And now, presented for your enjoyment, the first 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.
What’s Eating You.
“Dr. Yu?” asked the man at the space dock, his eyes wide in surprise.
Lucille Yu nodded and smiled, used to the reaction she was receiving. As the daughter of the famous Chun Yu, the brightest physicist of his era, a man just about everyone in the physics world knew by sight, they expected his daughter to look like someone from New Hanou. In other words short, dark haired, with black eyes in brown skin. Instead the man found himself looking up at a statuesque blue eyed blond with fair skin. The only physical feature that could be attributed to her father were the slight epithilic folds on her eyes. That, and her first class brain.
“My mother was from Norje,” she replied to the unasked question.
The man, who had the look of Brazilia about him, nodded. It was common knowledge that the people of Norje had genes that were dominant to most others, an artifact of the project that separated the human race back into ethnic groups after the cause of a thousand years that had brought mankind to this region of space.
“Your bags are being put on the shuttle,” said the man, who then held his hand out with an embarrassed flush. “Dr. Rafael Rodrigue,” said the man. “I am chief of the door opening team on portal one.”
Lucille shook the hand, thinking how nice the man looked. Then wondering how he might be in bed. Not the best thing to think about when meeting my boss for the first time.
“Your chariot awaits, Senorita,” said the man, who was of a height with herself, unusual for his homeworld.
Lucille smiled and followed the man across the arrival lobby, taking a glance back through transparent alloy window at the ship that had brought her to this far outpost of the Empire. They had spared no expense on bringing out new staff, using a Hyper VI liner with a destroyer escort to carry them the two hundred light years from Sector II base.
The shuttle surprised her, being nothing more than a standard Imperial Marine assault ship. It is a military project, after all, she thought, walking through the hatch and going to the seat that had a green icon suspended above it. Or at least the military has a big stake in the project.
The shuttle pulled free of the military dock with no sense of motion, the grabber units pulling smoothly at the fabric of space and feeding all the inertia into the compensators. Lucille smiled as she noticed some of the other passengers acting as if they didn’t know that the ship had left the dock.
The holo in front of her seat came on, displaying a construct of indeterminate size floating above an ice planet. At first there was no sense of scale, until the viewpoint shifted back and the space dock, all fifty million tons of structure, appeared.
“That’s the black hole generator,” said Dr. Rodrigue, pointing at the object. “Sixteen two hundred pentawatt lasers.”
“And how often do you use it?” asked Lucille, estimating the entire construct at three hundred million tons. She knew the theory, and had in fact seen larger hole generators in some of the core systems. The light pressure of the lasers compressed space itself, creating billion ton mass black holes, which had several industrial uses. But they’re too hard to transport, she thought, recalling that the largest freighters had a capacity of twenty-five million tons. So they built one here.
“We normally don’t use it all that much. Once the two portal generators were constructed it was basically shut down, since we had all we needed. It’s just completed its latest run.”
“Why did it need a latest run?” asked Lucille, realizing that something wasn’t right here.
“One of the portals collapsed, and we lost all twelve of the generating holes,” said Rodrigue, his face scrunching up in emotional pain.
“You lost more than the holes, didn’t you?” asked Lucille, her eyes wide as she imagined the worst, which the other scientist soon confirmed.
“We lost over three hundred people, sucked into whatever universe swallowed our holes,” said Rodrigue, rubbing his hand over his forehead.
“Has that ever happened before?”
“Oh, we’ve lost exploration crews we sent through to universes that seemed amenable to our form of life. First impressions are not always correct. But nothing like this.”
“So you’re just rebuilding the portal, bringing in more people, and carrying on from there?” asked Lucille, wondering how mad these people were.
“This program is important,” said Rodrigue, his eyes tightening as he gazed into hers. “You know how we came to this space, don’t you?”
Of course. Aliens were going to destroy our race, so we ran as fast as our then primitive tech could carry us. She simply nodded her head.
“Then you know that we still have an enemy out there, somewhere. And we may need to run again. It would be nice if we could run into a hole and pull the hole in after us.”
Lucille wanted to say something. Something about how they were now too powerful to fear such an enemy. Something about how the Donut project was scheduled to come online in the next decade, using a huge black hole to generate wormholes that would make the Empire unbeatable. Instead she kept her mouth shut, knowing there was no such thing as unbeatable. People who thought they were unbeatable soon found out differently.
Lucille decided to stop thinking about it, for the moment. She sat quietly in her seat and watched the holo, which had now zoomed onto the surface of the planet, out here far beyond the habitable zone of this star. There were three hundred and fifty fusion plants on that surface, supplying the energy needed by the project. Entire valleys were surfaced with heat exchangers, using the interstellar cold of the planet to take care of the thermal radiation. And two hundred thousand personnel to run the project, the robots, and all the infrastructure. Two hundred thousand people, including families, all at risk whenever they open one of those rips between universes.
The docking bay on the planet was very spacious, but not enough so to handle a timely evacuation of everyone on the worldlet. Artificial gravity was normal, and the primary base contained several large caverns turned into wildlife preserves, with lush foliage and small birds and mammals placed there for the enjoyment of the inhabitants. There were always some of those inhabitants around, mostly human, but a smattering of nonhuman citizens of the Empire as well. Lucille found herself stepping around a huge hexacentauroid Phlistaran on the way to her quarters, and there many small humanoid Manticorans in evidence, probably servants.
Her quarters were just as spacious as advertised, with sitting room, dinning room and large bed chamber. Space was not a problem with installations, either ships, stations or planetary bases. It was more important to keep people happy and healthy so that they could do their jobs effectively.
“Remember what we talked about,” said Rodrigue as he turned to leave. “What we do here is important.”
“How many have you opened?” she asked before he could get out the door.
“How many? A couple of hundred. Maybe a few more. We open them about twice a week, and they remain open a week on the average. Or they had, when we had two portals.”
“So two hundred, more or less. And how many have panned out? How many opened into a universe we could actually use?”
“None,” said the other scientist with a shrug. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t find one, someday.”
“Among infinite possibilities?”
“That’s right. Among infinite possibilities. There has to be something out there that we can use.” The scientist smiled, then walked through the door, which closed immediately behind him.
Lucille threw herself into the couch and called up the room holo, linking into the base computer system and sending through her password. She spent the next couple of hours learning all she could about the Other Universe Project. At the end of those hours she felt even more hopeless than before, and wished that she had gotten that position on the Donut Project instead.
* * *
“Are we ready, people?” asked Dr. Rodrigue, looking out over the control room.
The crew sounded off, a hundred men and women at their stations. Lucille looked over the readouts from her own team, the one controlling the actual opening process. After the energy feed crew finished their checkoff, hers went through theirs, while she checked their readouts one after the other. She checked them a second time through her link into the portal local computer, then again through the main computer, her trained mind performing the equations through the system ten thousand times faster than her organic mind alone could accomplish. She found a couple of minor discrepancies and shuttled the findings to those controllers responsible.
“Opening mechanism ready,” she shouted, at the same time sending her release code into the system.
The last crew, the exploration and recording unit, started their checkoff, while Lucille looked around the large room. She could recognize the old timers that had been added to this portal crew by the looks of fear on their faces. The newcomers, who had never opened a portal, looked nervous, but their faces lacked the expressions of stark terror on those of the veterans. And why are they so afraid? thought Lucille, going over what she had learned in her own research on the project. There were some disturbing indications that not everything proceeded according to plan. Not all the time. Maybe it’s something you have to experience, she thought, wondering how she would be after this opening.
“Prepare to open,” called out Rodrigue.
Lucille looked at her board, making sure the electromagnetic field was set to the programmed resonance. One of the black holes was a little off, which would result in a null opening. She shifted it to the proper wavelength and signalled the portal director that all was well.
On the holo the twelve arms holding the micro black holes in their vibrating electromagnetic cups started to move. Each arm massed two hundred and fifty million tons of superhard alloys and supermetals. Thick superconductor cables, massing several million additional tons, crawled over the arms. The cupped black holes began to move back toward the walls of the forty kilometer wide chamber on the telescoping arms, going slowly from several meters apart to ten meters. The space the center of that ring started to ripple, much like that of a hyperdrive opening a hole to the dimensions of hyperspace. But this was different, the space being accessed not one of the dimensions naturally intersecting the Universe that humanity knew. At fifteen meters separation the space started to rip open, the hole accessing the other universe set by the wavelength of the electromagnetic resonance. Each incremental wavelength opened onto a particular Universe, the number being almost unlimited.
There was a bright flash of light at twenty meters separation, and then there was something in the space that was not ours. The arms opened up wider, to a hundred meters, and Lucille found herself looking into total blackness. Not the blackness of space as she knew it. There was nothing light producing in that space, though the feel of depth was such that she felt she was looking into billions of light years.
“Looks like we have another null Universe,” said one of the crew, a note of relief in her voice.
“Send in a probe,” ordered Rodrigue, and a thirty meter long robot with heavy grabber units fore and aft came speeding out of the wall perpendicular to the hole. It flew into the portal, its telemetry appearing in the holo, until it had totally entered the other universe. Then it just disappeared from all sensors.
“It’s a null,” said Rodrigue. “Exploration teams stand down.”
Lucille looked into a side screen where a dozen personnel were suited up in modified battle armor such as used by Exploration Command. She could see the relief on them through their body language as the order came through. They would not be risking their lives by working as guinea pigs in the ultimate foreign environment. There were biologicals within the probe, but obviously they would not be reporting back to the control station.
“Five minutes, people,” said Rodrigue, getting up from his seat and walking toward the holo tank. “Record everything you can, even if it amounts to nothing. Then we’ll close this one up and get a fresh start tomorrow.”
At the end of the allotted time the black holes were moved back toward each other, and the portal to elsewhere closed. The crew started talking among themselves as they filed from the room back to the tube car to the main base, pulling off helmets and gloves. They reminded Lucille of condemned prisoners offered a temporary reprieve. And tomorrow would offer another chance of execution.