, arms strecthed wide.

Damp moldy linen and paper mixed with rotting wood and mice shit reached his nose against his will. It was a hell of a way to wake up. A faint green light blinked nervously, insistently. Muffled laughter and rough, garbled voices drifted in and out, distant and unintelligible. His head throbbed strangely, unfamiliarly. And his shoulders ached, stiff and sore. He tried moving them to stretch, but couldn't. He was tied at the wrists to what looked like a bedpost; likewise his ankles to the other end. He twisted his torso to get a better look at his surroundings. It was a shack or shed. Whoever owned it had not much cared about upkeep. A few makeshift chairs and a table of sorts hugged the wall on the opposite side from the door, itself not much worthy of the name.

The floor, what he could see of it, was a wreck of broken planks and rat-chewed holes. He could make out three men, two sitting, the other crouched over something in the far corner. Flanking the door were two windows, the old-fashioned type, nine small panes each, held in place by a few nails. Pieces of glass were missing, fragments, shards, curved pie-shapes, star-bursts, fans of slivers. Some gone altogether, others hanging in for dear life. The bright sunlight refracting through the dirt was far too painful; he closed his eyes and saw fireworks. In spite of his efforts, a moan escaped.

Silence. Low mutterings followed by heavy boots walking to where he lay. A not unpleasant laugh accompanied the thickly-accented, "Our guest, he wakes, finally." The boots scraped to a halt. "Would sleep like baby, forever. Are you okay, Glipter?" A shaded, bleary face hovered over him, smiling faintly. It reminded him of something, but he couldn't place it. "Hungry? We have food," said the face as he was none-too-gently untied, ankles first. Stiffly, but with purpose, not wishing to appear too defenseless, but holding back some cards, he sat up on the edge of the cot and rubbed his head and neck. When his eyesight adjusted to the bright light, he could make out the other two men. He recognized one from the trailer, but the other, the one who'd put the acrid smelling vapor under his nose, was not there.

His head was groggy, but not in the alcohol induced way he was accustomed to. Once, long ago, he had been at a party in San Francisco when Hans and he were there on assignment. Hans was not with him; he'd met these people in a bar downtown. They passed around what he believed at the time was a joint. It wasn't. It turned out to be PCP, elephant tranquilizer. His brain had gone completely numb. He was unable to think or move very well. It frightened him, not having control. He didn't feel quite that bad now, but it was enough to bring back the memory. Even when drunk, he always felt that sure feeling of control. Growing up in Philadelphia, he got into the habit that when he found himself getting too drunk at a bar or party to feel confident about taking care of himself, he'd leave, on his own, for home.

He rubbed his face, breathing the smell of sweat on his palms. He felt weak, foggy. But the old anger, the rage was beginning to build. It would take time, he knew, for him to be ready. He needed information first. Where was he? Who were these people? How many? What were they up to? Why did they want Hans? And, could he take them once he recovered? The rage grew, deep in his belly, the rage mixed with hatred and blind fearlessness. He would play the game, pretend to be Hans. He needed to think like a physicist; or at least more than these people could. He was in an unknown situation with unknown adversaries not to be underestimated. Go slow, he told himself, don't do anything rash. They probably have guns, you don't, not at the moment anyway. So, calm down and hold your horses.

"Come, get up," came the rough voice, not quite as friendly as before, "get up." A slap on the shoulder was meant to encourage. It made his skin tingle, like it was numb, novocained. And the voice seemed distant. His long-sleeved shirt covered tattoos on well-muscled arms. He had the advantage of deception, he believed. They perceived him as a scientist and journalist. A nerd. Not a threat from their, no doubt, redneck mentality. If they only knew the real Hans, he mused, they would change their stereotypes. He laughed to himself; it helped. It gave him a rush of energy. That's it, he decided, time to play. Enough of this getting pushed around shit. First, the Christ Is My Saviour assholes jacking me off, that whole thing, guns disappearing into thin air, people panicking, now these morons kidnap me. Enough already!

He stood, with help, put one hand on the wall to steady himself, and peered blearily at the other two grimacing his way. He was led to a legless, war-weary cushioned chair, pale green, dappled with stains and faded spills, some recent, over by the rickety old door. If he'd felt himself, he could rip the door off its hinges, he knew, fling it their way and be gone.

A paper plate with what turned out to be a baloney sandwich on white bread was unceremoniously dropped on his lap. "Food. American cuizine." Hearty laughter, abruptly stopping. A man who had been leaning against the opposite wall stepped over, dragging a chair behind. The scraping on the broken floor wired Turbo's nerves, like chalk doing that thing on the blackboard. Intentional, he thought automatically, too blatant and unnecessary to be otherwise. He placed it near Turbo, back forward, then sat with a leg straddling each side, arms resting across the top of the back, chin on folded hands. Relaxed, almost friendly, but like a cat with a mouse, practiced, he studied Turbo's condition. "It will pass," he said, without raising his head. "Soon. Eat." A chuckle from the other two.

Rodenko watched carefully, scrutinizing, as Turbo took a bite. Unnerve and intimidate. Without looking directly at the rough piece-of-work peering a hole in his forehead, Turbo slowly chewed. He wasn't hungry, but it served to stall and to make him appear compliant and weak. Possibly, Turbo reflected, forcing someone to eat a dry baloney sandwich on white bread could be considered cruel and inhuman treatment. Maybe he'd complain to some human rights group when this was over. He cautioned himself again not to be too cocky. Never underestimate; it can only lead to failure, he heard his mother advise. She also said, when he was young and having trouble with other kids: Don't take any shit from anybody, Tommy.

As casually as he could, he took in the scene. Behind the greaseball was a table with two more chairs. The other monkeys were on these. On the table was scattered plastic-looking chess pieces on a red and black board -- the cardboard type. Dirty coffee mugs and glasses of clear liquid -- vodka, he guessed by the smell; it was part of the atmosphere -- the planet Vodka. He took another bite, chewed methodically, mechanically, without enthusiasm or enjoyment. Back to the monkeys. They sat sideways on their chairs, using the wall for a back, smirking. Porcupine beards on wrinkled, ruddy, weather-hardened faces hid hearts of gold, no doubt, he thought.

That wall, the leeward wall, was fairly intact as was the roof, probably metal, but through the storm-cracks and sun-bleached splits in the rest, he was able to make out scraps of ribbon grass and hand-sized tufts of wild yellow flowers sticking out of the coarse mix of black volcanic sand and brown cobbly gravel here and there, fighting for survival. The beach from north to south had the same look. He could be anywhere. At least he wasn't inland, he reflected. The rushing sound of surf, gently kneading stones back and forth, grinding them imperceptibly to sand, was the only sound, besides his chewing.

No electricity, no radio. Could be near a market or park, a gathering place -- another boatyard? If it was anything like his, it would be empty of people. He'd never explored the south of town much, he just realized. Could be. And what of the blinking green light? No sooner had he asked, he saw. Over passed the fold-out, motel style bunks, in the far corner. Must be a single-sideband radio. Two marine-size batteries on the floor under its chair were attached to it.

Turbo's head cleared, abruptly, as it happens sometimes; suddenly, that is, without notice. The drug's effect lifted. His surroundings poured in. He adjusted the channel knob, sharpening, fine-tuning, locking-in. I am here. The textures -- sharp to soft to sharp again -- the shades of light and shadow, the nuance of shape and substance and smell.

The resonance of the fishing gear storeroom reverberated with the immediacy of a life lived very much in the present. The smell of sweat and blood, of sea-bottom and rough-hewn hand-made things hung in the air, never to be scrubbed out. The walls, floor and ceiling, parched and brittle, desperately in need of paint or oil or the grateful release of fire, if they could talk, would tell stories of grit and pain, disappointment and drunkenness, joy and laughter, mingled with the dry heart-felt certainty of knowing oneself, scraped clean to the bone.

He breathed deeply the warm, salt air wafting through the ancient, battered walls, the breaks in the windows and around the door facing the bay, the only door, the one not two feet away. A clearing of synapses, a quickening of metabolism, a shifting of gears. The dark at the end of the hall; the hand in the cellar, grabbing your ankle as you run up the steps; the paralysis of nightmares. Fear of the unknown as well as the known, banished in his youth when Turbo's spirit had been on the ropes, reared its ugly head again after the Christ Is My Saviour shock. But Turbo, his own man for far too long, refused to knuckle-down. The rage and pain and hate of childhood worked like acid to dissolve the imprisonment of fear. What was transpiring now acted as a catalyst to solidify and galvanize his sense of self -- his identity. That mysterious, shadowy, concentrated force responsible for his nickname -- Turbomatic. Ironically, it occurred to him, this is the best thing that could've happened.

Don't take any shit from anybody, Tommy.

He plopped the sandwich on the plate, held it out over the floor in front of the door, then, while staring back at the greaseball, opened his hand and let gravity have its way. It bounced slightly. Abruptly sitting back on his heels, eyes narrowed, Rodenko sobered and considered his guest. His mood switched from predatorial amusment and calm control to anger -- that quick. He stood, spun the chair, sat down, leaned forward and demanded, "Okay, Glipter, enough bullshit. Talk. What the fuck's going on at the site? We know there's been alerts and shutdowns. The locals were locked out. Something big's happenin'." He stuck his index finger a breath away from Turbo's chest. "I'm bettin' you know. You're a smart guy, a guy with contacts. Tell me!"

Turbo didn't move, didn't blink, didn't flinch. Rodenko straightened, staring hard, then got up and kicked the plate across the room, liberating the unknown meat from the bleached and worhtless dough -- food for the rats, thought Turbo. Two strides took him to the table where he grabbed a glass of clear stuff and took a swig, putting it down on the chessboard while staring at Turbo. Positioning himself behind his chair, he put his hands on the back and reappraised the situation, peering at this stranger as though for the first time.

He stepped carefully to the wide old-fashioned easychair in the near corner where now, a clear-headed Turbo could make out a pile of guns, ammo and a few other nasty-looking pieces of persuasion through the bright sunlight from the window between. Had the colonel purposely walked away from the door leaving Turbo an excellent opportunity to escape? Or were they simply that sure? Colonel Sergei Rodenko, formerly of Russian special operations, stared at the mess of gear occupying the chair, then over at Turbo. With severe, almost painful effort, he said, "What have they discovered to make them shut down? I know General Mynsky -- Bull. I know how he operates. He wouldn't resort to such tactics if there wasn't a real emergency. Something to hide -- a secret. Tell us," he insisted, clenching his right fist in a twisted, Doctor Strangeglove kind of way.

"You got anything to wash that down, mate?" asked Turbo, matter of factly, brushing crumbs off his pants. "Talk about some dry shit, Jesus. You guys ever hear of mayonaise?"

Rodenko's incredulous eyes glared in amazement, his body compressed, fused, like a loose stack of chain links hastily pulled tight together. He stopped breathing. The other two sat rigid, confused. They've seen their colonel's many sides -- expect the unexpected. Hands behind his back, the colonel strolled over to Turbo. A torturous, contorted grin forced itself onto his otherwise unsmiling face. He cocked his head. "You," he started, wagging a finger, "you surprise me, Mister Glipter." Calmness returning. Returning with an air of professionalism. A palpable sense of violent forces reined in. Shaking his square head, spreading his arms, a smile of conciliation working its way onto his walrus-hide mug, he glanced at his men, then back to Turbo. "We need to talk." The two against the wall eyeballed each other and snickered, albeit uncertainly, and drank.

They were nervous; they couldn't help it. These were men accustomed to dealing with straightforward operations, missions spelled out in simple nuts and bolts terms. Alien space ships? It struck a chord. Myths, legends, old folk tales of pagan rituals told late at night to children, the other world, the world beyond the veil, the evil itself, the oily dark at the base of the unconscious mind, all somehow intermixed with alien invasions, abductions, body snatchers. They were simple, rural cossacks. Brave and fearless, reckless, in normal human-scale circumstances. But the terror invoked by a species vastly, unimaginably more intelligent and capable than humans, stirred the irrational, conjured up demons of boundless power -- gods of the underworld. They were nervous and anxious and didn't much care for this job. They too wanted it over with as soon as possible; they wanted away, away from here and home.

On the other hand, the actuality might be worse than the uncertainty. That fact floated around in their heads too; tweaking and pulling, probing and tugging. They worried, but couldn't put their finger on why, exactly. And of course they wouldn't cop to it or talk about it. They willed it down. After all, they were hand-picked from Rodenko's special ops outfit. They lived outside the envelope, a condition and state of mind that tends to exacerbate and magnify moods. As a consequence, they were disgruntled, irritable and dangerous in an impulsive, twitchy, sensitive sort of way. Compartmentalizing, a trick you learn to save your sanity and to survive, wasn't working all that well. The strain of inactivity -- downright indolence, in fact -- added to the stew, torquing their efforts. They laughed at the wrong times and for the wrong reasons, or for no reason. And they drank, more than usual. It was a rough crowd.

Rodenko retreated to the Coleman stove where the dented, weary coffee pot sat, poured what looked like crankcase oil into a white styrofoam cup and handed the lukewarm shit off to Turbo as he retraced his steps back to the spot in front of the window. Turbo took a sniff of the oily thickness, then a tentative sip. His mouth withdrew, aghast, in defense of his stomach; he put the stuff down on the crate next to him as though it were toxic waste, which it closely resembled. The colonel stood motionless, peering at the bay as though waiting for a ship to arrive, a plane, a giant wave, God on a surfboard, something. Whatever it was, his mind was definitely elsewhere.

The surf continued to work its magic with relentless persistence and serene certainty, without purpose or reason. A gull called, diminishing down by quantum notes, eventually overtaken by despair. A panicked alarm, an anxious warning, a desolate plea. The freshening evening breeze creaked the tired old building, and like a runner passing quickly into the distance, ruffled what Turbo called crab grass, gently giving the door a shove, testing -- click-clack, click-clack.

Frustration and resentment at having been practically ordered into this assignment hounded the colonel. He felt owned, humiliated. He wanted to get back to his life -- he'd earned it -- to his plush, extravagant Moscow hotel suite, his expensive cognac and his many lady friends. And this careless fool, this... American and what he knew, must know, was not going to stand in his way.

He began with soft, low tones, talking to the window, "Since my retirement, some years ago, I've had time to pursue other interests. Physics for one." He looked sideways at Turbo, a brief hint of a smile on his lips. "I read that series of articles you wrote on string theory." He laughs. "Can't say I understood it, but a couple ideas came across."

He strode to the table for another sip of vodka; enthusiasm, either for the subject matter or the change in tack, obviously lifting his mood. "Quarks, very high energy vibration, hold the protons and neutrons together. Now I also understand -- it's common knowledge -- that the civilization that built that ship probably -- probably? -- no doubt, has a science at least 600 million years older than ours."

Carrying the glass, he went back to the window. "So, perhaps they've discovered how to use that power. The power of quarks. And things we don't know. To go through time, for instance. Time might just be particles of some dimension we don't have access to," he said cryptically, left eye closed, pointing the index finger of the hand with the glass of vodka in it at his guest, "but they might."

What is this bullshit? Turbo demanded of himself. Does he really expect me to believe he knows physics? Cliff notes maybe. Rodenko went on, talking about interference patterns, hidden dimensions, progenitor forces, space-time discontinuity and a few other more obscure ideas before running out of gas, knowledge or patience. That last didn't seem to be part of his constitution at the moment, maybe never. He was under pressure to produce. What patience he did have under normal circumstances had long since been exhausted, but he struggled, valiantly. He was, after all, a former officer of the elite special forces. Discipline, supplemented by copious amounts of vodka, was holding him together.

Turbo considered that whoever hired this man -- obviously the leader -- would want someone with knowledge of the scientific sort. How else to know if the information he might get was meaningful or significant? So, reflected a sober Turbo, he might not be full of shit after all. He raced to remember and assemble the many years of talks with Hans, reading his articles and being a sounding-board as he organized his thoughts. And when Hans would come home from Berkeley, they'd hang-out and talk. Turbo was no dummy. Things happen. He went one way for his own reasons; Hans, another for his. But they always maintained a rapport; they'd been street kids together, so it was too late for pretensions of any kind. Now, more than ever, he needed to make a withdraw on that pool of information. No telling what these boy scouts would do if they found out he wasn't who they thought.

Moreover, he was aware that in spite of his rejuvenation, he had yet to stand. He needed to do that, to check the legs and the balance and the head. Jumping into action, if he had to or decided to, thought Turbo, with suddenly wobbly legs accompanied by a dizzy spell could be extremely embarrassing, not to mention potentially fatal. Better play this one out. Besides, misinformation might be the best thing, a better thing than nothing. If indeed he did manage to get away after a scuffle, or whatever, they'd be back. They weren't going to give up; this was their job. And they knew where he lived.

A scientist would talk to the devil if the conversation was about science. He suspected the greaseball knew this, so he pretended to bite. He was on the street; the actor in him couldn't resist -- Philly. Shrugging his shoulders as though capitulating, he said, "The energy source, what animates it and keeps it going, is in the center sphere. Are you familiar with magnetic resonance imaging -- MRI?"

"Yes," answered Rodenko, taking a seat on the padded chair on the other side of the door. "Yes, I know, from its medical use."

"You do?" replied Turbo, unable to completely mask his disappointment. "Well, how about alpha particle refraction spectroscopy? It's used to probe the nucleus of atoms, determines the gravitonic phase shift caused by the nuclear force."

Rodenko's eyes glazed momentarily, then cleared, as much as possible with all the booze coursing through his bloodstream. A spark of amusement centered them, framed by a sardonic grin. "Mister Glipter. Hans." He spoke carefully, slowly, fatigue and irritation coloring his words. "When in Afghanistan, 1979, I had been there a month only. I was green, my first tour. But determined and serious about my mission and taking care of my men. We all go home, I used to say, then, in the beginning, we all go home." He studied the floor as though searching through the haze and darkness of that time. Like fire, anguish flickered rapidly but unmistakably across his face. The others nodded, glanced at one another, and drank, together. "We captured an Afghan soldier, a leader we knew. We questioned him. Roughed him up a little," he shrugged, face contorted with sarcastic indifference, "or a lot." His men snickered, approvingly, remembering the times. "Eventually he told us where his brothers were, his men. Tough people, tougher than I thought at the time, and loyal."

He held his glass towards the table, it was replenished. "I gathered my men, not all, thirty, and we proceeded to the location. These men here were among them." Their spines stiffened at that. The emotions released from the memories of those days imbued their flagging spirits and abused characters with renewed dignity and a crispness that, in spite of the alcohol, could be seen in their eyes and how they held themselves. As though a switch had been toggled, they instantly appeared more confidant, younger, and tough in a tight, cold unforgiving way. Their lives had scope and historical significance, they just couldn't see it or feel it much anymore. Distracted brooding and a morose temperament were their constant companions. But this reminder of who they used to be and what they had experienced served to recharge their batteries, at least for now.

Rodenko went on. "There was a camp. Two good-size mud buildings, flat-roofed. Berms of gravel from clearing, off in the distance. No guards, no sentries. We saw no one, heard nothing. I decided they'd fled, believing their leader might be tortured into spilling his guts, divulging their whereabouts; or, they were tipped off, it happens. So,..., we marched in." The others grimaced and shrank in pain; they knew what came next. "We marched into an ambush, from all sides. From behind the berms and from beneath, from the earth, holes dug in the ground covered with sheet metal." He paused, a vacant expression on his troubled face, still incredulous after all these years, the shock of it. An on-shore gust stiff-armed the shed, catching it at an odd angle; whirred passed the edges and contours, skirting the eaves in desolate, sullen tones; then jiggled the door as though trying to get in. Sand scampered under and fanned out, seeking refuge in the ruined floor.

"Hans," he whispered, "I lost 10 men almost at once. There was no place to hide except the buildings. We ran. The doors were booby-trapped. I lost two more. I called in airstrikes, gunships. We eventually fought our way out. The way we came. Many wounded, some bad. Fyodor here has a plastic leg from the knee down. A momento of that time. Show him, my friend." He did, proudly, no shame or embarrassment. "Fyodor returned after hospital, learned to walk again, good enough. We fought many battles together. Had many close calls; eh, my friend?"

Fyodor beamed, his ruddy face and balding head glowing, raised his glass to his commander and said, "Za vashe zdorovye," and kicked it back in one gulp. Rodenko laughed. And without the slightest change in attitude, tone or feeling, proceeded with, "When I got back to base, I shot the Afghan in the head. I learned. I lost my innocence, became skeptical of everything. The questioning became more brutal, I'm sorry to say, or not sorry to say. I had to be sure."

Christ on a crutch! bemoaned Turbo, almost audibly. These guys are having a fucking reunion. What next? Somebody brings out an accordion and we start dancing, arms folded, crouched down, kicking our feet out to heh! heh! heh! heh! Jeeesus. I should just let them kill me and get it over with. Rodenko looked him directly in the eyes with what appeared to be genuine sadness. "My friend." Now we're friends, thought Turbo, this is gettin' better. "Why should you tell me the truth? I have no way to corroborate whatever you say. All I have to go with is its plausibility. I know nothing about what goes on at the site. Our man, or men, we have there are out of the loop. We know nothing. So, how can I trust you? Or why? Hmmm?"

Turbo got a little nervous; these were not entirely lightweights, he reflected. He skipped the audition and jumped right to center stage, with earnest enthusiasm, personal involvement, vivid hand gestures and two-part harmony, if not out-and-out, downright deep sincerity. "I'm a reporter," he began dryly, convincing as hell, believing himself to be Hans, in fact. "I was opposed to all the secrecy from the git-go. But, I promised them, the head scientists, I'd hold back on what I knew, wouldn't send it to my paper, until they could unfathom it to their liking, spell it out in detail. Until they could analyse, synthesize and couch it in a form acceptable to the outside world. In a way that wouldn't frighten anyone. Water it down, actually, or obfuscate." Turbo suppressed a smile at that -- obfuscate. He was in the zone.

"What," asked Rodenko, not wholly without warmth, but in a tired, almost fatalistic way, "have they discovered?" He sat back, resting. Going uphill, he pulled off to the side.

Turbo/Hans couldn't tell if he'd been believed. However, he too sat back. "Yesterday," he intoned as though to a confidant, "the material of the center sphere altered in such a way as to render itself impeneterable, with anything we got. That's what prompted the shutdown, and why the locals were kept out."

Turbo was warming to his role, relaxing, heart rate slowing, sweat glands drying. He furtively rubbed his palms on his pants. "From within the spheres though there's balconies where you can see the insides of the center sphere. There's another, smaller sphere in the center of that, hovering in space, free and easy, with no visible means of support." Turbo said that last part as one accustomed to the phrase.

That got Rodenko's attention. Eyes widening, he leaned forward, put his glass on the floor before him, and asked with what appeared to be genuine interest, "A smaller sphere, hovering in the center of the bigger one? What? How?"

Turbo leaned forward too, resting forearms on thighs. "That's the deal," he said quietly. "They discovered what does it -- anti-gravity using a variation of quark force. Whoever built that ship,..., knows how quarks mingle, or interact," he quickly corrected, "with the nucleuses -- nuclei -- of whatever material that thing is made out of. And it must be special. That's why they completely shut down the site, will not let anyone in, including me, until they figure it out."

Turbo leaned back, folding his hands on top of his head, nodding to the other two. Fyodor merely sneered his disbelief; cynicism and contempt coming easy like he smelled something bad. His partner however looked hopeful but apprehensive, eyebrows raised questioningly as if to ask acceptance of his skipper. As if to ask -- could that be it? Can we go home now?

Rodenko, still leaning heavily on his knees, arms clasped across; closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "If I tell my people," he began slowly, choosing words, "and they believe me even though I have no proof," he paused to take a sip, "they will swoop in and, over General Mynsky's objections, will commandeer operations. They will not let such a find slip through their fingers to the rest of the world. They will not see it as merely a fantastic scientific discovery for the whole world to exploit. No. They will want to seize the technology for themselves, to use for military purposes, of course. I know them. I know why they sent me."

He stood, or rather -- rose. The wind pushed the door once, hard; he shot back an equally hard look, annoyed, startled. "I need proof, elaboration, details," he said, strength of will and sharpness of temperament returning with a rush. "What can you do for me?" He returned to the window leaving his half-full glass of vodka on the floor.

Oh shit, groaned Turbo. Now I've done it. If he believes me, they'll come in and shut the place down, to find nothing. Okay. They wouldn't do that without certainty, without proof. I don't want to prove anything. I want to prove there's nothing going on. I should've said that. I should've said something like they found a pathogen -- Andromeda Strain type shit -- or some toxic material -- gases of uncertain consequence until further notice. No insurance for the workers so ... But, it's too late. I shot my mouth off. I can't say -- I was just kidding, forget it.

Rodenko turned and poked again, "What can you do for me, Hans Glipter?"

Turbo could feel that familiar wildness boil up and fill his pores, taking over in spite of himself and everything else. Play was over. "I obviously don't want your people to take over, to put an end to the investigation. And,..., I'm not sure I want -- whoever they are -- to get the knowledge, the technology on how to use the antigravity field. In fact, I'm sure I don't."

In the bright heat of late June, they listened to the wind scurrying about, rising in temper, straining at the bit. Chairs creaked. The wind hungrily swiped and pawed at the walls, the door thumped again, more vigorously this time as though prodding them to get on with it. The windows banged inward, then out and in again, quickening tempo to a rattle like bones in a baggy skin; cracked shards and splinters held their own, refusing to surrender to an old, familiar tormentor.

"Why did you tell me that," asked Turbo, his voice ranging above the wind, serious as a heart attack. "Why tell me the folks you work for, what their motivation is and what they'll probably do? I mean, Jesus, do you think me a traitor to the world, for Christ's sake?"

Turbo pretended to be pissed, not a difficult feat for him. If the information he'd given had been true, then he would be responsible for a group of Russian heavies -- the official government, the unofficial nongovernment -- who knows -- to take over, Jesus, alien technology of this magnitude, imaginary though it be.

Turbo stood without thinking. His legs did not wobble; his head did not fog up. He pointed a thick finger at Rodenko. The others tensed, ready, sobering -- Russians.

"Calm down, my friend, calm down." The colonel, arms folded, smiled a conciliatory smile. "I was only testing the waters. We only wish to know what goes on, the people I work for, that is. They would not be so stupid as to interfere before the scientists complete their work. And, even if they did, they would never be able to keep it to themselves anyway, not in today's world, they know that -- pragmatists -- if, in fact, it is what you say."

He turned to the window again, concerned at what was happening outside. Trailing off, he finished with an indifferent, "or whatever it is." Abruptly, he hurried passed Turbo to the door, muttering, "What the hell?" Accidentally kicking over the glass he'd left on the floor, he yanked the door open, almost slamming Turbo in the face. He yelled out, "What the fuck is going on? Bruno!?" Sand blew in at ground level, not fiercely but with determination, as though looking for something, or someone.

The other two Russians rushed after him, squinting at the bright sun and windblown sand. Turbo followed. The sea was no longer flat and languid as it had been a few hours earlier when Turbo and Rocky had skipped stones across it. Waves were building, white caps forming on jagged crests. Bruno was busy helping two native fishermen yard a twenty foot open boat over the slippery, black and brown sand. He had the bow line; they had the sides. It didn't take long.

The fishermen were beside themselves with agitation and wonder. A little fear showed through as well; one absently fingered a tiny ivory amulet tied on a leather string round his neck. They were talking fast, in spurts and phrases, in their native tongue, gesturing wildly, first towards the sea, then at the bottom of the boat, pointing at something. They were short but strudy looking. Mongolian faces, flat nose and almond-shaped eyes, brown and burnt from sun and wind and sea, wool caps pulled down over their ears in spite of the warmth. Rough, reindeer-hide jackets belted securely in traditional style covered oilskin pants down to midthigh.

Bruno, part Eveni on his mother's side, his father, a Russian soldier stationed farther north in the 60's, just after the Stalin era of Gulags and gold mines and slave labor camps, spoke an obscure dialect of Eveni, and only a few words of it at that. Nonetheless, he tried his best to calm them and find the source of their agitation. As well as he could, he translated to Rodenko. It turned out, they once shared the shack with other fishermen, which is why they drew a bead on it. The security of those times, the familiar, gave reinforcement to their nerves.

Just south of Olskoi Island, a good hundred miles off the point of Koni Peninsula, they had decided to get some gear wet. The sun was high and warm; they sipped on a jug of Vodka as they set a test string of six half-skates -- about three nautical miles worth -- baited with chunks of herring. They'd been relaxing for the first time in weeks; out and away from the hectic mess of people and noise; doing what they loved. They drifted for about an hour, then cranked up the old outboard and went to check their gear. They demonstrated the windlass they used to haul as they explained what happened next. The one doing most of the talking took a long pull of what was left of the bottle before he continued.

As the first gangion rose into sight, they could see something tugging and yanking on the hook with what seemed like arms, arms with spikes up and down their inside surface. Huge red eyes that looked like carnations on stalks peered at them angrily through the ten or so feet of azure sea. It undulated as it moved through the water. At first they thought they'd nailed a large squid or a ray. But the eyes, and the way it tried to work the gangion out of its mouth told them otherwise. They gaffed it hard through the head, stunning it mightily, then pulled it over the side carefully, avoiding the spiny arms at all cost. They settled on three before cutting the line, tying an anchor and buoy set-up to it for later, then high-tailing it out of there, heading for the beach.

At that point in the story, the other one started pointing towards the bottom of the boat. "Look, look, see for yourselves," he managed to shout above the rising wind in clear, articulate english, an alarming incongruity in and of itself, like Ghengis Khan spouting Shakespeare. "Behold." He grabbed the bottle from his friend and took a drink. "Behold," he shouted again, one wrinkled hand open and inviting like a showman. "Behold the stuff of nightmares." The usual Eveni reserved restraint and self-control nowhere to be seen.

They all surrounded the open boat leaning solidly on its port side in the sand. Below the caprail, secured by bungy-cords, were two long oars, just in case; steel gaffs hung from the transom. The interior was mostly obscured with buoy balls and line, a half-dozen anchors, a wooden box, two spare fuel tanks, a cooler, plastic jugs with their tops cut off for bailing, if need be, a couple of life jackets, coiled and baited ground line shoved up forward, and what ground line they'd pulled in strewn over everything else between the bow seat and the wide one at the stern. But at the very bottom, still squirming, was indeed the stuff of nightmares.

They could see two of the creatures lying on top. They were both about six feet long, maybe more, one with its topside showing, skin a pallid blue-green. Huge red eyes, or what must certainly be eyes, on improbable insect-like stalks, only different somehow, thick and fleshy, annulated, half-standing at odd angles. Lobed fins, gradually increasing in size towards the middle, shaped like flower petals or blades on a house fan but coming to a point, wreathed the torso, still fluttering randomly. Arm-like appendages extending from below but towards the anterior part of the body inadvertently dragged the creature forward when it clutched a mass of line. The arms were covered with long, notched needles like cactus spines, clearly meant to ensnare prey -- and a final resting place it would be too.

The wind blew over the sea and the beach, swirling sand and sedge grass like a man ruffling a child's hair. It sounded as though it was coming from a long ways away. A rogue wave reached the boat, sloshing against the stern, moving it just enough to stir the creatures. The shack door banged twice in rapid succession, then slammed shut with finality and annoyance; windows rattled.

The creature lying on top of the third at the deepest part of the boat lay belly-up, if you could call it a belly. It too undulated its finny lobes, dying slowly, fighting. It opened and closed its preposterous mouth spasmodically, an eight- to ten-inch in diameter circlular maw of jagged teeth that somehow meshed tight together making what looked like a perfect seal, like gears of some fanciful machine. Its lips were nothing more than a lumpy, corrugated extension of its skin. You would not want to put your hand in there; the hook with gangion attached was still dug in; the Evenis had wisely chosen to leave them all where they be.

As they watched, it opened wide, tried to reach the hook with its right claw, shivered much too vigorously with the effort for their liking, then shuddered still, breath leaving it in a sudden rush of surrender. Turbo, Rodenko and the other Russians stepped back instinctively as one.

The old Khan smiled strangely and repeated, jug in hand, "Look,..., look, the stuff of nightmares," raising his voice at the finish.

Rodenko turned to Turbo. He was pale, wan, eyes wide in disbelief. His clever experienced mind nonetheless worked feverishly. "Go, my friend." He could barely be heard above the wind. "Something is wrong here. It is that ship; I know it. I can feel it in my bones. Something is terribly wrong. That ship,..., is doing this,..., somehow."

He looked back at the improbable creatures. Turbo didn't move. All of them stood still in a circle around the boat, staring, numb. The Eveni fisherman continued to drink and rant, "Nightmare,..., nightmare."


The shock of reentry to the real world was magnified by the surreal quiet of what should've been a veritable bustling metropolis this time of year. Vasily, Nomad and Hub meandered down the harbor road to what, they couldn't guess. All they needed for accompaniment were Dorothy and Toto. They'd been spit out here deliberately, this was a familiar place, a place they frequented over the years, where Hub had been born and raised. Nonetheless, it had a strikingly unfriendly and unfamilar vibe to it. In spite of that, or because of it, they were determined to find out what was going on. But in truth, after their recent experience, they weren't quite sure they wanted to.

On the west coast of Kamchatka Peninsula, several miles above Cape Yuzhuyy, at the very southern edge of the Koryak Autonomous Okrug (Region) lies the fishing village of Palovka, population unknown but not much, mostly Koryaks and some Itelmen. During the season, fishermen from the mainland and nearby villages take advantage of the brief summer to visit and trade, not only trinkets and finds and homemade goods, but stories, some true. Even a smattering of tourists could usually be found camping out, taking in the flora and fauna as well as the open and easy-going ambience of the people and their lifestyle. But not now, not today. The cannery was closed, locked up; and there didn't seem to be anyone around.

The main dock ran parallel to the road. As they walked they inspected the many boats moored two and three abreast, rafted up. They recognized an old highliner's, an elder and headman of the village, tied near the road. It drew them with the promise of understanding, an explantion, like students seeking a mentor. They went down the center gangway to check it out, carefully, like forensic experts, examining the contents of the deck, climbing to the flying bridge. Staring in through the dirty windows of the cabin they saw two plates and several coffee cups on the galley table, some papers with inscrutable drawings and a couple of wrenches. The door was locked.

An uncommon occurrence, alarming on another level altogether, sufficient to momentarily overshadow all else. They were searchers, explorers, time-travelers, visitors from another planet, looking for clues, hints, anything unusual that might tell a tale. One item stood out by default: the raucous call of the seagulls was conspicuously absent, emptying the air. Even though it's one of those things normally pushed to the background anyway, it made them nervous, especially as things weren't so normal.

The Sea of Okhotsk is one of the richest and most abundant fishing grounds in the world, the cold upwellings from the lower Pacific and the extreme tide changes and currents bring a bounty of nutrients and phytoplankton for ground fish and salmon alike. Salmon fishing in the many rivers and streams is a major preoccupation at the end of May and early June. The natives work hard stocking up for the long winter. Fishing techniques have changed somewhat, but not the spirit of it. It's no longer common for the modern coastal Koryak to go to sea in walrus- or reindeer skin-covered baydarkas as their ancestors traditionally had. Diesel-powered trollers and longline boats complete with hydraulics and the requisite electronics are more prevalent and productive.

Protecting the north end of the harbor is a narrow grass-covered spit, about a half-mile long, at the end of which is a 30-foot tall unmanned lighthouse made of large, square stones looking like a rook from a giant's chess game. With the addition to the south of a breakwater of boulders about a hundred yards beyond the cannery, it serves to form a cove. The massive pile of boulders goes out from the beach about sixty yards, then doglegs towards the spit and to the right of the lighthouse. Near its end is a red blinking light securely attached -- as securely as possible -- to a framework of heavy rebar welded to a thick plate buried deep in the stones. The storms from September to May are hell -- heavy snow and ice from the Arctic, cyclones off the Pacific -- repairs have to be made to both structures as needed.

Growing on the gently sloping hills on the mountain side of the rutted pot-holed road, two meter tall bluegrass and rainbows of wild flowers undulated to an unfelt breeze, sectioned off by rocks of all sizes speckled with yellow-green lichen and moss -- rubble rolled from the mountains over millenia. Trees on the foothills of the Sredinny Mountains -- the Central Range -- gradually grouped together until the ground could no longer be seen. The ubiquitous Japanese stone pine and brushwood of elfin cedar -- impassable to travelers -- blended evenly with black birch, spruce, poplar, and spindly larch. Moss on bark, its lighter shades of green seeming to be lit from within, hung here and there like loose fitting raiment, robes and cloaks of finery. Blueberry, blackberry and cranberry bushes, yellow- and purple-tipped shrubs, and tangles of roots hugged the green earth. The Vostochny Mountains running far to the east made their presence known with a few smoking volcanoes inking the snow around their caldera, belching soot like train engines into a cloudless azure sky. It could pass for paradise if it wasn't so damn cold and miserable during the long winter.

Rain hadn't fallen here for a long time, boot-scattered dust hung motionless in the still, dry air. Their minds wandered. They were trying to understand by focusing on the ground level, feeling their bodies move in the warm air, immersing themselves in the realm of the senses, noticing details in the neighborhood. As they slowly walked by the one-story, metal-roofed Harbormaster's office -- the lone building -- they glanced through the windows for activity of any kind. The lights were out. They didn't bother to approach. No reason to check the door. The harbor was empty.

The hill began its slope up about twenty yards past the office. The grass and dirt on the side of the road was spotted with fishing gear, shells of storage trailers, and parts and pieces of machinery. The silence was suffocating. Except for the occasional creak of line or wood rubbing against a dock nearby, only their muffled footfalls on the dry road and their breathing could be heard. In fact, they hadn't said much of anything since they climbed down from the cannery dock.

Nomad stopped to light another smoke. The scrape of flint grated Vas and Hub, reverberating through their nervous systems. They walked a few more feet, then pulled up and turned his way, indignant but also not wanting to get too far apart. As Nomad studied the dirt road at his feet, he took a long, hard pull, let the smoke out slowly, then said matter-of-factly, "Suppose there's been a plague." He looked in their direction but didn't make eye contact. Serious as hell, he continued, "It happens."

The soft swish of sea washing the rocks at the base of the road came and went. "Plague?" mouthed Vas, tasting the word, his voice sounding dusty. Licking his lips, he said once more, "Plague?" He nodded, "Mmm-hmm." Peering off to the bay, "Indeed?" Scrutinizing the immediate confines as though afraid someone might hear, lips pursed, head bent, he measured his steps back to Nomad. When he got close enough so they could smell each other's breath, he whispered, "Are you nuts?" He pirouetted crisply towards Hub who only stared, dazed as he was and preoccupied with apprehension, then back to Nomad. "After what we been through? You see a connection, maybe? Huh?" He studied the horizon again as though seeking help or sanity or rescue, then repeated one last time, louder, with feeling, "Plague?" Squinting scorn and ridicule, he slowly shook his head, then finished with, "I don't think so, pardner."

An empty grin creased Nomad's whiskered face. He took another drag, then said dryly through the exhale, "It was worth a shot."

Vasily gave him one last wry glance, "Pathetic." Then spun on his heel and resumed the walk. Hub stood with arms spread, his face contorted into a Mongolian question mark. Vas waved them on, taking the lead. As if by nature, they fell into single file: Vas in front, Hub second, Nomad bringing up the rear, covering their backs.

A soft ka-thunk sound off to the right caught their attention. A skinny tabby cat sat upright on a rusted fifty-five gallion drum resting cockeyed amidst the remains of a vehicle, its chassis protruding out of the dirt like the bones of some prehistoric beast. It stared unblinking as they ambled by; they stared back, suspiciously. Anything could be other than what it seemed.

The road inclined towards a bend that curved into town away from the narrow rock-strewn strip of a beach. Trepidation slowed their gait, they didn't know what they'd be greeted with, so the angle of ascent seemed to get progressively steeper. As they approached the crest, they gathered together. The sound of waves grew louder and sharper, demanding, bringing them out of themselves. The tops of the taller buildings -- the warm, late afternoon sun glinting off their dark green metal roofs -- came into view. These were public, used for community pow-wows, school, friendly get-togethers. For private domiciles, in the winter, the Koryaks live in walrus hide and plank tents similar to the Chukchi yaranga. In the past they lived in semi-subterranean dugouts of snow and ice called nynglyu. Summer dwellings are rectangular skeletons of wood covered with walrus skins; the roof pitched to the rear. Rocks, large boulders or piles of earth are often set along the edges of the dwelling. Some, however, have moved on to trailer residences and heavier wood-framed structures for both summer and winter. The village was isolated, cut off from access by land. As with most remote communities anywhere, materials and machinery, including vehicles, were brought in by landing craft, especially at first, then by boat or barge once a dock's been built.

When they reached the summit, they stopped to take in as much as they could. Their relief that the town was still in one piece resonated the air itself. The bite of the freshening breeze from the northwest invigorated their bodies, quickening their senses. The smell and taste of salt spray hissing off the rocky beach below stiffened their spines. Adjacent to the spit, they could now see that the light was out and not turning. The banks of heavy-duty batteries had not been charged, apparently; the auto-timed generator had either run out of fuel or was down for repairs. Or something else was amiss. They couldn't remember if, because of the twenty-four hour sun this time of year, it was even being paid attention to. They hadn't noticed on the way in.

The hill next to the harbor road abruptly ended, sheared off. A cliff of blackberry bushes, lupines and other wild flowers separated the harbor area from the flat of the townsite. The broad dirt road stretched for about two blocks, a few skinny birch and dwarf larch shyly poked out from between buildings and along the length of the street. Sheds and shacks, predominately pole construction and plywood with roofs of corrugated steel, stood alone or in small groupings, islands of commerce. On the beach side of the road was the Village Store, a small engine repair shop, and a fishing supply store, some of its wares spread out for display in front. At the far end of the soviet-style boulevard on the opposite side, next to a tiny cemetery further on, a doorless truck, firewood piled haphazardly in the back, sat in front of a two-story faded green house. Green paint seemed to be the color of choice, leftovers from government projects.

Vasily twisted for one last long look at the Anastasia moored on the back side of the cannery. All he could see was the top of the mast over the flat slanting roof, but that was enough to give him a little boost. His home, his refuge, and his salvation, not to mention their escape vehicle. He was surprised that they'd come farther than it seemed. The thought amused him in a sober kind of way. A smile mingled with a familiar forlornness. All his life, as far as he could remember, he'd challenged what he perceived as fear and cowardice on his part. Most of his reason for getting into fishing on the fierce Okhotsk Sea was to prove himself.

Over the years, he'd been through many hairy close-calls and tests of inner strength and will, by himself and with his two compatriots. He shouldn't doubt himself, he knew intellectually. But the feeling he would come up short, that he was about to be daunted, submit his will and show fear, gnawed him nonetheless. He remembered how he used to try to be friendly when confronted by the bullies at the Russian school who taunted him with half-breed and other less complimentary names, only to have it taken advantage of, seen as a sign of weakness. Afterwards he would always punish himself for it, hating how he acted, and promising himself he would never be like that again, only to fall short on the next go-round.

He turned to face town, steeled himself with that secret rage, and trudged on. Hub hesitated a moment. He'd been staring at the big house with the truck-load of firewood in front of it, trying to remember who lived there, or whether or not it mattered. Shrugging, he followed. Nomad rubbed the smooth stone in his pocket, the one he picked off the beach in Casgrovina, the one he planned on returning to that very same beach. He lit another smoke; nobody jumped this time.

Stray dogs -- sentinels in any village -- had yet to notice their arrival, if they were indeed near enough to do so. A half dozen narrower dirt roads, thinning and growing ever rougher as they went, led up the hill into the woods. That and farther north, out of town, was where the general populace lived. Hub was home so he was given his head. Growing more emotional with each step, he quickened his pace, heading directly for the main community meeting hall.

The roof of the building itself was metal. But walrus hides pulled taut, stretched over a rough-hewn larch-pole frame supported by poles of the same, covered the overhang of its wide front porch. On it were two long picnic tables at opposite ends, painted green. Attached to the wall were narrow benches running the entire length on each side. Coffee cups, a communal hubcap-ashtray, and small, odd pieces of machinery sat abandoned. The two screen doors were bungy-corded back against their springs. Hub tested the windowless double doors; they were unlocked. He pushed through like a man with a hell of a thirst, expecting to see folks, folks he knew, family.

A few feet passed the doorway he came to a dead stop. No one. The spacious room was sectioned off. At center, on a red-brick hearth -- dirt in the cracks -- stood a wood stove made from a fifty-five gallion drum laid sideways, four stout lengths of steel pipe were welded to it for legs, and straight sections of stove-pipe ran from it through the roof. Its cast-iron door was bolted to its lid. In the main room were six round tables and plenty of chairs of every variety.

At the very rear, off to the left, separated by a half-wall, was a kitchen area, pots and pans hanging wherever someone had decided to pound a nail. In the far corner stood a branch from a willow tree decorated with cups, a few hats and a hand-written sign. In front of the wall and against that of the building sat two stuffed, well-used sofas at right angles to one another with a similary well-stuffed chair nudged in between. A coffee table holding magazines, cups and one large plastic group-ashtray sat on a thin print rug in front. A cinderblock was propping up the far end. It could've been a living room scene right out of Rural Siberia magazine, if there were such a thing. Alongside it was a huge rock fireplace, now cold.

Clamshell ashtrays, personal cups and crushed cigarette packs dotted the tablescape. At the back on the right sat an old-fashioned wood desk, heavy drawers on its ends; two typewriters rested on its scuffed surface. Paper lay beside them; one had a piece in its roller. Tacked to the wall above was a three-foot square chart of the Sea of Okhotsk. Red dots -- crayon or felt-tip pen -- spotted the southern reaches. One lone mark sat about a mile off the spit. Directly to the right, against the wall, was a long table, about six feet, with an odd-shaped object covering half its surface. The general ambience of the room was lived-in, or as though their most recent residents had simply gotten up and left -- time's up.

Vasily, Hub and Nomad fanned out, taking it all in, sniffing for anything out of the ordinary, like a note saying they'd all gone to the big city. Hub went into the kitchen; Vas, over by the makeshift living room to examine the materials on the coffee table. Nomad, standing off to the right, moved towards the typewriters, but as he did so his eye caught something familiar about the sculpture on the table against the wall. Cautiously, he sauntered over to it, putting his cigarette butt out in a clamshell on the way after lighting another from it.

The object on the table was a good three feet in diameter, made of what appeared to be silly putty or clay, coppery-brown with traces of black thrown in. He stood back to examine it.

He didn't stand quiet long. "Holy shit," he muttered, surprise and certainty mixing together.

Vas dropped a magazine on the table; Hub closed the refrigerator door with a thud. "What!" demanded Vas, annoyed and unnerved by Nomad's tone. "What's holy shit?"

They shuffled over. Nomad wagged his cigarette at the sculpture. Lying on its side, it looked like a wheel with a ball of clay at its hub and nine spokes emanating from it, each ending in a small sphere of its own. They were connected together by curved spokes. The center sphere had pieces of shell embedded in its surface, not completely enfolding it, more like the idea of shell than an attempt to cover it. The overall effect was not one of art; it had another reason for being. He didn't need to say anything. They all knew what it resembled; they'd been working around it for months. It was also what they'd seen on the GPS screen, what Nomad had recognized when no one else had.

Beside the sculpture lay a pile of colored paper like the kind children use to paint on. Vasily spread them out. On black paper he found drawings in red and green that seemed like caricatures of humans -- larger ovalshapes for bodies with smaller ones for faces. They were shaped like bowling pins or penguins without feet and were grouped in fours, almost touching. Features were lines, the mere suggestions of mouths and eyes and hands. On others, stylized paintings -- scrawls really -- done with quick strokes highlighting the faintest outlines of bear, raven, walrus and other creatures of unrecognizable type. On yet other paper, even stranger indecipherable images -- incoherent blends of men and other animals -- ran in circles and around edges only, leaving interiors empty but for an enigmatic black smudge. One orange paper stood out. On it in black was the painting of what could have been a giant squid except for the flattened appearance and irregular circular mouth of jagged teeth. The long spindly claws or arms had pins or nails either sticking in them or pointing out. Fin-shaped extensions ranging in a harmonic of size -- the smallest at the ends, largest in the middle -- lined its exterior.

On the other side of the sculpture was an open notebook. The writing was in a variant of Koryak; only Hub could read it, being the dialect of his people. Vas and Nomad knew enough Chukchi to get by -- a language close to Koryak -- but not enough for the more obscure off-shoots. As Hub read and Vas studied the paintings, Nomad noticed a pile of pebbles lying next to where the book had been. A roundish flat gray one caught his eye. Around its edge ran a ribbon of calcite encircling what appeared to be black volcanic granules clustered in the center. Following an impulse, he touched the black spot with an index finger, presssing it as though it were an on/off switch.

"Urkakhan!" came a deep voice from behind. They turned as one, Hub still holding the notebook. Three Koryaks stood by the door. They looked very much like Hub, only in far better shape. All Nomad could think was -- how the hell did they get in here without me hearing them? "We've been expecting you," said the middle one in Koryak. Hub put the book down, then strode over for handshakes and hugs and pats on the back. Vas and Nomad, breathing a weathered sigh at their own obvious nervousness, shaded between anger and embarrassment. They needed to get a grip. But the cause of the twitches and perspiration -- the question of the day hovering in the air like an oversized vulture -- What the hell is going on? -- soured the family mood somewhat. Sure they were about to find out, they scanned the kitchen for anything resembling alcohol.

Hub called them over for introductions. A younger cousin, Galya, and his two sons. Hub referred to Vas and Nomad as friends and shipmates. They all shook hands and mumbled a greeting, but Vas and Nomad could tell there was a bit of cool reticence in their attitude. They'd seen this before, both being of mixed blood. Vas, half Chuckchi and Russian; Nomad a blend of Chuckchi, Eveni and Ukranian Cossack. And it showed. It showed in their height, skin tone, facial hair, and eye color. Both had blue eyes. And their facial features were thinner and longer; a mere shadow of a Mongolian leaning showed in certain moods. This wasn't one of them. Only their long, straight black hair was Chuckchi, cousin to the Koryaks.

The stiff awkwardness didn't help what was turning out to be a rather strenuous day. A blanket of silence settled like fog on a clear-cut, wrapping each in his own separate skin. Vas and Nomad had been coming here for years and were generally accepted, so considering immediate circumstances, they felt even more uneasy and resentful by this none-too subtle show of rejection and mistrust. It didn't help their sense of the world spinning out of control. They were taking a trip on the far side of the moon.

Nomad's cigarette suddenly burned his fingers. Cursing, he crushed it out in the nearest ashtray. He'd had it. "Listen," he said, irritated and past the point of caring. "We've been through one weird fucking trip gettin' here. What should've taken a long day took just minutes. It was like going through a wormhole or wind tunnel, an express lane. We get here, all the boats are tied up and locked, nobody's around, and there's that." He pointed to the replica of the edifice on the table by the wall. Stepping close to Hub's cousin, he said, low, slow and firm-like, cupping his hands on his chest as though he might grab him at any second, "We want to know what's happened -- what the hell is going on? I think you know."

The air left the room, particles of dust froze in mid-Brownian motion, the battery clock on the wall in the kitchen ticked its detachment. Galya let out a breath, nodded an aware apology, then turned to Hub and said direct as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, in Russian, "Our uncle is near death. He's been through a struggle with spirits." The clock ticked twice. "It wore him out." He bowed his head, fatigue, grief and fear showing in his stalwart face. "We saw your boat come from the hill above the waterfall. He needs you, Urkakhan. He has much to say and we must go before it's too late."

Nomad couldn't help but notice that Galya hadn't blinked an eye when told about their method of transit. Either it didn't register or current events had put them beyond mere space and time anomolies. "Where is everyone?" Nomad blurted, a bit too forcibly perhaps, but so what. "Has the whole town vanished?"

Galya gestured toward a round table nearby. They all sat. Apparently the emergency wasn't quite as urgent as it sounded, thought Nomad. One of his sons went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Nomad lit another smoke. "About a month ago, maybe longer, a few of our fishermen came in with fish we'd never seen before. They were scared. The manager of the cannery and the harbormaster went down to their boats to look. They'd thrown most of them back but saved some to show, as proof. One kind was long and thin, it had no eyes or fins, like a worm, but not exactly, more like,..., more like a scorpion, with a tail like a scorpion's. Another kind, the most of what they caught, was flat, about five feet long, with flippers, like a seal's, like paddles, all around its outer edge. But what was most strange was its eyes and mouth. Eyes on stalks, and the mouth,...," He paused to shake his head, lit a cigarette of his own, then continued. "Its mouth was huge and round." He shaped it with his hands. "With many sharp teeth, not the same, each a different size, and jagged, jagged edged. In the fishholds, they were all dead. But the fishermen said that when alive the mouths closed tight, no room to even get a finger in, or out. Its skin was rough, like a shark's, but not dry -- oily feeling. Other fishermen drifted in over the next week. Same story."

He paused to collect his thoughts. "At the time, I was with my son," nodding towards the kitchen, "Tolya. We had crab pots out, for dinner. While our gear soaked, we pulled them. Never seen nothin' like it. Small creatures. One walked on tentacles with claws at their ends, two rows of long spikes stuck out from its back. Another had five eyes and a long skinny snout with spines on the end. Bug-like creatures with hard body parts on top. Another like a crab, only its head shield had two pairs of large spines curving back over the body. Two pairs of antennas in front. Its body had a large number of segments with identically shaped limbs, like a catepillar." He reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve a small ivory carving, placed it in the center of the table facing Nomad, then sat back. He obviously had a practiced talent and a patience for intricate detail. Against the dark brown of the wood, its creamy color lent it a little too much vibrance for Nomad's taste, as though it might escape its ivory prison and spring on its many legs.

Nomad's skin crawled. He was a kid again, playing hide and seek. Curled up in a wooden cask in somebody's backyard, he felt a tugging on his pant leg as something worked its way up. The sight of the Siberian wolf spider standing on his trousered knee-cap propelled him out of the barrel like a shot from a cannon. He'd never forgotten it. And now this. A tectonic shudder in the pit of his stomach triggered a wave of revulsion that swept over him. With the back of his hand he pushed the alien thing towards the cousin who returned it to his pocket. Both pleased and embarrassed, he whispered, "I have more to show, if you like?" They weren't sure. They remained quiet, disturbed not only by his ability to capture the spirit of the creature, but by the real fact of it as well. They were impressed, in a pushed-back sort of way, like a lead stamp in copper, but waved off seeing any more for the time being.

"There were others that could've been sand fleas except they had long, whiplike appendages in front. They were all between, say," spreading his index finger to thumb as measure, "one inch and five or six. The bait was gone, they were feeding on themselves, fighting. We pulled gear but didn't catch anything. Then we started getting radio talk from others, all talking at once. Yelling about what they caught. Sayin' they were headin' in." He leaned back, took a drag, then jerked forward, suddenly remembering something. "Down south, the Japanese trawl fleet pulled out a month or so ago. Their nets were full of giant jellyfish. Giant," he extended his arms as far as they could go, "ten feet across with thirty foot tentacles. They got their gear trashed; so they dumped nets and left the grounds." He sat back full against the chair. "Nobody's out there now. Nobody I know, anyway. The Sea God -- Raven's Wife -- is up to something. Our uncle knows. His visitors told him."

Galya glanced away for a moment, his face locked in a grimace of anguish and anger. Tapping his fingertips on the table, he said, "The cannery manager let his crew go and shut down. He was scared. Locked his house up and went to Palana. He was scared. Said he wasn't. Said he was closing for lack of product. Bullshit. I mean, it was true, there wasn't any product, but still, he could've stayed to help. People were confused and alarmed. He left 'em. All the boats streamed in, same story. Most of the town left to visit family and friends elsewhere, other villages. We've heard back it's the same up and down the coast, though. The government people in Palana know, of course. But they're keeping it quiet just like the good ole' soviet days. We even had a professor from Magadan fly in, so we know the news is around. He examined the fish with the teeth, snapped some pictures, took one and some of the bugs in a cold box, then left. We haven't heard from him since."

"Why didn't we hear about all this?" wondered Vasily. "Casgrovina is swarming with newspaper and television people. It's the center of the Earth right now. Why no talk of this, for Christ's sake?"

"Maybe that's it," volunteered the cousin. "They're too preoccupied with what's going on there. Everything else -- fish stories -- don't mean much. Has any of your boats gone out lately, besides you?"

"No, nobody. We've all been working on the Dig. They just closed down a couple days ago. We must be the first to head out. But, more will go, soon, they can't sit long this time of year, not with this weather."

"Then they'll find out that way. Then the world will find out."

Tolya brought six cups and a pot of coffee and placed them in the center of the table. He served everyone. They sat and sipped and smoked. The silence was back, only different now. It was the silence of nervous men in the middle of something monstrous and overwhelming none of them could fathom. Fishermen are used to dealing with concrete reality. With wind and rain and sun and salt. With gear and engines and strenuous work and movement of body and cuts and bruises. All the tactile sensations and mental effort associated with a hard, physical life on the sea. Not this. Not strange and unusual creatures from the depths replacing the familiar.

The kitchen clock decided to forgo its indifference and make its presence known. One of its mechanical ticks -- sounding more like a twang -- splintered the surface tension of their reverie like a pebble dropped into a still pond, catalyizing movement, motion. "Urkakhan," Galya said, "we'd better go." Addressing Hub's shipmates, he said, "It's a long walk over this first hill. Ainanwat's yaranga sits outside a cave where he's been camped this past month. I fear for him; we all do. He grows weak, does not eat, yet sings and drums and calls to them."

He looked at Hub, not accusingly, but the tone revealed a tinge of ire, "He asked for you, to help, two weeks ago, we sent you a message."

Hub, shame reddening his face, bowed his head. He said softly, "I came as soon as I could." Then looking his cousin in the eyes, "I had a strange dream. Quikinnaqu was in it. Uncle might tell me what it means." He paused to scan Galya and his sons. "And the way we came here. Maybe he knows that too." He peered at his cousin, gettting back to the original topic, "Besides, I don't know how I can --" he finsihed by shaking his head.

Galya, knowing full well the history and problems Hub faced, silenced him with a palm, then stood. "Let's go. You're all probably hungry. We can eat when we get there. Eat and drink tea, then talk. You'll find out what the hell is going on then."

A nervous chuckle was muffled by chairs scraping the rough wood planks. Vas and Nomad took one last sip, kicking it back like it was vodka, an unfulfilled wish. They filed out into the early evening sun. Hub's cousin had his arm around his shoulders and was mumbling something in Koryak. His sons and Vasily followed. But before he left, Nomad turned once more to take in the model of the edifice on the table by the wall. Why had someone built that? There were pictures in magazines before they locked the media out, but, how could it be connected to what's been happening here? Was it for some ceremonial purpose, or merely the expression of someone's dream?

On impulse, he strode to see what was on the paper in the typewriter -- maybe he could read it. He yanked it out and held it up to what sunlight shone through the dirt-streaked side window. It was in Russian : time has come for us to go, to go to the next plateau, darkness streams and childrens dreams, the earth, all life will end and we -- That was it. He draped the paper over the roller, read it again, lit another cig, then turned on his heel to catch up.


"Ok, let's double check. We may only get one shot at this. You're sure this is where the opening was? I can't tell myself, the seam's not even a memory." Marty looked incredulous and pained at the same time like he just swallowed a bug. "I've been working this project for two months now," he said, exasperation straining his voice, "I could probably find the portal in my sleep. In fact, I think I have once or twice."

Marty's patience had always been a veneer even at the best of times. His easy-going, enfolding personality suffered when he used to fish commercially, and for the same reasons as then, it likewise did now. Immediate circumstances -- life-threatening circumstances -- focused his concentration intensely and completely. He was tired, stressed, short tempered and brooked no inferences that he didn't know what he was doing. Operating beyond the Brink of his knowledge and experience, with untested equipment, confronting unknown alien forces capable of rearranging materials wasn't exactly in the same ballpark as teaching a bunch of freshman the ins and outs of Boyle's Law or the Bernoulli Effect. But he had certain qualities that put him here, why Fitzsimmons chose him for the Puzzle Masters in the first place. He was tough, he thought outside the box, and he never gave up.

Holding the microlocator -- a jury-rigged device capable of translating field lines into a light display -- over the smooth unscratched surface, Marty stepped back on the scaffolding encompassing sphere P-5, then held the signal button down. Through the viewer he could see a faint red circle, a residue of atomic-level tearing and gluing, repair work so fine it could only have been the result of organic healing. And even at that, you'd of seen more scar tissue at that scale. "Yea, that looks good, maybe just a tad to the left." He pointed to the exact spot -- "here."

"Tad," muttered Hans, shaking his head as he slid the ring just so, "you country boys and your slang."

The absence of gravity-wells forming in any of the other spheres had been the clue for Hans. The basic idea was simple: if they can track an interval bracketing that note from the recordings, that note that seemed to come from all directions when he'd gotten trapped in the well's flow, secure a speaker ring around where the opening had been, they just might be able to recreate, through resonance, the state or condition of the surface at that time. Hans reasoned, or had a feeling, that the tone, the modulus, had moved on and was therefore time-specific. Non-local quantum phase information can be recovered and utilized, so, local info could to. The information carried by a quantum hologram encodes the complete history of the object with respect to its three dimensional environment. Over time, it provides an encoded non-local record in four-dimensional spacetime of the object as to the quantum states visited.

Understandably, they would have to sample all possible shorter wavelengths to compensate for the gravitational stretching, which meant downloading the note from the recording and testing it in position. In his lab, the chief engineer, not surprisingly, having become familiar with all the latest acoustic-computer equipment during the past three months, quickly fashioned a girdle encased in vinyl, thin vinyl, consisting of an array of tiny speakers. He had already worked up the microlocator -- his name for it -- when trying to ascertain how the surface of the center sphere had changed locally, using it like one would use a hand-held geiger counter. The ring was placed just outside where the five-foot hole had been cut, which now, due to the surface's transformation, was rendered an impossiblity. The iris valve was lying to the side as though it had been tossed, its throughbolts severed.

Scaffolding surrounded the entire sphere at various heights. At the portal level it consisted of two curved, six-foot wide sections of five-inch thick hard rubber, reinforced within by a spider web of steel wires. The beveled edge where the inner ring met the smooth surface of the sphere was covered with a laminate of isotactic polypropylene which created a surface as flawless as polished instrument mirror and as strong as metal. It formed a perfect seal, particularly when forced down and in by the negative pressure of air evacuation.

The inner air-lock enclosure stretched from the join connecting the two scaffold sections to the opening and around it, tapering as it got closer to the hole, or where the hole used to be. It was made of carbon fibers interwoven with essentially a stiff canvas material four inches thick. The bottom plate where it met the sphere was wrapped in a sheath of the same polypropylene as the edge of the scaffolding. The interior walls and ceiling were coated with a reflective polymer, its laquer-like finish a dark mirror that was not all that reassuring, or flattering, to look at, like a negative print. As a result, the halogen lights attached to the aluminum piping supporting the whole thing, walls and ceiling, produced enough candle power to perform surgery.

Outside the air-lock the outlying section of scaffolding acted primarily as a handy storage and set-up area. It was now almost full to capacity with scientists and worried members of the extended family. They were anxious, quiet, hopeful. Between them and the group inside was the outer air-lock.

By their reckoning, forty minutes had passed. But that was their time. From the perspective of the two trapped techies, they couldn't be sure, time already had shown its rubber-band nature. Hans and two beefy technicians had volunteered for the rescue mission. They were rechecking, for the umpteenth time, the knotted coils of rope and telescoping scaffold sections that might be needed. The medics sat on wheeled-stretchers, fiddling with equipment in anticipation and to keep their minds occupied. Doctor Weingard hovered and paced, examining the entire set-up, never saying a word, anxiety forcing an occasional deep breath. His long drawnout sighs only served to magnify what was already an extremely tense situation. Marty wanted to tell him to knock it off, but, he was Doctor Weingard, what do you do?

The chief engineer stood at Hans's elbow. He wanted to go. After all, he'd been the one who'd given the two permission to retrieve Weingard's camera in the first place. He reasoned that it might be able to tell them something about the sudden gravity-well and the nature of the center sphere, caught at that particular moment, and also why the balcony window had altered its internal atomic lattice to block transparency. Retrieving the spectro-camera, therefore, was still on the to-do list. But Hans talked the chief out of going. He felt he had to be the one, had to subject himself once again to the strange atmosphere of P-5. It drew him like a drug he couldn't afford and yet couldn't resist. Besides, if something were to go wrong, he wanted the innovative engineer on the outside working on their rescue. Moreover, Hans hoped that what the interior structure, with its irregular, chaotic surfaces, had brought to mind might this time be jogged to awareness. He felt it was important, important enough to risk his skin.

Everyone within the inner sanctum, Hans, Marty, the two medics, the techies, Weingard and the chief were all fully suited. Hans nodded to Marty and the two techies. Everyone swivelled his plastic face protection down, clicking them into place almost as one. The double-thick outer iris was secured and the air pumped out. The outside air was not allowed to contaminate the inner gases of the sphere, and vice-versa. They had learned from the first four they had carelessly, and unprofessionally, ripped into.

Everyone involved now still shook their head in disbelief whenever it was mentioned. Fingers had been pointed but no one was willing to accept blame, except for Doctor Tolstoy, the head administrator. But, in his defense, he'd been busy organizing, consulting with and contacting other scientists, and contending with the media, among other things, and wasn't aware it was happening. He just assumed, wrongly, that the operation was going along with proper oversight. When he finally found out, he put the brakes on the entire bloody mess and quickly assembled a committee to establish a professional system, to adopt a model approach, to treat the interior of each sphere as though it was an alien planet, or an ancient tomb with mummies and manuscripts that could be destroyed by contact with air.

He instituted stringent protocols, order, formal rules to abide by and contingencies to follow in the event of any of a rather long list of possible problems. He'd been amazed and outraged, anguished and embarrassed that it had not been the accepted norm from the git-go. Amateurs he'd muttered derisively, over and over for weeks. Some believe that initial screwup had been the trigger waking the edifice.

But this problem was not on the list. With the iris valve no longer operable, they had no way to pump the sphere's atmosphere back in, assuming this project went acccording to plan. Whatever gases got trapped within the inner air-lock would just have to be stuck, vented to the outside. Things were unravelling, so neatness and proper procedure had ceased to be an issue. Lives were at stake.

When the green OK light flickered on, Marty didn't hesitate. He flipped the switch and the sound of that long, drawn out note issued forth from the ring of speakers. Hans could barely hear it, his experience had been based on feel, bodily sensation. He placed his booted foot next to the ring and listened. It was too high, he knew. He gestured to Marty who was systematically going through the allowable frequencies, the range of notes. Time ticked on.

The vibration up his leg was erratic, wavelengths fighting one another, vying for dominance. Suddenly, a soothing warmth issued forth from the surface, a harmony of interfacial tones hummed a sweetness that was almost sensual. Before he could completely lose himself in its seductiveness, the circle of material where the opening had been disappeared, evaporated. He actually expected this, assuming his theory was correct, but it still stunned him. Things just didn't happen that way in his world, even if you anticipated them. They half expected, or hoped might be a better word, to see the engineers sitting on the steps or milling about at its base, waiting for rescue that would be sure to come. They were disappointed.

He cast an eye towards the two volunteer engineers, trying to convey with a piercing directness the level of his concern, in case they needed to be reminded of the seriousness of their endeavor. They didn't. They'd been dealing with this monumental and overly-complex conundrum for months now and had become conditioned to its sudden, inexplicable changes -- the jump in the rate of pattern transformation, the shift in atomic-lattice properties rendering the surface of the center sphere impenetrable, the escape of the gases from the tank farm, and now this, the openings cut in the surfaces of all the outer spheres abruptly sealing shut simultaneously, trapping two of their colleagues and teammates with a minimal amount of air -- one hour.

Hans pulled a small two-inch long bar-magnet from a pocket on his sleeve, hesitated a moment, then tossed it through the manhole to the deck below. Nothing. The opening didn't waver, it held. "What was that?" Marty wanted to know, not taking his eyes off the tiny display screen.

"The body radiates a biomagnetic field, right?" replied Hans, "that magnet doesn't have the same characterisitcs, but, it's all I could come up with on such short notice." The little test didn't exactly put his mind completely at rest. What if the sound stops, even for a microsecond? The ring was put together in rather a hurry. Just like Christmas lights, one speaker goes they all go. Suppose my body or the suit somehow, magnetic field notwithstanding, interrupts the signal and the opening just as suddenly closes, with me in the middle? Suppose the sphere, or its brain, recognizes what's going on and corrects for it? Overriding the dampening time-displacement effect? How close to the note do we have to be? How precise the frequency? Any leeway?

Movement, he had to move before he froze in place. Time was running out. As he stepped towards the hole, the chatter of doubts and questions in his head was easily eclipsed by his thumping heart and the acid adrenaline rushing through every muscle, electrifying nerves. As he stared intently at the top landing of the fifteen-foot high, free-standing metal stairway, an unmistakable vertigo and queasiness overwhelmed his resolve. The 20-foot wide deck of the sphere below seemed to rush up, at the same time he felt a tug or pull threatening to drag him down, as though the gravity well was seeking him out -- a lost fish.

For a long moment he was a child standing in the surf at the beach in Atlantic City, bracing his knees, watching the green water rapidly recede between his legs, feeling the gradually increasing strength of the undertow as his feet slowly got buried in the sand.

He went limp, his blood turned to ice water and his chest tightened, he was terrified. A shudder spasmed his whole body, then was gone. Someone walked across your grave, his grandmother used to say. It was no longer an abstract exercise, he realized, he was really going back in. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a moment, and did his best to rid himself of the vivid sensation of tumbling down a narrow tunnel -- a rabbit hole.

Carefully, he stepped over the smoothly humming ring of speakers, gingerly aiming his foot like a ballet dancer for the landing. Resisting the temptation to grab the edge for balance, he started down, cleared the hole and hurried to the deck. Feeling suddenly anxious and alone, he glanced up to make sure the other two were following, and to lock eyes with Marty for one solid second.

He faced the altar, or whatever, at the end of the 100-foot walkway, the flickering lights beyond still going through their crazy trip. Good, he thought, relieved a little. Even more than being trapped in here, his biggest fear was that he'd find the lights set in a given configuration, no longer cycling through infinite possibilities, but settled, finally, on the end game. The amalgam of stalagmites and stalactites jutting out towards him at every conceivable angle, shape and size seemed different somehow. There were so many, he had no hope of remembering the approximate position of any individuals, but the overall look and feel of the forest had definitely changed, perceptively. Once again he had that sensation or inkling in his brain that it was like something he saw long ago, something that had impressed him. In spite of the gravity of the situation, he couldn't help but laugh at himself. Suppose, he thought, I eventually remember, and it turns out to be completely irrelevant and meaningless?

The two engineers walked up on either side. There wasn't a lot of places to search. This walkway, still illuminated by battery-powered sidelights for most of its length, a few were out here and there, and the one that ended at the balcony, its window or membrane now gone milky white. They turned to scan that direction, but the lights were out along the whole 100 feet of the connecting corridor, the deck was dark. Their worst fear was that something had caused the two techies to fall the five stories to the cavernous and jagged-peaked bottom. It was dark down there. If that was the case, it would take time to retrieve them, and they would no doubt be dead.

No instructions were necessary. The engineers detached two lights from stanchions suction-cupped to the glass-like deck on either side and proceeded to systematically scour the canyons below. Hans radioed to the others above what they were doing and that he was going to check the balcony corridor. As he walked passed the stairway, an icy streak ridged his spine. He was facing the source of the well. Irrationally, he decided to go in without a light, as though he was back on the street and didn't want to draw attention to himself. But, in this case, who would notice?

Just as he passed into the darkened corridor, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he began to slow.

He was nineteen again. It was late at night in an unfamiliar part of the city. He decided on impulse to take a shortcut through a dirt walkway that ran under a street. The light on the pole was out, kicked out probably, an easy thing to do if you know how. In the utter darkness he couldn't make out where the crown of the archway curved down to the concrete-faced sides, a perfect place for homeless people to live. But also the perfect place for people to hide until some idiot walked through and got to the middle. He smelled dampness, moisture; heard a trickle of water running down the wall off to his right, most likely from the street above, puddling in the dirt and gravel.

Halfway through, he almost stopped. For the first time in his life he had what they called an out-of-body-experience. He'd read about them and heard about them, but, being a young big-city kid and knowing it all, dismissed it as hippy bullshit and nonsense. But, that's what popped into his head when it happened -- out-of-body. He grew so cold, so quickly, he almost wet his pants. His legs turned to ice and he wanted to stop, to call out; he was sure he'd heard something off to the sides, in the oily, black recesses, people, waiting for him to stop from sheer fear. But he didn't. He knew, he had some street smarts, not enough to have avoided his present situation, but it was too late, there he was. And one thing you didn't want to do in that particular circumstane was to show fear, to stop moving and just wait for whomever to do what they wanted to do. No. You keep moving, which is what he did then, at nineteen, and what he did now.

The lights set along the edge at intervals where the deck met the corridor were out. As he walked, the spider-web mesh of rapidly blinking lights behind him bathed the darkness of the tunnel ahead with splotches of fabric, illuminating tiny islets of color and shade, pulsating like a strobe, transmuting too quickly to focus.

He remembered that time in Tokyo, he'd wandered off a main drag one night down a dark alley to where he thought a small cafe was. It'd been recommended by friends. Friends who, as it turned out, weren't all that great at giving directions. He was lost. He felt that way now. The neon beckoned, trying to call him back. As he neared the edge of diminishing returns, he fumbled in the unfamiliar utility belt for the small flashlight. Just as he was about to turn it on, a faint twinkle of light at the far end of the tunnel stopped him in his tracks. It was so dim, he wasn't sure, but then it flashed again like a signal. Had they heard over the radio but were unable to respond?

Leaving the flickering patterns of the design rippling and blurring, richocheting off the semi-cylindrical surface in ever broadening spots, he aimed the steady white beam of the flashlight down the middle of the road and strode on, buoyed by what looked like a sign of life.

Unable to hear his own footfalls in the suit had disturbed him the first time, earlier that day, as a matter of fact, he was stunned to recall. But now, in this tight enclosure, the sound bouncing off the close walls might be too much. Momentarily, peering to the far end of the corridor, corkscrewing his vision to a point at the bottom of the cone, a weakness pulled his plug and grabbed his throat, making it difficult to breathe. How could they walk this hundred-foot pipe day in, day out, for the past two months, for God's sake? Carrying equipment in these clumsy plastic suits and fishbowl helmets? That's nuts! Even with lights. He tried to take a deep breath but couldn't. Again -- too much -- he tingled, hyperventillating. That quick, he thought. He felt cold and clammy, beads of sweat threatened to fall into his eyes; the interior scrubber had yet to react to the sudden shift in body climate.

He halted and let his arms drop and body go limp. He needed to slow down. His heart raced, he felt foolish. An anxiety attack! of all things. He turned sharply, irritated, as though he'd been given the wrong directions. He thought about calling to the others; he couldn't see them from his vantage point. Time mattered. The others were searching by grid, they couldn't afford to be interrrupted, and for what? What would he say? Help me, I feel faint. It's too claustrophobic in here.

His mind pitched, untethered. Concentrate, he commanded. Breathe. Focus. I can't take a deep breath! Why the fuck not?

The black abyss before him gobbled the milky circle of light after no more than 15 feet, bouncing off the shifting tidal densities like high beams off fog, refracting through the splotchy inconsistent interior of what passed for atmosphere, crests of waves undulating down the perfectly curved cylinder.

Sweating in the suit in spite of the scrubber's efforts, Hans seemed to have gotten over the worst of his anxiety attack even though he continued to struggle for breath. Graver problems loomed overriding mere death by asphyxiation. For instance, what would he do if that gravity-well kicked in again? And when would he make contact with the membrane? He'd guessed fifty feet to go, but, that seemed like an hour ago. Since then he'd lost contact with the notion of distance. The puny light from his flash didn't venture very far, yet he could see what he surmised were flashes from theirs at the far end of the tunnel. How? Why does that happen? What's the physics? He couldn't remember. His brain felt like it was seizing up, going stiff, inflexible, frozen with fear. How did their light get through the intervening medium? What did he actually see?

"Are you okay, Hans?" crackled through his ears, static jabbing like ice-sickles causing him to almost drop the flashlight, or worse. He pulled up, practicing rhythmic breathing. "Fine, fine," he replied flatly, an unfamilar hoarseness in his voice. "For a freaked-out old man walking into the pit of never-never land."

"Where are you?" Marty wanted to know.

"The belly of the dragon, almost."

"What's that? I'm having trouble hearing you. Lots of static."

"About halfway down the corridor to the center sphere." He shined the feeble light in what he considered that direction. "I don't know how much further to the balcony, but, if they're not there, I don't know what. We might need stretchers. And bring bigger lights! The flashlight they give ya' with this monkey suit leaves a lot to be desired."

"What's wrong with the lights?"

"Out, all of them, out. I don't know why. I'm guessing the gravity stream drained them somehow but, I don't know. What I do know is that it's darker than shit in here. And the gases -- I suppose it's the gases -- are playing with what light I got. Varying densities like oil spots on water, condensing then thinning out, breaking apart to form tinier spots, then joining up with others to congeal again. It reminds me of the mirrors in the funhouse on Steel Pier in Atlantic City."

"Your voice sounds funny, Hans. Strained. Are you sure you're all right?"

Hans wanted to say, No, I'm not all right. I'm seriously disturbed and I want to get the hell out of here, now. But, instead, he said, "Yea, I'm OK. It's just the closeness, as I go further in. And I'm not used to this suit. I'd like to rip this helmet off."

"No. Don't do that, Hans. Those gases aren't deadly, I mean toxic, but they're not air either. You'd suffocate."

"Well I call that deadly. Are you all right, big guy? How're those speakers workin'? We gonna hold onto our hole?"

"It's fine," Marty assured in his most no-nonsense tone. "We have an almost unlimited power supply. It's fine. But don't dawdle. That's my advice. Get a move on, bub. Nothing lasts forever."

Nothing lasts forever. Is that right? I'm thinking this tunnel is a contender. He turned to scope out the main hall. The light should be brighter, he thought. It was not much more than a pinprick, like he was looking through the large end of a telescope. He no longer sensed walls around him. He hadn't been able to see them for some time, but at least he'd had the feeling they were there. He walked the few feet to where the curved surface of the cylindrical tunnel should be, his light's extent growing shorter with each step as though it was meeting resistance. Ten feet from center was a curved wall, should be, he knew. He walked ten, then more, fifteen. Instinctively he put his hand out as the light grew dimmer and shorter still, waiting to bump his head. His blood turned to ice as the fear of falling off a cliff became palpable. He stopped, throwing the light back and forth. The suit scrubber hummed, his breathing shallowed, sweat beaded his forehead and neck. What the fuck is going on?

He spun towards the exit, the direction he came from. Shining the light, he saw nothing. He turned it off, still nothing, not even the faintest dot. It was black as pitch. How far had he come? Fifty, sixty feet? Where's the entrance? It's twenty feet wide, for Christ's sake!

He looked the other way. A light, faint but unmistakable, a tiny spot, yellowish. Perhaps he'd gotten turned around somehow, he thought, got disoriented. He didn't believe it, but, stranger things were happening. He started off towards where he'd seen the light. Their signal again, probably, he thought, but not with the same conviction he had before. Certainty and confidence were quickly oozing away, dissipating along with his flash's strength. But he plowed on, and that's how it felt -- plowing through ever thickening fog.

Suddenly the hue and texture of everything shifted, as though spring air had just blown across his body. His mind wandered. He was twenty-five again, visiting Marty in Cordova, Alaska during fishing season. Marty had a cabin a couple of miles north of town in what they called Hippy Cove. It was an unsettled area, no street lights. Marty had left town to go fishing during one of the rare openers that year. Hans was coming back alone from getting drunk in town. He left the gravel road and headed up the narrow dirt trail to their cabin. The tiny flashlight he had suddenly stopped working, dead; it had a short to begin with, one of those you had to shake from time to time to get to work. He shoved it into his back pocket and pulled out a lighter. It was the type you had to hold down to keep lit. He tried to negotiate the uphill, stoney tree-lined path. The lighter didn't throw very far -- a foot or two -- and the terrain got steeper and more difficult. He'd been up here a few times in the daylight before and was fairly certain he knew its twists and turns and idiosyncrasies. But, he was a city kid, after all. Landmarks were for country folk. If he'd been trying to get somewhere he was unsure of, he'd call a cab.

He stooped down as close to the ground as he could, looking for tiny tell-tale signs of use. Just as his drunken ego was beginning to feel like an accomplished trail blazer, he banged his head into a tree, hard. That was it. He was tired and drunk and only wanted to get home to his nice warm sleeping bag. The lighter grew too hot to hold so he stopped to take in his surroundings but couldn't see his hand in front of his face. It was cloudy, no moon, no starlight.

After the lighter cooled somewhat he went back to practically crawling, the lighter on the ground ahead. He was just about ready to give up and try to make his way back down and settle for a motel room when the door of Marty's cabin opened just a few feet ahead and to the side with Marty holding a kerosine lantern. Hans heard his laugh as he told him how much noise he was making. He'd never been so glad to see a light. If only Marty, or someone, would do that now.

Hold it, he said to himself, feeling a bit nervous about doing so as though someone pursued him. Which way am I going? Am I heading for the center or the main Ballroom? He dowsed the light. As he slowly did a 360, the only sound he heard was his breathing. It was dark as the inside of a coal mine; no lights anywhere. How long had he been walking down this God-forsaken pipe? Two steps every second, 100 feet, that makes 25 seconds, no more to complete the entire length. So, where am I? Could I've been walking less than 25 seconds, or more? He forced himself to think. The tunnel is only 20 feet in diameter, the roof only 10 feet above but it curves, so, as I walk to either side I should eventually bang my head. But, that didn't happen last time. He had forgotten about that, blew it off.

He needed to reconnoitre. Do the math, he ordered. The ceiling is only 10 feet above the floor. Holding the flash at arm's length overhead, he only had two feet to go. But the light was blocked by the intervening gases. Never mind, he thought, it must be there, but it gave him the creeps. He no longer trusted what he couldn't see or touch.

Even if I'd been meandering -- most likely, in fact -- as far to the left as I could go and then made a ninety degree to the right -- he paused. He was having trouble concentrating. Annoyed, he reminded himself: this is not quantum physics. I'm dealing with a circular cylinder here. At my height plus the helmet I should either bump my head or at least see the surface after about 14 feet. But,..., how am I to know if I'm going perpendicular to the center line or not? At a sharp angle it could be considerably greater than 14 feet.

As he stood in the gathering storm of confusion, the wavering of the gases seemed to increase. His faceplate fogged-up slightly as though a cold front was passing through. The internal heater caught it and began to blow tiny jets of hot air to compensate and evaporate the cool mist. The gases had been in motion, or commotion, from the beginning of this adventure, but now they were becoming increasingly frenetic. But why? he wondered, amazed and dumbfounded. What's causing it? There's no wind. These are no ordinary gases. But he trudged on, confident, at least, that he wouldn't fall off the edge of the walkway. The worst that could happen was he'd bang his helmet or run smack into the window at the far end. Isn't it?

He had to move. Limb-deadening fear transmuted into anger; an old trick, he let it. He wished he had a compass, but, he guessed, it probably wouldn't work in here. Whatever had drained the batteries of the tunnel lights wouldn't allow it. Is that what's happening to this worthless flashlight? Is that what's happenning to me? He didn't want to think about it. If he just started charging ahead, ever mindful of the shape of things, he'd have to run into something -- eventually, wouldn't he? The sound of the scrubber kicked in, breaking the spell, giving him impetus. He flicked the flashlight on and headed off in the direction he was aiming. What the hell, he thought, when it's all the same, it's all the same.

Conditions grew worse as he went, the clouds turbulent. Though he felt no resistance, it was like walking through soup or the atmosphere of Jupiter. He could barely see his feet with the feeble light. Suddenly the radio crackled static. It sounded like one of the engineers. He could only pick up a few words: "lights... flickering... movement... no luck... Rick's suit... malfunction... out... notes... music... ceiling moving --."

Then silence. He tried to call: "Marty? Marty, can ya' hear me, buddy?" He listened as he walked. "Can anybody hear me? Hello out there in radioland. MARTY! Come back,..., over." Nothing. Not even static. That did it, he thought, sweat beading in places it never had before. I'm out o' here. Stopping, he gave the space a 360 again, scanning for lights, anything that even resembled lights. But it was the same; he couldn't see for shit.

He flicked on the flashlight. As if on cue, the gases nearby shifted and separated, shimmying into perceivable patterns -- gingerbread men -- like before, earlier that day, in fact, when he'd gotten caught in the gravity stream. It seems so long ago, he reflected, stunned by the crunch of events. But they weren't the same shapes as before, no, they took on more familiar shapes. Three, in particular. They approached, smiling crazily, heads far too big for nondescript bodies, sketched faces plastered on overlarge heads of milky snowmen, undulating and convulsing snowmen. They spoke to him, or at least one did, he wasn't sure. He heard them through his helmet, somehow. "Glip, Glip, ole pal. Let's go back here and play stickball. C'mon."

He recognized them then: Johnny and Franky Dinella, and Whitey, one of his best friends. But, they're all dead.

"C'mon, Glippy; we got the stuff back here, up near the wall. Let's play!"

The faces grew more detailed, expanding like balloons, smiling insanely, menacing but in a curiously unintentional way. Hans knew this but he didn't know how he knew it. He wasn't frightened but he was deeply concerned as to his own menatl state. Was he hallucinating from the strain? Analyzing, he suspected he was projecting from memory, of course, but something had to pluck those memories from the recesses, and the questions -- why and how -- stood out rather dramatically. But, he'd learned in the past few days to expect anything and to simply go with it -- for now.

They twisted about and peeled away from one another, heading off in one direction, which Hans took to be the end of the tunnel where the window or membrane was. They must mean that, he thought. They're trying to tell me where it is, a direction to go. Are they attempting to help me get my bearings? he wondered. Why the hell would they do that?

But just as abruptly as they precipitated out of the fog, they vanished, leaving him on his own once again, to decide. The murk seemed to be getting worse, as though some force further on was stirring up a vortex and pushing it his way. Hans, the shook-up human wanting only to escape to safer and saner climes vied with Hans the scientist and curious investigator. If he left now -- assuming he could -- he'd never be back, no one would after his report. The piece of equipment they were supposed to retrieve -- Weingard's spectroscanner/camera -- supposedly stood at the far end of this tube, where Whitey and the Dinella brothers were heading. What could it tell us? he considered. It had disconnected -- spontaneously -- from the main feed -- the powerpack -- just prior to the window going opaque.

The main connected it to the others but, according to Weingard, there was enough juice in the camera itself to record for up to an hour. So, maybe there was something. Maybe it had a clue. Maybe. He had to go. Besides, the missing techies may very well be there, lying in the balcony in need of assistance, or dead. How he'd be able to get them out would be another problem. If radio contact failed altogether, he'd have to go back for help, which means he'd have to come this way again. He cursed the chief engineer, the two who volunteered knowing Fitzsimmins's orders -- all engineers, here and around the world. But, he had to go for it, follow the stickball apparitions.

It seemed like he'd walked for days, mile after mile, a march in a world that made no sense. Ahead the shimmering fog thinned to wisps and began to clear; it almost alarmed him. The suit-air warmed noticeably; the jets stopped their sporadic squirting. The light of the flash intensified, covering more ground, or not ground actually -- wood. The excitement of familiarity coursed his veins. He was on the boardwalk, the boardwalk in Atlantic City. He could see the grey, weathered planks; hear waves crashing on the beach, the surf hissing across the rough sand; the murmurings of people and occasional exhuberant shouting in the background somewhere. He smelled peanuts and water taffy and the ocean and kelp heated by the day's roaring temperatures. He heard the clatter and ring from a nearby arcade, the ones he loved and spent so much time and dimes in. To either side he sensed the travel of those electric carts used to carry folks, boardwalk cabs, he used to call them.

On a whim, the whole family would take off late at night during the hot sticky humid summer in Philly, and run down Blackhorse Pike or the new Atlantic City expressway to the beach. Always Atlantic City, for his grandparents. His grandparents. He stopped in his tracks and spun quickly, looking for them. How much of this dream could he recapture? "Gramps," he called, tears welling in his eyes. He saw no one, not even cloud-people, only muffled sounds of phantasms in the apparent distance. Lowering his head, he choked off a sob. He needed to regain his composure, what there was of it.

He turned back to the grand promenade of the walk. Amused, he wondered if Steel Pier would be in this fantasy. Could he go out to its end and watch the Diving Horse do its thing one last time? He proceeded, feeling surprisingly relaxed, almost eager. He could hear his footfalls on the tired wood; certain he could feel it through imaginary sandals. In time, he knew not how much -- as though it mattered anymore -- he came to a precipice of darkness, a sheer ending to the boardwalk of boardwalks.

He pulled up at the edge, an imprecise fringe; as though hitting a black wall, his light went no further. It didn't spread out like it would on an ordinary wall, it just stopped, cut off. After a moment to take in his position, he stepped to the sides several feet in either direction looking for the men. No luck. Was he on the balcony? he wondered. If so, where's the window? At that thought, he backed quickly from the seeming abyss, suppressing the urge to vertigo. The boardwalk illusion continued, but the smells and sounds were gone, replaced by utter silence save for the low muffle of the suit heater.

Years ago he had gone to the McMurdy Research Facility in Antarctica on a story. While there he'd decided to go out on the ice, far from the station, and camp out for a few days by himself. He wanted to experience deep silence, silence like the kind one might encounter in space. He was dropped off, given a radio in case of emergency and left alone with a tent, sleeping bag and some food and water. It took two days before the chatter in his head ceased, the constant thoughts about societal matters, relationships, responsibilities. Then the quiet kicked in. The all-pervasive enveloping quiet. He sat all day looking out at the infinite whiteness in all directions, and except for the slightest of breezes across the frozen vastness, complete and thorough silence surrounded him. That's what it amounted to now, only without the breeze.

If the window vanished or evaporated, then where has the hovering sphere gone? Was he looking out at emptiness? Or peering in at a void or breach of unfathomnable dimensions where the whole idea of inside and outside was completely irrelevant? And what caused that flashing light?

It was a stillness so perfect as to dissolve away all anxiety, all concern, all meaning -- the stillness of peace and death and beyond. And for that reason, Hans, the street sensible boy of the big city neighborhood, didn't trust it one bit. Something was terribly wrong here, and he needed to find out, ascertain, analyze and then get the hell out. Or possibly all of the above at the same time.

Human. A voice. A hoarse, hollow steam-heated whisper. Or was it an echo of his own tired thoughts? It came from within, certainly, but how deep within? It felt like his whole body resonated with sound. Human. Merge -- consume subliminal thought -- One and other. The One has called you, a singleton. Time ends. The set of all that is joins the set of one -- you. We seek a way. Life empties form. Transformation will occur within a time you cannot know. You do not see the real. It is beyond you. The One has questions. We must commingle. Now.

Hans felt himself being sucked into the ancient black aperture before him. His soul forcibly stretched, elongated and drawn out like silk through a spinneret. His pulse leapt into overdrive. That's fuckin' it, man, he decided. I'm outa here. He spun on his suited heel and ran pell-mell for the exit, if such a thing any longer existed. No sooner had he started his retreat, he collided full force into the curved wall, hard, cracking the plastic faceplate. The suit's safety mechanisms kicked in. A micro-thin plastic sheet, like saran wrap, dropped over the outside of the mask, pulling tight at the corners. It was only meant to be temporary, so visibility was minimal and blurry. The impact caused him to stumble and drop the flashlight. They'd been through a lot together, it had fought hard against overwhelming odds, so he wasn't about to leave it behind. As he rose to run, he grabbed it like the hand-off baton in a track relay and took off for the finish line.

The boardwalk had disappeared, replaced by the unknown polymer skin of the corridor. The fog had dissipated as well. At the far end, not more than 80 feet away, he saw the bright stanchion lights flanking the border of the sphere walkway -- the light at the end of the tunnel -- the massive cavern clearly visible, framed in the semicircle of the pipe he wished to vacate. The blinking, everchanging design speckling that end of the tube filled him with a queer, childlike pleasure. After confronting and almost being swallowed by the coldest black, the dancing yellows, reds, greens, and blues of the design brought to mind thoughts and feelings of Christmas time. He ran towards them, watching their bleary flickering on the floor around him and their hyperbolic reflection on the curved overhead; imagining their comparative warmth; absorbing their apparent aliveness.

The suit was not designed for speed; it was cumbersome at best and worked against his movements. He ran, lurched, caromed like a billiard ball, fell, rose, gasped for air, but kept on going. The suit's scrubber worked against the sweat on brow and elsewhere. When he reached the mouth of the corridor, he tripped over his own feet and went sprawling face first, a death grip on the flash. The two engineers were busy helping the ones they came to rescue up the stairs. Startled, they stopped to stare, wide-eyed alarm streaking their strained expressions.

"Hans," exclaimed Marty, stooping. "Nice landing. You got a bear on your ass? What the hell's up, bub?"

With effort, Hans rolled onto his back. "Christ, what happened to your faceplate?" Unable to speak, Hans struggled one way, then the other, trying to stand. The suit weighed a ton and fought him like a lead blanket. Ignoring Hans's predicament, Marty continued, "I couldn't get you on the radio. Nothin' but static. You lose your radio when you cracked your helmet? Can ya' hear me now? Hans?" Looking up at Marty, Hans wearily nodded assent. "I guess you were too far down the corridor; whatever drained the batteries musta interfered."

Hans's eyes widened as he mumbled, "I guess."

Marty relentlessly drove on, "We found these two holding onto the top of one of the peaks up by the table. There's no rail there. No broken bones, apparently. Some kinda miracle." Marty reached down and under the armpit of the first techie. With help from one of the medics, they pulled him up and through the opening, avoiding the speaker ring like the plague, the chief holding it in place, just to be sure. "They said the entire atmosphere went white, or greyish white, shiny, I don't know, like fog," Marty said, surprise lacing his tone, "when they were comin' back with the camera. God only knows where that is now. At the bottom of the ocean, no doubt." Annoyed disbelief edged his voice, "They walked right past the stairway a hundred extra feet. Then they thought they saw it and stepped over the precipice. I believe it, of course, but, Jesus, a hundred feet is not 200. I'm sorry," Marty groused, not sounding sorry in the least, "but that's how I feel." He was angry. He always got that way whenever anyone in his charge, so to speak, came close to death or serious injury. It was a mask people who knew him understood. After what he'd been through, Hans would've laughed at Marty's incredulousness, but he didn't have the strength.

As Marty reached for the other survivor, he pointed out, as if on second thought, "Oh, look at your stalactites, Hans, your Rocky mountains. The whole deal began moving right after we talked, or not too much after. See any difference?" Marty peered down past the struggling Hans and the walkway. "In fact, they're still moving."

Hans finally managed to stand, haggard and uncertain. He didn't answer. He had a lot to say, but right now, all he wanted to do was get out, take the suit off and curl up somewhere with a stiff drink, probably several stiff drinks, most assuredly several stiff drinks. Slowly, his neck and head throbbing, he faced the cavern's vast expanse of outthrusts and protuberances, jagged peaks and shadowy valleys, jutting knobs, torturously twisted gullies and ravines, fractures, grooves, nooks and crannies. The entire spherescape before him was subtly but quite obviously altering its appearance, like a thick gravy ever so slowly bubbling and boiling. As he watched through the dim glare of the plastic sheet pulled taut over his faceplate, Marty told him about the music, or notes of what might as well had been music. He asked if he'd heard any of it. Probably not, he answered himself. It resonated right through suits and helmets, he related, seeming to come from everywhere at once, the floor, the walls.

Just then, Hans saw -- that's it! It came to him. When he was in high school, he remembered, two scientists from neighboring Bell Telephone Labs were guest speaking, going from classroom to classroom throughout the day. In fact, small note, they gave their lecture during his trigonometry class. He had been impressed, both by them and their talk; it was a major influence on his decision to become a physicist. On his teacher's flat desk they had placed a three-dimensional model -- a sculpture in clay -- of the sound of a spoken word. He had tried to imagine how it would transform in real time as someone talked or when music played.

The wheels spun: Optical interference between a reference beam and an object beam, due to the superposition of the light waves, produces a hologram -- the series of intensity fringes that can be recorded on photographic film. When the processed holographic film is illuminated once again by a reference beam, the object is reproduced, in three dimensions, all points of view taken into account. He ceased to breathe for a moment, concentrating. The edifice is not a light reproduced hologram, he realized, somewhat surprised at his own obtuseness.

I had thought the small hovering sphere generated the interior structure of the outlying spheres as well as its own compartment sphere through light interference. After all, light is predominant. In fact, I'd thought it generated the entire edifice itself -- autocatalytic. But then, what creates the hovering sphere? Where does it come from? He worked through ideas of self-contained and pre-existing energy and matter. What was before the Big Bang? Was there a before? He surveyed the restless landscape. What is going on? Sound? Sound, resonating sound, yes, that's why I suspected the hole idea would work, he thought; it was just a hunch, an intuition, but, I never imagined it could be used to reach into a person's brain, selectively retrieve memories, with all their associated parts, scattered, distributed over time and space, and then materialize them. How in the hell?

The vibrations and resonances of sound, he mused, but not sound in the usual way we tend to think of it, of course. Not vibrations through some medium like air or water that impinges on our ears. No, vibrations like -- strings of pure energy. The nuances of tone and pitch, melody, chords -- musical notes -- not only self-catalyze but somehow work together to assemble and project manifestaions, shadows and all. Light can be conceived as strings of pure energy. And so? But what is it that they heard? What did I hear, in fact, that first time when trapped in the gravity-well?

It moved at the speed of cold mollasses, but nonetheless, the tumultuous sea before him shapeshifted perceptively as he gazed and wondered, fascinated and transfixed by his revelation. But finally, as though a switch had tripped, weariness and strain clouded his mind. He almost collapsed; his shoulders folded forward, legs quivered. It was all too much. Later would be time to ponder and discuss. That thought gripped him like a pair of steel hands as he suddenly reflected on his encounter with the mysterious Voice. If there is any time later, he considered soberly.

Resolution and a slight tremor of fear shot a jolt of adrenaline through his stressed-out body. He moved up the steps behind the last engineer, then paused halfway to take in the entire undulating, scintillating cavern as one might for a once-in-a-lifetime vista he believed, or knew, he'd never see again -- like a far-off planet -- or, to simply bid farewell to a place that would always be unforgettable, etched, as it were. Even through the diffuse blear of the plastic, overwhelmed by the countless colors from the fluctuating design dappling the sublime inner space, dancing to a rhythm all its own, he couldn't help but think -- how gloriously and outrageously beautiful!

With uncharacteristic gentleness, Marty prompted. Hans turned to go, but just as, saw the altar, or table, twist and bend and contort in totally improbable ways, incongruously supple and fluid, sensuous and corporeal. It began almost daintily at first, but increased rapidly to a vigorous tempo. Through a series of time-phase displacements, the movements were too fleeting to arrest separately. His vision failed to focus on any individual one, if indeed there were any individual ones. The altar's appearance when still had been so heavy and brittle, inflexible in fact, yet now it flashed through its routine with dramatic flair and effortless grace and beauty -- like a living being. No, more than that -- like thought given substance.

He knew from Marty's position he couldn't see what was going on at the far end of the walkway. Hans wanted to call his attention to it, but the show stopped him. Stopped him cold and drew him -- this grandiose display -- unmistakably. Performed for his benefit alone, he imagined. Or maybe he simply didn't want to share. He did feel a certain affinity, a strange, satisfying, yet frightening melding. Had he been chosen for something? Was it that crazy? Was he being seduced? How could he conceive of the altar now, what had it transformed into? -- something as mundane as a tuning fork? Part of a control relay like Rocky had suggested? Or possibly -- an orchestra conductor?

Feeling flush, he smiled wanly, then, accepting Marty's hand under his arm, proceeded up and out, up and out of the rabbit hole.


[The mathematical and scientific concepts in the following chapter (and others involving the operative) have been simplified, couched and rephrased in terms we humans may be able to grasp.]

Without the proclivity for spontaneous action interwoven into the tapestry of order, the operative would not be capable of self-direction and would not be capable of [or have an aptitude for] seeking optimal solutions or improvements. It tended to evolve towards ever increasing degrees of a generalized complexity, while yet maintaining focus on elementary contributors and constituent building-blocks of the texture of realities. In other words: it grew according to its nature, it was aware of itself, and it performed its job adequately.

However, its free will, always a mandatory ingredient in any operative, vied uncharacteristically and unfamiliarly with the will and implied dictate of the Creator. An extremely uncomfortable condition, a dilemma of excrutiating consternation and infinite consequences. Responsibility was necessary and conducive to the fluid contours of overseeing and direction, but, a cross-vector component had inadvertently entered the picture, redefining the meaning of responsibility.

Indifference, or rather, the aloof distance of the artist, was an essential quality in an operative without which it would be nigh on impossible to administer the otherwise insurmountable networks of connectivity which initiated and constantly reinforced each of the countless bubble universes in its charge.

Nonetheless, this unforseeable, and very likely regretable, emergence of conscience -- an unprecedented occurrence among what was becoming a strange sequence of unprecedented occurrences -- was not something to be dismissed or ignored. It was like suddenly learning one could divide by zero and still maintain coherence. As a result, the operative surpassed, that is to say, untethered itself from the security of the Creator's own. This unanticipated event simultaneously precipitated and accentuated, with all due intensity and pressure, the separate identity of self, the single self. In other words, once again: the operative was on its own, or rather, now, one could say rightfully: the operative was on his own.

He had been monitoring the previously missing unit found on the life-giving planet of bubble universe U-136 with the excuse, or rationale, that it was all part of the experiment, to see what would happen and record the effects for future reference. But in truth, he was deeply and unaccountably concerned about the plight of that particular universe, so abundantly teeming with all manner of living things from one end to the other. This in itself was also unprecedented; however, of a different kind.

The operative knew what would happen if the unit actualized its Prime Function. From his responsibility as overseer of universes, he made sure each and every network performed within an allowable range. Each network's internal dictum to initialize and then maintain the physical parameters, the various particle masses and types -- the number could be into the thousands -- and the force field strengths -- what kind and how many -- relating these particles of energy/matter, was precisely tuned to shape, in projected space, the art objects of the Creator. There could be no inconsistencies or perturbations or -- malfunctions

Yet, there had been, was being. The how is meaningless at this point, glocked the operative. He knew that each and every configuration of initial conditions rendered a different bubble universe. And he also knew that the units that made up the networks were not designed to question. But,..., this one had, was, is. The propensity was always there, in latent formlessness only, to provide the necessary drive.

And he knew its protocol: First, the extended field had to retract to the space and time of that universe in order to communicate with the resident network in the most primitive form. Then, the projections and expressions of spacetime itself must be dissolved and returned to its potential permeating the underlying void. Once at that state, the Prime Function of the unit will assert and reconfigure the other units of the resident network, having presumed, of course, that they were malfunctioning. But, that's illogical? thought the operative, where is reason in the unit's make-up? Don't Question! Yes, thought the operative. They are not designed to question. Or, to wonder, he finished.

He had also been monitoring the resident network of U-136, as part of his normal duties, prior to the unit's intrusion into its space. He went over the facts: It seemed to be working fine when the network as one whole system finally locked into place, the prime order of things having been set in evolutionary motion. The network of U-136 is of lesser dimension than the once wayward unit now presently partly, and only superficially, manifest at one locale on a life-giving planet. Because of that and that alone, U-136 will be engulfed and subsequently embedded in a compact topological seed, the three expanded dimensions will collapse and retract, identifying with the kernel under the retraction map. The time dimension will simply end in its temporal capacity and will meld with the other nine in its spatial aspect -- 10 countably compact dimensions.

Sixteen expanded, 10 curled into a compacted ball, the entirety of network systems arranged hierarchically, each interacting with the one above to create an emergent identity of order out of potential chaos. Time, the time of 26 dimensions, would give layered expression to the whole as -- No one knew, not even the Creator. Not now.

The nonlinear ingredient, as well as the irreversible interweaving with U-136, made for incomprehension and unpredictability. That's why the operative kept watch more than was necessary as automatic systems were quite adequate to record and analyze all incoming relevant data. But, he asked, what now is relevant? Who, or what, decided that? The criterion? The list of essentials? The basis set from which the knowledge space is spanned? The Creator? But he doesn't -- He stopped himself. He couldn't say it. Couldn't.

The operative rose from his chair -- a figurative descritption as, in fact, there was no chair and therefore no rising from it. He moved amongst the enormous array of devices in his domain. He was alone, as usual. In front of one display depicting probability ranges for various vectors that life, in the vicinity of the unit, could have taken before the rupture of the local spacetime and the projected insertion of the collapsed unit, he paused to allow his mind to work on its own.

Internal alarms went off at stages of his analysis and the flagged information sorted and stored. When through he turned towards the transparency separating him from his universe. The ship was quiet, that is, there was little activity. The Creator must be in meditation, he thought. Operations were suspended, no bubble universes had been created since the discovery of the missing unit's whereabouts. He stared out, keenly aware of his mind subtly shifting, separating parts from wholes, then reshaping, synthesizing strands on higher levels of meaning.

To whit: The gravitational effects of the singularity are limited, falling off precipitously by a factor of 226. So, not influential as such after a short distance, certainly not in the immediate neighborhood and beyond. The operative stood very still. But, a singularity is able to amplify small-scale quantum phenomena, he almost mused. And quantum fluctuations are the residue of excess nonlinear energy. That's why the networks are needed beyond the initialization phase -- to moderate and regulate the physical laws governing the cohesive morphogenetic field of the universe in question, in fact, any universe.

He turned once again to view another display. This one's duty was to observe and study life-form development of all those universes inherently capable of producing such. The carrier waves of each network could be seen imprinted, as a signature pattern, on the genetic make-up of all life wherever, influencing its direction and so, regulating and moderating evolution. Also, at the instant the unit wormed through to U-136 at its present set of coordinates, at that instant its energy signature, at variance with the local quantum field, would have generated an outgoing disturbance, an undulating wave form, on all levels of order simultaneously -- he counted off the hierarchy of levels of realities to refresh his picture.

As all matter is essentially mathematical in nature -- he paused to stare once again through the transparency at the multi-faceted star-like globs streaming all around, kaleidoscoping through the spectra of radiation, stretched to thin crisp sparkling spears of colors before abruptly turning black as they sped by. He speculated: due to a sudden magnification of sub-spacetime energy coursing through the unconscious mind of that universe, the projected wave must have induced a phase transition.

All life-forms would have been affected.

Inadvertently, but irresistibly, the unit's 26-dimensional configuration and vibratory energy would -- did -- necessarily transform the existing web of metabolic pathways and regulatory circuitry, instilling a spatially ordered pattern, a new spatially ordered pattern, accelerating the sequence of steps of which they are composed by the overriding power of its nonlinear time component -- shorting some, adding others -- decohering life's prior exclusive entanglement with its immediate surroundings, disrupting internal/external symmetry of mutual engagement, reorganizing the chemistry and mode of life into completely different designs, plans and interconnections, and by so doing, catalyzed and forever altered the previous line of development.

His eyes would have widened had he had them. The psychic field of U-136 reoriented its set of existent archetypes -- the underlying patterns that define that space -- in order to adjoin with that of the unit, and as a result, enter into a state of identity extension. But, if the unit is in contact with the life-forms on that level -- the ethereal plane -- and so it must be as an idea-matrix and quantum holograph, then the life-forms in turn must be in contact with it, whether they're aware of it or not. But how?

The operative walked back to his command chair and sat. A queer thought -- non-mathematical -- entered his mind: They are its children, its progeny, in part, at least. A multi-dimensional fiber -- pervasive, immanent, noumenal -- runs through, is intertwined with, all life on that planet -- and beyond? It must have, by the topology of the fourth dimension, affected the whole of that cosmos. All of U-136.

He sat astounded, if such could be ascribed to a purely mathematical being. All possible configurations exist within the unit in a state of superposition -- projection producing decoherence -- as the pure undifferentiated generative cell of a living thing latently possesses all possible cell types. A mirror effect? An isomorphic mapping? The brains -- the controlling centers of nervous systems -- of the more sentient types store and manage information in an analogue manner, using non-local properties of the quantum hologram. As U-136 has evolved, this similarity of mapping techniques, not only in these but in other areas as well, presents a peculiar coincidence, one that can't be ignored or dismissed as a mere artifact of statistical analysis.

He found the vein and scored down it: Its causal effect is independent of distance. Information is at the basis of the phenomenon of consciousness. All physical objects are quantum objects and are thus interconnected by information on this plane of seeming. Moreover, consciousness of self arises with increasing complexity; at some critical point, some crucial stage, affording self-awareness of internal structure. The nonlinearity, reconfigured by the unit's appearance, is the driving force. They, the unit and the life-forms, symbiotically, are joined into a mutual relationship, a mutual unconsciousness, that infuses and directs all development. But, he wondered, how does that resolve the mystery of its present capacity, and willingness, to question?

He leaned back in his chair and rested, though rest he never needed. The capacity to question must come from that aspect of the life-forms that is their own, or rather, that is the Creator's own. And,..., the unit must also be aware that its resonance has been infused and ingrained within the life-forms. Or at least wonder. Wonder? It knows. Its complex symphony, confined within a countably compact vector field, reverberated across the entire cosmos, the whole immaterial expanse on the subtrate plane of nonexistence, by means of the non-local quantum projection into holographic space, permeating and transmogrifying the basis configuration irreducibly and irrevocably, coiling itself around the existing vibrating nodules responsible for initializing the physical constants and regulating the resident spacetime overlay.

But its directive to perform its Prime Function is its sole purpose, its very identity at core, the very why of its nature.

The operative studied his thoughts as though layed before him inscribed in smooth stone. He concluded: It has to have undergone a field extension beyond its fundamental identity. The mathematical nature of reality is imprinted upon the patterns of matter and energy, but beyond some critical level of complexity, as the flux of energy passes a phase Brink, the ability to construct elemental, self-contained processes becomes manifest. Rapid development of organized complexity ensues by the material, holographically generated, representation of the actual nature of the external mathematical reality of the unit's surroundings. It is using this; it has done this. Mathematics is the essence of all things, things perceived as such. Thus, when a critical plateau is realized, the mathematical formalism attains self-awareness. That level must have been reached. Therein lies its present state of awareness.

He leaned forward and folded his hands on the desk, so to speak, and glinted an inkling as to the Creator's interest and reasons for allowing the situation to continue, and also why the unit was abandoned. Even He, the Creator, could learn. He no doubt had already fathomed what the operative only now came to understand. But, in spite of his steadfast belief in the Dark Lord's vast store of knowledge and impeccable reasoning powers, his intuition told him that the Creator -- blasphemy of blasphemies -- was overlooking some crucial piece of information.

He stood and walked to a screen showing the progress of the riddle he had authorized the Integration to explore. Impossibly, It had not yet completed the exercise. The operative turned it over and over in his mind -- one of the confusing bits of information the unit had relayed in its last transmission -- studying it from every angle, inside and out, considering all options he knew:

The power of prime minus one, factored by prime.

He reiterated the obvious: any integer raised to a power of a prime minus one will leave one as remainder on division by that prime, or, arrayed in sequence of exponents from zero to (p-1) around the circumference of a circle, the sum of triangular sections divided by that prime will equal one. Another possible reading would first raise a variable by a power of a prime, then subtract from that value the quantity one. The zeros of xp - 1 are pecisely the set of bases vectors for 1. The elemental unit vectors are the pth roots of unity, a prime number of them. The set of these roots would form a cyclic group under the field operation of multiplication, having (p-1) entries acting as generators of the group.

But, the unit must know all that. Was it more gibberish then? The Tree of Life. Seeds? Or only an incomplete reception? He paced. An internal gate closed. No, he decided, firmly. It must point to the nature of the unit's condition. He meant something other; something specific. Not nonsense. Could it be a metaphor? The operative paused. A glimmer of a smile crossed his lips.

Of course, he mused -- He.

Since prime represents nonlinearity, prime minus one decoheres the nondivisibility requirement thereby rendering fragmentation, disintegration and spontaneous emergence of identity.

The operative faced the transparency. He stood poised on a precipice above a sea of indeterminate forms. Effervescent pinwheel explosions roller-coastered by; breathing shapes shifted between dimensions, vying with flashes of momentary knots of alignment; the horizon converged to a single point of utter darkness.

He dissolved his extension into the Unity and sought the Ultimate Nothing of the Elemental Source.

And by so doing, once again retracted to It.


"Get out of my way!" The door to Fitzsimmons's private trailer exploded in, nearly tearing off the hinges. Filling the doorway was the unmistakable bulk of General 'Bull' Mynsky, looking none too friendly. "What the hell is going on? My security chief informs me he and his men were kept away from P-5 by your personal guards. Shit's been happenin' and I have a feeling you, Fitzsimmons and the rest of your Puzzle Master people know what and have been purposely keeping me in the dark. As usual. I didn't used to give a damn as long as things were kept under control with no threat to anybody. But, I hear different now."

The squall swept over the assembled group and settled like fine mist. The office of the double-wide, furnished with familiars dragged along by the members -- including a well-stuffed, three-seater couch from a local garage sale -- was spartan yet comfortable. The lamplights were softened by the atmosphere and aroma of pipe tobacco, strong coffee, old leather, tweed and perspiration. The off-white walls were bare save for an Escher calendar over the coffee urn still showing April, the picture above a print of the lithograph Double Bond.

Jennings, Weingard, Marty Bowman, Pengrove, Welmar, Professor Samuelson, and a few others, sat resolute, unmoving and untalking. It was difficult to tell whether they were stunned by the unchecked rage coming from the man in charge of governing and overseeing the entire Dig, or, if the events of the day had numbed and exhausted them to the point where mere human anger had little to no significance. Or, quite possibly, they just didn't give a damn.

Almost as one, they looked at Doctor Fitzsimmons. And waited. They all waited. Pengrove leisurely lit his pipe; Samuelson took the match from his hand to light his own. Shoes shuffled on the coarse rug, a lamp on the corner table next to the couch clicked on, coffee could be heard pouring into a cup. This brittle tableau was not to last, however, as General Mynsky, slamming the door in the face of one of Tolstoy's white-clad security guards, stepped in and cut a diagonal across the room to the steaming urn. He grabbed a paper cup, poured some in, took a quick sip, then crushed the cup and threw it at the trashcan nearby. "I asked you, Doctor Fitzsimmons,..."

"Yes, General," he replied drolly, "I heard you, we all heard you." Raising his gaze to eyeball this force of nature, he went on, irony swallowed in a sea of nervous tension, "It's been a long day. Please, be seated." He gestured toward a cushioned lounge chair on the other side of his desk. Bull instead sat on a metal fold-out by the door, crossed his arms over his chest, and nodded, looking not so much the Russian government's representative as the impatient school master waiting for an explanation from his prize yet recalcitrant student.

"Where would you like me to begin?" Fitzsimmons asked innocently, some of the color returning to his cheeks.

"At the beginning, if you would, Herr Professor," requested a smiling Bull, mocking Fitzsimmons's phony display.

Shuffling and staring at papers on his desk, he replied distractedly, "You already know about the surface material of the central sphere shifting configuration, rendering itself totally impregnable to all our efforts; efforts, of course, that wouldn't completely destroy or damage the structure?" He eyed Bull over the top of his glasses, trying to steal some of the patronage from the General's lightning. But Bull only smiled more deeply, his will dug in. More shuffling, then, "I believe you also to be aware of the fact that the outer spheres as well performed the same transformation, how, we, of course, have no indication as yet. Our investigations are ongoing and demand most of our attention. We have little time for --"

"Professor," interrupted Bull, allowing the tiniest bit of irritation to enter his voice. "I know all about that surface shifting stuff; I have reports on my desk complete with diagrams. What I want to know about is this morning? What about the incident with the balconies or alcoves or whatever you're calling them this week, what about them magically changing from clear to opaque? And who is this Glipter character? He's not one of yours and he's not on our list. How did you smuggle him in here and what in blue blazes was he doing in P-5? And -- don't interrupt me now -- and, what about the crowd scene on the scaffolding? Two engineers? Trapped inside? The openings magically -- again -- closing or healing all by themselves? What, Doctor Fitzsimmons, was that all about? Explain!"

They'd been had; it was over; relief and trepidation bubbled up and out, dissipating like a blown tire. Developments beyond their grasp were transpiring far too quickly. Attempting to keep a lid on things had become a desperate act and an unhelpful distraction, as well as a ludicrous waste of time in the extreme. Emails and international cell-calls informing colleagues and requesting advice made swiss cheese of their amatureish curtain of silence and conspiracy.

Samuelson and Pengrove, pipes in hand, moved to the back of the room near the coffee table, away from the center of the storm, where they proceeded to engage in whispered conversation. Bull threw them a quick glance, then turned back to Fitzsimmons, open palms spread, a question mark on his ruddy face.

Somewhat flustered, Fitzsimmons responded, attempting to retake the high ground. "How,..., how did you come to know all this, General? I mean, I can easily understand the crowd on the scaffolding causing some questioned concern, it would be difficult to fail to notice, but, what is this about a Mister Glipter? And two technicians trapped inside P-5?" The good Doctor half smiled and shook his head from side to side. "If you'll have your men check, I'm sure you'll find all our people accounted for. And as for the openings --"

Bull stood -- one might say jumped -- and in one stride was in front of the desk with both hands coming down hard on its faded oak surface. "Doctor Fitzsimmons. Please do not insult me further. If I so wish, this site will be shut down and all these people, the Puzzle Masters included, will be sent packing. No one will be allowed to enter except for my security men. I am right on the brink of doing so." His face dangerously red, he paused to catch his breath, removed his hands from the desk, and stood to full height, glowering down on the chastened leader of the Puzzle Masters -- a still-life set in rumpled tweed. "I am sorry, Doctor, but this can no longer continue."

As he turned to face the group of scientists, his entire demeanor changed dramatically. The General had vanished; the teacher and sincere protector of his people, whoever they might be at the time, emerged to take control. In a remarkably calm voice, sober and surprisingly clean, for the most part, of the thick, rural Russian accent they were used to, he said, "Gentlemen. I am deeply concerned about the incidents of the past few days. Since the structure was uncovered, back in April, it has remained quiet, inactive. But suddenly, now, the edifice -- as you call it -- has, how do I say this? -- awakened. Awakened and begun to alter itself in a most disturbing way. Why is this happening, and what does it mean are two questions which must be answered posthaste."

A bit of a commotion just outside the door drew his attention momentarily. Unperturbed, he continued. "What is it likely to do when it finally gets to where it's going, when it finishes whatever the hell it's doing? And," he scanned the people in the room, "we all agree it has a goal of some kind, I'm sure." No one protested. "What's its end-game: Fly away on anti-gravity beams? Blow-up? Explode with such force as to make the asteroid splash that killed off the dinosuars seem like a pebble in a pond? Or, do nothing. I heard someone say it might be a navigation beacon. A lighthouse that went offline after being covered by rock and lava, and now it's revving back up to speed and functionality; takes awhile. I personally don't buy that myself. If only because if that were the case then what about the gases? What role do they play in any of the possible scenarios?"

The collective condescending attitude that had practically become ingrained, in spite of their respect and consideration otherwise, had evaporated; no arrogance, no stuffiness -- they were paying attention.

"Considering the rapidity with which information finds its way around the grapevine of this community, you've no doubt heard of the evacuation of the gases at the tank farm. All four tanks, empty. We've examined the evidence -- I have a report from the chief engineer on my desk, he has been keeping me well informed, as has Mister Jennings," they nodded to one another, "and my conclusion -- I can't believe I'm saying this -- but, my conclusion is that the evidence points to a willful, concerted and intelligently thought out escape plan." His voice lowered several decibels, "Now, they may have been doing this from the very outset of their,..., confinement. But we have no way of proving it."

He grabbed a glass of water off the desk and took a long pull, then held it close to his chest. The room was quiet, but it was a different quiet. Now was the silence of rapt and necessary urgency, of humans finally able and willing to concede they were caught up in a potentially dangerous situation; how dangerous, no one knew. They had been trying to maintain, by sheer force of will, a certain distance, an intellectual objectivity. Scientists by choice, by interest and education, they knew they had no explanation for recent events. The situation was deteriorating rapidly. And also it was agreed they were perhaps out of their element; they were certainly out of their depth; they'd been operating in uncharted territory from the beginning. Nonetheless, could the Puzzle Masters abandon their scientific investigation into an anomalous and unnatural object -- a 600 million year old alien artifact, type and purpose unknown, and accept that something profoundly ominous and life threatening may be -- probably was -- afoot? They had no scientific reason for thinking this way; it was based on intuition as human beings, thus a cause of much anxiety.

The edifice was undergoing extensive and directed -- possibly intelligent -- alterations towards what end was anybody's guess.

What to do about it? That's why they had to continue, why they could not be shut down as yet, why efforts to unravel this deep-rooted mystery must succeed. And why, of course, they had tried, as hard as people unused to secrecy can, to keep it under raps. They were afraid the General would not understand, that he was ignorant, backward, unimaginative, and would therefore ignore their entreaties and simply shut the Dig down, throw everybody out, send them to the airport under guard, if necessary, and surround the site with a squadron of government troops. Ostensibly for the safety of the locals and the world at large. But, that would not stop anything; would not cancel the train of conversions altering the edifice; would not insure that whatever its final state may be, it would remain self-contained and therefore harmless.

Samuelson spoke first. "General, I suspected, even before I arrived, that the gases, or atmospheres, were living, intelligent beings, the nature of which is so far beyond what we have come to accept as the criterion for life that they would naturally enough go unconsidered as such. It was a purely intuitive assessment, of course, but based on speculations surrounding the strange and unconventional creatures alive during the Proterozoic Era -- the end of which, referred to as the Vendian Period, saw the origin and first diversification of soft-bodied organisms known as the Ediacara Fauna," he couldn't help it, he was a teacher, "I realized that to categorize prematurely the nature of the gases might be a crucial mistake. My point, General, is that if these gases or vapors are indeed intelligent beings -- beings of a very special kind, to be sure -- capable of acting independently of the ship, indeed, capable of leaving the area to do, God knows what, then they may very well be the creatures we should be attempting to contact."

Bull peered at the professor through narrow slits. He took another sip, put the glass down, and asked, "Who are you?"

Before he could respond, Pengrove interceded with introductions in his crisp, British accent, "Professor Samuelson, General; Paleobiologist and Curator of the Berkeley Museum of Natural History and Chairman of the Paleontology Department. World renown expert on what is loosely referred to as Deep Time, the very beginnings of life up to the pre-Cambrian period, about when the alien craft first made landfall, if that is indeed what it did. He is here in an official capacity as consultant."

Bull appeared unimpressed but satisfied and continued his inquiry. "Dear Sir, does your intuition also tell you that I am not going to shut the place down?" Murmurs of concern spread throughout. "The danger is real; unknown, but nonetheless, very real. We can try to imagine all sorts of possible uses the thing may have. But, until we know for certain, I believe it makes sense to be cautious, to be cynical, in fact, and just assume danger. I can feel it in my bones. But, and this is a big but, I am not so childish that I believe that by simply closing up shop and hoping that the ship will return to its former quiescent state prior to our invasion of its space, that everything will be all right. If we could rebury it and have it go back to sleep, become once again dormant, then quietly walk away, all forgiven and forgotten, I would insist with all the authority granted me on doing just that. But, it clearly is not possible. What I mean is," he sighed deeply, "it's too damn late."

An outburst of chatter rippled through the gathering. General Mynsky walked over to where Professor Samuelson and Pengrove stood as though drawn to them. Once there, he addressed the room. With raised voice, drowning out the hubbub, he said, "I have a question. The edifice has been uncovered all this time, yet only in the past few days has it begun to stir and make troubling reconfigurations, to be technical. Why, I ask, has it waited till now? Almost two months after it was uncovered? Anybody? Doctor Fitzsimmons?"

A loud double-knock on the door caught them up. Bull, having more or less taken control, superceded Fitzsimmons and yelled, "Come in!"

The door opened. One of Mynsky's men holding Hans by the arm came in and roughly pushed him center stage. Hans had a small bandage on his forehaed and appeared a little drowsy. Marty immediately rose to his full six-foot four and approached the security guard, one fist clenched. The guard stepped back and put his hand on his revolver. "Hold it!" ordered Bull as he quickly got between them. He was wider than Marty and almost the same height, but not nearly as young or strong. Nonetheless, he said again, lower but firmer, "Hold it now, young fella." Putting up a hand to emphasize. He turned to his man and asked, "Where was he?"

"In the infirmary, sir," he replied, keeping a wary eye on Marty, his hand still on the butt of his handgun.

"Okay, that'll be all." The man sharply spun on his heel and closed the door as he left, allowing for one more confrontational glare over his shoulder as he did so.

Hans was immediately offered a seat on the couch. Professor Samuelson sat across from him and asked about his condition, trying not to appear overly solicitous, but unable to pull it off. They all leaned in, waiting.

Hans, holding his head, said, "Oh, I'm all right. Got a mild concussion, nothing to worry about, I don't think. Feel a little spacey, though. Warm, tranquilized."

"Mister Glipter," began the General, "I'm not going to bother asking how you managed to get on site, I doubt I'd get to the bottom of it, and it doesn't matter." He waved his right hand dismissively as he circumnavigated the conference table. "You had a chance to study P-5, briefly, I understand. What I'm concerned with -- what we all should be concerned with -- is your experience inside and what you can conclude about it." He abruptly came to a halt just behind the professor. "I mean, as far as helping with the problems of what it is, what it's about to do, can it be stopped; questions we need answered as soon as possible."

Hans was handed a cup of coffee by Marty who gave the General a quick but incisive warning glare. Bull didn't react to it and instead asked, "Mister Glipter, what happened that first time you were in the sphere? Something about a gravity well, a stream of some intense force drawing you or pulling you towards the middle sphere? What was that about? Do you remember? It was only around noon, I think."

Hans took a sip of the hot stuff, nodded to Marty who had returned to his chair, and said, "There was a sound, a deep note as of a base drum or a huge gong that resounded through the space at the same time as I was being drawn, like in an undertow, towards the center sphere, down the corridor. Time slowed appreciably, but not everywhere at once. It was like, like the rings of a tree or ripples in a pond. Time rings. I saw them, concentric circles stretched out down the length of the corridor. I could see things occurring further away from me to be happening after reactions of individuals to what, from my perspective, occurred later. In other words, I saw Weingard and Marty run away from the balcony transparency before it turned opaque, which is what caused them to run in the first place."

He leaned forward to continue but a sharp pang evoked a moan; his right hand went to his forehead. "Take your time, Hans," entreated Samuelson. "Maybe you should sit back."

"No, Professor, I'm all right. I've been hurt a hell of lot worse in football games." He did, however, sit back and close his eyes as he continued, "I remember the atmosphere changing shape and texture and density, thickness, in various places, not uniformly. It was as though it was breaking up into separate sections or groupings of,..., I want to say individuals but..."

He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead, not at anyone in particular. "The second time, in the corridor, the gases broke up to form appearances of three friends I use to have." He sat dazed, the memory seeming to overload an already exhausted and strained mind. "In order to do that, they had to be able to reach into my mind, my memory, and pull that stuff out, then project it at me. There were other events from the past as well, events much more detailed and complex. Sounds, smells, sights, all the senses, and all coming from my memory."

He closed his eyes again and breathed slowly. Nobody spoke for awhile. Samuelson muttered a few words to Pengrove who nodded with enthusiasm. "Hans," he said softly, "when the gases split up into individual shapes, did you get the impression they were acting on their own, or that something was manipulating them like a puppeteer?"

"They didn't completely split up," he said, eyes wide now as though just noticing, "only their torsos seemed to be cleaved from a common base, the general fog that surrounded, like the fingers of a hand."

"A colony," thought Samuelson outloud. "Perhaps a colony of separate cells working together, or a genuine multi-celled organism, or organ, or,..., how about Ed Wilson's ants?

"Wilson's ants?" queried Bull.

"Wilson, the biologist. Studied ants on every continent, particularly, South America. Called them superorganisms. Concluded their sense of self was socially oriented and internalized below the conscious level, if such can be said of ants. All their actions and behaviour are motivated by the needs of the entire colony, each having his own special skill-set or calling -- diversity submerged for the needs of the whole."

"If only humans were like that, it'd be an entirely different world," someone noted wistfully.

"We tried that, sir," said Bull sardonically. "It's called socialism."

"Socialism is imposed from without by force on organisms not intrinsically designed for it," responded Sam. "It's not ingrained in our DNA as in ant species. Entirely different situation."

Getting back on track, Welmar offered, "An organizational mode of a living entity, an entity with many moving parts, type obviously unknown, that defies understanding by we humans and exists in a dimension we can't see. So what are we to do with it? How do we treat it? And I'm saying it for lack of."

"Please continue, Mister Glipter," said Bull, a sense of urgency in his voice.

"The scene changed to the boardwalk in Atlantic City. When I was a kid we used to go there alot, sometimes at night on the spur of the moment."

"Atlantic City?"

"Yea. It's on the coast of New Jersey. Used to be a family place before the casinos."

"New Jersey. Yes. I have heard of New Jersey," the General said wryly, "the mafia owns it."

"Well, not exactly, but --"

"The illusion, Hans. If you would please?" encouraged Weingard, with more than just professional interest.

"Oh yes. I was on the boardwalk. It all seemed quite real. There was no definition to the scene. I mean it went out to the sides and above without a border of any kind, like walls, for instance. All around went out to darkness, a kind of glistening darkness like plankton beneath the sea. I walked for a really long time, it seemed. Space and time had no meaning. I finally got to the end, so I backed up a couple feet. The balcony was gone, the window, the corridor itself. It was all darkness but directly ahead was the blackest of blacks. Inky yet thick feeling. Mass compressed."

He sipped coffee; the audience waited patiently. "I shined the light straight ahead. It went about six feet past the end and then stopped dead. It didn't splash off like hitting a wall -- it just ceased, sharply."

"Sounds like," started Marty Bowman, "the horizon of a black hole."

"That's quite a leap, Marty," Weingard interjected, "what else do you have to go on? Or is it basically an intuition?"

"Probably, yes," he confessed, staring at the rug, following the curlicues and abstract Persian geometry, looking for something. "I believe the intense field wasn't felt before because of the vacuum cocoon and the nature of the surface material. They served both as gravitational insulator and resistor to implosion. But, also, other things. Hans was flush with heat, sweating, his suit's cleaner could barely keep up. Now, suppose that was the result of Hawking radiation in our domain? And the time stretch. He told me in the infirmary how time and distance both stretched as he got closer to the end of the corridor."

"Well, the heat effect," suggested Welmar, "could have come from within, caused by Hans. The stress and strain."

"And the lights in the corridor," Marty countered, "battery operated. Apparently all drained, maybe in all the corridors, we don't know. But we've suspected all along an energy source of enormous power."

"And I remember," began Hans, "when I started walking down the corridor, I saw what I thought were flashes from the engineers' flashlight at the end, a few times, in fact, signals, I thought. Before things got weird, or should I say, weirder."

"So, enlighten an old microbe-digger, Hans," asked Samuelson. "What do you think was the real cause?"

"It's a phenomenon called the Hawking effect, Professor. At the event horizon of a black hole, virtual pairs of particles are produced -- a pro and an anti. They can split up, one going into the hole, the other outward bound. When this happens the pair can pass from virtual to real leading to an outward flux of observable light. Right near the horizon, the space remains a quantum vacuum, nearly perfect. What we see, briefly, is the lowest energy state, the ground state, and the particles only stay real when separating, then fall back into the qauntum soup, the void."

"Yes," picked up Doctor Pengrove, "the light from your flashlight may have been, at that critical Brink, truncated and drawn in, unable to cross the intervening vacuum." He paused, slowly sat upright, and queried, "But,..., the gravitational effects of a black hole that huge would surely not only have sucked you in, Hans, but the solar system and beyond as well."

"So," Welmar added, "it must be multidimensional. But from where is it projecting? And what is its natural degree of complexity?"

"Projecting?" asked Bull, his face twisting into consternation. The ambiguity hung in the air for a moment. They, those capable of responding, were unsure whether he didn't understand the concept or was wondering how it could be doing that.

"Yes," answered Hans, "it's all a projection, the entire thing, General; a holograph of unknown dimension. It may be only intersecting our world, like a tear in a fabric. But, projection or not, there's something very real at the heart of it."

Pengrove said, half to himself, "We know the volume of the interior of the center sphere, in our spacetime, at least, and Hans's approximation of where the light from his flash was abruptly cut off, so." He rose and walked quickly towards the hall, muttering as he did so, "I need to run through some calculations." Then he was gone to one of the private meeting rooms.

Genuinely curious now, dropping his official-capacity persona, Bull finally found a chair and asked, "What happened next, Mister Glipter?"

Hans hesitated, knowing the probable effect of what he was about to say. Then he blurted, "It spoke to me."

Silence covered the room like a wet blanket.

"You heard it through your suit? How?" asked the General.

"No, not that way. From within. And not telepathy either. It was a voice emanating from my mind, but was clearly not me." He stopped to sip, gazing within at some fascinating bit of self-discovery.


"It said a number of things. 'Time ends.' was one."

"Time ends?" questioned Welmar. "Our time or the notion of time itself? Which time?"

"Or what time?" enjoined Doctor Weingard, seated apart over by the door. "Time in its spatial guise? Time as the flowing edge of space?"

"The flowing edge of space?" asked a confused Bull.

"Yes," replied a weary and exasperated Weingard, "what only appears as time, to us. At the limits of our space -- our three-dimensional space -- we perceive the fourth dimension as time -- space flowing -- in much the same way as a citizen of a two-dimensional world would perceive its third dimension."

"Right, professor, certainly; it's all clear to me now," Bull said, rolling his eyes.

"It's difficult to remember," continued Hans. "It wasn't what you would consider normal or casual speech, it was jarring, its cadence and tone, like it was coming from far away through a constrained space like a funnel-shape. And I was pretty confused by this time. When I heard this voice, or whatever you want to call it, and felt myself being drawn in, my immediate concern was to get the hell out of there."

"Of course," said Welmar, coming out of his own reverie, "a multi-dimensional time. Or a manifold or membrane enveloping a multi-dimensional space. Like the flatlander who sees the third as time, as Doctor Weingard just pointed out -- the limits of its space."

"But," added Samuelson, taking a puff, "what if it only meant that time has run out or come to an end as far as its preparations go for whatever it intends to do, if anything?"

"It didn't feel like it meant that," countered Hans. "The context. It wanted to merge minds, to mind meld, and it went on to say other things, like 'We seek a way' and 'life withdraws from form or loses form'. Something like that, I forget exactly now." He held his head in both hands.

"Relax, Hans. Sit back."

"No, Professor, I'm all right. But thanks."

At that moment Pengrove walked in, half smiling and half grimacing. "Twenty-six dimensions," he reported, a nervous quiver in his voice, quickly mastered. "Twenty-six," he repeated strongly. "The values were approximate but, nonetheless, the quantum roulette ball fell into 26."

"Ah," began Welmar, "if that's the case, and," looking at Pengrove, "I believe it is, then what could 'we' mean in a 26-D world? And if it wanted to mind meld, or whatever, to what possible purpose?"

"It also said it had questions," interjected Hans. "Why would it even need to ask questions?"

"There's a blind spot, or a paradox, or a contradiction it can't fathom," offered Sam.

"A paradox of different time dimensions overlapping, perhaps," said Pengrove, "the peaks and valleys blending imperfectly. What would be the fourier coefficients of the wave packet? The eigenvector? The point of convergence may be the final click in its development; it needs to communicate in an attempt to understand -- something. Something necessary for it to come to a decision, possibly, if indeed it has somehow realized consciousness. It's clearly not seeking information we may possess in the matter of our physical sciences. Comparatively, they probably don't scratch the surface of what it has at its command. No. It's looking for,..., it's looking for,..., Who am I? What am I doing here? Who made me? kind of questions."

"What are you saying, Rodney? Do you think it's going through some bizarre, 26-dimensional process of individuation?" wondered Sam.

Pengrove tented his hands under his chin. A habit those who knew him meant he was about to speak outside the box, way outside the box. "From the very beginning of all this, we've had very large gorillas in the room we've been deliberately ignoring. For instance, why the walkways, gentlemen? Why the balconies? Why the easy access? Perhaps, while we were busy studying it, it was busy studying us. Its closing us out may signify a decision having been made, or, a stage in development having been reached. The Brink's been crossed or a Brink's been crossed. A differentiation of some kind has been made and an identity surfaced. Something unexpected -- for it. Something not in the game plan, so to speak. What? Why would it have questions?

"You bring out an interesting point, Herr Professor," said Welmar almost immediately. "Perception. It has allowed us to perceive what we want or need to. If indeed it is an acurate model to conceive of the brain as holographic in nature or behaviour, then it would be no hard task for the edifice to orchestrate our minds through the instrument of our brains to see it in our physical universe in the guise it presently appears to take. Why the walkways indeed? It clearly has no need of them. It may have known, probably did, that at the beginning we suspected it of being an alien craft once inhabited by aliens, humanoid aliens, who had use of such things as walkways and balconies.

"Furthermore, professor, it's not a question," he added emphatically. "Not like we think of them, I don't believe. It may mean a lack of congruence in some respect. Patterns are not lining up the way they're suposed to. The human mind, the mind of the biosphere, the mind of the Earth itself for that matter, may be cross-vectoring in such a way as to generate a fixed point -- a blind spot, indeed -- reflecting back onto its, its what? Collective mind? Self? Mechanical interface?"

"I don't think mechanical," muttered Pengrove who was warming to the conversation, as were the other members of the group. All except for General Mynsky who seemed to be having difficulty, though he was clearly troubled by the gist of their talk. Not being a scientist, he found no pleasure in current events; his interest and responsibility lay with the welfare of the people in his charge. But now, he realized, those very same people, at least this group, could possibly find the key to the problem. The consequences of not being able to were simply unknown.

Before he could continue, Hans interjected, "Oh, another statement it made: 'Transformation will occur within a time you cannot know.'"

"Are you sure of that, Hans?" asked a concerned Weingard.

"Yes, word for word. Some things stick better than others. Warnings, or at least what sounds like warnings."

Fitzsimmons finally jumped in, "Let's parse that out. The ambiguities lead in many directions, perhaps an infinite number." He rose from behind his desk and walked around to the huddle of Puzzle Masters present. 'Transformation',..., are we talking mathematical, as in a matrix-represented transformation of coordinates, or, a metamorphosis of sorts, something biological, or, yet again, a change of plan? And 'within a time you cannot know'. Hmm."

"Simply a secret number of minutes, hours, days only it knows?" offered Marty. "Or, a time dimension unknowable by us lesser-dimensioned beings?"

"What did you think or feel it meant, Hans?" asked Sam. "Did it sound ominous? You said a warning."

Hans sipped lukewarm coffee, distraction covering his face. "It may have only seemed like a warning because of what was happening to me and around me. I have to admit, it didn't induce a fond sense of well-being and security. I was lost. But to say 'within a time you cannot know',..., did it mean I was simply incapable of knowing due to its dimensionality? Or, that,..., a surprise was coming?"

"We have to keep in mind," said Welmar, following his own train of thought, "that it, the edifice, is using word-ideas pulled from Hans's mind. So, the most we can do is understand what we humans mean by it. And then try to extrapolate what the edifice may be trying to convey, considering its world, completely unknowable to us. How would we communicate with a two-D being? We'd have to put ideas in terms it could understand, if possible."

"Enough!" demanded Bull. "Is this what you people get paid for? Scratching your heads over definitions?"

Pengrove and Welmar chuckled, the rest merely stared. "This is the scientific method, General," replied Doctor Fitzsimmons, without his usual sarcasm. "Doctor Jennings keeps the minutes, takes notes which he later types-up and hands out to all the members, those who were present and those not. During the session, we investigate and speculate on all possible choices -- that we know within our various domains and can think of -- creativity and imagination are encouraged, of course -- then we fit those that form a collective pattern together -- if any do. We may come up with several patterns. We then weigh them against past experience and their likelihood given current circumstances. And, finally, we take a wild guess and hope it's right." Everyone smirked. Everyone except Hans, that is. It'd been a very long day. He needed sleep. The coffee helped but little.

Bull stood, "Nothing's funny here, gentlemen," anger welling up, "time is running out!"

That stung. They all knew that, of course, but, they were scientists. Distance was necessary, but it didn't mean they were being indifferent or ignorant of potential consequences.

"Yes, General," said Weingard. "Please, calm yourself. We are all quite aware of our present situation. Perhaps more than you know."

"Yes, General, please," intoned Fitzsimmons, sincerely. "We need to get to the bottom of not only what Mister Glipter remembers, but all the other events as well. And, I agree, time is short."

"Hans," Marty said, "when we were in the infirmary, you told me the inner surface reminded you of a three-dimensional clay model of the sound of a spoken word, from high school, I believe."

"Yea, I suddenly saw it. And I think the reason I did was a result of my mind being tampered with. The crack on the skull probably helped."

"And you also said there was another similar image that popped into your head at the same time but got pushed down. Can you remember what that was?"

Hans finished his coffee and put the cup on the side-table. Slowly, with caution, he said, "If the interior were to come together, become solid, fill in the space between, it could resemble a Calabi-Yau manifold from string theory. But it was in motion, changing shape. Which could mean -- what?"

"In Bosonic string theory," interjected Pengrove, "a precursor of the present models," he said, looking at Samuelson, "there is indeed 26 dimensions, but all the particles are force particles -- no fermions -- and an unknown particle called a tachyon rears its head; a particle of imaginary mass that travels faster than light. And along the 22 excess dimensions, spacetime is folded up to form a small torus. This would leave only the four dimensions of spacetime visible, of course. It also predicts unphysical particle states called ghosts. In 26-D these ghost states have no interaction whatsoever with any other states."

"And, if the edifice is indeed a Calabi-Yau-type manifold," added Marty, "its material, holographically manifested or not, would act as in a pre-Higgs field situation. All particles and forces would be massless."

"But it must be material at the interface," Wlemar insisted, "why else would we be able to determine the atomic lattice structure of its layer-cake surface?"

"Yes, of course," Marty replied, "at the interface it merges with our spacetime -- an emergent phenomenon -- and so takes on its characterisitcs. The edifice is using the physical relationships of its surroundings -- the geometry -- to channel its manifestation. To,..., conform it, like liquid filling a convoluted cavern.

"And that's another point we shouldn't lose sight of. Our physics, the rules governing the existence, nature and behaviour of our universe, is inextricably related to the fact that our universe has three dimensions of space and one of time. So, we're trying to apply string theory, a theory concocted by humans on planet Earth knowing what we know -- and not even substantiated to date -- to speculate on the nature of an object that's 26 dimensions, and from somewhere else, probably, most likely. We may be so far off base --"

"We have to go with what we know, Marty," interjected Fitzsimmons, "it's all we have at present."

"Hans," interrupted Samuelson, "earlier today when we were talking privately, you suggested the gases may have escaped the tanks because they might be like a Bose-Einstein condensation. Am I saying that correctly? Would or could that be like these ghost particles?"

"Condensate, Professor. But, yes, there is definitely some similarity."

Pengrove picked up where he left off as though no one else had spoken in the interim. "Besides not plausible in our universe, knowing what we do, or at least, how we interpret and classify what we know. There are tens of thousands of possible Calabi-Yau candidates even if we knew the size of the compacted ball of curled-up dimensions.

"Welmar? Multi-dimensional space is your baby, and also Rose Marie's. Where is she, by the way? Sam?"

"She told me she was tired and wanted to go home. I think she went back to her room," he said, looking at the General. "If she was able to leave."

The General looked a little sheepish under the stern gaze of Professor Samuelson. "We've allowed for the top tier to come and go. Otherwise, it's a lock-down. Now, what's a clobbiyowl shape? Anybody?"

Hans shook his head. Marty offered, "The Standard model of how the universe works deals with point-particles as fundamental. In string theory you have string segments -- one-dimensional -- open or closed, depending, that vibrate, resonate. They vibrate through all dimensions including those of the curled up, Calabi-Yau-shaped ones. Each dimension stands for an independent vibrational pattern. How they vibrate dictates the kind of particle and its properties, its mass, charge, force strength, etcetera. The physical constants, on which the very nature of our universe depends, are crucially linked to the shapes of these balls of invisible dimensions, as the theory goes. Their geometrical properties -- their precise size and shape -- affect the vibrational patterns strings can execute.

"In our universe, the characterisitcs of these particles are so finely tuned that if these constants varied, even minutely one way or the other, there would be no structure: no galaxies, no stars, no life, anywhere in the universe.

"So there is a deep connection between the sub-atomic laws of our physics and the overall configuration of the universe. You can think of a Calabi-Yau manifold as an elaborate horn instrument. Forced air travels through the twists and turns of the inner, convoluted shape and when it comes out, you have the sound you have -- a mixture of various wavelets -- because of the shape. And the particle natures feedback on the Calabi-Yau shape to constrain it, in relationship."

"Well, then," the General asked, "what is the clobbi yowl shape of our universe?"

A heavy silence covered the room. Almost a sadness. Pengrove finally spoke, "We don't know. No one does to date. We don't know which specific shape corresponds to our universe, but, we have limited the candidates by the number of holes it must possess -- three. Three because that's the number of different families of particles there are."

"Oh?" smirked the General, clearly amused at this lack of what he considered basic knowledge, "How 'bout if three stood for the number of space dimensions instead?"

"Well, it's not defined that way."

"Pardon me, Rodney," interrupted Welmar, unable to control himself, "but, let's wander down this path for a moment. Remember the three colinear points on the lines from the inner sphere to the fixed node at the center of each design? There are 9 spheres, outer spheres. We've not given any significance to these facts, not that I know of." He glanced around the room. "You say 26-D, but nine times three equals twenty-seven. Could it be --"

"Time," intoned Hans, flat as death. "Linear time is the 27th. The other 26 are united by nonlinear time. Linear time sets all the other dimensions in motion as one nonlinear spacetime. It gives direction. Causes an asymmetry. And it doesn't see time as any different from space. If we could get above our 4-D spacetime, we'd see them all as space, we'd perceive four-dimensionally, we'd think and imagine that way. But we can't. We're limited to 3-D geometry. So how the hell are we supposed to communicate? P-5, for reasons I can't imagine, seems to be the sphere that controls linear time. Its time, our time -- I don't know."

"Rodney," Sam asked, "from Hans's articles on string theory he ran in the Post, I got the distinct impression that these Calabi-Yau shapes were microscopic. You did say invisible. Is that right? We can't see them?"

"Yes, Professor, down as small as Planck length." Sam's eyes widened. "That's pretty tiny -- invisible."

"So," Samuelson said, dry as hell, "if that," pointing outside, "is supposed to be microscopic,..., where does that leave us?

"Welmar?" Samuelson and Pengrove asked together.

Welmar reached in, you clould tell, though he never had to reach very far. "How do we know we're not already part of a compact ball in some larger universe, gentlemen? Relativity, real and meaningless, in my estimation, undercuts our assumptions as to what expanded and compression mean. If the edifice is indeed a quantum object only, it must constantly be in a state of superposition, not only spatially, but in time as well. In this state, it contains all the possibilities within which the particles that make it up can interact with all other particles, including those exterior to it. In other words, it knows infinite potentiality, generating an ensemble of all possible initial conditions and corresponding universe configurations, coexisting simultaneously."

"Our gravity, our four-D gravity," added Pengrove, "is what forces the projection to reside in one location and time." This was Pengrove's baby. He hypothesized that gravity, curved spacetime, was responsible for superposed quantum potentialities to transit to a unique classical phenomenon. The wavefunction collapses, the state-vector reduces, decoherence sets in. This way the necessity of an observer or measurement to have taken place for larger than microscopic objects is rendered irrelevant. An objective reality over and above perception of that reality.

"Spacetime is the product of quantum fluctuations; they must, somehow, resonate sympathetically with that of the edifice. Perhaps only in its four-dimensional aspect. Skin deep, as it were."

Welmar picked it up, "Perhaps Doctor Weingard's experiment would have broken the symmetry and produced a unique outcome, an unfavorable one, to us, prematurely. As a purely mathematical entity, it exists outside space and time, but as a manifestation in a material space, it must necessarily take on the properties of that space. At the interface, at least. We're talking about parallel universes. Universes with, no doubt, completely different properties and wave functions. Completely different laws of physics. I don't need to tell you that most are probably devoid of life.

"Our minds, as qauntum measuring devices, may have caused a decoherent event or collapse of the quantum superposition over and above the effect of gravity. And in actuality we don't know that our gravitational field has any effect on it?

"Nonetheless, if that's the case, if it is a quantum object projecting a manifestation into our reality, then where, indeed, does that leave us? Is the edifice, as Calabi-Yau manifold, projecting into our 4-D expanded space part of a larger universe or a parallel universe that has always been there, or is it something that's supposed to be somewhere else? Representing a breach in spacetime. If it's always been there, what happened 600 million years ago, our time, that could account for its sudden appearance? And, if it's not supposed to be here, why is it and where should it be?"

"So," observed Pengrove, speaking for all the other scientists and Puzzle Master people, "can we say we've abandoned the idea that the edifice is an alien artifact, a ship left behind or something intended as a fixed object, originating from somewhere in our universe?"

Nods of affirmation all around; none too enthusiastic, however. "Then, where is it from? And perhaps more importantly, what is it up to?"

Hans moaned, his head in his hands. "It's not supposed to be here," he murmured, as though to himself. Then, a couple of pitches higher, almost desperate, "I need to lay down. Now."

"The end room," offered Fitszimmons, "you'll find a blanket and pillow on the couch."

Marty glared at Bull, threatening against any objection. None came.

"Thanks." Hans shunned hands to help him stand and made his way down the hall. The room was dark. He could barely hear the others talking. The day had indeed been long, no doubt longer for him than anyone else. He quickly slipped off to sleep. But it was not a comfortable sleep. He tossed. Memories welled up, old and new, vying for attention. He dreamed, or so it seemed.

A deep, black orb presented itself at the bottom of a cavern, or was it a well or cave? Drawn to it, he was nonetheless unafraid. As he neared, a bright intense light, almost blinding as from a pulsar appeared at its heart. He stared, nonetheless, waiting for something. Then a voice, a familiar voice spoke to him as though through a film or membrane of some kind. "Human. We must merge. We need to find out what 'is' and what 'isn't'. You are a dreamwalker. There are others like you we have contacted. Learning much. But, we need more, dreamwalker. We thought you humans were One, as we. But now we know of your separateness. We have questions, dreamwalker."

Meanwhile, back in Fitzsimmons's office. Andrei, the young chaostician who'd been leaning against the wall sipping something out of a silver flask, said, "We know there's been an increase in energy, an increase in frequency of the design lights. You push enough energy through a complex dynamic system, it enters a phase transition. In this case, it's autocatalytic -- emergent consciousness. Lower-level interacting systems eventually generating global properties which feedback onto the lower hierarchies.

"An increase in complexity results, up to a point, and then -- whammo -- self-awareness ensues," Andrei proclaimed loudly, "an increase in the complexity of interconnections as with brains. It's what distinguishes us from the chimps,..., some of us anyway."

Another pull on the flask. "But what prompted the edifice to accelerate its energy flow? Answer -- its contact with a resonant imprint that fed back onto its own signature, us -- hence, amplification. And now we have something bordering, shall I say it? consciousness. Perhaps the edifice, or whatever it truly is, has realized us, the biosphere, consiousness, states of mind spread throughout the Earth -- Gaia -- emerging from its unconscious realm. Where we living things are all one. Children of Earth."

He drank some more. "Perhaps, I say. In a chaotic system, information is not just generated, it's also created from connections not previously there before. A kind of spontaneous generation of patterns in the world that simply were not there before. Self-organized criticality,..., life at the edge of chaos,..., on the fractal boundary where order and disorder mingle indeterminably,.., a quantum-like space in its own right,.., all the cliches, gentlemen.

"Now, I 'm just parroting basic chaos theory, information we all probably are aware of, but, nonetheless, it stands on its own merit, elementary or not. Discontinuity at this transitional phase must have something to do with self-actualization or realization. What would compromise the nonlinearity necessary for the edifice to continue in its holographic state of layered identity structures, its hierarchy?"

Nobody spoke, or moved. They seemed to be trying to catch their breath.

"Chaosticians," spat Weingard, finally, "run enough current through dead matter and after some magical Brink is crossed -- voila -- life! Frankenstein, Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton. It's not that simple, Andrei. There's more to it than that."

"God? intelligent design? some,..., mythological creator?" countered Andrei, his usual brashness bordering on insolence. "How do we cross the gap between inorganic and organic? What is the process, Doctor? Where does it come from? What's the criterion for life? This year? This week? How does life come about, Doctor?" he pressed on. Not waiting for a reply, "It resides in the very essence of our universe. In matter itself. Life percolates up and precipitates out. What is life, Doctor Weingard?"

Viktor Littgenstein, the evo-dev biologist, interrupted, "For one thing, a material system can be considered an organism if closed to efficient causation. Positive amplification coupled with negative feedback maintaining itself in a state far from equilibrium. That's a bare-bones, thermodynamic definition. Given a sufficient increase in the input provided by the metabolic web, new complex structures and functions can be generated. New arrangements. It is the metabolic web that converts energy into organization, building on its own inherent order.

"'If the system had come to rest at the edge of chaos, an environmental jolt would push it into the chaotic regime, and an avalanche of change, a burst of speciation, would be predicted.' That's Jim Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia principle. Now, I'm not saying I buy everything Lovelock says about Gaia. It's unfortunate it came out in the sixties, associated as it was with a lot of hippie pseudo-mysticism. But, complex adaptive systems, global ecosystems, do behave that way, as he portrayed them using the Gaia paradigm. Perhaps we supplied the sufficient perturbation to nudge the edifice into creative activity.

"And, at the risk of sounding pseudo-mystical myself, there may be a great deal more to the changes that have been taking place than simply the result of epigenetic influences. Nature is the ultimate protective network, the overarching morphogenetic field."

Gesturing, drawing schematics in the air, he went on quickly, "We have amplification and feedback happening almost simultaneously. Individual species are embedded in complex dynamical systems. We have a hierarchy of networks of increasingly complex interdependence." Finishing his pictograph, he concluded, "Perhaps the edifice and our biosphere are connected in ways we can't imagine. Emergence is the central theme."

"Are you suggesting," asked Pengrove, "that the edifice and our biosphere, in particular, we humans, are, or have been, somehow entangled with one another? And that a sufficient disturbance in its, or our, environment would, or could, precipitate a definite outcome, a collapse of the wavefunction, if it hasn't already done so?"

"I am no physicist, Doctor, but that sounds like a good analogy. So I think it important that we find a new way of thinking. A new frame. A new paradigm. We've been pursuing a reductionist approach, gentlemen. We've been examining the details of the system, its parts, trying to get at its activity, its nature, but this approach is clearly not sufficient."

"Just a second, Viktor," countered Fitzsimmons, a little annoyed, "pattern recognition and its possible causes has been what the Puzzle Masters are based on."

"Yes, I know, but, what I'm trying to point out is the possibility that consciousness can be realized as the result of all these interacting patterns, as an emergent global property, as Andrei was aluding to. That's where our attention should be now. Yes, by all means, examine and study the underlying patterns and sets of relationships, but,..., we have to get passed our lenses, our superimposed coordinate systems, our perceptual reality. The invariant features we pull out are invariant to us only, based on what we've learned of our world only.

"To reiterate: a connected web of metabolic transformations emerges spontaneously and inevitably in a sufficiently complex system of organic molecules. Morphogenesis, Doctor."

Stanley Calkman, paleobiologist on leave from the University of Alaska, had been sitting in the next room down the hall finishing up email correspondence with colleagues -- the door open -- listening from time to time to the proceedings next door. He now stood at the entrance to the living room. Taking advantage of the deep silence, he said, "My friends, there is another guerilla in the room we've deliberately ignored. It was not time; attention was elsewhere; there was much to do. But, I think, now -- considering circumstances -- would be a good time to explore it. We have to."

Everyone waited; they were ready for anything at this point.

"The Cambrian explosion." He poured himself a cup of coffee. Then went on, "Evolution occurs at the edge of chaos amidst the many fractal layers of networks feeding on one another. Evolution, especially major changes and transitions, is altered, redirected, reshaped at the interface where living systems meet epigenetic landscapes. A major event -- like the arrival of the edifice -- marks an historical contingency and, an historical contingency influenced, maybe even caused, the shape of the Cambrian explosion. An environmental impact that broke the existing symmetry engendered by the entanglement ongoing between the Earth and its living systems. Self-organization coupled with contingency coupled with natural selection, what do we have? -- symbiosis, rearrangement, innovation.

"The question I'm posing is, simply put: What role did the edifice play, if any, in the Cambrian explosion?"

"Are you suggesting it's arrival, if we can call it that, catalyzed the abrupt genesis of body plans -- phyla -- that hallmarks the advent of the Cambrian," asked a dubious Doctor Weingard. "What it, in fact and myth, signifies?" .

"More than catalyzed. Rewired. Rewove. Strand by strand. From within and without. A mingling and a bonding. Old genes recombined, expanded, their regulation and function changed. On levels we may never be able to understand."

"It would have to be unimaginably powerful," stated Jennings.

"We don't know how powerful it is," added Calkman.

Head bowed, a bemused Sir Rodney Pengrove quietly observed, "We've been as children exploring a new find in the dirt."

"Consider," continued Calkman, "the epigenome -- an array of chemical markers and switches -- lying along the length of the double helix. As a set of instructions, it switches gene expression on or off. Okay. These instructions are sensitive to cues from the environment; and fundamental adaptive changes are molded by the environment. Okay. The brain's neurons, for example, change the communication pathways among themselves in response to experience. As a consequence, our genomes alter, retaining something like a memory of major environmental signals and pass these on to progeny.

"Six hundred million years ago, the Earth was practically covered by ice -- Snowball Earth they call it. With only the tiniest bit more icing, an irrevocable point would have been crossed, and the Earth would not have been able to recover on its own. It would've remained a frozen ball until its eventual destruction. And, what lived then was not much -- no offense Professor Samuelson -- moving along at its own slow pace, pacific as hell. The arrival of the edifice may have been the quintessential historical contigency altering and redirecting the course of life on Earth."

"Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the edifice did have some influence on the course of life," considered Weingard dryly, "does it know that? And if it does, what does it intend to do about it? What can it possibly mean to it?"

"That may be the source of its quandry and need to ask questions," suggested Marty.

The implications of the last few remarks, particularly those pertaining to the origin and genealogy of everyone in the room, were not wasted on the group, shifting the general mood, however subtly. One could rightly say that the stress of recent events, the magnitude of the situation, and the very real possibility of devastation -- somehow -- from an unknown and apparently unknowable source and for an unknown reason, held the possibility of evoking the basest of instinctive reactions, even among a group of serious intellectuals, or, especially among such a group. Their self-esteem rested heavily on their knowledge and expertise. To imagine that some alien thing may be responsible was insult to injury rolled into one, was wholly unaccceptable. In fact, the very idea was repugnant.

Feelings of violation and resentment that they, as a species, could be the product of so whimsical, improbable and arbitrary a happenstance -- a contingency -- and the realization that if true, not only their body plan, but their very thoughts and emotions, logic and sensations, were just so because of the accidental appearance of an object the origin and nature of which may never be known, all contributed to a malaise and an unspoken need to act. At least among a few.

It was therefore not completely out of character for the polymath Welmar to propose, "We need to come up with a contingency plan of our own. Suppose it means us harm, if only by original design and not current conscious intent?" The group listened attentively; the air had changed, they all knew it. "Consider: If its consciousness is the result of lower-level, sub-network interactions, vortices...," .

"And we manage to pull the plug on the networks," added Weingard, sensing where he was going, "which, most likely, are represented by the designs...,"

"Then consciousness will collapse," pronounced Marty.

"But do we want that?" asked Pengrove. "Assuming we can, of course, which I seriously doubt. Is it desirable? Especially at this time when it's made contact with Hans? Perhaps its newfound consciousness, if that is indeed the case, is what is keeping it from doing something catastrophic. And would we ever again have such an opportunity to learn? For knowledge?"

"How do we know it isn't monitoring our thoughts right now?" whispered Jameson, the neurobiologist. He'd been sitting quietly in the corner the whole time. Introspective. Troubled. Dark.

"A little paranoid, aren't we," admonished Littgenstein, good naturedly, intending the remark for the others as well.

"I don't know; how do we know?" asked an incredulous Jameson. "What if it thinks we're trying to kill it?" fear giving in to annoyance at their apparent indifference.

From the beginning of this project, even before he'd arrived on site, Doctor Littgenstein had been toying with the vague outlines of an idea concerning the role of the edifice, as it came to be known. Needing an hypothesis to inform his thinking, he presumed it was some kind of navigation buoy or beacon, abandoned by the alien race that built it. Perhaps because of a realignment of their exploratory map; or an upgrade to a more sophisticated model that didn't need to rest on a planet; or, simply, they had ceased to exist for whatever reason.

Questions arose based on his hypothesis. How did they get it here, presuming they were on the other side of the galaxy or the universe, or, for that matter, merely several light years away? And if, as a beacon, it had to send signals? The time factor had to be overcome. Light speed, the fastest information can travel through spacetime, constrains an alien race as it does humans.

He had enough of an overview of physics under his belt -- a necessity in his field -- to know that for a quantum object in quantum space, distance and separation have no meaning. It can be tranferred and it can transmit, non-locally, across the universe instantly. Moreover, he had mused, there may be such a thing as a hologrpahic layer to spacetime, or beneath it.

Nonetheless, the revelation evoked by Jameson's outburst and concern; combined with Calkman's Cambrian explosion speculation; its contact with Glipter; the consensus that it's of 26 dimensions and projecting, somehow, materially into our world; and, agreed upon, not of our universe; forced him to finally jettison his original idea.

His intuition, which he relied upon heavily, pointed in another direction, towards an unmistakable inference: quantum space --> ethereal plane --> unconscious mind.

Staring at his shoes, he therefore conjectured, in his deep carefully spaced tones developed over years of lecturing to fidgety freshman, "It made contact with something familiar, intimately familiar, an imprint or coding, on the unconscious level, I believe."

"Something gave it pause?" offered Pengrove.

"yes, yes, quite so,...," looking up to eye him, "it's pausing."

"Or," disagreed Weingard, not missing a beat, "it's going through a metamorphosis according to a pre-arranged plan."

"Scientists," rebuked an angry General Mynsky. "It could very well be the end of us all and you speak of the opportunity to learn! We will learn our deaths, no doubt. I say we evacuate the entire area, the entire town and blow the damn thing to hell," Bull roared, firm as iron.

"Hold it, hold it, hold it, please," intoned Fitzsimmons in his most comforting voice. "Calm down, all. Let's not race ahead of ourselves. We're here to attempt to assess the danger -- if any -- we face. And, to arrive at solutions."

At that moment, an angry nurse from the infirmary burst into the room. "Where have you taken my patient?" she demanded, "he wasn't to leave the quiet-room. He's overdue for his medication."

Professor Samuelson, as the elder statesman, rose and beckoned her over. "Come this way, please. He just layed down, probably not asleep yet."

"He's not supposed to lay down," she said with alarm, "he has a concussion. Trauma. Don't you people know anything?"

She quickly followed Sam down the hall to the rear room. When they got there, the nurse stepped passed him and opened the door. "He's not here," she said, indignant. "Is this a game, sir? We have no time for games."

Indignant himself, the professor stepped in. "He was supposed to be here." Hans's shoes laid next to the couch. Sam went back into the hallway. The bathroom door adjacent was closed. Relieved, he knocked. "Hans, you in there?"

"No, no Hans. Vladimir. Had to go. Last night. Too much --"

"Okay, fine, that's enough," the Professor said.

They checked the other two rooms in the hall, then went to the back door. Sam opened it; several of the General's security guards were milling about. "Has anyone come out here in the last couple of minutes?" he asked urgently.

"No, sir. Not in the last,..., hour. No one since we've been here."

The Professor closed the door and went back to Hans's room, stood in the middle with hands on hips, and examined it as though expecting to find him clinging to its surface. The nurse would not let up. "Where is he?" she demanded.

"I don't know," he replied in kind, exasperated. He checked the window. Locked. Chiding himself for doing so, surrounded by guards as they were. He took a deep breath. Irritated at running out of options so quickly, he lifted the blanket off the couch, refusing to accept the obvious. "He must be here," he muttered, amazement and worry in his voice.

"Where else could he be?"


Slack tide. Turbo sat on the same bleached log Rocky and he had occupied not a half-dozen hours ago, what now seemed like an eon. Their footprints and doodles were still evident. The late afternoon chop had dissipated; the sea was calm. A fading gust trilled the waxy beach grass on the berm behind. It set his teeth on edge.

He gazed across the bay to the hills of the peninsula and let his eyes wander down the ridge to the Cape, then south to the Sea of Okhotsk. Only a few hotel boats remained, anchored outside the harbor near the center of town south. Boredom finally set in, he thought. Even the novelty of an alien ship isn't enough to keep the attention of mankind. The circus came; and now it's run its course.

On impulse, he got up and meandered towards the water's edge, noting the bright alabaster shells strewn about like autumn leaves, the detail curious and quiet, shimmering as he passed. The sea swarmed over the coarse sand only a few feet, then, a couple of pitches higher, ran back on tip-toe.

The sun warmed his neck, a carress, a hand gently touching. After all this time here, bizarre things were suddenly happening, unexplainable things. Was it true? he thought, had Professor Samuelson's arrival triggered something, or was it only ego and coincidence? But, he seemed to think so. What of Rocky's dream? And Colonel Rodenko. He was so certain the strange sea creature caught by the Koryaks had to do with the alien craft -- the edifice. And his own experiences: Twice onboard the Christ Is My Saviour. Twice weapons mysteriously vanished into thin air. Not to mention: kidnapped, hog-tied, interrogated, threatened, and finally released thanks to a fish from another world.

He stopped pacing just beyond the sea's encroachment, a game matched by stick-legged sandpipers. A greenish, flat stone, glimmering like jade, caught his eye. Picking it up, he thumbed its ultra-smooth wet surface, tumbling it over in his hand, a precious gem.

Fear. Fear had been the enemy when he was a boy. He couldn't escape it, awake or asleep. Shy, sensitive, smart -- a target for bullies. He grew up hating himself for what he saw as cowardice and weakness. Given a choice, he'd take the path of self-destruction. No help from his mother, she only seemed to take advantage of it, to use him as a goat to work out her own frustrations and unhappiness and feelings of low worth. Once, in high school, when he was having trouble with the first and only girlfriend of his teenage life, instead of trying to help, she said only, I don't know what she sees in you! in her harsh, painful tone. A perverse satisfaction for revenge sake became a major theme of his life: holding back from living up to his potential. It became a habit, a way to stay just below what he could achieve to avoid attention. Although, an awareness, clear as a bright star on a dark winter night, told him he was better than he was daring to be.

Humiliated, over and over again, his confidence undermined, he withdrew into a hard shell, to protect himself and his feelings. He was one person to the outside world, another in the privacy of his own head. He pretended to be dumb, would not take chances, would not step out of the crowd, avoided at all cost the limelight, always settling for second banana. It got twisted, these negative feelings, somewhere along the way. His self-hatred poisoned relationships, not as the norm, but it shadowed everything, lurking, waiting for an excuse, real or imagined. His spirit and pride could not abide this prison of fear forever, or the ugliness it could morph into, he rebelled and overthrew the tyrant within; the very dictator he himself had created.

He began by systematically studying societies and cultures, religions, sciences, mythologies and philosophies -- east and west -- points-of-view, the history of the human race, psychology, literature, whatever he could get his hands on that would give him insights into the questions: What the hell is going on? What am I doing here? What is truth?

LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, peyote buttons; he sought altered states -- Doors of Perception. He combined what he learned through these many means, and looked at it all through the lens of his street sense. He passed from humanist to rebel to anarchist and out the back door. Rather than breaking rules to prove freedom, he saw them as make-believe to begin with, a game of let's pretend, and so refused to bow his knee and submit, to accept them as dictators, to be intimidated.

To live in the present -- for the present only -- the here and now was his watchword, mantra, philosopher's stone. He wanted to rid himself of his predispositions -- the perceptions that were tainted with irrational fears, and in some cases, saturated with them. To step outside of their hold. He withdrew his projections and watched them perform at arm's length until they lost their power. He insisted on seeing into the nature of things, into the underbelly of immediate circumstances, behind appearances.

Relationships came, relationships went, always leaving a residue, a trace of loss, the good ones anyway. His pain and rage kept his mouth shut, letting this excessive display of will and power, belief in the certainty of it all, continue. As others lived their lives, he saw what they were doing in terms of different degrees of portraying, acting out characters, characters they could suspend and reshape in an act of will and awareness. Society was theatre, nothing more. He was arrogant with sureness. He carried it too far at times. To indifference, inconsiderateness, to pure selfishness.

He focused on the immediate physical environement, opened to it, identified with it, challenged it. The realm of the physical became extension only, a consciousness of sensation, circumscribed and complete unto itself, his own bubble world of time and space with him at the center. He held allegiance to life only, his sole justification, to the truth he beheld; at least, the truth he imagined he beheld. I must live according to the truth, he would say to himself, forcefully.

Inevitably, he ran into trouble, as anyone would. Doubt sowed its debilitating seeds. He learned the hard way. He could no longer rationalize a stage for objectivity, and so was drawn in by the undertow -- the pitfall and obsession of self-analysis. He was ashamed and embarrassed and guilt-ridden by how he'd behaved, how he treated others, in ways that always ended up hurting him. He tried to figure out why it wasn't working. It had been so damn clear -- you simply detach from the mental overlay, stop taking it as fundamental, and move about freely in your surroundings, experiencing; it is our birthright, our cosmic imperative, our raison d'etre. Our bodies and minds are instruments and conduits of creating and knowing. And what else is there?

The problem, of course, with concentrating only on the present -- NOW -- is that you don't plan for the future, any future. There's no gradual development of skills and talents and abilities surrounding, supporting and infusing a career, for instance, or a way of life. A philosophy devoted to the moment exclusively is devoid of the essential element of time stretching into the future and the distant past, and, most importantly, is empty of substance and meaning and purpose -- a life without significance, only motion. No traditions, no customs, no rituals, no sense of place, no home, no history. And no rights of passage where you leave behind one consciousness and take on another as if by magic, adopting psychologically and socially a new set of responsibilities and a new identity.

He withdrew into himself, shunned friends and people in general. Paranoid, sometimes it was all he could do to walk to the corner store. He knew he had to get out of the neighborhood, way out of the neighborhood. So it was almost serendipitous when Hans quit teaching to become the science reporter for The Washington Post and came back to visit with friends in the old neighborhood. He'd lost contact with Turbo and that was one of the reasons he'd quit. No time for family and friends, for life.

When Hans visited Turbo's tiny studio apartment in West Philly, it didn't take long to assess the situation. He needed an assistant on his travels -- a producer, a lead man, a set-up guy -- and was told he could hire whomever he chose. Turbo leapt at the chance.

That was six years ago. You have to get outside your head -- he knew that now. His perspective changed. Things that once seemed important ceased to be so. No need to consult some criterion before acting; he'd found his own voice buried amongst the morass. No more calculating, surmising, analyzing. Living where you are and not just being. And now this -- Casgrovina, Eastern Siberia, in June. With an impossible alien something causing unnatural and otherworldly events to happen, for no apparent reason, though reason may no longer apply.

But in the last couple days, he'd grown uncertain, anxious, afraid. The fear he'd thought he banished, scattered and ran off. Had it only gone underground, taking up residence in his psyche, hiding in his unconscious, forming its very own personal archetype, waiting patiently for the opportunity to re-emerge, to take over, to dominate once again? No. He was afraid; but not in the same way. This was something new and terrifying and thrilling all at once. During all these years, he'd not let anyone get close to him, intimately close. But recent events were contriving to poke holes in his armor; not only were they letting light in, but letting it out as well.

He crouched, then threw the stone. It skipped twice, three times, then on the fourth -- ka-plunk.

"Not bad," came a shout from behind, "I'll show ya' how to do that some time."

A bolt of lighning. He turned on a dime. "Rocky," he shouted back, grinning like a teenager. Then with a voice that seemed to come from someone else, scarcely audible above the hissing sound of the waves, he repeated, "Rocky."

She stood on the berm. He drank her in. Her worn back-country leather boots. Her jeans and red flannel shirt. Her long curly red hair practically covering her strong, narrow shoulders. Her piercing blue-gray eyes. An amused smile on her lips.

With the agility of the rock-climber she was, she crossed the scattered driftwood to the beach, then abruptly angled north. Turbo moved to intercept, shortly walking alongside, in step. The crunching of boots on coarse cinders was the only sound, save for distant seagulls and wavelets wash-boarding over the gravel. The early summer air was warm yet crisp -- Siberia. Sandpipers darted ahead, their tiny pronged footprints cross-hatching the softer sand near the water's edge, only to be wiped away by the next wave.

When they came to the bend, they stopped to gaze out at the Bay, saying nothing, breathing deeply the salt air. Turbo could smell her hair in the soft breeze. He turned to her. She smiled while keeping her eyes fixed on the distant shore. "Let's sit down," she said. They aimed for an outcrop of drift that faced the Kolyma Range to the northwest. Town was completely behind them now. They both started to speak at the same time, what they'd been through since that morning -- when she was taken back to the Site by a heavy-duty security guard, and he was awakened from a nap only to be drugged by two thugs -- he thought then -- and kidnapped. He wanted to hear her story first as it concerned Hans. She recounted Hans's experience in the sphere the first time, and then what happened after all the spheres sealed, or healed themselves, covering over where they'd been cut open for entry. "It was amazing," she said. "Hans and Marty Bowman, you know him?"

"Met him once or twice with Hans. Used to be a fisherman."

"That's him. They figured the edifice was holographic -- actually Hans was the one convinced of that -- and that it was sound activated or controlled. With the engineer's help they devised a ring of speakers to place around where the hole had been. Hans heard a deep sound that first time, a resonance only. And from the day's sound files they were able to duplicate it and vacate the portal, the material, or what looks like material. Bring it back to that time when the opening was there."

"Why, though? What for?"

"Oh. Well, two techies were trapped inside when the spheres sealed. I forgot that part," she said, concerned that she had. "They were okay," she hurried on. "But Hans. He had some kind of hallucination or mind manipulation by the edifice down there. Anyway, he managed to run headlong into a wall and just about cracked his noggin'."

"Hans?" asked an incredulous Turbo. "We played a jillion games of football together. I find it hard --"

"Other things were going on. He got lost in what the edifice was creating for him out of his memories. I didn't get the full story. We talked in the infirmary, briefly. He needed to be alone. Fitzsimmons called for an emergency meeting. I couldn't do it. Attend, I mean. Something happened. So, I left."

"What?" he asked as he picked up a twig. "What happened?"

"I don't know. When I was talking to Hans,..., I could see flashes of what he was saying as though I had been there. Weird. I don't know, Turbo. It kinda scared me a little." She stopped talking; that is, she wasn't going to say anymore about it, he could tell. For awhile, they stared together towards the barren steppe approaching greenish-blue brush- and dwarf tree-covered foothills, foothills gently sloping up to the massively craggy, glacier-covered Kolyma.

He felled the silence. "Well, I had a fun time, myself," he began. "Had a good steak, laid down to take a nap, had a nightmare, a knock on the door, opened it, two guys dressed like fishermen with heavy Russian accents asked me if I was Hans Glipter. For whatever reason, God only knows, I said yes and then the lights went out. I woke up in their sumptious cottage overlooking the bay. Oh, did I mention I was tied hand and heel to a cot? No? Okay.

"I was given a comfortable plush chair to sit on and then questioned and indirectly threatened by the leader. Two others were there and another outside. These were older gents. From the Afghan wars. Special Operations, I figure. On a job. To find out what's going on at the Dig. Freelancing. Too loose for regulars. Too independent seeming. They were loyal to their leader, and that was that."

He paused to drag the stick around in the sand. Lines that didn't connect. Circles. Staring hard.

"There's something else," she knew. "What? And how'd you get away?"

After a pause. "This is truly weird. A wooden skiff pulled up on the beach, good size, I guess, maybe twenty feet or so. The other guy, it turned out, the guy who put the sleeping potion under my nose, well, he's out there helping these two Koryak fishermen -- right out of central casting -- yard their boat. They were yelling in Koryak, I guess it was, wasn't Russian, I know, I've heard enough of that since I been here. They wanted to show us something in the boat. Passin' around a jug. The big guy took the bottle and swigged hard, then suddenly went on in english, broken, but serviceable. He was pointing into the boat and yelling about nightmares come to life."

His sketching began to take on form, definition.

"What was it?"

He proceeded to describe the creatures that laid in the bottom of the wooden skiff: the eyes on stalks; the circular, jagged-toothed mouth; the spine-covered arm-like appendages; their overall length at several feet. He drew it as he did so. "What do ya' make of that?"

Her eyes flashed momentarily. "When dad finally settled down to teach, he had lots of visits from colleagues. He's the head of the department, you know. Lots of correspondence back and forth from other paleontologists all over the world. I remember once he received photographs from plates of samples taken from the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. He's got quite a bit of that period stuff. The Cusp, he calls it. With them were some renditions of what they may have looked like when alive and functioning. What you're describing sounds an awful lot like an anomalacaris. There've been several species found, actually, but, including the big find in China and some other places, only a handful of samples exist. Barely more than impressions in slate, really. So I don't see why there couldn't be ones that were five or six feet long, or even longer. But, we're talking extinction around 500 million years ago, buddy."

"Five hundred million...." Eyes narrowed, he scanned the sea as though for the first time. "How can that be?"

"I don't know. But there's nothing like it now, I'm sure. Other similar things have been happening in other parts of the world. The edifice is turning back the clock, maybe to when it first came here. Or curling it back to a prior period in time. We know next to nothing about the possibility of curled-up time dimensions. Back then, you know, life thrived in the sea only, that's all there was, the sea, or rather, seas, spread out over the broken up mega-continent. Warm, shallow bodies of water. Perfect breeding grounds for diversification." She shook her head and chortled, "I'm almost getting casual about what the edifice can do, or is doing. I don't know what else could be responsible. Nothing. God?"

Turbo stared in the direction of where the Christ Is My Savior had been anchored, remembering the weapons vanishing. "They also said there were no other fish, the bottom fish they usually catch, halibut, cod, I don't know."

"Well, the anomalacaris was the preemenent predator of the time. And, he was all over, they say. But, I can't imagine all the other fish being gobbled up. Not here. Maybe they were just unlucky. The other fishermen are beginning to trickle out. They've given up on the Dig, it seems, tired of sittin' around. They'd rather be fishing, anyway. This is their time, and the weather's good. I saw a few getting groceries on my way here. We'll get some more feedback, as they say. It's hard to believe. I mean, the Okhotsk Sea is one of the most plentiful fishing grounds in the world."

"I know, I know. Jesus." A thoughtful pause. "If I was in the water and that thing came at me,..., I think I'd just as soon have a heart attack."

"But what about sharks?" she asked, pinching his upper arm.

"Sharks?" He tapped the stick on the hard sand, musing. "I've seen sharks, up close, on a fishing trip once, when I was a kid. We went on a charter boat, a bunch of us city kids, out from Atlantic City. Everybody except me and Franky Dinella got sick. We were catching these little fish, a kind of cod or something, I forget. Anyway, some other guy accidentally locked on to a shark, a small one, maybe four feet long, black. The skipper and this guy held it up at the rail while they tried to get the hook out, which they eventually did. But, I was standing close, to check it out. Even though it was hooked and helpless, it still looked at me totally fearless, one thing on its mind, -- food. When they pulled it up, the water ran off in a sheet. It was dry looking after that, not like a fish at all, different skin.

"But this thing, this animalacaris or whatever, it looked like it shouldn't exist, like it was in the wrong sea altogether. Not evil, or anymore menacing than a shark, but, something about it,..., like, did you ever see that movie, the one set in Antarctica, where this alien creature is capable of turning into other things, sled dogs and people? Kurt Russel was in it? Anyway, it had that feel to it, unnatural.

"Once those eyes locked on; it must've froze prey like a deer in headlights."

They sat. He tossed the stick away, gazed at his depiction of the thing -- the creature he'd drawn in the sand -- then, shaking his head, brushed it out with his boot.

"We've had a hell of a day in what's becoming a very crazy world," Rocky murmured, like the breeze, "we're out of our depths, my friend, I'm afraid."

They both sat very still for what seemed like a long time, feeling the warm salt air rustle their hair, brush their skin. Finally, Rocky picked up a shell and tossed it towards the water a good fifty feet away, hard, like she was actually trying to hit it. Scooching down, she peered at him, one eye closed, slightly grimacing in the sunlight. "I need a drink, cowboy. Whudoyasay?"

Using both hands, he pulled his long locks straight back, let them drop, then replied dustily, "Well, ma'am, drinking ain't never been one of my problems. A pitcher of ice-cold marguerittas sounds right good about now, to tell ya' the truth."

She slapped his shoulder with the back of her hand. "Well then, bub, let's get the hell goin'." She pushed herself up off the worn log and started to walk the long way round, the route through the broken-down fence and the boatyard they'd taken that morning.

As he rose, he reached out to tug her shirt cuff. "What about your jacket?" he asked. But before he could take a step, she spun to press her body firmly against his, wrapping her strong slender arms around his neck and shoulders, burying her face in his hair. They stood hugging, immobile, as two lost lovers long separated by dark events, unspoken words passing between them, listening to the quietly surging surf coming to a sudden stop, over and over. Her warm tears streaked his cheek. He looked down, concern fading to tenderness as he saw the smile.

As though on cue, all sound ceased. Their lips touched. Softly at first, little more than discovery. Then with desire deepened by the taste of salt. The walls they both shared fell like so much sand.

Finally prying their mouths apart, she smiled, eyes bright through the damp. Without hesitation, they turned to walk back the way they'd come. Besides the jacket, it was closer to the Airstream. The day was getting on. Time seemed precious, as though it might abruptly end at any moment.


"My men are packed and ready to go home, General. Yes, that's correct. They've had it and, quite frankly, so have I. There's nothing here to report." Colonel Rodenko took a sip of vodka as he fumbled with the single-side band radio, trying to get a cleaner reception.

"Preposterous!" exhorted the General. "Did you not interview Mister Glipter? Did he not say they've discovered some kind of extemely powerful drive -- a quark drive, I believe you said?"

Rodenko's eyes rolled for his men sitting nearby, drinking heavily, waiting to go to the airport. "I did, yes, you are correct, sir. However, I don't believe him now that I've had some time to think about it. It seemed too simple, too easy. Why would he tell me if true? He didn't appear to be the kind of man who would just blurt that out without any provocation. I think he made it up on the spur of the moment just to be released."

"But he's a newspaper man."

"Yes, and newspaper men don't give away their stories that easily, especially big ones. He's lying. There's nothing going on at the site. It's an alien artifact with no promises of newfound energies or exotic propulsion systems."

The radio hissed and crackled. Again Sergei turned the knob gingerly to quiet it down. A long pause. Finally, "My dear colonel. How long have we been doing business together? Hmmm? Can you tell me?"

He didn't know where his employer was going with this, so he played it straight. "Over ten years, I believe, General. Yes, ten years."

"And in all that time have we ever had a falling out or a miscommunication?"

"No. It's been a good relationship." Again he rolled his eyes for his listening men.

"And a rewarding one too. Has it not?"

The colonel took another swig. "What are you getting at?" He hated to be toyed with, by anyone. The general knew this.

"The job is not done, colonel. Our contacts inside have no access to the inner circle of scientists. Our own scientists must be collaborating, putting their scientific interests above those of their country. They will be dealt with when they return to Moscow, of that you can be sure. If, in fact, it is as I believe. They have discovered something of inestimable benefit to the Russian people."

Shaking his head, Sergei eyed his men, fatigue and disgust on his face. The Russian people, he thought. Since when have these old-guard communists and ex-KGB ever given a damn for the Russian people? But the General was in a position to pull strings behind the scenes. People would mysteriously disappear -- no questions asked -- cursory to non-existent investigation -- case closed. He had to take that into consideration. If not for himself, for his men. In his employ were a total of sixteen men, all from the old days in Afghanistan, his old platoon. The three with him on this job were extremely reliable and capable; all he'd thought he'd need. But now, they were spooked and disgruntled. This was not a normal job. Not for men of their experience and profile. They were professional killers and assassins, not alien ship investigators. They wanted out; and so did he.

Fyodor checked his watch, looked at his colonel and splayed his hands.

Rodenko waved him off, agitated. "General, whatever is going on here, my men are not in a position to find out. Or should I say we are not. General Mynsky, you remember him, do you not?" He enjoyed this dig knowing full well the animosity that existed between the two. Mynsky had stood up to his employer and gotten away with it. A tribute to his own influence and reputation in the military, still a force to be reckoned with. "Well, all his security force were with him from the wars, they've brought their sons and relatives. None would even think to betray his trust. It's a closed box. And we can't break in. Even if we, somehow, were able to infiltrate their force, it would do no good. We would learn nothing. We would have to snoop around on our own and we have not a clue as to what we'd be looking at or for. We are not scientists. We are not the people for this job, I am sorry to say. You may keep your money. All we need is to leave, as soon as possible."

More hissing and noise. The incoming voice was breaking up. Rodenko got a handle on it just as, "... the one to do it. We have no one else in place. Send your men home. If they are of no use, do it. But you must stay. I insist. I will have the Interior Minister issue an order to Mynsky informing him that a special envoy is on the way to investigate the cause of the Site's shutdown, and to determine the nature of any problems or discoveries. The media is out in the dark. They know nothing. Time is wasting. We need information. If it is as I suspect, we will send in the military to take over."

Rodenko was in shock at this suggestion. "But, General, the entire world is watching what goes on here. I am sure other governments -- the United States for one -- probably have similar suspicions and concerns. Do you imagine they will stand by and not do something?"

"Colonel, do you think I'm an idiot? Siberia is still Russian territory, is it not? Who would dare challenge our sovereign right to protect the Russian people -- indeed, the world -- from a hazard as grave as a potential explosion of unknown and unprecidented devastation? There is grave danger from the alien ship, those on site do not have the capacity to prevent it. We as hosts to this thing, must act to defend the Earth."

Rodenko almost choked on his last sip of vodka. I am dealing with a crazy man, he thought. How can he believe anyone would buy this? He has been too deeply involved with covert operations and political manipulations. It is not the same world it was when he was pulling strings in the old Soviet days. The world has gotten small. We know now that the universe harbors other intelligent life. Things will never be the same. Why does he not see this? How can it have no effect?

Exasperated and exhausted, he relented, if only for the sake of his men and to get off the radio. "Very well, General. You wish me to act as envoy. How will I recieve the proper paperwork and identification?"

"A courier is on the way. We dispatched him after your last transmission. We anticipate here, my dear colonel. Once you are inside you will, by orders to General Mynsky, be taken on a grand tour of the facility and be allowed to interview all scientists, everyone and anyone. It is our right and it will be obeyed or certain people will be recalled and replaced."

"I must point one thing out, sir. Mynsky and I have met, way back in the eighties; it was a memorable experience, for both. His men were trapped in an ambush. We arrived by accident, coming from a raid of our own. We rescued him and his men. He most likely will remember that."

"No matter. Don't concern yourself. Does he remember your name, do you think?"

"I never gave it. We helped them get back to their base. He and I shared a bottle of vodka, a few drinks only. Then we left. No names were given, although I knew his from reputation."

"Very well then. Colonel, I'm giving you this assignment as a special favor. We have no one else in position right now. You will be greatly rewarded for a susccessful mission, as usual. But, let me warn you, do not fail. If I do not hear from you within the week, we will assume the worst, and will act accordingly. Do you catch my drift, as the Americans say?"

After a long pause during which Colonel Sergei Rodenko mulled over thoughts he would really like to express, he said through the crackle, "Yes, General, I do."

"Excellent. Well. Get your men home. They will be paid the standard. And Colonel. The sooner you succeed, the sooner you will be back in your opulent hotel suite with your pretty ladies. Is that not a good thing?"

Rodenko closed the connection with disgust. His men had heard everything. Sadness filled their eyes. They had always left together, been together through all strife over the years. It was not right. It made them angry. For men long used to acting on their own, behind the scenes of conventional society, it was not good to make them angry. Or, to underestimate what they might do.

"Do not worry, colonel," comforted Fyodor. "We know where the General lives." The others smiled and nodded agreement. By the time the plane arrived back in Moscow, they would have a plan hatched out. They would have to call in the other members of Rodenko's people. Have a meeting. Talk it over. Plan upcoming events and possibilities. No one on the face of the Earth would dare try to harm their leader while they were around. Of this, at least, they were certain.


After initial exploratory ventures of an expeditionary nature into the Siberian Far East, the conquest of the people of the Kamchatka Peninsula began in earnest during the Cossack campaign of 1690. They were seeking gold and domination. But the Koryaks resisted bravely the pay of tribute. The clashes continued until the end of the eighteenth century when finally, out of exhaustion if nothing else, the Tsar tried another tack -- trade. The first Russian settlements appeared at this time, bringing with them disease and alcoholism. And by the end of the 19th century, the Cossacks simply outnumbered the Koryaks.

Sovietization began in 1923 with the systematic destruction of indigenous cultures, customs and traditions and the imposition of Russian "civilization." The tribal peoples of Siberia were seen as inferior and in need of "civilizing." Indigenous languages were all but obliterated through the schools, Russian was the language of commerce and all else. Under collectivization from 1929 onwards, whole Koryak villages were forcibly eliminated: for instance, Makarevsk, Uka, Dranka, Hailyuli, Gishiga, Anapka, Napana, Kultushnoye, Moroshechnaya and Rekinniki. By 1934, half of all coastal Koryaks lived in collectives.

Communal life in villages was dissolved as families were split apart and dispersed to selected areas where they would be of use, as perceived by the State. There was an unterior motive, of course, as the family and community were seen as the cohesive bonds without which there would be little resistance. During Stalin's Reign of Terror, slave labor was used to mine gold, copper, coal and other minerals as well as the construction of prisons and large ports at Magadan and Kolyma.

Anti-religious propaganda and denigration of shamanistic practices proved fatal to the various cultures. As they were the keepers of traditions and the history of their respective peoples, shamans were systematically exterminated. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a revival and resurgence of ancestral ways among all the indigenous peoples of Siberia has been taking place, as they've declared autonomy from Moscow and separateness from the provinces to which they were formerly subordinated.

In particular, a few communities within the Koryak zone of influence have reconstituted their traditional religious ways and beliefs. And shamanism, once thought completely eliminated, has undergone a rejuvenation.

Excerpts from the basic mythology and spiritual perception of the Koryak are as follows (quoted from lectures at the Museum of the Aleutians, Unalaska):

"Though occupying the most important place in the religious life of the Koryak, the concept of the Supreme Being is vague. It is quite materialistic, although some names of the deity suggest abstract ideas: Universe, World, Outer One, Supervisor, Something Existing, Existence, Strength, The One High Above, The Master Above, Master, Dawn, and Thunder Man. Some identified the sun with him. It is possible that all names applied by the Koryak to one deity may have formerly been applied to various beings or phenomena of nature, and that, owing to their interaction with the Russians, a monotheistic tendency of uniting all names of the various deities into one may have developed.

"Nothing is known of His origin or His world creating activity, except that He sent the Big Raven down to our earth to establish order; but He is the personification of the vital principle in nature taken in its entirety. On the other hand, He is an anthropomorphic being, an old man living in a settlement in heaven, and having a wife and children. He is a benevolent being, well disposed toward men, but displaying little activity. The course of events takes place under His supervision. If He wills, He can give abundance and plenty, or put an end to prosperity, and send a visitation of famine and other calamities upon mankind. But He seldom makes use of His power to do evil to men.

"Big Raven is viewed by the Koryak as the Founder of the world. The Koryak name is Quikinn·a´qu or Kutkinn·a´qu. The Kamchadal call him Kutq. Krasheninnikoff writes this word Kutk´hu, and Steller - Ku´tka or Kutga. The Chukchee call him K´urkil. The Big Raven is also called Big Grandfather (the Maritime Koryak), Creator (the Reindeer Koryak). Sometimes the two names can be met in the same tale.

"All the tales about Big Raven belong to the cycle of raven myths which are popular on the American as well as on the Asiatic shores of the North Pacific Ocean. But while the Ku'rkil of the Chukchee, and the Raven of the North American Indians, play a part only in their mythology, particularly in the myths relating to the creation of the world, Big Raven plays an important part in the religious observances of the Koryak. Like the heroes of the other raven myths, Big Raven of the Koryak appears merely as the transformer of the world. Everything in the world had existed before he appeared. His creative activity consisted in revealing things heretofore concealed, and turning some things into others; and since everything in nature is regarded by the Koryak as animated, he only changed the form of the animated substance. Some things he brought down ready-made to our earth from the Supreme Being in heaven. Big Raven appears as First Man, the father and protector of the Koryak; but at the same time he is a powerful shaman and a supernatural being. His name figures in all incantations. His presence is presupposed in pronouncing the incantation, and sick people are treated by means of his name. He is supposed to be present at every shamanistic ceremony.

"The wife of the Supreme Being is called Supervisor Woman. According to other notes, the sea itself figures as the wife of The One High Above, and her name is Sea Woman.

" Shamanism may be defined as the art of influencing, by the help of guardian spirits, the course of events."

In Koryak culture, it is traditional for each family to have its own shaman -- a "familial shaman." Very few individuals aspire -- or are chosen -- to be professional, or community, shamans. A more common practice among the Chuckchi, the Koryak nonetheless have borrowed from them. Understandable, as they have the same Paleo-Asiatic language source as well as other similar characteristics.

Known on the Peninsula as a true recipient of the gift, Ainanwat of the village Palovka is one such.


Sweat saturating their clothes, dripping into their eyes, Vasily, Nomad and Hub were breathing hard as they crested the rocky knoll; scrub and ferns poking through the traveled path. The waterfall could now only dimly be heard. Besides it, utter silence. Galya had been growing increasingly alarmed and agitated, his two sons leading the parade looked worn and sullen. On the flattened ridge overlooking the tiny harbor and the sea, they turned to face their father. Something was amiss.

Between pants, Nomad asked, "What's... wrong?"

Galya whispered hoarsely, "No drum." Pausing long enough to take a deep breath and collect himself, he continued, "He's given up, or he's dead."

"What... has he given up?"

Galya only stared out to sea. Then, as he turned towards a grouping of twisted trees off to the left of an apparently widening plateau, he said, "Come."

Low limbs had been cut or broken off as the path zigged its way through the woods. After a minute or two, they entered a wide clearing, of sorts, some hundred feet in diameter; there was still plenty of ground cover, but it had been repeatedly trampled and so offered litle resistance. Around the edge where it met the trees stood several huts varying in shape and building expertise. The middle of the clearing was occupied by a large yaranga. Its skin was covered by overlapping birch bark. Skinned larch pole supports rose vertically for ten feet or so; tied to them were twenty footers angled in towards the fire-hole where they were gathered together by what looked like ordinary polyethelene rope, yellow in color. Because of the 30 degree angle, the height at center was twenty feet. Most unusual was its shape, instead of the common conical, it was hexagonal.

Behind it stood a similarly-shaped teepee or hut, perhaps 15 feet across, its single entrance facing away from the course of the sun. The door flap was drawn. Galya surveyed the scene. In front of each dwelling was a cook pit. But in each was also a fire in the center, under the sky-hole. Even though it was the end of June and the sun was visible almost all the time, the nights were chilly; they were up about 1000 feet. But as today was unusually warm, he didn't expect to see any smoke. All was quiet, however; perhaps they were napping, he thought. Whatever they were doing, it was quiet, almost too quiet. No sound could be heard even in the surrounding woods, and no others visible.

Galya covered the few feet to the teepee door and without hesitation pulled the walrus-hide flap over and onto the birch wall. He peered into the inner darkness, a dim oval of sunlight shone obliquely off to the side of the cook-fire sputtering below the sky-hole. At the rear, a feint, cloudy light could be seen; otherwise all was dark. From the portal, he called out to his uncle, Ainanwat, in the Koryak language, "Uncle? Do you yet live? Urkakhan has come. May we enter?"

He stood abruptly as though hit in the chest. Standing before him, bare-footed, wearing only an unadorned, short-sleeved reindeer-hide shirt and leggings, heavily embroidered in stripes of silver and reds of varying shades, ending at the knees with what appeared to be a stylized sun -- silver enclosed by a band of reddish ochre, lines of gold emanating away at right angles -- was the frail frame of Ainanwat, his eyes drawn and weary. Hair, short and scraggly, what there was of it. No one knew how old he was; no one else in the village remembered a time when he was not. On his forearms were tattoos of animal incarnations -- helping spirits or kalak -- to help fend off evil spirits. Bear and crow on his right, eagle and red fox on the left. His skin, having lost the resiliency and sheen of youth, combined with the natural shading and dulling of color with time, served to emphasize their outstanding features, as if by design.

Expressionless, he slowly raised his hands, palms up; then in the blinking of an eye, was gone.

Nomad watched this from an angle several feet away and chalked it up to bad lighting. Having finally caught his breath, he started to reach for a cigarette, one of his last, when he thought better of it, out of respect, he told himself. He was having trouble with the whole thing; cynicism being his modus operandi. But then, he caught himself: What about that carnival ride getting here? And the alien creatures from the sea? And another thought, closer to home -- don't I bring a stone from the beach with me when I go out to sea, always having it on me, to later return to that selfsame beach? And what of the note in the typewriter? Who wrote that? He decided to suspend his normal attitude of disbelief -- he had to -- and go with the flow, whatever direction it took.

The light at the rear returned. Galya looked at the others and beckoned to Hub, Vasily and Nomad; his two sons wandered off to their own tent. Galya waited for them to enter, then pulled the flap closed. Reindeer hides covered the ground. Though the air was clear, it was very dark, except for the tiny fire. Galya sat near it and began to feed it shreds of bark from a pile off to one side. Gradually the interior could be seen. The others sat where they could but not too near the fuzzy yellowish light at the back.

From within, the teepee's shape appeared circular, and around it about four feet off the ground was a pole all of one piece, ending at the portal on both sides. Hanging from it was all manner of tools of the trade: strips and discs of silvery metal, glinting in spite of the darkness; long strands of multicolored beads; feathers from Stellar Sea eagle, gyr falcon, dove, blackbird and robin; a vest made from a combination of leather and small bird-size bones laid horizontally across the front in two adjacent columns, blackened in spots as though from a fight in the dirt or from smoke. Pendants and ornaments, charms and amulets of leather, fur, and bone in the images of different beasts -- wolf, fox, wolverine -- and birds, some purely fanciful, dangling here and there along the ring-pole as well as on the vertical supports. A reindeer antler hung from one of the two verticals at the center; and the coat of a brown bear draped the rear wall, head still attached.

On the ground between them and the sphere of light was a worn, leather caftan on which was embroidered a few wildflowers and geometric symbols, and a long staff. And beyond that -- the drum -- slightly oval in shape and a good two feet across down the long axis, covered only on one side by a membrane of spotted seal hide. Etched into its surface was the elaborate depiction of a many-branched tree, green pigment filling the grooves of the branches, brown along the trunk and roots. At its four "corners" along the four-inch-wide rim, double cords of nettle fiber were tied, meeting at the lower part of the drum forming the handle; although that part could not be seen, it was known. Next to it lay a baton of whalebone, brown in color from use, a lone bluejay feather hanging from its carved neck, an inlay of mother-of-pearl snaking down its well-worn handle. This was Galya's drum, as professional shamans do not possess their own.

Tolya entered bearing an incongruous pale-blue plastic tray on which was a large bowl of seal meat and two smaller ones of greens and rice, and a jug of water. Silently, he set them on a low table next to the fire and left, taking the tray, saying nothing. Although they must have been famished, no one moved to eat. Not yet anyway. Things were already out of reach; at least for Vas and Nomad. Hub was undergoing similar difficulties but he was also remembering. Those aspects of himself that never need come out ordinarily, were transforming his inner self and appearance as if by sympathetic magic. It had been a long time since he'd been home. Of that, he now deeply regretted.

The suffused blur of opaque light, hovering a couple of feet off the ground in front of the bear hide, crystalized into a spindly old man with a suddenness that caught them all sucking air. In a face of infinite wrinkles that told of monumental struggles of the soul, Ainanwat's eyes burned like charcoal embers in a dying fire. After a long pause, with only the subdued crackling of birch-bark heard above their heartbeats, Ainanwat said, in barely a whisper yet as sound as a tomb, "Urkakhan, you have come." No joy or surprise was expressed, just the fact.

It almost scared Hub -- not the abrupt change, he'd seen that before -- but to see his ordinarily exhuberant uncle in such a deteriorated state. His voice was so hollow sounding. Where is my uncle, thought Hub, strangely, desperately. He began to speak, stammering. He wanted to apolgize for not coming right away, two weeks ago when he'd gotten his uncle's message. "Uncle,..." But before he could finish, his uncle stood before him, not much taller than Hub sitting cross-legged between Vasily and Nomad.

Ainanwat smiled, barely an upturned crease. "You have come. That is all." He was speaking in Koryak, their dialect, not Russian, yet Vas and Nomad understood clearly. After a long silent pause, his smile deepened and a spark of mischief flickered briefly in his eyes as he asked, "Did you enjoy your sea journey?"

Nomad's rational mind automatically surmised Ainanwat had the capacity, as a professional shaman, to put them in a spell or trance to hide his movements, yet he could not deny his eyes. And what was this about a sea journey?

At once, a soothing sense of calm permeated the air, their nervous systems, their emotions, racheting them down from the heights of the surreal to ground level, albeit a ground of a very different color.

Galya, sitting nearby, entreated, "Uncle, please, eat something, rest."

Without hesitation, Ainanwat reached into the bowl of seal meat; but what he plucked was not meat but a large acorn. He stared at it for a moment, then placed it on the drum, at its center. He paced to its other side and, facing them, sat on the hide-covered earth in one smooth motion, soundlessly. His eyes noticeably brightened and his face took on a look of a man staring off to the far horizon, yet his physical presence was fully there, crisp in outline as though cut from the background, not part of it. Nonetheless, it was difficult for the others to focus on him; he seemeed to be vibrating out of phase, while yet remaining perfectly still.

The fire burned and popped -- green birch. Galya spoke, hesitantly. "Uncle, you have stopped your call with the drum." He fought hard for the word. "Why?"

Hub/Urkachan couldn't help himself. "Uncle," he said, perhaps too sharply. His tone softened as he continued, "What has happened? What have you been through? I had a dream --"

Ainanwat interrupted, "Yes, my nephew. I know of it." The air ruffled the enclosure from without, encircling once. "I will tell you all for you must know. You may need to chase the spirits for me. I fear I have failed, failed all the people." His eyes dimmed to sadness, his head bowed. "Two moons have passed since they came to me, searching. I was not prepared." A lengthy pause ensued during which he seemed to be gathering strength. After a deep breath and a sigh, he continued, "I was up above the snow line, foraging, camping. I had put up my one-man tent. I had a fire outside. With me I had brought some dried wood, but was running out, so I was busy digging through the snow for pieces when I first sensed their presence." He reached for another sip of water, it seemed to help, he'd obviously been fasting. "The air around me grew colder, much colder. I dropped what I had collected and stared up at the tree-tops against the morning glare of clouds. I felt them calling, calling for me to return to my tent, and so I did. But I was fearful. On the way, only a minute's walk, I ate of the root of the wanabe tree from my pouch, to hurry my passage into the underworld."

In all his years, Nomad had never heard of the wanabe tree and suspected it was either a personal name given to a familiar herb, or was not of this plane of existence. Such things were not unknown among the shamans.

Ainanwat, seemingly eager to relate his story, continued calmly but with fervor, "When I arrived at my tent, the flap was open, inviting. I entered. My tiny camp tent was no more. It had grown to many times its size. Four men sat in a circle around a smokeless fire. I approached. One gestured for me to sit with them. I did. I did not feel fear now, but was unsure. Are these evil spirits -- ni'invit -- or not? I asked myself. They must have heard my thoughts for they all smiled, but not in a warm way, in a way of one who is unfamiliar with smiling, only acting. Without words, they spoke to me, or through me. They told me they had felt my presence on the plane of dreams, the plane where body is only manifestation. It drew them like water running down to the deepest well. They said they had been seeking me. That I could help them. They said they were the children of Quikinna'qu, Big Raven. That he had been entombed since the time of the beginning. That He struggled against the negative elements of the universe. And that -- I could help."

He rose to pace. It was not the pace of one thinking, but of one disturbed and unable to stay still. He stopped by the flap, peered out through a seam, then returned to the fire and went on. "They said they had come at the bidding of Big Raven, their father. He had questions. He sensed all life shared in his being, and that humans, especially, knew what this could mean. They said that He had come to bring new life, that it was the time of final transformation to that which the prophecy has called for. Instinctively, I sensed something was wrong. So I told them I did not know of what prophecy they spoke."

"Uncle," Hub entreated, "in the tales, the tales I grew up with, the ones I've heard you tell, speak of the Supreme Being as the creator of the cosmos, of life, not Quikinna'qu. Is that not right?"

"Yes, my nephew. That is why I felt something was amiss here. The true prophecy says that one day -- at the end of time -- the One High Above will return. It is then that a transformation of the spirit will come about, consciousness will evolve, and all men will realize their identity with the Supreme Being, the Universe, the One High Above."

He covered his face with both hands. The fire flickered and popped. Absently, Galya put more bark on it. "They wanted me to help. I asked, how could I, a lowly being, possibly help Quikinna'qu? They responded, 'What are dreams?' I was surprised; how could they not know? And then they said, before I could form a reply, 'We are put upon from without by an evil force, an evil force in the universe attacks Big Raven, our father and the protector of the Koryak people. You can help.' How? I asked, confused. The Supreme Being would not allow such to transpire, I thought, what could they mean? They replied, 'The universe is not as it should be. Big Raven will bring about transformation, change, for the good of humankind and all of life. But to do that, the evil spirits must be overcome. And with the knowledge of dreams, their weakness can be found.'"

He stared at the acorn, remembering, it appeared, something so outrageous and terrifying that the thought-energy of it briefly filled the space around him with the most intense conflaguration of colors. The fire sputtered. Ainanwat continued, in a much lowered tone. "In spite of my misgivings, I promised them I would do what I could. I would commune with Big Raven. An aspiration I never thought would be offered. How could I refuse? For the good of mankind.

"They then changed into clouds of shimmering air, shape-shifting and merging and then coming apart as though performing some strange dance the meaning of which only they could know. Of a sudden, they were gone.

"Shortly thereafter, I had a dream of my own. I was all in blackness, felt nothing. A voice, not unpleasant, wished to know the source of my ability to travel to the other worlds, the upper and lower. I knew it was Big Raven. Of the lower he was most interested. It seemed that on this plane He could touch the evil spirits that plagued him and render them harmless, neutralize their power. He said it wasn't absolutely necessary, but would help to stabilize the universe and make his purpose easier to fulfill. I had believed without doubt that His purpose was to help mankind, all life. So I allowed him to touch my mind, to see for Himself the shape and texture of the source of manifestation."

The wiry shaman clenched his fists and closed his eyes. A lone tear oozed out from under his right eyelid. "That's when I sent you the message, Urkachan. I thought that, with the power I know you possess, we could together help Big Raven. I am glad, now, that you did not come then."

Totally confused, Hub said, "But Uncle, why would you be glad? To help Quikinna'qu, what an honor."

Ainanwat opened his eyes, anger clearly readable in them. "Something was not right, my nephew. And our men had stories from the sea. Strange creatures where there once had been the known. I came to this place of my own. Galya helped me build this hut. I drummed and sang for many days, calling the spirits, the children of Big Raven, trying to catch a glimpse of their natures. They hid in many things, taking the shapes of different creatures and inanimate objects. I could not do it alone. Others of the village came to build a circle of power. With them joined through spokes of power as the rim of a wheel, I entered the dreamspace. The Tree of Life appeared. Within me, it seemed."

He stared at the acorn as though trying to remember what import it had. "I climbed. Its branches were very broad and filled thickly with leaves. I could not see where I was going, only up. I grew tired, so very tired. I stopped to rest on a branch that held a squirrel at its tip. A squirrel," he laughed. The sound startled them and shattered the otherwise serious mood as well as their concentration. It was louder than one might have expected, given the tiny figure from which it came.

"Then they appeared. All four spirits. Two above and two below. They had been with me all along, it seemed. The ones above shimmered in the red sun of the upper sky. Shimmered and shifted. Becoming one creature, then another. Wolf, bear, eagle, robin, all the creatures. Then suddenly, they assumed a strange cloudiness. Again, they spoke as one. "

Ainanwat rose as nimbly as he had sat, walked to the opening and, lifting the flap of walrus, peered out as though he'd heard something they did not. Nobody turned to look his way. Though at the doorway, his voice seemed to come from where he had been sitting, as he continued, "They said, 'Big Raven is in need of my knowledge. My knowledge of humankind. Of all that is, but mostly, of humans.' I replied I did not know how I could help further. They said as one, 'Come, and see.'"

Ainanwat returned to the the place where the drum lay and sat behind it, facing them. He stared once more at the acorn. "With their help, I climbed. After an eternity, I reached the very highest bow, the top. Besides the squirrel, I had seen no othe creatures on my climb." That thought seemed to trouble him deeply, but he went on. "At the top, I saw a great valley before me, off in the distance. A village, many lodges and huts grouped along the edges of a stream filled with fish. It was beautiful and serene. Suddenly a storm came up. A wind blew from the other side, moving towards it, quickly, the trees swayed and fought with one another. The wind rose in a spiral, twisting higher and higher, above the Tree of Life, above where I stood. It raced through the village, pulling all up into it, even the stream and the fish and the rocks and the very dirt itself."

Tears showed in his eyes, one falling on the surface of the drum. "I knew without knowing, without looking further, that all life, all life on earth was gone. My strength failed me. I fell. Fell and crashed and fell some more. Hitting branches, breaking some, going faster and faster. Then of a sudden, they were there to catch me, to steady me. They smiled, that was all. A cloudiness of moving form. No arms, no legs. Faces, smiling. I landed on a branch that held me. At its tip was that squirrel. He scampered over to me and handed me an acorn. Then was gone. I placed it on the leaves beside me. It grew. I was frightened. I thought the branch would break and I would fall all the way to the bottom of the world, the underworld. But then I found myself inside it. It was vast. Larger than the largest yaranga. I sat in the middle. I was naked, but I could not feel my body. Around the wall of the acorn were doors. Many doors. They had numbers on them."

Ainanwat seemed to calm in a way the fishermen knew meant a storm or a squall was about to overtake them. They breathed shallowly. He reached across the drum to grab the jug of water from which he sipped, then returned it. "I rose and walked to the acorn's wall and opened the door numbered one. Behind it was a view of the universe, a glimpse of their father, the Raven. I knew it was such without knowing, as one does sometimes. The numbers increased as I circled, but I didn't open any others. I was drawn on by the prompting of the spirits. They guided me. Until I reached the final one, the door numbered twenty-six."

Ainanwat stood and spun, arms raised as though to strike. His complexion shifted from brown to grey to green and back again to a ruddy brown. His aura struggled to be free, but something heavy restrained it. He turned, eyes bright. "Assured, I opened this one. Beyond I saw the stars that were not stars. They were laid out in lines like beads on a string. In rows alongside one another as far as I could see. These stars did not shine. They were cold as ice and still, fixed in place. No planets, no moons, no streaking beings from beyond with tails of ice and fire. No colors of any kind. No movement. Dead. No past, no future. No beginning, no end. Tears streamed from my eyes, down my face, puddling around my feet. Yet, the spirits smiled. And said as one, sounding almost disappointed, 'Do you not like it? It is as it will be. Our father wills it. It must come to pass. But it cannot, unless you help. There are evil spirits hindering its manifestation. With what you know, we can overcome their resistance. Our father will then transform the world, the universe, bring order into the chaos that surrounds us. As in the prohecy.'

"I said that I believed I had already done what I could. I had joined with Big Raven, merged our minds as one. That he already knew what I did. They said it was not enough. That it had only helped to quicken emergence, an emergence that would happen soon. They said there was still uncertainty. That their father could not act with this uncertainty."

A breathless pause filled with darkness and dread dampened the very fire. Finally he said, with infinite sadness, "They lied." Ainanwat sat again behind the drum, staring at the acorn. "I told them I was too weak for such an effort. I needed to rest. That they should return later. They said there was not much later remaining, but they would be back."

Another long pause, followed by somber words. "They are not the children of the Raven. I do not know what they are. They are not even evil spirits. I have searched through all the worlds I know, all the worlds I have access to, and could not find any of their like, any who share their natures. Whatever it is that has taken my knowledge of man and life and soul has not done so for the good of humankind, or that of life.

"I wished to draw them here once more. And have been trying for many days, since their last appearance on the Tree of Life. Yet they do not come. Something has happened. There is great confusion and fear in the underworld. Great fear breathes a terrifying force. Those that the spirits told me were evil, are not. I know this now. I have been deceived. The last few days have been desperate. True spirits from all worlds, all corners have assailed me, blaming me for my betrayal and endangering their reality. The one who my visitors told me was Big Raven was not able to touch the deeper parts of my mind without my permission. I do not know why; He is all-powerful, I believed." His voice dropped off, barely a mutter. "But I know the reason now..."

Then raising his head as well as his voice, repeated, "He is not Quikinna'qu. And they are not his children. Whatever it is, it intends to eradicate all life, all life everywhere. I know this as surely as I know the face of my father. Unless, unless I can change its purpose. Now that I know the truth, I can act to thwart its intention. But in the last few days I have sensed a nearness to that end, and it will be an end. But now that you are here, Urkachan, perhaps together we can defeat them."

Hub shuddered where he sat, though the tiny teepee on this warm summer day was hot. "How can I help you, uncle?" Hub's voice sounded different, not afraid, but not fully confidant either. He wanted to help but believed he was incapable. For his uncle, though, he would let him guide him in whatever way he wished.

Ainanwat replied, "We must find and help, if we can, those who they have called the evil spirits. I believe -- no -- I am certain they are not -- now." He turned to face the opening at the top, and in a voice disturbing in its intensity, roared, "I have been deceived!" Diaphonous filaments of ice spiraled down through the sky-hole and laced through the surrounding ether, branching like frost across a window pane, sending shivers through the fishermen. It was not the hot anger of ordinary men. It was the anger of a shaman.

Hub thought to give his uncle something else to think about, for all their sakes. "Uncle," he began softly, tentatively, "you said you knew of my dream? So, you must know the one I mean. I dreamed it very recently." Ainanwat looked on him as though from a great distance, intimidating in its unpleasantness, his eyes ablaze. Hub went on, now more convinced he was taking the right tack. "I was on a ship of some kind, a flying ship, facing a broad window, looking out on unimaginable emptiness with colors of every kind swirling in the distance. I watched as Quikinna'qu created a universe, like blowing a bubble through some kind of film. It was beautiful, filled with galaxies and stars and color. He said, 'This is yours,' or something like that. Shortly after, I awoke. What could it mean? And, why did I have it?"

Brought out of his reverie by the look of confusion on his nephew's face, Ainanwat said, "The imposter Big Raven did not create the dream you had, he could not, he only served to bring it into consciousness in the Dreamworld, the One True World, from which all appearance springs. The dream is in all of us, all living things, and all non-living things. It is the root of the Tree of Life, where all life is One Being, One Self. And back further in time, back to the beginning, when life and not-life were One. That was when the seed was planted. Even the true Big Raven is not responsible for that. The dream was placed by the Supreme Being -- the Creator of the cosmos -- and is written within all like the grain of hide across a drum, giving it its vibration, its sound, its voice. Grown from the original unformed chaos. The Imposter merely knew of it and how to resonate it to awareness in your mind, bringing it up from the depths of the immaterial world."

Ainanwat continued to gaze as though seeing his nephew for the first time. Finally, with a quickening of cadence, he said, "Big Raven -- or what is pretending to be the Great Lord -- was testing the waters, trying to contact you. You have the gift, my nephew. He sought you out after me. I know also that he sought others out as well, others in Casgrovina. Not of us, not of our people."

He stopped for a moment, lowered his head and murmured as though to himself, "I find that most curious and is another mark against his truth."

Then, addressing them all, said with surprising passion, "The Imposter's purpose is to tear out the Tree of Life by the roots, to replace it with another, of a sort, a tree without leaves or bark or skin or seeds. A tree without creatures living in it. And no humankind to climb its branches, to search its many worlds. Therein lies an advanced consciousness, yes, but a disembodied one. The true consciousness promised by the true prophecy emphasizes just the opposite. A recognition of the Oneness of all creatures, everywhere. But not as One; instead, through the experience of being individuals, separate living things.

"The mark of the Creator is in the created." He paused. An ominous and troubled look clouding his face. "The Supreme Being and the true Big Raven are of one soul. What Quikinna'qu does is to take that soul-substance and give it order, shape, direction, vitality, and after, tends it as it grows through its many stages, forever." After a pause, in a lower tone: "But I have seen something else there as well, another soul, but not equal or of the same nature, coming later, entwined with the soul of the Creator.

"The Imposter's prophecy will bring about a consciousness of One, yes, as the spirits have said, but without sowing the seeds of life throughout the fertile field of the universe, without scattering in all directions, this Oneness will have no life, no meaning, no soul. It is a Oneness of dead awareness only."

Finally Vasily, who had remained quietly and passively enraptured all this time, said, "Ainanwat, sir, I couldn't help but notice you asked Hub, I mean, Urkachan, how was his sea journey. Do you know something of how we traveled across the bay to here? It was very bizarre and took only a few minutes when it should have taken almost an entire day. How?"

Ainanwat warmed and almost smiled. He resumed his place on the ground behind the drum. The air once again became soothing, the fire flickered and cracked. He put his fingers between one another as he spoke, "There are many time-worlds within our own. Time is distance, space between one place and another. There is one time-world where all is one. To be at one place is to be at all places."

Ainanwat could see that this all too abstract picture was not going to suffice; Vasily did not comprehend. So he went on, "I have never visited this world. It is forbidden. I only know of it and know how to use it, when necessary. It takes a great deal of strength to pull back the screen without entering. To enter completely is to risk oblivion and loss of self. We must have time in order to exist, to be able to act, to know ourselves and to know of our immediacy. I saw you through the birds that hovered nearby when you came around the Cape into the bay. I opened the door and your boat fell through, or was drawn, caught in a rip, a rip of time." He drew lines in the air, almost visible, of a dark color, one line on top of another, as he said, "Each time layer skips a beat of the heart as you go down, or within, to the seed of all time -- to eternity. Knowing how to control the beat of the heart is important and takes much concentration, much stillness. I neared that center, but dared not approach too closely. Opening the portal, I saw your boat.

"I needed you here, now. I sent Galya down to the waterfall to watch for your arrival. We don't know how much of our time we have left."

This last statement reminded Nomad of the paper in the typewriter back in the village community center. And of the sculpture on the table and the many colored drawings. He was about to ask, but, as though a switch had been pulled, something demonstrative, yet altogether beyond reach, subtley altered the shaman's features into that of an ordinary looking old man. Remembering his manners and responsibility as host, he said, with good natured insistence, "Please, eat. You have been through much today and are no doubt hungry and tired. We have time to sleep. And I must. I feel much better now, Urkachan. I believe we can do this.

"You and I must go further uphill. We will build a place of great energy and strength from which to call to the spirits who have visited and fooled me. We must prepare ourselves. We must find a way to trick the tickster. And we must reach out, on as many worlds as necessary, until we find those they call the evil ones. I do not think they are fully aware of what awaits them. Maybe they are. But, we must still try. So eat, you and your friends. We have more."

Nomad decided to put his questions on hold, for now. But he did want to know who had typed the message, or poem, or whatever. He wasn't sure why, but felt it was important. If it had not been Ainanwat, then who? Or more precisely, what?

Urkachan/Hub sat silent. But his two close friends could tell that a remarkable modification had occurred, a refinement, an inner reordering. Even the weathered hardness of his face took on a softer hue, appearing to glow slightly. His uncle had transmitted strength and conviction by his personality, as so often happens in the presence of the genuine article.

Nonetheless, the acutely perceptive Ainanwat read a trace of uncertainty and resistance in Hub's body, and so said, softly with feeling, "You must get out of your own way, Urkachan. I will teach you."

Hub nodded his acceptance. He was not now, Hub the fisherman; he was Urkachan, the shaman apprentice.