And now, presented for your enjoyment, the second installment of a short story featuring the origin of one of my central characters in Exodus: Empires at War. I will present this story in three parts. Anyone interested in reading the story in its entirety can go to my website, Imagination Unlimited, or directly to the story page at Exodus Shorts. The story can be downloaded in Word, PDF or Kindle format. Or you can see all of my books at my Amazon Book Page.
Refuge: Book 3: The Legions is currently out on Amazon. If you like Exodus, you will probably like Refuge. If you don’t like either one, you probably shouldn’t be reading my work. And now, the first installment of What’s Eating You. Exodus: Book 4 will be out in the next week or so.
What’s Eating You.
Lucille wondered what kept these people performing a job that obviously terrified them. She asked one of the scientists one day after they had opened a portal to an antimatter universe that had destroyed the probe in spectacular fashion. Fortunately the recon robot was millions of kilometers into the strange space, having catalogued that all the laws were not exactly the same as in our Universe, but close enough where our form of life could exist. Until the probe touched down on a comet and obliterated itself while blasting the iceball apart. The human exploration team had been called back post haste.
“It’s the contract,” said Dr. Joseph Jakarta, the leader of that last exploration team.
“You could break the contract, couldn’t you?” asked Yu, having trouble remembering what her own contract had actually said. “It’s a free society, after all, and they can’t force you to work a job you find disagreeable.”
Some of the other members of the team laughed when she said that.
“Yeah, the pay’s great,” said Dr. Jakarta. “But they bank most of it for us, payable when our contractual period is over.”
“Well, yes,” said Lucille, remembering how that had seemed very attractive when she had signed on. She was paid six times what she would have expected from an academic job. Her room and board was paid for, and she was given ten percent of her pay for personal expenses. The rest would make a tidy sum when she moved on. Now her face dropped as she heard the small print she had ignored when she signed her contract.
“If you don’t fulfill the terms they take away everything you have banked,” said Jakarta. He looked around at the other nine members of his team, who all nodded vigorously, or cursed the administration. “That’s not all,” continued Jakarta. “They can make sure that you have a hard time getting another position.”
“How can they have that much power?” asked Yu, feeling horrified.
“This is a Priority Imperial Project,” said Jakarta, emphasizing each word. “And the Imperial Science Council controls a lot of the funding the Universities and research tanks receive. Add to that the influence of the military, and anyone who would hire someone who reneged on their contract risks losing all of their funding.”
“That still shouldn’t make it impossible to get a job,” protested Lucille.
“Not impossible, if you’re good enough,” agreed Jakarta with grudging acceptance. “There are some willing to buck the system. But for most, why take the risk? Not when there are so many other scientists and technicians out there who can fill the slot on a team.”
“And you know what’s funny?” asked one of the techs, her flat eyes staring straight ahead. “We still lose half our techs and scientists before their term is up.”
“But, why? I know the work is dangerous. But so are a lot of other high paying jobs.”
“You haven’t been here all that long,” said Jakarta after taking a swallow of his beer. “Sure, there are other jobs statistically as dangerous. But you don’t have to look the wrongness of other space in the face. That wears on any sentient being after a while.”
“You’ll see,” said the woman who had talked before. “It will get inside your brain too, Dr. Yu. And then you will know one thing, that you don’t want to be here.”
* * *
“Open the portal,” ordered Rodrigue.
Lucille did the last second check and sent her acknowledgement over the link. She glanced at her people, seeing the anxiety on their faces. Everyone was thinking about what had happened to the other portal crew just a few days before.
That Universe had looked promising. The robotic probe had gone across and continued to operate within all parameters. Even the biologicals had seemed to handle the new space with no problem. So the human exploration team had gone across, and things still looked good, for about fifteen minutes. That was when the humans had started acting, bizarre was the only word for it. Word salad on the transmissions. The exploration vessel sent into nonsensical gyrations. And finally a murder. The ship had been recalled on autopilot, something the team seemed completely unaware of. They were isolated, and molecular probes had shown that their actual central nervous system tissue had been changed. It was not known if they would recover, or if they would have to go through complete neural restructuring by nanotech, which would basically make them different people.
So this exploration team has gone through mind upload, so their brains can be restructured if necessary, thought Lucille, shuddering at the thought of losing herself the way the members of that other team had.
Then she had no time for thoughts of past disasters, as the black holes moved apart and the space between them ripped open.
The first indication that something was wrong was the thick yellow gas that jetted from the hole. The second indication were the life forms that followed. They were like nothing that anyone had ever seen. Scans immediately showed that they were not made up of any kind of biological matter ever encountered. Instead, they scanned as some kind of metallic construct, though definitely not robots.
“We opened on a planet,” said Rodrigue, staring into the holo.
“How often does that happen?” asked an alarmed Lucille, watching as animals the size of small dinosaurs flew around the chamber in their native atmosphere.
“This is the seventh time, which is well above what would be expected by random chance,” said the other scientist. “Possibly something to do with the gravitational pull of large bodies.”
Lucille shuddered at that thought, wondering when they would open a portal into a star, or a black hole. And knowing the result would be the end of this world the project was based on, along with all the personnel and their families.
The weapons deployed in the huge chamber went into action, firing lasers and particle beams at the fast flying animals. Hits were scored. Many hits. All to no effect to the creatures, who were soon tearing into equipment, ingesting it. Lasers simply hit them and were absorbed, while particle beams bounced away.
“Close the portal,” yelled Rodrigue, a trace of panic in his voice as creatures smacked into the gateway arms.
“What good will that do?” asked one of the techs.
“Just do it,” yelled the senior scientist.
The black holes came back together and the portal closed. One of the creatures flew into one of the black holes and disappeared in a flash, while hard radiation flooded the chamber. There was no effect on the animals, but half the sensors in the chamber burned out.
“Set resonances to this frequency,” yelled Rodrigue.
Lucille looked over the frequency, cross referencing it to a Universe that had already been explored in the preliminary sense. That should work, she thought, seeing that it was a null Universe, a natural vacuum of the most empty sort.
“Open it,” yelled the chief scientist, and Lucille started the process of opening the portal, something normally not tried so soon after one had already been opened.
The huge arms that controlled the black holes creaked and stuttered as they moved apart from the over strain, and Yu was sure they would collapse, and drop the holes through the floor and into the planet. They held, and the holes ripped open space again. This time the pull was from the other side, and the misty atmosphere was first sucked from the room, followed by the animals that no longer had air to flap through. The creatures twisted and turned as they floated away from the opening, starting to become more insubstantial with each moment, until they were gone.
“Close it,” yelled Rodrigue, and the ring of black holes came back together, closing off the human Universe from the other.
“What happened to them?’ asked Lucille, trying to keep the scream that wanted to erupt from her mouth under control.
“Matter as we know it can’t exist there,” answered the other scientist. “We found that out when we sent a probe into it.”
Rodrigue stood up from his chair and looked around the control room. “Good job, people. Way to keep your heads. Everyone except the senior scientific staff can leave. We will try again in two days, so everyone relax.”
“How the hell can we relax?” said one of the techs as he got up from his seat.
“I’m going to pray,” said another tech, a grimace on her face. “Don’t really see how it will help, or hurt.”
I wish I could just get a drink, thought Lucille, wishing she didn’t have to sit and discuss what had just happened. But there was no help for it. She was a trapped audience to this discussion of a nightmare.
* * *
The chapel was set up for a Christian service, of any and all of the denominations of that religion. There were other chapels on the base for the other major religious groups, Moslem, Judaism, Hinduism, all the isms there were. Lucille had been raised Reformed Catholic, the dominant religion of the Empire. When she had turned to science she had not had time for the church, and her faith had lapsed. Her father, the eminent scientist and Buddhist, didn’t really push her to stay with the church. It was her mother’s wish, the good Reformed Catholic from Norje, who made sure her daughter was raised to observe the ceremonies and strictures of that denomination.
Are you really there, God? thought the physicist, kneeling in front of the altar and looking at the image of a man hanging from a cross. An image from a world that had been totally destroyed by the aliens that had sent humankind fleeing across the Galaxy. And if you are, do you only exist in our reality? What about these other realities we are opening? What happens to us if we die in one of those realities? Do we still find our way to you?
All disturbing questions, even to one who was more Agnostic than anything. Would death in another dimension mean obliteration of the soul, if there was such a thing? Were the natural laws of the other dimensions such that a soul was not possible? Lucille shook her head at the last. Her rational mind told her there was no such thing as a soul, while her religious upbringing told her there was. And what about the strictures against clones, who all tended to be psychopaths? Those with a religious bent said it was because they were unnatural creatures, not possessed of a soul. Those who did not believe in the supernatural said it was because? Well, they really didn’t have much of an answer.
Whatever it is, I’m stuck here. At least until my contract is over. She had been on the project for two months, which gave her twenty two months to survive. Lucille was still shaking her head when she got up from before the altar and walked away, her head still swirling with questions, but no definite answers.
* * *
The portal to Universe number five hundred fifteen opened easily. It opened on vacuum, it opened on space that seemed to obey the natural laws of the human Universe. Lucille counted it off as her fifty-seventh portal. The probe went through, and seemed to function perfectly. The readings coming back from the biologicals indicated that they were functioning perfectly as well.
“Something’s wrong with this place,” said one of the techs, about the same time that Lucille started getting a feel for the place on her link into the instruments.
This place is old, she thought, looking at the star map the probe was beginning to develop. The opening was in a Galaxy that was being absorbed by another Galaxy, which itself was in the process of colliding with yet another. What stars still existed were all of the red dwarf variety, and the sleet of radiation showed that this was a Universe of black holes and neutron stars, swallowing up all the matter that came their way.
“It’s a Universe in its last days,” she said, looking back at Rodrigue. “In another billion years it will have shrunk to a point.”
“We don’t need a billion years, if it comes to that,” said the senior scientist. “If we need someplace to run, this may have to be it. Send in the exploration team.”
The team went through the portal with no problems. All readings came back normal, all communications rational. Everything checked out, and Lucille knew they would be looking at this Universe for at least two weeks, maybe longer. The relief in the control chamber was palpable as everyone realized they would not be opening another gate during that time.
The Universe turned out to be one in the last stages of its life, as Lucille had surmised. The only living stars were red dwarfs. Trials showed that it had a hyperspace array similar to the human Universe. The place could support human life for however many thousands of years it took to find another home. There was still no reason to think it would come to that. But humankind had not gotten along in the Cosmos by being trusting. It had learned that paranoia was a healthy state in an unhealthy Universe.
* * *
Universe five hundred and forty-nine opened just as easily as most before it. But the blast of hard radiation that came through the opening and fried the portal room chamber sensors told them from the start that something was different.
“Electromag field to maximum,” yelled Rodrigue. The field covered the wall of the portal chamber, and was always kept at half strength when the hole was opened, allowing all the instruments to look through it with minimum interference. Now it was strengthened to its maximum power, stronger than that of an Imperial battleship. All charged particles were stopped by the multilayered field, while the uncharged ones were absorbed by the liquid insulation layer built for that purpose.
“Residual radiation is at a minimum,” called out the tech who was monitoring those systems.
“Send through the probe,” ordered Rodrigue. “We might as well get a look at whatever hell we opened.”
The probe went through and started to transmit. It was immediately apparent that the robot was not going to function very long, not with the radiation sleeting through its destroyer class electromag screen. But they did get some information back, enough to tell them what they were dealing with.
“It’s only a couple of thousand years since this Universe went through a Big Bang,” said Yu, looking over the data through the link that allowed her to get a comprehensive overview. “It will be hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, before we can live in that space. Billions before there are planets we can claim for terraforming.”
“So it’s another dead end,” said Rodrigue, glaring at the holo as if it was a personal affront.
“The probe is dying,” said Lucille, looking back at her boss. “Should we close it?”
“This Universe is of great scientific significance,” said one of the other scientists. “We can gain a lot of knowledge about how our own Universe formed from this place, if nothing else.”
Rodrigue sat and thought for a moment, while the data from the chamber sensors faded over time from the radiation overload. “Send through another probe. We’ve got thirteen more. We’ll keep sending them through one at a time until we’re out. Then we can requisition more from administration for the next opening.”
And so it went through the day, as they looked at a Universe that was still in its infancy. From all indications it would become one such as theirs. Some put forth the proposition that it actually was theirs, just in a different time. That maybe the dying Universe was also theirs, at a later time.
That’s one of the problems here, thought Lucille as she was monitoring probe number thirteen, the next to the last. We really don’t know what we’re dealing with. We’re making it up as we go along.
At least it was a good day at the Other Universe Project, as no one was killed or injured, and new information was gathered at the cost of fourteen robotic probes.