by E.S. Strout
Some theorists believe that a total of eleven and as many as
twenty-six dimensions may exist. We are familiar with linear, planar,
volume, magnitude and time. The others are based on string and M-theory
calculations. So far they exist only on paper but may surround us and
be invisible to us.
By the middle of the 21st century, the Lynch Gravity Drive had been
established as the first successful faster than light propellant for
spacecraft. Unmanned trials at first had a number of bugs. Some early
models had quit transmitting data and disappeared without a trace. The
newly established Tachyon Communication System (TachCom) had no answer.
Without feedback from these probes, Space Agency could only speculate.
Those craft must have been defective, either in design or construction.
Unlikely possibilities were: absorption by a black hole or penetration
of the antimatter universe and destroyed.
By 2051 the Da Vinci class probe had evolved as the leader in faster
than light technology. Its gravity drive could fold space and transit
through the wormhole thus created. In the years that followed unmanned,
then manned jaunts to circumnavigate planets Mars, Jupiter and even
other star systems had been accomplished. These took mere minutes.
NASA and the newly established Space Agency were ready now to
attempt their most ambitious undertaking. Could wormhole technology
provide a close-up glimpse of Sagittarius A-Star, the medium sized
black hole making its home at the center of our galaxy?
Thursday 23 May, 2047:
The volunteer chosen from among several qualified individuals was
U.S. Air Force Major Richard Thayer. He was an expert in Lynch gravity
drive and wormhole technology. His launch in Da Vinci VI had gone off
without a hitch. The only communication from Thayer was received less
than an hour after departure from the Delta Echo space station. The
"Thayer to COMSAT 1. I am maintaining course with difficulty. Sag
A-star event horizon unstable. Gravity readings far off expected
levels. Can't overcome instability. This is very odd. I can't reach the
keyboard. Some kind of weird dimensional shift. Wait one. Wormhole
collapsing. Losing control . . ."
Attempts at further contact by tachyon stream reflected back only
warbles, hisses and static from the cosmos.
After a year of investigation NASA/Space Agency officials were still
baffled. "We may never know what Major Thayer was trying to tell us,"
they stated at a press conference.
Thursday, 24 February 2051. 1330 hours:
18-year-old U.S. Air Force Second Lieutenant Lori Anne Colquitt was
in her first year at the new Space Academy in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
She was fascinated by the various theories on time and dimensions in
her space and relativity classes. One day she asked her Professor a
"Suppose we managed to reach one of Stephen Hawking's parallel
timelines, would we be transported to some time in our past or future?"
"What do you think, Lieutenant Colquitt?" The Prof replied.
His response elicited a furious discussion among her first year
classmates and later, with seniors as well. An Academy senior, Captain
Richard Thayer, a friend of Lori's from California, said to her, "I've
been chosen by the Space Agency to pilot a classified faster than light
mission. That's all I know. Maybe we can grab a couple of beers and
some tacos at the O club when I get back."
She had smiled and said, "I won't forget, you know."
Eight years, four months later:
Delta Echo Space Station. Da Vinci VII ready room. Monday June 30,
26 year-old dark haired, slender U.S. Air Force Major Lori Anne
Colquitt, veteran FTL pilot, tweaked last-minute adjustments on her
specialized flight suit. Satisfied, she relaxed on a couch modified to
record her vital signs. "How do I look, Don?" she asked.
Aerospace physician Donald R. Stephan watched the screen, nodded.
"All in the green, Lori. All implants functioning as programmed. Test
time and date, please."
She blinked twice. A heads-up display popped to her right upper
field of vision and faded seconds later. "Good. Today's date, 1024
hours, 14 seconds," she repeated. "A bit more than half an hour to
"God go with you, Lori. Doug is here for your briefing," Dr. Stephan
said. "All yours, General."
U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Douglas Frazier, a fifty-four year
old veteran of the Iran-Israel conflict of the '30's took a seat beside
Major Colquitt. "Da Vinci VII is fueled up and ready, Lori. Any last
"I owe you, Doug. I knew I was entitled to all information regarding
the Thayer mission, including Rich's final communication."
General Frazier scowled and nodded. "I've yelled and screamed but
Space Agency was adamant about not releasing it. Remember, I advised
you to cancel the mission."
She smiled and took a swallow of blue Gatorade from a plastic
bottle. "I've been a little paranoid, but I owe this one to Rich
Thayer. I took your advice and threatened to cancel the mission."
Frazier gave a brief nod. "I know. They were furious, but were too
far along in the planning. Cancellation would have cost them millions
to find and train another volunteer. Your history with Thayer was the
prime motivating factor. Childhood playmates and competitors in school,
plus my endorsement finally swayed them."
Three soft tones sounded.
"Ten minutes, Lori."
"I'm ready. So is Merlin."
"Merlin. Interesting name you've chosen for your companion
artificial intelligence implant."
"Merlin was King Arthur's magician. He's interfaced with all of the
Da Vinci VII systems, databases and my cognitive frontal lobe centers.
Merlin is state of the art implanted A.I."
"Those series 801 A.I.'s have had a few twitches reported, Lori. I'd
still feel much better if you'd wait a month for the new 802 series."
Lori smiled and took another gulp of Gatorade. "I appreciate your
concern, sir. I've flown four Lynch gravity drive missions with Merlin,
including one outside our Solar System. No problems. I want this one.
Space Agency insisted that the new AUTOMERG feature be installed on
Frazier nodded. "Yeah, I know. Automated emergency return to our
solar system. Kind of an iffy record, they have. Only one unmanned
drone came back after it lost power, the others were never heard from
The General continued, "Your mission will be identical to Captain
Thayer's. Still hazardous, zooming around our local black hole."
"I know. Merlin will assist me in keeping clear of Sag-A's event
"Are your defenses in sync?"
"Our laser weapon is ready for any possibility of a hostile first
"Remember, you can contact me in real time via the tachyon stream.
Anything at all."
"Thanks, Doug. Calling home may give me a morale boost."
"Good, Lori. Anything, even unrelated mission B.S. or baseball
scores. Let's get you strapped in."
Elapsed flight time, 45 minutes, 16 seconds:
"How do we look, Merlin?"
Our interfaces are good, Lori. Sagittarius-A Star event horizon a
bit unstable. Compensating now.
"Well done. I'll grab a cat nap, Wake me at the next check-in point."
Copy. General Frazier will be standing by 24/7.
Elapsed flight time, one hour, 18 minutes, 22 seconds:
Lori was awakened by an acoustic alarm and flashing red warning
indicators. Inertial shock absorbers screamed as they compensated for
Da Vinci VII's abrupt return to normal space. She scrambled to the
pilot's chair, mopped her brow with a sleeve, and pounded keys. There
was no response from the command computer.
"What's the story, Merlin?"
Meteorite hit. Starboard beam shield failure. Antigraviton cell
compromise. Gravity drive off line. Life Support systems still
The Da Vinci series shields had deflected thousands of meteorites.
One had slipped past during a nanosecond electronic glitch of exposure
before backup shield systems compensated.
"A perfect system," Lori said with a sarcastic scowl. "Show me all
On your heads-up display.
Life support: 18 hours oxygen max.
Secondary propulsion: Manual start only.
Nav and maneuvering: Nominal.
TACHCOMM system: Off line.
Earth coordinates: No response.
AUTOMERG: Status unknown.
"Damn. So I can't get through to Doug or Space Agency. Where are we,
Insufficient information, Lori. We have glanced off the unstable
Sag A-star's event horizon. Celestial navigational parameters cannot be
PROXIMITY ALERT sounded with red flashing indicators.
"What the hell is it now? Merlin?"
Something very large close by. Damaged external optics off line,
Lori. Switching to tactical mode. Meteorite strike has damaged our
direct visual systems. Attention. There is a faint image coming through
on tactical view now. There is a 0.62 chance that it represents a large
Lori eyed the hazy gray orb on the screen. "This could be an
asteroid or a planet. Can we do star sightings?"
Merlin's response was sluggish and took several seconds.
I am unable to visualize any star systems. Meteorite damage to
telescopic sensors prevents closeup focusing.
"Are you okay, Merlin?"
I apologize for the delay, Lori. Systems check shows all my
facilities are available and intact. Tactical view only. Wide scan
suggests a planet with possible water and landmasses.
"Merlin, please bring up the file on Captain Richard Thayer's FTL
mission from two years ago."
Audio only available, Lori.
"Please play it."
"Thayer to COMSAT 1. I am maintaining course with difficulty. Sag
A-star event horizon unstable. Gravity readings far off expected
levels. Can't overcome instability. This is very odd. Can't reach the
keyboard. Some kind of weird dimensional shift. Wait one. Wormhole
collapsing. Losing control . . ."
She listened, stunned. Thayer's voice over the tachyon link betrayed
disorientation and confusion. There were ramblings about alien star
fields, then static echoing in the stygian vastness of the cosmos.
"How would you interpret his term dimensional shift, Merlin?"
The dimension of any physical quantity is the combination of
basic physical dimensions such as length, time, size or electrical
charge, Lori. Literal definition of shift could mean a change in
position, direction or tendency. I apologize for this inadequate
definition. I will continue to search relevant files.
Sigh of frustration. "You're not helping me, Merlin."
I will transfer the Space Agency's Thayer mission report to your
Lori felt an odd chill after reading. There had been rumors of
bizarre alterations of spatial and temporal parameters following abrupt
unplanned deceleration in hyperspace. Experts theorized that small
tears in the fabric of the space-time continuum had been involved in
the disappearance of early unmanned intergalactic probes.
Space Agency had not accepted such hypotheses. According to them all
major glitches in intergalactic transit had been resolved. No cause for
alarm, the brass reiterated.
"I've seen those reports, Merlin. Mostly BS. None of them
mention dimensional shift. So where did Major Thayer and the unmanned
probes go?" Lori wondered aloud. "Lost in some galactic Bermuda
Merlin did not reply.
Major Colquitt checked all FTL and location parameters once again.
There were no changes. "Looks like we're stuck here, Merlin.
Sublight engines are available. Recommend orbital transits. These
may give us some clues.
"I'll do some longitudinal and latitudinal passes." Any progress
with the visual?"
None. I can give you suboptimal tactical views only. Range is
limited to this alleged planet and any moons it may have.
"Can you get atmospheric readings?"
Atmospheric probe could not be launched. Meteorite damage. Some
local information could be helpful. On your heads-up display.
"Wow. Water vapor. Ambient temp 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Interesting.
Warm and damp. Subtropical."
NASA's Kepler telescope has investigated red dwarf stars and
found a few with Earth-like planets orbiting them. The closest is 13
light years from Earth. Some have an atmosphere.
"If this is a planet, it's bigger than Jupiter, Merlin."
I'm having Input data conflict, Lori. New size parameters
indicate a spheroid body at least ten times larger than Jupiter.
"What the heck does that mean?"
It has to do with the relative extent of this body, be it planet
or asteroid. I will attempt to establish updated size parameters.
"Spare me the gibberish, Merlin. I'm depending on you. Is orbital
transit program available yet?"
Negative. There is an electronic disconnect related to the
meteorite hit. No response from transit programming file. Manual only
A sarcastic "Wonderful." Lori took a deep breath, did a tremulous
exhalation then pushed keys. "Okay. Manual on line. Coordinates
Sublight engines lit off right away. The passes recommended by
Merlin took six hours. "This thing is huge," Lori muttered. "The same
orbits of Earth would take me an hour."
Merlin was silent.
"I suppose landing is out of the question. Merlin?"
Impossible, Lori. Da Vinci VII was designed for space flight
only, not atmospheric transit. Buffeting and extreme frictional heat
would terminate your human body in less than thirty seconds.
"Could you provide additional cooling in such an instance?"
Invalid proposal, Lori. In theory, 8.4 seconds only. After that,
orbital decay would commence and could not be reversed. Da Vinci VII
and all occupants would be incinerated. Survivability probability zero.
"There is one outside chance, Merlin. Power up the escape pod.
Negative option. I am programmed not to comply.
"You mean we should just sit here in orbit and vegetate for
eternity? Not me. There's less than five hours of oxygen left. Override
sequence Hotel Bravo Zulu zero six."
Lori could sense Merlin's inner conflict with his programming.
I copy under duress. Recommend avoid water. Landmass landing
0.07 probability of success. All other options zero.
"I'm going to do a retro burn with the sublight engines, then eject
the pod when we enter the atmosphere."
Lori sealed the escape pod hatch and locked her helmet visor down. A
clear plastic rectangle enclosing a preserved pink geranium from her
father's garden was secured in a velcro-sealed pocket in her flight
suit. She punched the escape pod release an instant before deceleration
immobilized her in the G-force seat. "Re-entry in ten seconds, Merlin.
Give me that 8.4 seconds now," she screamed, and then blacked out.
The heat shields of the escape pod glowed bright yellow, but held
fast during its descent into terra incognita.
Lori blinked several times and shook her head to dispel deceleration
effects. She raised her helmet's UV filtered visor and squinted. Bright
starlight shone through the escape pod's minuscule viewport. Red and
white parachute fabric billowed outside. Soft landing. She pumped a
fist. "Wow. 0.07 probability. Shoulda bought a lottery ticket. Merlin?"
Entered in database as extraordinary event.
A tree had ensnared the pod's parachute. Clusters of huge
jagged-edged green leaves were punctuated by clusters of multicolored
blossoms, each measuring at least twenty feet in diameter. Light from
the system's star sparkled from dewy foliage.
"Please attempt to confirm atmospheric components and temperature
No change, Lori. Your FTL flight suit sensors should give you an
accurate readout if you crack the hatch.
Cracking hatch now. "Wow. I'm seeing more trees and their gigantic
blossoms. Botanical growths may require CO2 and give off oxygen. My
oxygen-breathing mask is set for two liters per hour, intermittent
flow. Warn me of any problems, Merlin."
No toxins detected.
The air was warm and humid. Her sunshield glasses protected her eyes
from UV radiation from the system's star. She stood in the hatchway and
viewed the suit's atmosphere sensor readout. Her reaction was a
startled, "Wow." She lifted a corner of the oxygen mask and sniffed a
few cautious breaths. "Breathable air, Merlin." She removed the mask
and did some deep knee bends. "Feels like decent gravity. Merlin?"
Confirm adequate gravimetric levels. Inconsistent with size of
planet. Some planets orbiting red dwarf stars may be composed of less
dense crust, mantle and core layers, which could affect gravity.
"So we're orbiting a red dwarf star?"
Emitted light not consistent with red dwarf star illumination.
"So? There's enough brightness for us to see okay. Ground covered by
uniform green vegetation. Chlorophyll based? Impressions, Merlin?"
Chlorophyll photosynthesis is feature of twenty-seven in
databases of eight hundred twelve investigated worlds, including ten
orbiting red dwarf stars.
"Make that twenty-eight total. Anything new on our COMM system?"
Negative. Tachyon stream reception mode remains inoperative.
"Damn. There went our chance of a million New Dollar First Contact
bonus." Lori punched the COMM key. "I'll try voice transmission again."
She tapped keys, heard static. "Doug, it's Lori. Da Vinci VII
damaged by meteorite hit. Most systems inoperative, including TACHCOM.
Garbled sounds and static.
"Merlin, is there any rope in our survival gear?"
Thirty feet, nylon reinforced.
"Let's have a look around." She stepped from the hatchway, secured
the rope and rappelled down the tree trunk's rough brown bark to the
surface. "Solid ground, Merlin. Uniformly granular with many stones and
pebbles, but adequate for walking. Vegetation reaches to about twice my
height. It consists of crowded solitary spear-like green spikes but I
can push it apart with ease. Other trees in the distance are similar to
the one we landed in."
There was a sudden whirring sound overhead. Merlin's reaction was
Airborne threat, Lori. Defense response initiated.
Neurosynaptic targeting and guidance systems of her Merlin-linked
personal defense system were on line in an instant. The cyberorganic
laser lanced upward through the tiny focusing lens in Lori's left eye,
spearing the airborne menace. There was a terminal squawk as the avian
predator plunged with uncoordinated flapping of dark wings.
"Gotcha," she whispered. I owe you one, Merlin. Any I.D.?"
Avian species. Very Large. Not pterosaur, fully feathered. Yellow
beak. Suggests corvine species. Disproportionate in size to extreme.
Nothing in our current database matches. No resolution of size conflict.
"Anything on the flora?"
Single spear like growths, closely crowded . . . Attention.
Approaching alien presence. Land based. Ultrasonic image indicates
multi-appendage creatures. Cover your ears, Lori.
The high decibel ultrasonic screech sent ragged fragments of alien
foliage flying in swirls.
Threat ended. Alien presences departed.
"What were they?"
Apparently natural insect inhabitants of this world.
Configuration suggests family formicidae, order hymenoptera but of
"We're like the Lilliputians from Gulliver's Travels," Lori mused.
Satiric fantasy by Englishman Jonathan Swift, year 1726 . . .
"History, Merlin. Please concentrate on the problems at hand."
A sudden rain shower broke. Lori sought shelter beneath one of the
flower-bearing trees. "What do you make of this, Merlin?"
Water rain. No toxins detected.
The cobalt blue sky remained devoid of cloud cover.
The storm passed in ten minutes. Lori removed her boots and socks to
cool her feet in a fresh puddle. She massaged the puckered scar on her
right foot instep. Childhood injury. Pain. Her father's comforting
arms. She fetched the hard plastic enclosed pink geranium from its
pocket and held it up to the warm starlight. Stroked the engraved
sentiment, Love always. Dad, shed a nostalgic tear.
She stood, rubbed her eyes. "Enough. Anything, Merlin?"
Structure to the left, about half a mile. No match in my explored
The walk took forty minutes through the crowded vegetation. Lori
gazed upward at the imposing edifice. It was composed of stacked layers
of dark, rough-textured blocks. Each was twice her height. Precise fit,
like the centuries-old Mayan ruins she had studied in undergraduate
school. There were no carved designs or hieroglyphics. No inscribed
language. No windows or entryways. The rough surfaced stone afforded
good grips and Lori climbed the wall to the top with ease. More of the
huge blossom-bearing trees rose on the other side.
A two hundred yard wide pathway composed of huge regular squares of
fine gritty gray material led along the wall. "What alien culture had
built this gigantic structure?" Lori wondered. "Any thoughts, Merlin?"
Constructions, type unknown. Probably built by an alien race with
highly advanced technology. I'm still attempting to further refine
search parameters. Results problematic. Wait one. I'm detecting a
tremor. Earthquake of Richter Scale 3.4 intensity.
"I feel it, Merlin. How odd. Da Vinci VII instruments recorded no
such activity. What could cause a localized seismic event?"
No response from Merlin.
Lori scrambled down the wall, landed in thick brown mud from the
"I'm stuck, dammit."
There was a brief diminution of brightness as though something had
moved between her and the system's star. The tremor abated seconds
later. A second wave of regular seismic activity was stronger, closer.
There was sudden movement beyond the tops of the flowered forest
growths. Blotting out the fading starlight and moving on.
Threat approaching, Lori. Type unknown. Enabling laser targeting
and guidance systems now.
The laser did not fire.
Threat parameters are no longer registering, Lori. There are
dimensional and magnitude errors I cannot resolve. My programming does
not include discrepancies of such proportions. My best estimate is that
we are being approached by a very large alien lifeform. It is unaware
Sudden spaced bursts of light crisscrossed the alien tableau with
weird twilight shadows. Scuffling sounds followed. A dark shape
materialized overhead. "Give me some help here, Merlin. I'm knee deep
Identification conflict, Lori. Hostile response forbidden by my
programming. I am attempting to revise inconsistent parameters . . .
"Enough of your bull, Merlin," she screamed. "We're under attack.
I'm taking over. Emergency weapon system override Tango Delta six zero."
Wait, Lori. Identity conflict is size variation of familiar . . .
"Enough, Merlin. I've got this one." Lori eyeballed the laser's
focusing lens toward the center of the descending mass. She pressed a
key . . .
"Do not fire. Repeat with urgency, Lori. Imperative you do not
fire. AUTOMERG successful. We're back at Cape Canaveral. Dimensional
shift was . . ."
The laser fired. Its flash was Major Lori Anne Colquitt's final
"Be careful, dear. That planter is muddy after the sprinklers
shut off. You'll be a mess. Step up on the sidewalk. I'll get the hose
and wash you off."
"I hurt my foot, Dad," the little girl sniffled.
"Third degree burn," the EMT said.
"What happened, sir?"
"Electrical short," the firemen told me. "Autosprinklers must
have hit an exposed wire when the walkway lighting went on. "
"That's weird. Those lighting systems are supposed to be very low
voltage and amps."
The paramedic wrapped the child's foot in an antibiotic and
tissue regenerative analgesic gel pack. "She'll be fine, sir. A little
scar on her right instep. Have your clinic assigned medical
professional check it in a couple of days."
Her father hugged the little girl. "You heard the man. You'll be
Her smile brightened tear-stained cheeks. "Daddy, I stepped on
something in the mud when I got that shock."
"The firemen looked everywhere, love. Didn't find anything."
She clutched the toy she'd recovered from the brick-lined planter
to her smudged playsuit. "This was hanging from one of the geraniums."
Her father stroked its smooth surface with a fingertip. "Wow.
Perfect scale model of a Space Agency escape pod, with its parachute.
Incredibly accurate details. Some kid will be looking for it."
Ten year-old Lori Anne Colquitt wiped her nose on a sleeve.
"Richie Thayer, I'll bet. All his space toys . . . "
"He wants to be an astronaut, Lori."
A secret grin lit her face. "So do I," she whispered.
© 2013 E. S. Strout
Bio: Stories by E. S. Strout (M.D.), a.k.a. Gene or Gino, have
appeared in Planet Magazine, Anotherealm, Millennium F&SF,
Beyond-sf, Jackhammer (Eggplant Productions), Static Movement,
and Bewildering Stories. And, of course, many of his stories
have appeared in Aphelion (most recently Power, May 2013).
E-mail: E. S. Strout
(Humanoids: replace '_AT_' with '@')
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