Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
 
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Dimensional Shift

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.

-Space.com



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?


1.


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 message read:


"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.


2.


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 question.

"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."


3.


Eight years, four months later:

Delta Echo Space Station. Da Vinci VII ready room. Monday June 30, 2059.

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 launch."

"God go with you, Lori. Doug is here for your briefing," Dr. Stephan said. "All yours, General."


4.


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 minute concerns?"

"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."


4.


"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 this bird."

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 again."

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 horizon."

"Are your defenses in sync?"

"Our laser weapon is ready for any possibility of a hostile first contact scenario."

"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."


5.


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.


6.


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 operative.

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 systems, Merlin."

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, Merlin?"

Insufficient information, Lori. We have glanced off the unstable Sag A-star's event horizon. Celestial navigational parameters cannot be established.

"Damn."


7.


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 solid body.

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.


8.


"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?"

Hesitation.


"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 heads-up display.

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 Triangle?

Merlin did not reply.


9.


Major Colquitt checked all FTL and location parameters once again. There were no changes. "Looks like we're stuck here, Merlin. Recommendations?"

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 available.

A sarcastic "Wonderful." Lori took a deep breath, did a tremulous exhalation then pushed keys. "Okay. Manual on line. Coordinates entered."

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?"

Hesitation.


"Merlin?"

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.

Hesitation.

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.

"Copy, Merlin?"

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.


10.


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 again, Merlin."

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. Location unknown."

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."


11.


There was a sudden whirring sound overhead. Merlin's reaction was instantaneous.

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 inordinate size.

"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."

Copy.

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.


12.


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 world database.

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 rainstorm.

"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.


13.


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 of us.

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 in mud."

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 recollection.


14.


"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 just fine."

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.


THE END


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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