Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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No. 6

by T. Richard Williams


1.  Earth Orbit, approximately 440M BC

The planet rolled beneath them.

“Water everywhere we look.” N’j pulsed blue.

“Except for that cluster near the Equator,” T’ll leaned closer to her, “and the pile-up in the Southern regions.”

“Pretty barren; a few primitive plants.”

“Yes, but the oceans. Teeming.”

The two merged briefly over the viewing membrane to confer.

N’j pulled her energy pattern back and slipped to her dock.

“What’s wrong?” T’ll sent a pulse in her direction, but she withdrew further. “It’s what they want, isn’t it?”

“Does that make it right?” She emerged, blue again.

T’ll, green and becoming translucent with anxiety, drifted towards her. “We need to study this evolution. It’s so close to ours. It might offer clues.”

“But we have no assurances that our probes won’t alter that development. Then it’s all a waste anyway. We can orbit here for the next ten epochs and witness all kinds of changes, but unless we leave it absolutely untouched, we’ll have no way of really knowing how much of what we’ve witnessed is natural and how much induced by us.” She was now hot pink. “I believe that’s called good science.”

Purple, T’ll moved down to the port again. “Let’s not sink into sarcasm.”

After a pause, she went transparent and gold. Shimmering. “Sorry, T’ll.”

“It’s all right. I understand what you’re saying.”

“Compromise?” They melded. A crackle of static.

“Fine. We leave it alone. This time. We let it hit.”

“That will hurt. I’ve grown to like this blue world.”

“So have I.”

T’ll moved for a moment into the upper half of their travel sphere and gave the command to expand the viewing membrane. The crystalline port expanded, creating a dome that now formed the entire lower portion of their vessel. N’j and T’ll sparkled down into the crystalline bowl to watch, their frequencies touching lightly.

“There’s still admiration?”

“Always.”

The thought was barely expressed when they first sensed, then saw the asteroid tumbling towards the planet unfurled below them.

“Pull back,” N’j ordered, and the Sphere transported them into the Moon’s orbit. “Far enough.” The ship rested.

“It happens now,” T’ll said. Both of them turned lavender as the two-kilometer slab of iron smashed into the equatorial waters, sending jets of liquid and rock far and wide. Even out here, the shock wave rocked them slightly. The planet’s air turned beautiful colors and then went grey for a long time.

“Their demise is large.” She was flooded with aching.

T’ll prodded her. “We could . . .”

“No.”

His pattern shrank a bit. “You’re right.”

And they watched for an epoch in silence from their lunar perch amid the rain of meteors that pelted the Earth and the Moon below.

2. January 19, 2112

After Mia got the boost she needed from watching her brother Jake’s recording, she went to Jenkins office to validate her agreement: One-Way to the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy. Launch date: within two weeks. Time of arrival: possibly ten thousand years from now. Purpose: one of several “Civilization” expeditions.

Mia—tall, thin, raven-raven haired, Navajo—walked resolutely through the sliding paneled doors, past a flustered secretary who (without luck) tried to stop her before she went through the second set of doors, approached the Commander’s desk, and said simply: “OK, I’m ready. Where do I validate?”

Jenkins, annoyed only momentarily by the intrusion, smiled broadly when he saw it was Mia. “Well, this is a nice surprise.”

“There’s no time for the chit-chat, Commander; just let me validate.”

“All business, are we?” He winked, but she stood stoically in front of him, in no mood for pleasantries.

“Fine, Mia.” He opened his desk’s side drawer and pulled out the PalmScreen. “Validate here.” He had obviously been anticipating her decision.

“Yes.” She was all firm-faced seriousness.  It was only after she placed her thumb on the screen for her genome print and then held it up to her eyes for the iris scan that she broke into a smile.

“You look positively relieved.”

“I am, sir.”

“What tipped you over the edge, may I ask?”

“I watched Jake’s last message from Titan again.”

“Ah, yes, the rather infamous Entry 463.”

“That’s the one.”

“The recording with the floating fish and the lampreys, and his message . . .”

“And his message to me . . . ,” she overlapped.

“. . . to the Earth about life on Titan.”

“Of course, that too.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it?”

“It is, Commander. It’s my brother’s last words—many addressed directly to me.”

Jenkins got up and went to the HoloCorder consol where he punched some keys and then watched Jake emerge in the center of the office. “You see, I, too, have my moment of inspiration from your brother.”

Virtual Jake looked nearly like his sister. Same chiseled facial features—the flaring nostrils, the broad smile, the dark brown eyes—and that impossibly iridescent blue-black hair flowing to his shoulders.

“The ’04 Conference?” she asked.

“Yes. And another reason why you’ve just validated . . .”

3.  Selene Conference on Earth’s Future, 2104

Jake Youngblood pulled his hand through his hair as he looked out at the small crowd gathered in the Base Commissary. He was nervous. This was too important to screw up.

The audience was riveted; he used the pause to collect himself, to lower his voice and slow down (sometimes when he got excited, he spoke too rapidly in an increasingly loud tenor). “That event, which began 60 years ago today and from which it took nearly four decades to recover, will happen again.  Rainier is still showing signs of a catastrophic explosion—one that might be twice the size of the last one.” The room darkened and holographic images of the 2044 eruption, taken from various angles, swam overhead. “One blast from Rainier plunged the planet into ten years of ash-induced winter and another 30 or so of much cooler than normal temperatures world-wide.  The next occurrence will be even more devastating.” A cross-section diagram of the Earth’s mantle materialized. “The latest evidence points to a pool of magma ready to burst at any moment, a pool at least 150 kilometers across trapped just beneath the 2044 caldera. If our sensor arrays are as accurate as they seem to be, the pressure is building so rapidly that a detonation appears likely within a matter of five to ten years.” A simulated explosion rocked the room along with images of enormous cloud plumes, shock waves, and a bursting avalanche of superheated ash devastating towns and cities. “Quite simply this extinction event will finally finish off what the other five couldn’t . . .”

4.   NO. 1: A January Afternoon, 440M BC

Even in the deeps of the Iapetus Ocean, it seemed suddenly darker. The pod of Ostracoderms scouring the sandy bottom just off shore noticed at once. Murky illumination quickly changed to inky darkness.

The lead fish, stopped for a moment. The others followed suit, nearly piling into each other. After a few moments, they began to circle quietly—if they didn’t keep water flowing through their pair of gill slits, they’d suffocate.

The Alpha, stopped again. She sensed something. Looking down with her far-spread eyes, she noticed something odd. The sand along the bottom—what little was now visible in the gloom—seemed to be vibrating, creating a low-lying cloud of mud.

Before she or the others had a chance to absorb any meaning, it hit: A shock wave that torpedoed them through the water faster than they ever could have swum. The water, even at this depth, roiled, and became frigidly cold. They were swept along for minutes. They let out their squeals, but nothing could be heard over the roar of the sea.

In a few minutes, it was over, and she was alone. Dozens in her pod had been torn apart or— stunned—were floating towards the sea floor dozens of meters below.

For the first time ever, her head broke the surface, and her last sight was snow-filled Ordovician sky and at a distance, flames raining down from far above. But that was all. She wasn’t meant for the world of air, and she struggled to head down into the water, but the currents kept pushing her up. Gasping for water, she had no idea what had happened. Ash, snow, flames. And then searing pain.

____________________________________________________________________

5.  January 19, 2112

Jenkins froze the image with a touch to a desktop keypad. Virtual Jake’s face was intense.

“Of course, he was right on target, but everyone was so hot to trot about his One-Way to Titan that most everyone else stuck their collective heads in the sand. It was easier to scream and yell about the ethical implications of his Titan trip than to dive into something far more consequential.” He paused, realizing what he had just said, and added, “No offense meant to you or your brother. The trip to Titan was very important.”

“None taken.” Despite Mia’s vast suspicions about the Leadership, she always appreciated Jenkins’ tone and sincerity. In fact he could be downright fatherly when he wanted to be and deep inside, she liked that, especially with her parents and Jake now gone. “Meanwhile, what about Rainier?”

“The GeoTechs figure the eruption could take place within days. That’s why I’m glad you’re the one doing this.  You’ve got a level head and that’s what we’ll need. We don’t have time for hysterics.”

She bypassed the compliment: “Any more tests of the CryoSphere? I know this is a One-Way, but it would be nice to arrive in one piece,” she could finally laugh a bit.

“Maybe a few, but we’ll want to launch soon. In fact, it’d be nice to send you before the blast.”

“Because?”

“Because I’m not sure what’s going to happen after. It’ll only take a while for the general population to realize that Selene and Mars are all that’s left—that after a matter of a couple of years, there’ll be nothing on Earth and only the lunar Base and the three Martian bases—for better or worse—will be around to show off what it means to be a human. That’s something we’ll have to digest, as well—that Downstairs, everyone and everything will be dead within a few years.” He stopped to look at Virtual Jake again. “We didn’t have time to plan for any more bases—not that they’d have helped that much. And people are aware that, at best, there’ll only be room for a few survivors—a hundred at best from the entire planet—chosen to live on Mars and at Selene. Probably a lottery. Seems the most fair. Anyway, the sooner we get you and the five or six other missions out there, the better. Once the panic settles in, God knows what’ll happen. I’d rather send you off now than have some asses sabotage us or start complaining and tie us up with bureaucracy.”

“What about the other One-Ways?”

“Two will be launched from Mars, yours from here, and perhaps three or four from Earth, assuming they can launch before the ash cloud covers the Ukraine or Germany.”

She walked over to her holographic brother, frozen in mid-sentence. “And I’m really going on this voyage to . . .”

“. . . to be our ambassador.”

“Interesting thought.” She chuckled, pointing to Jake. “You know when I was about twelve, he read a Mary Shelley book to me called The Last Man. . .”

“I know that one. Almost as good as Frankenstein.”

“Yeah. Remember the plot?”

“Generally. Something like there’s only a few people left; they have to save the best of civilization; what would they decide to save?—all that kind of stuff.”

“Close enough. The point is I suddenly feel like I’m right there.”

“How so?”

“It’s gonna be me in that capsule, soaring out to M51, bringing the so-called best we’ve got to offer to a civilization that might not even be there any more. Here we are, hoping that the signals we think we’re receiving—and that were sent who-knows-how-many millions of years ago—indicate a culture that’s still in existence. Which considering what we’re witnessing on Earth right now—and have witnessed at least five previous times over the course of the last 4 or 5 hundred million years—is a pretty gigantic leap of faith.”

“So why did you validate?”

“Because when all’s said and done, I’m doing it for Jake—and,” she admitted, “I want the adventure.” Standing there in front of Virtual Jake, she ran her fingers through the image, smiling as the photon beam sent a slight tingle through her. “Think of it, the two of us on One-Ways in the hopes of finding life. He found it on Titan—all those wonderfully weird prehistoric cryo-fish living in methane lakes. Well, now it’s my turn.” She suddenly possessed the excitement of a little child: “There’s life everywhere. Maybe the Activists don’t like hearing it because it screws up all their pet religious theories, but that’s the way it is—life, life, life. Everywhere we turn. And I want to see it on whatever planet I may find in M51—one of those millions of planets in that system sent out a message and I’m gonna get there, even if no one back here ever finds out.”

6.   No. 2: A June Morning, 370M BC

The spiders crawled down from their metropolis of webs in the Devonian fern trees that towered near the edge of the sea. The sun had just risen over Gondwanaland and a fresh breeze blew, sometimes causing the arachnids to stop in their tracks before they continued moving towards the beach-front nest of an Ichthyostega and its brood.  Daddy was away somewhere. By the time they arrived, the mother would be waddling into the sea, leaving the kids unprotected. Fresh blood for breakfast. A carnivorous arthropod’s delight.

But then the strange rain began—at first just a sprinkle of hot pebbles from the cloudless sky. They sputtered as they hit the wet sand and made minute, burning sizzles as they penetrated the bark of the trees. One spider in the rear saw a few of his mates get hit and convulse with a shriek and plummet to the beach grass below.

That lasted for a few minutes, when, suddenly, the storm’s intensity grew. The tidbits of glowing glass and sand became larger and larger, until clouds of stones descended denser and hotter. The air was suddenly alive with screeches—bombs falling, exploding along the shore, crashing into the sea with boiling hisses and geysers of steam.

The final onslaught came quickly—white hot boulders nearly half a meter wide detonating on impact, sending sand, rock, water, and trees fire-working high into the sky.  The fern forest flattened in the multiple shockwaves, and the spiders, torn from their trees, were ripped apart mid-air, dissolving in the pyroclastic gale.

By day’s end, the forest was gone, burnt to cinders, and shoreline hidden beneath muddy smog. By the end of the week, the temperature had fallen by over twenty degrees. By the end of the month, the first snow ever seen over Gondwana wafted gently from slates of clouds suspended over the inky blue sea.

7.   Earth Orbit, 370M BC

“The next time we need to insert the energy wave.” N’j announced.

“Why this change of heart? When I suggested this last time, you balked.”

“Because I can’t take it any more. Look at it. All that life, gone.” Her golden energy went flaming red, sparked, collapsed to a blue dot.

“It will alter our results.”

“Now you sound like I did.”

“But you were right.”

“The truth is, by the time we return, there won’t be a home world for us to report to, so why are we so . . .”

“N’j!” T’ll’s shock sizzled orange before he shrank to a brown spot that began to orbit N’j. “We must keep hope.”

N’j let her energy merge. “You know I’m truthful. We’ve both known this for epochs. Why shouldn’t we speak it?”

He flickered out of her frequency to the view membrane.  The planet below was slowly hidden in grey again—smoke and flames everywhere, the sea roiling onyx waves.

“N’j, if we do this, then we are saying what?”

“We are saying we know our home place is probably gone. That this, below us, is now home.”

“Yes.”

“Then . . .”

“We must help them.”

“For whom? For them?”

She sparked, caught in the truth behind her philanthropy.

8.   January 25, 2112

Jenkins was talking animatedly as he and Mia walked onto the tarmac, the same one her brother had launched from just a few years earlier. She only half listened when a twinge of pain swelled in her gut. She remembered how—right in this chamber—he had been jeered at by the Activists when he attempted to explain the importance of his One-Way to Titan.  As they heckled him, acting more like caricatures of do-gooders than sincere protesters, she tried to silence them, but for nothing. He walked off the dais and launched a couple of hours later. She had so wanted a better send off for him, especially since it was the last time they’d see each other—her farewell, permanently marred by the bitter politics of the day.

Now she wondered whether there’d be any protest to her flight.

The CryoSphere was slowly being rolled to the launch bay where a squat Helium-3 booster awaited. The Sphere was actually a variation of the rover that had been created for Jake’s Titan mission. That one was egg shaped. Hers—called Snowball by the workers—was perfectly round, but like the Titan rover had traction treads at the base and retractable robotic arms on either side. Just in case. Who knows? She might wake on a planet with solid ground. She might need to reach out to someone or something. No one knew what to expect, so they planned for everything.

Jenkins continued, “. . . which is why I’ve decided not to make an announcement.”

“The crew knows. Word’ll spread pretty quickly. We’re not talking a major city here.” She laughed.

“True, but I’ve asked the men to keep this under wraps. I think they’ll understand my reasons. They’ve invested lots of hours into Snowball; they don’t want to see things get fucked up.”

“I hope you’re right.” The memory of her brother faded for a moment and a new thought welled: “Commander?” She stopped walking and looked around the enormous chamber. Nearly two kilometers beneath the lunar surface, it had been blasted out to form the central hub of the entire Base. Doors around the perimeter led to the Commissary, laboratories, and the twenty levels of living quarters—all safely nestled beneath the merciless surface. She stood there taking it all in—human invention huddled into a thousand meter wide womb of ebony lunar rock.

“What is it, Mia?” Again the fatherly tone.

She looked at him and tears welled: “I’m scared.”

9.    No. 3: October Noon, 245M BC

The therapsid waddled to the mud hole, ready to wallow, oblivious to the blue-green Titanosuchus that blended in nicely with the foliage. The noontime sun in western Pangaea was blazing hot, so an hour in the shaded slush would be welcome. Nestled in the narrow valley between two newly formed mountain ranges, the mud hole and the surrounding ground had been shaking most of the morning. That didn’t seem to disturb the locals; the seismic twinges were normal these past few weeks as the great Permian plates were re-configuring once again.

So the enormous, hippo-like Moschops, stopping at nothing, kept moving on its four stubby legs while the predator’s dorsal fin quivered. Its tongue flickered, “smelling” the musk of its intended victim.

Patiently waiting, Titanosuchus waited until the beast entered the pool. Then it would spring, charging furiously; he knew he would do this, down to his bones. His torso changed from green to purple in anticipation. He had to be careful lest his excitement give his hiding place away and scare off his lunch.

But without warning, the ground beneath the Titanosuchus’s legs shifted suddenly, his enormous body sliding to the right and then dropping over a meter straight down. He couldn’t help but give out an excruciating yowl of pain and surprise. The Moschops turned its horned crocodilian head and sneered.  A large quadruped about 5 meters long, he really wasn’t that impressed with his wailing adversary anyway. He was twice the size and could inflict some pretty heavy damage with his front legs. Of course, none of that was necessary since he realized his foe had just sunk into the ground and was too busy flailing to get out of the crevasse that had opened up. So the lumbering beast turned his back, figuring he’d never be able to reach down and attack.

Then, another crackling sound filled the valley, an ever-louder splitting sound he had never heard before. In the distance, he could see a huge tear forming right in the ground, as if something were ripping apart the earth like claws tearing open a victim’s belly. It seemed the titanic gash was racing directly at him with a sound that became deafening, and before he could move, the mud hole seemingly split in half and he plunged down painfully into darkness. Wedged between the two walls of dirt and rock, he roared in agony. Every rib seemed broken and his legs were mangled beneath his gut. Mercifully, his torture was brief. In only a few moments, the water came—freezing, briny water roaring through the rift. His last sight was a school of trilobites, hundreds of them, thrashing in the wall of water as it crashed into his body and decapitated him.

All over the Pangaea, this scene repeated while deep in the ocean, magma-filled rifts raised water temperature to levels never experienced before. Creatures of the deep washed ashore; lava poured down mountains, destroying everything in its path; forests of fern across the planet burnt, sending plumes of smoke and ash across hundreds of kilometers; and in less than a year, 95 percent of life was gone—crushed, drowned, incinerated.

10.   In orbit. 245M BC

“How could this be?”

“The pattern seemed right. We aimed correctly.”

“The plates were too big for us.”

“We can encompass whole systems; how could we be unable to keep a few continental plates from moving?”

“Limitations.” N’j said matter-of-factly.

“That’s new.” T’ll had never imagined limits before.

She went further in: “Perhaps we’ve begun to degrade” N’j was shocked by her own thought, but she advanced: “Have we been gone so long from Home that we’re losing integrity?” She shuddered red, then flared. The flash of shrieking panic was unlike anything she had experienced before, and she immediately merged. T’ll burst open in flashes of white, his quarks scintillating. He reshaped in a moment, clearly shaken by what he felt in N’j. They separated.

“Do you think . . . ?” He asked calmly.

Still vibrating, “Possibly.”

They sparked yellow side by side over the view membrane. Helpless to stop the shockwaves and geysers of magma below.

11.  January 28, 2112

Mia and Jenkins went into Mission Control and watched the final M51 transmission.  There was only static; no picture.

“The same pattern repeated over and over at about 45 second intervals. A repeated loop.”

“And always ending with that series of four chimes.”

“A melody?” Mia asks.

“Math?”

“Code?”

“After two years, you’d think we’d get some place.” Jenkins was frustrated by their lack of progress. They knew so much and so little.

“Well, we’ve got the source, that’s the important thing.”

“But you’d think we could have found something closer,” he smiled. “I mean, after all, Jake found fish on Titan. Maybe there’s a civilization close by. Not something 23 million light years away.”

“Yeah, maybe then I wouldn’t have to be an ice cube for ten thousand years.” Even joking, she felt the panic settle in again. Jenkins sensed it and put his arm around her. “You know, you don’t have to do this.”

She pulled back, “Yes, I do.”

He went right to the point: “Jake would understand if you didn’t.”

That stabbed her momentarily. “Commander, how could you say that? Of course, I know he’d understand. But you, of all people, need to know that I’ve got to do this. I have to complete his mission. He flew out to Titan to find life. He did. He always knew there was more to life in this universe than just a few puny humans. He proved that. Now I’m taking the next step. Maybe it’s a dead end, but we have proof—irrefutable proof—that at some point in time, someone or something sent out a beacon into the void, a small ‘Hello? How are you?’  This is the moment Jake lived for, don’t you see?”

“But if you’re too frightened to get in that contraption, that doesn’t make you less of a person or somehow unfaithful to your brother’s cause.”

“Our ancestors, our Guardian spirits—they all want me to go. I need to join Jake.”

Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her so their faces were only inches apart. He looked deeply: “Then you will go and you’ll find him. Of that I’m sure.” And he gently pulled her closer to hug her.

12.   No. 4: Bleak December, 210M BC

This asteroid was aimed directly at the land mass that had merged from separate plates over epochs. They saw the 4 kilometer boulder coming from a distance. So they position the Sphere.

“Our energy may be degrading, but there should be enough to deflect it,” N’j was confident this time; T’ll, reserved.

*****

The Plesiosaurus undulated in the waters just off the Eastern coast of Pangaea, but then rose to the surface and raised his head above the waves when he felt the faint “thwump” of sound pass over and through him.  The sun shone bright and only a few clouds billowed lazily.

But something was odd. What was that sound, that percussive push he had felt just a few moments before?

*****

“We should have been able to push it.” N’j demonstrated for T’ll, billowing herself gold a kilometer across, through the walls of the Sphere, then shrinking to a purple grain just above the view membrane. “Look, I’ve just done it again. You saw how I did it. That should have been enough.”

“N’j, it’s not your fault.”

“But I tried.”

“Yes.”

“And failed!” In an orange spark, “Look at them.”

The view membrane’s concave deepened and they saw a close-up of the surface as they orbited. They followed the shock wave, racing just ahead of it, looking close-up through the membrane, watching as the percussive blast swept across the eastern regions, tearing up mountains, forests, shredding grasslands and then over the open water, blasting spray a hundred kilometers into space . . .

*****

The wave hit and he found himself lifted far into the air. His tons of weight had never experienced such gravity; he had always floated nearly weightless through the ocean’s blue dark cosmos, gathering his food, communing with his sisters and brothers near the reefs. Now he was in this strange place, lifted, propelled through air that scorched his skin. And all the weight. What was that? Weight? He had no way of knowing why he felt so—heavy—what it meant to be heavy, what it meant to be lifted higher and higher away from the water . . .

*****

N’j extended her pattern deep into the air, towards the beast, trying to scoop it up, to spare it from the tsunami, but she couldn’t. Her powers failed her. It fell from her energy’s grip, back, down, down, down with a wallop into the roiling water . . .

*****

In a moment, he found himself sinking, then plunging faster and faster to the raging water below. With a terrifying crash, he smashed into the waves, never having experienced pain like that before, his 5 meter body tumbling helplessly amid logs, branches, rocks, stones from the coast . . .

*****

“But I wanted to save you,” she screamed trumpets of yellow-orange, but immediately merged violet-blue into T’ll, deeply, wanting to disappear.

“We can’t do this again, N’j. We could make things worse.”

“But if this is now our home, don’t we owe these beings a chance?”

“But you just signaled grief over this loss below. How could you think to try again?”

“I must try to undo.”

T’ll pulled away angrily, sepia with frustration.

13.  February 1, 2112

Mia felt the thud of Snowball’s access port as it shut—something like an old bank vault, right down to the sound of the lock gears tumbling. The Sphere was eerily silent for a few moments, quiet enough for her to hear her heartbeat pumping resolutely deep in her ears.

Then the Com opened up, the onboard systems came to life, and the silence was replaced with the clicks and whirs of pre-launch excitement. A Screen materialized in front of her and Virtual Jenkins appeared:

“How’s it going?”

“Nervous.”

“Understandable.”

“But ready to go.”

“We’ll start final check in a minute.”

“Any rumblings from the Base?”

“So far, nothing.”

“Good. The work crew kept their word.” Mia had mixed feelings, and she wondered whether Jenkins was feeling equally ambiguous. It might have been nice to have a proper send-off—a few cheers, a round of applause, some friendly faces for Mia to see through her viewport as she lifted off.

She could hear the team reading off checklists in the background.  She looked straight up from her command chair—a contoured, body-length seat designed to keep her soon-to-be frozen form comfortably resting. The eight Cryo Nozzles formed a circle above her.  Once she was past Mars orbit, at a signal from her, they would descend to various levels and extend flexible needles into the veins of her neck, arms, torso, and legs. The cryo-serum that pulsed through them would freeze her, while nanobots would be injected and travel throughout her system. The largest concentrations of bots would remain poised around her vital organs, making sure they weren’t degrading (and “fixing” them if they were); would monitor her body temperature; and at some point, thousands of years down the road, would awaken her, atom-sized princes kissing her Sleeping Beauty cells into consciousness.

“It’s all theory,” she found herself thinking. She could end up shattering apart within years, the nanites unable to stop her cells from corrupting, from splitting apart, from cracking open like ice crystals on a pond.

“Mia?”

She snapped from her daydream: “Commander.”

“Let’s start the Cryo check list.”

“Yes, sir.”

In less than an hour, her home for the past fifteen years would be slipping behind her. The place where her parents had brought her from the Reservation back on Earth to make life for Jake and her a bit easier, the place where she and her brother worked on the Titan mission, the place where she grieved all their losses, the place where the only friends and co-workers she had ever known lived—the ones she would be saying goodbye to over the Com and the Virtual screen.

Home. Soon to slip away.

14.    No. 5: September, 65M BC

“We’ve never tried this.”

“We’ve nothing to lose,” N’j went green.

“At my signal then?”

“Yes.”

T’ll, quarks wavering, reduced to a grain of dust, entered the Sphere’s left membrane control, and exhaled. N’j instantaneously did the same, but on the right side.

The vessel quivered and began to lose its spherical shape. The equatorial seam opened, then other seams, until the round membrane became a flat rectangle that stretched and stretched for tens of kilometers, scintillating ganglia sparkling across its surface. From a distance, it appeared to be a huge net cast open in lunar orbit.

From inside the network of living and artificial tissue, now billowing in space, wafting in the solar wind, N’j sent her thought in purple: “It should arrive in a matter of moments.”

“We’ll be ready.”

“Thank you for doing this.”

T’ll didn’t respond, his pattern merely shimmered violet. In truth, he wondered at the wisdom of their decision—trying to catch the approaching asteroid before it slammed into the water between the newly formed northern and southern continents.

The huge boulder seemed to stumble through the void, end over end, approaching with inexorable speed. T’ll finally communicated: “Even if this works, will we keep doing this every time an object approaches?”

N’j didn’t sense his thoughts; she was too busy looking through her magnifier at a flock of pterosaurs drifting in the air currents off the northern continent. They were so graceful, so beautiful. She knew she and T’ll were doing the right thing. If it didn’t work, so be it. These creatures—all of them—had to be spared. This was their new home world; she wanted to preserve it. Her synapses were golden with defensible good intention.

“Here it comes.” T’ll finally broke her reverie. “Stand by.”

N’j and T’ll, at opposite ends of the Net, poised themselves for impact.

Closer.

Closer it tumbled.

Closer.

The moments seemed eons.

N’j’s red exclamation of “any moment now . . .” became drowned in the pain of the impact. The membrane stretched further and further, energy waves sparking and snapping, as the rock slammed in at thousands of kilometers per second.

“We’re losing integrity!” T’ll’s blue shout went unheard.

In only a few nanoseconds the asteroid burst through the membrane, leaving a tattered rectangle flailing in the void.

The rock, slowed down only slightly by the Net, continued its plunge and before there was time to digest what had just happened, N’j and T’ll watched the impact. Red, yellow, blue haloes of light rippled out from the epicenter encompassing the entire planet in moments. Even without their magnifiers, they could see the catastrophic waves, the plumes of ash, and finally the geysers of magma ejecting from cracks forming across the land masses of the planet.

There was nothing left to do. N’j wept yellow spurts of photons.

____________________________________________________________________

15.No. 6: February 1, 2112

The Sphere shuddered slightly as it escaped the Moon’s gravity, but that only lasted briefly. Through her viewscreen, she watched the pockmarked lunar landscape shrink behind her. In a matter of days the Earth and its Moon would become mere objects, bright globes lost in a void of stars and solar dust.

Now it was just patient waiting and anticipation. Crossing Mars orbit and then, turning to ice.

“You OK?” Jenkins asked as she soared away.

“Yes. Just waiting. I’ll do experiments. Take measurements. Check the system. Read.”

“I’m nervous,” his turn for candidness.

“About?”

“About you, of course, but also about Earth. Our systems show the eruption only hours away. Maybe less.”

“How’s everyone reacting?”

“Here at Selene, they’re concerned about loved ones Downstairs, of course, but—truth be known—most are grateful, even if they don’t say it, that they’ll live through it.”

“And Downstairs?”

“There’s no use lying—it’s chaos. The Leadership’s doing all it can, but they know they’re powerless. I could patch you into the Network if you want to watch the latest.”

“I’m not sure I’d want to.”

“Maybe that’s best.”

It was then that she decided to tell Jenkins. “Listen, Commander,” she started nervously.

“Yes?”

“I just want you to know I’ve left my samples in the Lab. My locker. Ask Daniels for the code.”

“Samples?” Then a look of recognition: “Ah—samples,” and added with a smile, “You’ve thought of everything.”

“I tried. Listen, I know the Activists’ve shut down the CloneLab and ReproCenter, but—just in case. Besides, I have the feeling the few of them left at Selene and on Mars might have a change of heart one day, especially when they realize a hundred rag-tag settlers like them are all that’s left of us.

“Optimist.”

Tears welled up unexpectedly.

“Mia?”

“I’m OK, Commander. I guess I’ll miss all that parenting stuff. But maybe one day I might have an heir . . .” She couldn’t believe how her feelings flooded her.

“I’ll do everything to protect the samples—and if I can, see to reproduction. I promise.”

“Thanks.”
And because the opportunity seemed right, he added, “And for what it’s worth—Jake did the same.”

“What?” She looked up startled.

“Jake left some samples, too. Same reasons.” A mischievous grin began to form: “Now I get to play Matchmaker for both of you—but don’t worry, I’ll be kind. No trolls for either one of you.”  The laughter was what they both needed.

At that very moment, Rainier suddenly blasted open as nothing on the planet had ever exploded before.

16.     In orbit. 65M BC

The Sphere membrane floundered in tatters across hundreds of kilometers of void, being further shredded by fragments of debris and solar particulates. Despite their efforts, N’j and T’ll couldn’t command the Sphere to re-form; there was too much damage.

T’ll clung to the torn ropes.

“We could try below,” she said faintly from her amorphous corner.

“Haven’t we done enough damage?” Bitter orange.

“We could remain unseen.”

“And contaminate their whole ecosystem?”

She knew he was right.

He continued, “Just a fraction of our pattern could alter the progress of their entire evolution. Let it alone. Let’s expire and leave them in peace.” Then a shuddering green thought: “In fact, what if fragments of the Sphere attached to the Rock and survived the impact.”

That was too much. Her shriek filled the void of three planets, followed by wailing.

It pained him to hear her. “It’s best for us to instigate closure.”

Through her agony, she glowed blue: “Yes.” She pondered T’ll’s thought through several turns of the planet, and then asked: “Should we try to send back the beacon?”

“Why?”

“Just in case.”

“But we’ve already received theirs, N’j. You were right all along. They’re not there any more. Their beacon was sent epochs ago. Ours would take as long. True futility.”

“But I wish there were someone to tell.”

“Tell?”

“Tell truths. Tell that there are uncontrollable forces of Nature and the Universe . . .” She interrupted herself, shifting to red waves: “T’ll, I’ve been so arrogant, trying to alter lives.”

“They learned that lesson, too. That was their beacon to us.”

“Simultaneous learning.” The paradox was deep magenta to her, and turning from blue to orange, she sang the ancient Song of Fate: “If it ignites, let it burn. If it tips, let it fall.”

With the greatest effort, their patterns managed to find each other and they merged for a final time.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“I admire you.”

There was nothing left to do. They transmitted a final word, hoping for the best—and then burst apart, their baryons and mesons, their quarks and antiquarks like subatomic fireworks illuminating interplanetary space for a few moments before they fizzed to nothingness. The membrane dissolved as well, its dusty remains wafting far and wide in the solar wind towards Mars and the asteroids.

17.    February 23, 2112

Her last check: The cube of InfoChips stored to her right. Art, Music, History, Politics, Philosophy, you name it—the good and the bad—and all of it tough to choose. Who decides what’s good and bad? How do you portray a Saladin? A Hitler? A Lincoln? A McNulty? Is a holographic statue less “art” than a Michelangelo? Is 20th century Scientology as valid a philosophy as ancient Taoism?  The general guideline seemed to be: “If we have the space, we include it.” Which meant just about everything. The combined knowledge of humanity easily fit into the 15 centimeter cube, its various atomic-sized chips, nanites, and plasma ducts able to house nearly limitless information. If she made it to M51, hopefully the locals could interpret all the data. Especially if she didn’t survive, a thought Mia came to accept.

As she reached out to pat the box like some faithful pet, the Cryo Nozzles descended and extended their needles towards her. She didn’t quite know what to expect. There was a sharp pinch as the neck tubes, then arm tubes entered her veins. Shortly after, tubes pierced her torso and legs.

She was told there would only be a few seconds of consciousness after the Cryo fluids started to take hold and the nanobots began to assume their assigned stations throughout her body, so she decided to turn on the Scan Screen. She didn’t want to look back towards Earth—that would be too upsetting. Jenkins had already told her about the firestorms, the quakes, and the pyroclastic waves that had engulfed all of Western North America, about the tsunamis that had wiped out much of the Pacific Rim, about the dense cloud that now overwhelmed the planet—and in barely three weeks.

No, she wanted a different view, and so she gave the command to show her the M51 spiral, or at least where M51 was supposed to be. Even with the sophisticated Scopes on her ship, the distant vortex would only appear to be a bright dot.

That was good enough. That was her destination. Her destiny.

After the leg needles inserted themselves, the chilly drowsiness descended over her quite rapidly. As Mia fell into her cryo-sleep, she imagined herself drifting through the view screen as if it were some kind of portal, past the confines of her ship, and sailing into the void of throbbing stars and slowly pin-wheeling galaxies. It was a wonderful fantasy, especially when—her very last conscious thought—she swore she could see Jake and her Guardian Spirit floating amid the planets in their Navajo robes, extending their hands towards her through the endless cosmos.

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18.  April 5, 2112

The interpreters on Selene had done their best and what they presented was a monochromatic voice that spoke through crackling static. The message had obviously degraded, but its meaning—assuming the translators had correctly worked out the largely synesthetic language of numbers and colors—could still be understood.  The figure that danced in and out of focus on the Screen seemed more like a globule of light than a corporeal form, yet there were semblances of what could be called facial features and what appeared to be limbs. And then there were those clicks and wheezes that sounded like names—something like Natch and Teal.

“. . . nothing to come back to, Natch and Teal . . . died in the . . . if only we had . . . . please spread our testimony . . . remember us, Natch and Teal . . . our mistakes . . . don’t come back . . . .” The message ended with an apparent apology: “Natch . . . Teal . . . we are so sorry. . . . miss you. . . .farewell. . . wish for you . . . good luck . . . be safe . . .” The rest of the message was beyond repair. And after a few seconds, after the four mesmerizing chimes had sounded, the message started up again.

That was it. A repeating loop. An SOS, a warning beacon. Certainly not the welcome-to-our-galaxy message that Jenkins had hoped for. Not after two and a half years of trying to decipher the message. His mind roared: Sent from M51—but to whom? To where? And who the hell are Natch and Teal? Does it even matter? It’s all moot. There’s no more civilization on whatever M51 planet sent the message to begin with. Right? That’s what it said, right?

Jenkins threw his chair, smashing the HoloScreen—thousands of pixel shards spraying across the room.  He stood for a moment and then fell up against the wall, muttering a string of curses under his breath.

His secretary, Lorman, burst in: “Commander, are you all right?”

Jenkins sobbed, “I’m so sorry, Mia.”

“What’s wrong?”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

19.  Del Prime, Ontair System, M51 Galaxy

Jalla pedaled his bike up the steep hill as fast as he could, gulping air through his now blood-red throat gills. Even his temple gills (those rather silly residual organs—at least Jalla thought—from their prehistoric amphibious days, like the third lung and the tail stub) were pulsing slightly pink.

He’d just left Petra’s office in the Valley and was straining to reach Selig’s observatory before he left for the day. The complex of crystalline buildings perched near the edge of the promontory overlooking the City, its clusters of skyscrapers turning cobalt blue in the late afternoon sun. If the chronopatch on his lanky arm tendril was correct, he’d have a few minutes left.

Sure enough, just as he entered the parking lot, totally winded and nearly orange with exhaustion, Selig was leaving the main building, heading for his hover pod.

“Dr. Selig. Dr. Selig.” He screamed and clicked as loud as he could as he got closer.

Selig stopped and turned, “Jalla, my boy. How are you?” He raised his hand and fanned out the four webbed digits in a sign of friendly greeting.

“Dr. Selig—please—call—Petra.”

“What?” He could see the boy was racing and completely out of breath, his throat gills completely flared open.  Jalla pulled up to him, flaming red. “Call Petra. She’s been trying to reach you all afternoon.”

“Sorry,” he bowed his head in mock contriteness. “I locked myself in. I’m still trying to decipher all those damned images.”

“That’s what she wants to tell you about.”

“Really?”

“She thinks they’ve detected a beacon.”

“O gods!” His skin turned slightly purple with excitement.

“So call her.”

Selig ran back, his face shifting to blue, quickly scanned the suction discs on his left hand, and pushed open the door, his lose-fitting jacket nearly getting caught on the handle.  He went to the view phone, announced Petra’s designation formula and in a few seconds, her face filled the ten-inch screen.  She didn’t even wait for him to say hello: “Joon, not only is it moving, it’s clearly a vessel.”

Selig braced himself against the desk. “What?” By now, he’d become yellow.

“Seriously. I’ve sent over the data. Go to your station and download.”

“But . . .”

“Now, Joon. Just do it.”

He looked at Jalla, shrugged with a vermilion smile, and ran to his workstation. After pressing a few keypads, a screen rose from the table top and started to run a Visual: Clearly, it was a ship of some kind, spheroid in shape—maybe half a billion miles away—slowly working its way into their system.

“But this is remarkable. How’d you get this image stream?”

“The Fenta decided to cooperate and let us access their orbiting Viewer.”

“I don’t know how you managed that, but the gods bless you. I was getting so frustrated using our ground-based Viewers. The images are too fuzzy.” The old man leaned in to get a better look, his eye sockets extending an inch or two. “So what do we have here?”

“Our best guess is a space vehicle—but unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It isn’t one of ours, for sure.”

“It appears to be bypassing us.”

“It is, although we could re-direct it if we wanted to. We don’t know if it’s robotic or not, but there’s a beacon that keeps repeating. And that’s what’s the most exciting.”

From her end, she boosted the audio signal. Four chimes at equally spaced intervals of time and pitch.

Selig nearly dropped. “Gods. The Janobian Chimes.”

“Sure sounds like it.”

“But conservatively that’s tens of millions of years ago; even the fossil records aren’t clear on that because they’d evolved from corporeal into plasma beings. Besides, the few images we have from the ruins show that their space craft were nothing like this.”

“We know that.”

“Then what . . .”

“Our team came up with the most fantastic possibility.”

“Which is what?”

“That the Janobians did have the capability of sending out a beacon from right here that was powerful enough to . . .”

“. . . that’s only theory. . .”

“ . . . Well—let’s assume. That they sent out a beacon and someone not only heard it, but sent out a craft to explore. A craft that would repeat the message the Janobians sent in hopes that someone would recognize it.”

“Assume that’s true, they could be from anywhere. Has anyone scanned for life signs?”

“The Fenta have contacted our team and are willing to cooperate.  Both groups are working on it as we speak.  My people think we should know by tonight whether it’s a satellite or a visit from the Little Blue Men.” She laughed.

Selig looked at Jalla and both burst into clucking laughter.

“Imagine, Doc. Finally—we’ve found other life.” But as he hugged his uncle, he added with a click-chuckle, “but what if they’re Red?”

20.   12,503 AD

Mia’s eyes opened. She swore she felt the nanites pinching her veins and squeezing her quick-frozen heart back to life. It seemed like only moments before she had slipped under. Now here she was, eyes wide, breathing again—although the air seemed a bit stale. Her muscles ached, but she could move her arms and legs with fair ease. The Cryo Nozzles withdrew and retracted to their initial position above her seat. The viewport opened, and there it was, a glittering green world below her—trees, rivers, cities near lakes clearly visible from her low orbit.

As she came-to fully, she heard over her Com four chimes sounding, and above them a male voice, speaking in strings of vowels and excited clicks.

And she blurted out her first thought: “We did it, Jake.”

The End

NO. 6

By

T. Richard Williams

1.  Earth Orbit, approximately 440M BC

The planet rolled beneath them.

“Water everywhere we look.” N’j pulsed blue.

“Except for that cluster near the Equator,” T’ll leaned closer to her, “and the pile-up in the Southern regions.”

“Pretty barren; a few primitive plants.”

“Yes, but the oceans. Teeming.”

The two merged briefly over the viewing membrane to confer.

N’j pulled her energy pattern back and slipped to her dock.

“What’s wrong?” T’ll sent a pulse in her direction, but she withdrew further. “It’s what they want, isn’t it?”

“Does that make it right?” She emerged, blue again.

T’ll, green and becoming translucent with anxiety, drifted towards her. “We need to study this evolution. It’s so close to ours. It might offer clues.”

“But we have no assurances that our probes won’t alter that development. Then it’s all a waste anyway. We can orbit here for the next ten epochs and witness all kinds of changes, but unless we leave it absolutely untouched, we’ll have no way of really knowing how much of what we’ve witnessed is natural and how much induced by us.” She was now hot pink. “I believe that’s called good science.”

Purple, T’ll moved down to the port again. “Let’s not sink into sarcasm.”

After a pause, she went transparent and gold. Shimmering. “Sorry, T’ll.”

“It’s all right. I understand what you’re saying.”

“Compromise?” They melded. A crackle of static.

“Fine. We leave it alone. This time. We let it hit.”

“That will hurt. I’ve grown to like this blue world.”

“So have I.”

T’ll moved for a moment into the upper half of their travel sphere and gave the command to expand the viewing membrane. The crystalline port expanded, creating a dome that now formed the entire lower portion of their vessel. N’j and T’ll sparkled down into the crystalline bowl to watch, their frequencies touching lightly.

“There’s still admiration?”

“Always.”

The thought was barely expressed when they first sensed, then saw the asteroid tumbling towards the planet unfurled below them.

“Pull back,” N’j ordered, and the Sphere transported them into the Moon’s orbit. “Far enough.” The ship rested.

“It happens now,” T’ll said. Both of them turned lavender as the two-kilometer slab of iron smashed into the equatorial waters, sending jets of liquid and rock far and wide. Even out here, the shock wave rocked them slightly. The planet’s air turned beautiful colors and then went grey for a long time.

“Their demise is large.” She was flooded with aching.

T’ll prodded her. “We could . . .”

“No.”

His pattern shrank a bit. “You’re right.”

And they watched for an epoch in silence from their lunar perch amid the rain of meteors that pelted the Earth and the Moon below.

2. January 19, 2112

After Mia got the boost she needed from watching her brother Jake’s recording, she went to Jenkins office to validate her agreement: One-Way to the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy. Launch date: within two weeks. Time of arrival: possibly ten thousand years from now. Purpose: one of several “Civilization” expeditions.

Mia—tall, thin, raven-raven haired, Navajo—walked resolutely through the sliding paneled doors, past a flustered secretary who (without luck) tried to stop her before she went through the second set of doors, approached the Commander’s desk, and said simply: “OK, I’m ready. Where do I validate?”

Jenkins, annoyed only momentarily by the intrusion, smiled broadly when he saw it was Mia. “Well, this is a nice surprise.”

“There’s no time for the chit-chat, Commander; just let me validate.”

“All business, are we?” He winked, but she stood stoically in front of him, in no mood for pleasantries.

“Fine, Mia.” He opened his desk’s side drawer and pulled out the PalmScreen. “Validate here.” He had obviously been anticipating her decision.

“Yes.” She was all firm-faced seriousness.  It was only after she placed her thumb on the screen for her genome print and then held it up to her eyes for the iris scan that she broke into a smile.

“You look positively relieved.”

“I am, sir.”

“What tipped you over the edge, may I ask?”

“I watched Jake’s last message from Titan again.”

“Ah, yes, the rather infamous Entry 463.”

“That’s the one.”

“The recording with the floating fish and the lampreys, and his message . . .”

“And his message to me . . . ,” she overlapped.

“. . . to the Earth about life on Titan.”

“Of course, that too.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it?”

“It is, Commander. It’s my brother’s last words—many addressed directly to me.”

Jenkins got up and went to the HoloCorder consol where he punched some keys and then watched Jake emerge in the center of the office. “You see, I, too, have my moment of inspiration from your brother.”

Virtual Jake looked nearly like his sister. Same chiseled facial features—the flaring nostrils, the broad smile, the dark brown eyes—and that impossibly iridescent blue-black hair flowing to his shoulders.

“The ’04 Conference?” she asked.

“Yes. And another reason why you’ve just validated . . .”

3.  Selene Conference on Earth’s Future, 2104

Jake Youngblood pulled his hand through his hair as he looked out at the small crowd gathered in the Base Commissary. He was nervous. This was too important to screw up.

The audience was riveted; he used the pause to collect himself, to lower his voice and slow down (sometimes when he got excited, he spoke too rapidly in an increasingly loud tenor). “That event, which began 60 years ago today and from which it took nearly four decades to recover, will happen again.  Rainier is still showing signs of a catastrophic explosion—one that might be twice the size of the last one.” The room darkened and holographic images of the 2044 eruption, taken from various angles, swam overhead. “One blast from Rainier plunged the planet into ten years of ash-induced winter and another 30 or so of much cooler than normal temperatures world-wide.  The next occurrence will be even more devastating.” A cross-section diagram of the Earth’s mantle materialized. “The latest evidence points to a pool of magma ready to burst at any moment, a pool at least 150 kilometers across trapped just beneath the 2044 caldera. If our sensor arrays are as accurate as they seem to be, the pressure is building so rapidly that a detonation appears likely within a matter of five to ten years.” A simulated explosion rocked the room along with images of enormous cloud plumes, shock waves, and a bursting avalanche of superheated ash devastating towns and cities. “Quite simply this extinction event will finally finish off what the other five couldn’t . . .”

4.   NO. 1: A January Afternoon, 440M BC

Even in the deeps of the Iapetus Ocean, it seemed suddenly darker. The pod of Ostracoderms scouring the sandy bottom just off shore noticed at once. Murky illumination quickly changed to inky darkness.

The lead fish, stopped for a moment. The others followed suit, nearly piling into each other. After a few moments, they began to circle quietly—if they didn’t keep water flowing through their pair of gill slits, they’d suffocate.

The Alpha, stopped again. She sensed something. Looking down with her far-spread eyes, she noticed something odd. The sand along the bottom—what little was now visible in the gloom—seemed to be vibrating, creating a low-lying cloud of mud.

Before she or the others had a chance to absorb any meaning, it hit: A shock wave that torpedoed them through the water faster than they ever could have swum. The water, even at this depth, roiled, and became frigidly cold. They were swept along for minutes. They let out their squeals, but nothing could be heard over the roar of the sea.

In a few minutes, it was over, and she was alone. Dozens in her pod had been torn apart or— stunned—were floating towards the sea floor dozens of meters below.

For the first time ever, her head broke the surface, and her last sight was snow-filled Ordovician sky and at a distance, flames raining down from far above. But that was all. She wasn’t meant for the world of air, and she struggled to head down into the water, but the currents kept pushing her up. Gasping for water, she had no idea what had happened. Ash, snow, flames. And then searing pain.

____________________________________________________________________

5.  January 19, 2112

Jenkins froze the image with a touch to a desktop keypad. Virtual Jake’s face was intense.

“Of course, he was right on target, but everyone was so hot to trot about his One-Way to Titan that most everyone else stuck their collective heads in the sand. It was easier to scream and yell about the ethical implications of his Titan trip than to dive into something far more consequential.” He paused, realizing what he had just said, and added, “No offense meant to you or your brother. The trip to Titan was very important.”

“None taken.” Despite Mia’s vast suspicions about the Leadership, she always appreciated Jenkins’ tone and sincerity. In fact he could be downright fatherly when he wanted to be and deep inside, she liked that, especially with her parents and Jake now gone. “Meanwhile, what about Rainier?”

“The GeoTechs figure the eruption could take place within days. That’s why I’m glad you’re the one doing this.  You’ve got a level head and that’s what we’ll need. We don’t have time for hysterics.”

She bypassed the compliment: “Any more tests of the CryoSphere? I know this is a One-Way, but it would be nice to arrive in one piece,” she could finally laugh a bit.

“Maybe a few, but we’ll want to launch soon. In fact, it’d be nice to send you before the blast.”

“Because?”

“Because I’m not sure what’s going to happen after. It’ll only take a while for the general population to realize that Selene and Mars are all that’s left—that after a matter of a couple of years, there’ll be nothing on Earth and only the lunar Base and the three Martian bases—for better or worse—will be around to show off what it means to be a human. That’s something we’ll have to digest, as well—that Downstairs, everyone and everything will be dead within a few years.” He stopped to look at Virtual Jake again. “We didn’t have time to plan for any more bases—not that they’d have helped that much. And people are aware that, at best, there’ll only be room for a few survivors—a hundred at best from the entire planet—chosen to live on Mars and at Selene. Probably a lottery. Seems the most fair. Anyway, the sooner we get you and the five or six other missions out there, the better. Once the panic settles in, God knows what’ll happen. I’d rather send you off now than have some asses sabotage us or start complaining and tie us up with bureaucracy.”

“What about the other One-Ways?”

“Two will be launched from Mars, yours from here, and perhaps three or four from Earth, assuming they can launch before the ash cloud covers the Ukraine or Germany.”

She walked over to her holographic brother, frozen in mid-sentence. “And I’m really going on this voyage to . . .”

“. . . to be our ambassador.”

“Interesting thought.” She chuckled, pointing to Jake. “You know when I was about twelve, he read a Mary Shelley book to me called The Last Man. . .”

“I know that one. Almost as good as Frankenstein.”

“Yeah. Remember the plot?”

“Generally. Something like there’s only a few people left; they have to save the best of civilization; what would they decide to save?—all that kind of stuff.”

“Close enough. The point is I suddenly feel like I’m right there.”

“How so?”

“It’s gonna be me in that capsule, soaring out to M51, bringing the so-called best we’ve got to offer to a civilization that might not even be there any more. Here we are, hoping that the signals we think we’re receiving—and that were sent who-knows-how-many millions of years ago—indicate a culture that’s still in existence. Which considering what we’re witnessing on Earth right now—and have witnessed at least five previous times over the course of the last 4 or 5 hundred million years—is a pretty gigantic leap of faith.”

“So why did you validate?”

“Because when all’s said and done, I’m doing it for Jake—and,” she admitted, “I want the adventure.” Standing there in front of Virtual Jake, she ran her fingers through the image, smiling as the photon beam sent a slight tingle through her. “Think of it, the two of us on One-Ways in the hopes of finding life. He found it on Titan—all those wonderfully weird prehistoric cryo-fish living in methane lakes. Well, now it’s my turn.” She suddenly possessed the excitement of a little child: “There’s life everywhere. Maybe the Activists don’t like hearing it because it screws up all their pet religious theories, but that’s the way it is—life, life, life. Everywhere we turn. And I want to see it on whatever planet I may find in M51—one of those millions of planets in that system sent out a message and I’m gonna get there, even if no one back here ever finds out.”

6.   No. 2: A June Morning, 370M BC

The spiders crawled down from their metropolis of webs in the Devonian fern trees that towered near the edge of the sea. The sun had just risen over Gondwanaland and a fresh breeze blew, sometimes causing the arachnids to stop in their tracks before they continued moving towards the beach-front nest of an Ichthyostega and its brood.  Daddy was away somewhere. By the time they arrived, the mother would be waddling into the sea, leaving the kids unprotected. Fresh blood for breakfast. A carnivorous arthropod’s delight.

But then the strange rain began—at first just a sprinkle of hot pebbles from the cloudless sky. They sputtered as they hit the wet sand and made minute, burning sizzles as they penetrated the bark of the trees. One spider in the rear saw a few of his mates get hit and convulse with a shriek and plummet to the beach grass below.

That lasted for a few minutes, when, suddenly, the storm’s intensity grew. The tidbits of glowing glass and sand became larger and larger, until clouds of stones descended denser and hotter. The air was suddenly alive with screeches—bombs falling, exploding along the shore, crashing into the sea with boiling hisses and geysers of steam.

The final onslaught came quickly—white hot boulders nearly half a meter wide detonating on impact, sending sand, rock, water, and trees fire-working high into the sky.  The fern forest flattened in the multiple shockwaves, and the spiders, torn from their trees, were ripped apart mid-air, dissolving in the pyroclastic gale.

By day’s end, the forest was gone, burnt to cinders, and shoreline hidden beneath muddy smog. By the end of the week, the temperature had fallen by over twenty degrees. By the end of the month, the first snow ever seen over Gondwana wafted gently from slates of clouds suspended over the inky blue sea.

7.   Earth Orbit, 370M BC

“The next time we need to insert the energy wave.” N’j announced.

“Why this change of heart? When I suggested this last time, you balked.”

“Because I can’t take it any more. Look at it. All that life, gone.” Her golden energy went flaming red, sparked, collapsed to a blue dot.

“It will alter our results.”

“Now you sound like I did.”

“But you were right.”

“The truth is, by the time we return, there won’t be a home world for us to report to, so why are we so . . .”

“N’j!” T’ll’s shock sizzled orange before he shrank to a brown spot that began to orbit N’j. “We must keep hope.”

N’j let her energy merge. “You know I’m truthful. We’ve both known this for epochs. Why shouldn’t we speak it?”

He flickered out of her frequency to the view membrane.  The planet below was slowly hidden in grey again—smoke and flames everywhere, the sea roiling onyx waves.

“N’j, if we do this, then we are saying what?”

“We are saying we know our home place is probably gone. That this, below us, is now home.”

“Yes.”

“Then . . .”

“We must help them.”

“For whom? For them?”

She sparked, caught in the truth behind her philanthropy.

8.   January 25, 2112

Jenkins was talking animatedly as he and Mia walked onto the tarmac, the same one her brother had launched from just a few years earlier. She only half listened when a twinge of pain swelled in her gut. She remembered how—right in this chamber—he had been jeered at by the Activists when he attempted to explain the importance of his One-Way to Titan.  As they heckled him, acting more like caricatures of do-gooders than sincere protesters, she tried to silence them, but for nothing. He walked off the dais and launched a couple of hours later. She had so wanted a better send off for him, especially since it was the last time they’d see each other—her farewell, permanently marred by the bitter politics of the day.

Now she wondered whether there’d be any protest to her flight.

The CryoSphere was slowly being rolled to the launch bay where a squat Helium-3 booster awaited. The Sphere was actually a variation of the rover that had been created for Jake’s Titan mission. That one was egg shaped. Hers—called Snowball by the workers—was perfectly round, but like the Titan rover had traction treads at the base and retractable robotic arms on either side. Just in case. Who knows? She might wake on a planet with solid ground. She might need to reach out to someone or something. No one knew what to expect, so they planned for everything.

Jenkins continued, “. . . which is why I’ve decided not to make an announcement.”

“The crew knows. Word’ll spread pretty quickly. We’re not talking a major city here.” She laughed.

“True, but I’ve asked the men to keep this under wraps. I think they’ll understand my reasons. They’ve invested lots of hours into Snowball; they don’t want to see things get fucked up.”

“I hope you’re right.” The memory of her brother faded for a moment and a new thought welled: “Commander?” She stopped walking and looked around the enormous chamber. Nearly two kilometers beneath the lunar surface, it had been blasted out to form the central hub of the entire Base. Doors around the perimeter led to the Commissary, laboratories, and the twenty levels of living quarters—all safely nestled beneath the merciless surface. She stood there taking it all in—human invention huddled into a thousand meter wide womb of ebony lunar rock.

“What is it, Mia?” Again the fatherly tone.

She looked at him and tears welled: “I’m scared.”

9.    No. 3: October Noon, 245M BC

The therapsid waddled to the mud hole, ready to wallow, oblivious to the blue-green Titanosuchus that blended in nicely with the foliage. The noontime sun in western Pangaea was blazing hot, so an hour in the shaded slush would be welcome. Nestled in the narrow valley between two newly formed mountain ranges, the mud hole and the surrounding ground had been shaking most of the morning. That didn’t seem to disturb the locals; the seismic twinges were normal these past few weeks as the great Permian plates were re-configuring once again.

So the enormous, hippo-like Moschops, stopping at nothing, kept moving on its four stubby legs while the predator’s dorsal fin quivered. Its tongue flickered, “smelling” the musk of its intended victim.

Patiently waiting, Titanosuchus waited until the beast entered the pool. Then it would spring, charging furiously; he knew he would do this, down to his bones. His torso changed from green to purple in anticipation. He had to be careful lest his excitement give his hiding place away and scare off his lunch.

But without warning, the ground beneath the Titanosuchus’s legs shifted suddenly, his enormous body sliding to the right and then dropping over a meter straight down. He couldn’t help but give out an excruciating yowl of pain and surprise. The Moschops turned its horned crocodilian head and sneered.  A large quadruped about 5 meters long, he really wasn’t that impressed with his wailing adversary anyway. He was twice the size and could inflict some pretty heavy damage with his front legs. Of course, none of that was necessary since he realized his foe had just sunk into the ground and was too busy flailing to get out of the crevasse that had opened up. So the lumbering beast turned his back, figuring he’d never be able to reach down and attack.

Then, another crackling sound filled the valley, an ever-louder splitting sound he had never heard before. In the distance, he could see a huge tear forming right in the ground, as if something were ripping apart the earth like claws tearing open a victim’s belly. It seemed the titanic gash was racing directly at him with a sound that became deafening, and before he could move, the mud hole seemingly split in half and he plunged down painfully into darkness. Wedged between the two walls of dirt and rock, he roared in agony. Every rib seemed broken and his legs were mangled beneath his gut. Mercifully, his torture was brief. In only a few moments, the water came—freezing, briny water roaring through the rift. His last sight was a school of trilobites, hundreds of them, thrashing in the wall of water as it crashed into his body and decapitated him.

All over the Pangaea, this scene repeated while deep in the ocean, magma-filled rifts raised water temperature to levels never experienced before. Creatures of the deep washed ashore; lava poured down mountains, destroying everything in its path; forests of fern across the planet burnt, sending plumes of smoke and ash across hundreds of kilometers; and in less than a year, 95 percent of life was gone—crushed, drowned, incinerated.

10.   In orbit. 245M BC

“How could this be?”

“The pattern seemed right. We aimed correctly.”

“The plates were too big for us.”

“We can encompass whole systems; how could we be unable to keep a few continental plates from moving?”

“Limitations.” N’j said matter-of-factly.

“That’s new.” T’ll had never imagined limits before.

She went further in: “Perhaps we’ve begun to degrade” N’j was shocked by her own thought, but she advanced: “Have we been gone so long from Home that we’re losing integrity?” She shuddered red, then flared. The flash of shrieking panic was unlike anything she had experienced before, and she immediately merged. T’ll burst open in flashes of white, his quarks scintillating. He reshaped in a moment, clearly shaken by what he felt in N’j. They separated.

“Do you think . . . ?” He asked calmly.

Still vibrating, “Possibly.”

They sparked yellow side by side over the view membrane. Helpless to stop the shockwaves and geysers of magma below.

11.  January 28, 2112

Mia and Jenkins went into Mission Control and watched the final M51 transmission.  There was only static; no picture.

“The same pattern repeated over and over at about 45 second intervals. A repeated loop.”

“And always ending with that series of four chimes.”

“A melody?” Mia asks.

“Math?”

“Code?”

“After two years, you’d think we’d get some place.” Jenkins was frustrated by their lack of progress. They knew so much and so little.

“Well, we’ve got the source, that’s the important thing.”

“But you’d think we could have found something closer,” he smiled. “I mean, after all, Jake found fish on Titan. Maybe there’s a civilization close by. Not something 23 million light years away.”

“Yeah, maybe then I wouldn’t have to be an ice cube for ten thousand years.” Even joking, she felt the panic settle in again. Jenkins sensed it and put his arm around her. “You know, you don’t have to do this.”

She pulled back, “Yes, I do.”

He went right to the point: “Jake would understand if you didn’t.”

That stabbed her momentarily. “Commander, how could you say that? Of course, I know he’d understand. But you, of all people, need to know that I’ve got to do this. I have to complete his mission. He flew out to Titan to find life. He did. He always knew there was more to life in this universe than just a few puny humans. He proved that. Now I’m taking the next step. Maybe it’s a dead end, but we have proof—irrefutable proof—that at some point in time, someone or something sent out a beacon into the void, a small ‘Hello? How are you?’  This is the moment Jake lived for, don’t you see?”

“But if you’re too frightened to get in that contraption, that doesn’t make you less of a person or somehow unfaithful to your brother’s cause.”

“Our ancestors, our Guardian spirits—they all want me to go. I need to join Jake.”

Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her so their faces were only inches apart. He looked deeply: “Then you will go and you’ll find him. Of that I’m sure.” And he gently pulled her closer to hug her.

12.   No. 4: Bleak December, 210M BC

This asteroid was aimed directly at the land mass that had merged from separate plates over epochs. They saw the 4 kilometer boulder coming from a distance. So they position the Sphere.

“Our energy may be degrading, but there should be enough to deflect it,” N’j was confident this time; T’ll, reserved.

*****

The Plesiosaurus undulated in the waters just off the Eastern coast of Pangaea, but then rose to the surface and raised his head above the waves when he felt the faint “thwump” of sound pass over and through him.  The sun shone bright and only a few clouds billowed lazily.

But something was odd. What was that sound, that percussive push he had felt just a few moments before?

*****

“We should have been able to push it.” N’j demonstrated for T’ll, billowing herself gold a kilometer across, through the walls of the Sphere, then shrinking to a purple grain just above the view membrane. “Look, I’ve just done it again. You saw how I did it. That should have been enough.”

“N’j, it’s not your fault.”

“But I tried.”

“Yes.”

“And failed!” In an orange spark, “Look at them.”

The view membrane’s concave deepened and they saw a close-up of the surface as they orbited. They followed the shock wave, racing just ahead of it, looking close-up through the membrane, watching as the percussive blast swept across the eastern regions, tearing up mountains, forests, shredding grasslands and then over the open water, blasting spray a hundred kilometers into space . . .

*****

The wave hit and he found himself lifted far into the air. His tons of weight had never experienced such gravity; he had always floated nearly weightless through the ocean’s blue dark cosmos, gathering his food, communing with his sisters and brothers near the reefs. Now he was in this strange place, lifted, propelled through air that scorched his skin. And all the weight. What was that? Weight? He had no way of knowing why he felt so—heavy—what it meant to be heavy, what it meant to be lifted higher and higher away from the water . . .

*****

N’j extended her pattern deep into the air, towards the beast, trying to scoop it up, to spare it from the tsunami, but she couldn’t. Her powers failed her. It fell from her energy’s grip, back, down, down, down with a wallop into the roiling water . . .

*****

In a moment, he found himself sinking, then plunging faster and faster to the raging water below. With a terrifying crash, he smashed into the waves, never having experienced pain like that before, his 5 meter body tumbling helplessly amid logs, branches, rocks, stones from the coast . . .

*****

“But I wanted to save you,” she screamed trumpets of yellow-orange, but immediately merged violet-blue into T’ll, deeply, wanting to disappear.

“We can’t do this again, N’j. We could make things worse.”

“But if this is now our home, don’t we owe these beings a chance?”

“But you just signaled grief over this loss below. How could you think to try again?”

“I must try to undo.”

T’ll pulled away angrily, sepia with frustration.

13.  February 1, 2112

Mia felt the thud of Snowball’s access port as it shut—something like an old bank vault, right down to the sound of the lock gears tumbling. The Sphere was eerily silent for a few moments, quiet enough for her to hear her heartbeat pumping resolutely deep in her ears.

Then the Com opened up, the onboard systems came to life, and the silence was replaced with the clicks and whirs of pre-launch excitement. A Screen materialized in front of her and Virtual Jenkins appeared:

“How’s it going?”

“Nervous.”

“Understandable.”

“But ready to go.”

“We’ll start final check in a minute.”

“Any rumblings from the Base?”

“So far, nothing.”

“Good. The work crew kept their word.” Mia had mixed feelings, and she wondered whether Jenkins was feeling equally ambiguous. It might have been nice to have a proper send-off—a few cheers, a round of applause, some friendly faces for Mia to see through her viewport as she lifted off.

She could hear the team reading off checklists in the background.  She looked straight up from her command chair—a contoured, body-length seat designed to keep her soon-to-be frozen form comfortably resting. The eight Cryo Nozzles formed a circle above her.  Once she was past Mars orbit, at a signal from her, they would descend to various levels and extend flexible needles into the veins of her neck, arms, torso, and legs. The cryo-serum that pulsed through them would freeze her, while nanobots would be injected and travel throughout her system. The largest concentrations of bots would remain poised around her vital organs, making sure they weren’t degrading (and “fixing” them if they were); would monitor her body temperature; and at some point, thousands of years down the road, would awaken her, atom-sized princes kissing her Sleeping Beauty cells into consciousness.

“It’s all theory,” she found herself thinking. She could end up shattering apart within years, the nanites unable to stop her cells from corrupting, from splitting apart, from cracking open like ice crystals on a pond.

“Mia?”

She snapped from her daydream: “Commander.”

“Let’s start the Cryo check list.”

“Yes, sir.”

In less than an hour, her home for the past fifteen years would be slipping behind her. The place where her parents had brought her from the Reservation back on Earth to make life for Jake and her a bit easier, the place where she and her brother worked on the Titan mission, the place where she grieved all their losses, the place where the only friends and co-workers she had ever known lived—the ones she would be saying goodbye to over the Com and the Virtual screen.

Home. Soon to slip away.

14.    No. 5: September, 65M BC

“We’ve never tried this.”

“We’ve nothing to lose,” N’j went green.

“At my signal then?”

“Yes.”

T’ll, quarks wavering, reduced to a grain of dust, entered the Sphere’s left membrane control, and exhaled. N’j instantaneously did the same, but on the right side.

The vessel quivered and began to lose its spherical shape. The equatorial seam opened, then other seams, until the round membrane became a flat rectangle that stretched and stretched for tens of kilometers, scintillating ganglia sparkling across its surface. From a distance, it appeared to be a huge net cast open in lunar orbit.

From inside the network of living and artificial tissue, now billowing in space, wafting in the solar wind, N’j sent her thought in purple: “It should arrive in a matter of moments.”

“We’ll be ready.”

“Thank you for doing this.”

T’ll didn’t respond, his pattern merely shimmered violet. In truth, he wondered at the wisdom of their decision—trying to catch the approaching asteroid before it slammed into the water between the newly formed northern and southern continents.

The huge boulder seemed to stumble through the void, end over end, approaching with inexorable speed. T’ll finally communicated: “Even if this works, will we keep doing this every time an object approaches?”

N’j didn’t sense his thoughts; she was too busy looking through her magnifier at a flock of pterosaurs drifting in the air currents off the northern continent. They were so graceful, so beautiful. She knew she and T’ll were doing the right thing. If it didn’t work, so be it. These creatures—all of them—had to be spared. This was their new home world; she wanted to preserve it. Her synapses were golden with defensible good intention.

“Here it comes.” T’ll finally broke her reverie. “Stand by.”

N’j and T’ll, at opposite ends of the Net, poised themselves for impact.

Closer.

Closer it tumbled.

Closer.

The moments seemed eons.

N’j’s red exclamation of “any moment now . . .” became drowned in the pain of the impact. The membrane stretched further and further, energy waves sparking and snapping, as the rock slammed in at thousands of kilometers per second.

“We’re losing integrity!” T’ll’s blue shout went unheard.

In only a few nanoseconds the asteroid burst through the membrane, leaving a tattered rectangle flailing in the void.

The rock, slowed down only slightly by the Net, continued its plunge and before there was time to digest what had just happened, N’j and T’ll watched the impact. Red, yellow, blue haloes of light rippled out from the epicenter encompassing the entire planet in moments. Even without their magnifiers, they could see the catastrophic waves, the plumes of ash, and finally the geysers of magma ejecting from cracks forming across the land masses of the planet.

There was nothing left to do. N’j wept yellow spurts of photons.

____________________________________________________________________

15.No. 6: February 1, 2112

The Sphere shuddered slightly as it escaped the Moon’s gravity, but that only lasted briefly. Through her viewscreen, she watched the pockmarked lunar landscape shrink behind her. In a matter of days the Earth and its Moon would become mere objects, bright globes lost in a void of stars and solar dust.

Now it was just patient waiting and anticipation. Crossing Mars orbit and then, turning to ice.

“You OK?” Jenkins asked as she soared away.

“Yes. Just waiting. I’ll do experiments. Take measurements. Check the system. Read.”

“I’m nervous,” his turn for candidness.

“About?”

“About you, of course, but also about Earth. Our systems show the eruption only hours away. Maybe less.”

“How’s everyone reacting?”

“Here at Selene, they’re concerned about loved ones Downstairs, of course, but—truth be known—most are grateful, even if they don’t say it, that they’ll live through it.”

“And Downstairs?”

“There’s no use lying—it’s chaos. The Leadership’s doing all it can, but they know they’re powerless. I could patch you into the Network if you want to watch the latest.”

“I’m not sure I’d want to.”

“Maybe that’s best.”

It was then that she decided to tell Jenkins. “Listen, Commander,” she started nervously.

“Yes?”

“I just want you to know I’ve left my samples in the Lab. My locker. Ask Daniels for the code.”

“Samples?” Then a look of recognition: “Ah—samples,” and added with a smile, “You’ve thought of everything.”

“I tried. Listen, I know the Activists’ve shut down the CloneLab and ReproCenter, but—just in case. Besides, I have the feeling the few of them left at Selene and on Mars might have a change of heart one day, especially when they realize a hundred rag-tag settlers like them are all that’s left of us.

“Optimist.”

Tears welled up unexpectedly.

“Mia?”

“I’m OK, Commander. I guess I’ll miss all that parenting stuff. But maybe one day I might have an heir . . .” She couldn’t believe how her feelings flooded her.

“I’ll do everything to protect the samples—and if I can, see to reproduction. I promise.”

“Thanks.”
And because the opportunity seemed right, he added, “And for what it’s worth—Jake did the same.”

“What?” She looked up startled.

“Jake left some samples, too. Same reasons.” A mischievous grin began to form: “Now I get to play Matchmaker for both of you—but don’t worry, I’ll be kind. No trolls for either one of you.”  The laughter was what they both needed.

At that very moment, Rainier suddenly blasted open as nothing on the planet had ever exploded before.

16.     In orbit. 65M BC

The Sphere membrane floundered in tatters across hundreds of kilometers of void, being further shredded by fragments of debris and solar particulates. Despite their efforts, N’j and T’ll couldn’t command the Sphere to re-form; there was too much damage.

T’ll clung to the torn ropes.

“We could try below,” she said faintly from her amorphous corner.

“Haven’t we done enough damage?” Bitter orange.

“We could remain unseen.”

“And contaminate their whole ecosystem?”

She knew he was right.

He continued, “Just a fraction of our pattern could alter the progress of their entire evolution. Let it alone. Let’s expire and leave them in peace.” Then a shuddering green thought: “In fact, what if fragments of the Sphere attached to the Rock and survived the impact.”

That was too much. Her shriek filled the void of three planets, followed by wailing.

It pained him to hear her. “It’s best for us to instigate closure.”

Through her agony, she glowed blue: “Yes.” She pondered T’ll’s thought through several turns of the planet, and then asked: “Should we try to send back the beacon?”

“Why?”

“Just in case.”

“But we’ve already received theirs, N’j. You were right all along. They’re not there any more. Their beacon was sent epochs ago. Ours would take as long. True futility.”

“But I wish there were someone to tell.”

“Tell?”

“Tell truths. Tell that there are uncontrollable forces of Nature and the Universe . . .” She interrupted herself, shifting to red waves: “T’ll, I’ve been so arrogant, trying to alter lives.”

“They learned that lesson, too. That was their beacon to us.”

“Simultaneous learning.” The paradox was deep magenta to her, and turning from blue to orange, she sang the ancient Song of Fate: “If it ignites, let it burn. If it tips, let it fall.”

With the greatest effort, their patterns managed to find each other and they merged for a final time.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“I admire you.”

There was nothing left to do. They transmitted a final word, hoping for the best—and then burst apart, their baryons and mesons, their quarks and antiquarks like subatomic fireworks illuminating interplanetary space for a few moments before they fizzed to nothingness. The membrane dissolved as well, its dusty remains wafting far and wide in the solar wind towards Mars and the asteroids.

17.    February 23, 2112

Her last check: The cube of InfoChips stored to her right. Art, Music, History, Politics, Philosophy, you name it—the good and the bad—and all of it tough to choose. Who decides what’s good and bad? How do you portray a Saladin? A Hitler? A Lincoln? A McNulty? Is a holographic statue less “art” than a Michelangelo? Is 20th century Scientology as valid a philosophy as ancient Taoism?  The general guideline seemed to be: “If we have the space, we include it.” Which meant just about everything. The combined knowledge of humanity easily fit into the 15 centimeter cube, its various atomic-sized chips, nanites, and plasma ducts able to house nearly limitless information. If she made it to M51, hopefully the locals could interpret all the data. Especially if she didn’t survive, a thought Mia came to accept.

As she reached out to pat the box like some faithful pet, the Cryo Nozzles descended and extended their needles towards her. She didn’t quite know what to expect. There was a sharp pinch as the neck tubes, then arm tubes entered her veins. Shortly after, tubes pierced her torso and legs.

She was told there would only be a few seconds of consciousness after the Cryo fluids started to take hold and the nanobots began to assume their assigned stations throughout her body, so she decided to turn on the Scan Screen. She didn’t want to look back towards Earth—that would be too upsetting. Jenkins had already told her about the firestorms, the quakes, and the pyroclastic waves that had engulfed all of Western North America, about the tsunamis that had wiped out much of the Pacific Rim, about the dense cloud that now overwhelmed the planet—and in barely three weeks.

No, she wanted a different view, and so she gave the command to show her the M51 spiral, or at least where M51 was supposed to be. Even with the sophisticated Scopes on her ship, the distant vortex would only appear to be a bright dot.

That was good enough. That was her destination. Her destiny.

After the leg needles inserted themselves, the chilly drowsiness descended over her quite rapidly. As Mia fell into her cryo-sleep, she imagined herself drifting through the view screen as if it were some kind of portal, past the confines of her ship, and sailing into the void of throbbing stars and slowly pin-wheeling galaxies. It was a wonderful fantasy, especially when—her very last conscious thought—she swore she could see Jake and her Guardian Spirit floating amid the planets in their Navajo robes, extending their hands towards her through the endless cosmos.

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18.  April 5, 2112

The interpreters on Selene had done their best and what they presented was a monochromatic voice that spoke through crackling static. The message had obviously degraded, but its meaning—assuming the translators had correctly worked out the largely synesthetic language of numbers and colors—could still be understood.  The figure that danced in and out of focus on the Screen seemed more like a globule of light than a corporeal form, yet there were semblances of what could be called facial features and what appeared to be limbs. And then there were those clicks and wheezes that sounded like names—something like Natch and Teal.

“. . . nothing to come back to, Natch and Teal . . . died in the . . . if only we had . . . . please spread our testimony . . . remember us, Natch and Teal . . . our mistakes . . . don’t come back . . . .” The message ended with an apparent apology: “Natch . . . Teal . . . we are so sorry. . . . miss you. . . .farewell. . . wish for you . . . good luck . . . be safe . . .” The rest of the message was beyond repair. And after a few seconds, after the four mesmerizing chimes had sounded, the message started up again.

That was it. A repeating loop. An SOS, a warning beacon. Certainly not the welcome-to-our-galaxy message that Jenkins had hoped for. Not after two and a half years of trying to decipher the message. His mind roared: Sent from M51—but to whom? To where? And who the hell are Natch and Teal? Does it even matter? It’s all moot. There’s no more civilization on whatever M51 planet sent the message to begin with. Right? That’s what it said, right?

Jenkins threw his chair, smashing the HoloScreen—thousands of pixel shards spraying across the room.  He stood for a moment and then fell up against the wall, muttering a string of curses under his breath.

His secretary, Lorman, burst in: “Commander, are you all right?”

Jenkins sobbed, “I’m so sorry, Mia.”

“What’s wrong?”

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19.  Del Prime, Ontair System, M51 Galaxy

Jalla pedaled his bike up the steep hill as fast as he could, gulping air through his now blood-red throat gills. Even his temple gills (those rather silly residual organs—at least Jalla thought—from their prehistoric amphibious days, like the third lung and the tail stub) were pulsing slightly pink.

He’d just left Petra’s office in the Valley and was straining to reach Selig’s observatory before he left for the day. The complex of crystalline buildings perched near the edge of the promontory overlooking the City, its clusters of skyscrapers turning cobalt blue in the late afternoon sun. If the chronopatch on his lanky arm tendril was correct, he’d have a few minutes left.

Sure enough, just as he entered the parking lot, totally winded and nearly orange with exhaustion, Selig was leaving the main building, heading for his hover pod.

“Dr. Selig. Dr. Selig.” He screamed and clicked as loud as he could as he got closer.

Selig stopped and turned, “Jalla, my boy. How are you?” He raised his hand and fanned out the four webbed digits in a sign of friendly greeting.

“Dr. Selig—please—call—Petra.”

“What?” He could see the boy was racing and completely out of breath, his throat gills completely flared open.  Jalla pulled up to him, flaming red. “Call Petra. She’s been trying to reach you all afternoon.”

“Sorry,” he bowed his head in mock contriteness. “I locked myself in. I’m still trying to decipher all those damned images.”

“That’s what she wants to tell you about.”

“Really?”

“She thinks they’ve detected a beacon.”

“O gods!” His skin turned slightly purple with excitement.

“So call her.”

Selig ran back, his face shifting to blue, quickly scanned the suction discs on his left hand, and pushed open the door, his lose-fitting jacket nearly getting caught on the handle.  He went to the view phone, announced Petra’s designation formula and in a few seconds, her face filled the ten-inch screen.  She didn’t even wait for him to say hello: “Joon, not only is it moving, it’s clearly a vessel.”

Selig braced himself against the desk. “What?” By now, he’d become yellow.

“Seriously. I’ve sent over the data. Go to your station and download.”

“But . . .”

“Now, Joon. Just do it.”

He looked at Jalla, shrugged with a vermilion smile, and ran to his workstation. After pressing a few keypads, a screen rose from the table top and started to run a Visual: Clearly, it was a ship of some kind, spheroid in shape—maybe half a billion miles away—slowly working its way into their system.

“But this is remarkable. How’d you get this image stream?”

“The Fenta decided to cooperate and let us access their orbiting Viewer.”

“I don’t know how you managed that, but the gods bless you. I was getting so frustrated using our ground-based Viewers. The images are too fuzzy.” The old man leaned in to get a better look, his eye sockets extending an inch or two. “So what do we have here?”

“Our best guess is a space vehicle—but unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It isn’t one of ours, for sure.”

“It appears to be bypassing us.”

“It is, although we could re-direct it if we wanted to. We don’t know if it’s robotic or not, but there’s a beacon that keeps repeating. And that’s what’s the most exciting.”

From her end, she boosted the audio signal. Four chimes at equally spaced intervals of time and pitch.

Selig nearly dropped. “Gods. The Janobian Chimes.”

“Sure sounds like it.”

“But conservatively that’s tens of millions of years ago; even the fossil records aren’t clear on that because they’d evolved from corporeal into plasma beings. Besides, the few images we have from the ruins show that their space craft were nothing like this.”

“We know that.”

“Then what . . .”

“Our team came up with the most fantastic possibility.”

“Which is what?”

“That the Janobians did have the capability of sending out a beacon from right here that was powerful enough to . . .”

“. . . that’s only theory. . .”

“ . . . Well—let’s assume. That they sent out a beacon and someone not only heard it, but sent out a craft to explore. A craft that would repeat the message the Janobians sent in hopes that someone would recognize it.”

“Assume that’s true, they could be from anywhere. Has anyone scanned for life signs?”

“The Fenta have contacted our team and are willing to cooperate.  Both groups are working on it as we speak.  My people think we should know by tonight whether it’s a satellite or a visit from the Little Blue Men.” She laughed.

Selig looked at Jalla and both burst into clucking laughter.

“Imagine, Doc. Finally—we’ve found other life.” But as he hugged his uncle, he added with a click-chuckle, “but what if they’re Red?”

20.   12,503 AD

Mia’s eyes opened. She swore she felt the nanites pinching her veins and squeezing her quick-frozen heart back to life. It seemed like only moments before she had slipped under. Now here she was, eyes wide, breathing again—although the air seemed a bit stale. Her muscles ached, but she could move her arms and legs with fair ease. The Cryo Nozzles withdrew and retracted to their initial position above her seat. The viewport opened, and there it was, a glittering green world below her—trees, rivers, cities near lakes clearly visible from her low orbit.

As she came-to fully, she heard over her Com four chimes sounding, and above them a male voice, speaking in strings of vowels and excited clicks.

And she blurted out her first thought: “We did it, Jake.”

The End


© 2008 T. Richard Williams

T. Richard Williams is the pen name for Bill Thierfelder, Professor of English at Dowling College, a liberal arts college on Long Island, New York. Mr. Williams has been writing stories and verse for over two decades. His recent work includes two volumes of poetry.How the Dinosaurs Devoured the Humans and The Letter S; a collection of science fiction and narrative fiction called Ten; and a memoir of his 115-mile bike ride across Long Island during August of 2005 called Deliberate Living. He has also published short fiction in Wild Violet, an online literary magazine. He lectures regularly on poetry and other literary topics in the Northeast and is a popular professor who teaches a wide range of topics, from world literature to science fiction. He is also the founder of The Diversity Project, an organization sponsored by Dowling College that presents regular town hall meetings on current issues of diversity, prejudice, and bias. He has been involved in various social causes for many years, including volunteer and activist work for the Momentum AIDS Project (New York City), GMHC, LIAAC, and LIGALY. He is currently a regular contributor to Outlook Long Island Magazine. He resides in Oakdale, NY and is an avid cyclist, gardener, and hiker.

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