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The contents of this story are fictional. Any resemblance of characters to living or lived persons is strictly coincidental. Certain characters engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may not have reached the legal age of consent, or whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.
Chapter XIII - Discovery
We did the chores and split a fluffy omelet filled with farm cheese, fresh-brewed coffee and bacon from the freezer. Bill cooked pretty damn well fer a . . . I don't know. What do you call a man that has trothed himself to another man? Newlywed? That's almost what we done, sorta, down on the porch the night before. We almost married ourselves. Not before the law, but before God, which I reckon is a lot higher authority than the Kansas legislature. I wish we could do it for real. Marry, I mean. Not to piss off all the people that hate us, but to affirm our commitment to all before God, to absorb the love and support of those who love us. Oh, well. They do it in Holland, according to the papers. In church.
Church was the usual. Bill sang in the choir at the eight o'clock service, his bass voice clear and steady, not drowning anybody out, but combining with the others' efforts to make magic in the soul. He then sat with with me and Jerry and Elva for the main service at nine thirty. We don't usually have a choir in the second service, because not all people can take that much time from the farm for two services, and the second is foreshortened to include only the Lord's Prayer, Apostle's Creed, Communion, the Lesson and the Lord's Blessing. Reverend Gottschalk had to get to Gove for the eleven o'clock second service there, so we never had to endure over-long Lessons, and Lord knows, there was never a dearth of work, Sundays included..
Elva invited us for coffee and cake after - she makes applesauce cake that would tempt Adam all over again, but we explained we had some things that just had to be done at the Shop before we started on Monday, and she was all right with that, understood the urgency I felt - even if it was about something else..
Jerry seemed pretty alert, a lot better than the night before. Bill even remarked on it as we left the front of the Church where we'd been talking with Elva and Jerry, before we got to Bill's pickup.
"Your brother's - I mean, Jerry's - step had some spring to it," he mused. "He doesn't seem so . . . "
"I have taken the liberty of making minor repairs," Groth said.
"Of what?" Bill asked.
"Jerry's liver and pancreas had unrestrained cellular growth - Cancer. I altered one of the foods you ate last night so that the cancerous cells will be marked for attack by his body's own defenses. They will die and be resorbed. It is a less efficient way than the use of the Optimizer, as the process will take several weeks, but he will be restored to full vigor."
"I appreciate that, Groth. I really do." I had to say something to fight back the wave of tears that threatened to overwhelm my defenses. My voice broke, though, and Bill took my hand and held it. He knew.
"He is important to you," Groth answered. "Therefore he is important to me."
"Are Rob and Cary on their way?" Bill asked. I think he was just asking so as to change the subject.
"No. They are preparing a mid-day meal for the four of you. They will come at one o'clock."
"You think of everything," I said.
"Not always," Groth said. "Computers are as susceptible to error as any sentient group. Besides - Cary is a very good cook, and wants to show you his prowess. Rob wants to be part of that. You all need to eat, and it is not yet time to devote effort to food synthesis."
"Food synthesis?" Bill asked.
"I am capable of synthesizing almost any item of your food. This takes a very small portion of processing power, but I prefer to concentrate on the Calculations, which are nearly complete."
We said little more on the way to the Hangar, although not apprehensive that the Spooks were about - Groth said they were all in a meeting at the motel, readying their plans for the next several days. The PA system in their meeting room was connected to a PC, through which Groth had total access. Not to mention the phones, of course.
"What - no, when - will they try to get into the Hangar?" I asked after I finished opening the gate and got back into the Ram.
"They will attempt to obtain a search warrant this afternoon at three, and will serve it about an hour later."
"We won't be done by then!" said Bill. "We have to install them!"
"All the units will be completed by three forty-six," Groth said. "There should be an adequate window."
"And if they get here before we've finished?"
"They will find nothing," said Groth.
"There will be nothing to find."
"That isn't a particularly helpful answer, Groth," Bill said.
"You will see," Groth said mysteriously. I think he was deliberately obfuscating, trying to surprise us.
We were in the Optimizer a little before eleven, and shuttled units from the Ship to the Drive at a a furious pace. After we had twelve in their slots, I started soldering while Bill brought over more units. Groth had raised the Drive a little, to make it easier for me to solder without being bent over all the time, which may not have speeded up the work, but certainly helped my back.
By the time Rob and Cary arrived just after one with Dinner, we'd already slotted in 30 units, and I had done all but three of the solderings. We stripped off the Decontam gloves and spent a minute or so in the Optimizer to get rid of the sweat and fatigue.
We broke for Dinner, and I swear, that man can cook! He'd done a rich beef and onion casserole - not a stew, because they wasn't any vegetables but the onions - with garlic and beer, cooked a mess of home-made egg noodles, kept apart by a light tossing of butter and salt & pepper, four green vegetables, fried green tomatoes, spinach and mushroom salad, and a banana custard cream pie. We had to eat it all, of course, and he made enough for a platoon.
Cary was beaming as we devoured his meal, and blushed royally when we lavished praise. Rob was as proud as a peacock. It was nice to see.
When we finished the pie, we quickly tossed the paper dishes and stuff, and went back to work. We all donned gloves, and plunged back into the work, but having fun, too. Rob did an impersonation of a drunken ballet dancer at one point, while we were waiting for another unit to come down the stairway - he had us all in stitches. He's really quite a talented and warm guy, underneath that hard, cold sneer he wears as armor sometimes.
By three, we had all 54 units from the Seventh Ship installed and soldered, and two of the remaining three came down the stairway at three fifteen. Naturally, they were inside units, and took the longest to do - I had to wait for Bill to do the surface neural hookups before I could do the inside molecular fusing. I was just finishing the second one when Groth announced our visitors.
"There are two Sheriff's patrol cars and two FBI vans approaching from the North. They will be in front of the Shop door at four twelve, sixteen minutes from now."
"Is the last unit ready yet?" Bill asked.
"It arrives," Groth replied, and Rob and Cary ran to fetch it, like two sprites of white light, almost skipping. It was already most of the way down the stairway.
Bill and I waited inside the Drive - of course, the last card was an inside unit, just to keep things complicated - and quickly slotted it into position. While Bill was doing the hookups, Rob and Cary stripped off their gloves and threw them on the Stairway, then went back to the Shop to work on the IH in the second bay. I stood poised with the Soldering frame ready to slide into position as soon as he was done.
Bill finished the hookups, and I jumped in front of the unit, sliding the frame over the foot or so to line up with the half inch space between the new unit and the left-hand companion, trying not to get rattled when Groth announced the arrival at the front gate of the four vehicles. They didn't bother to knock - just cut the chain with heavy bolt cutters and drove in.
"Stall 'em!" I hollered at Bill, as he threw his tools and gloves on the Stairway.
"Gotcha!" he said, sprinting for the Shop.
There were seven solders to do on the last unit. I still had three to go when the roll-back doors were shut by one of the lads, and the bolts on either side thrown.
"Groth, tell me when I gotta run," I said, as I slid the frame to the other side of the unit, at the same time trying to line up the fifth weld.
"You need not run," Groth said. "You will be cloaked as soon as you take off your gloves. The Hangar now appears empty, except for the Probe, the Drive, the Destabilizer and you."
"Tell me what's happening!" I pressed the "clear" button for the line-up, and the Ship - Groth - made the final adjustments and did the spot sub molecular weld. Two to go.
"The Sheriff is opening the Shop door. Bill is asking to see the warrant."
I lined up the next to last weld, tried to confirm, but was out of alignment and got an "error" reading on the screen. Barely able to keep calm, I loosened the clamps and readjusted.
"The Sheriff has given Bill the warrant. The FBI is walking towards the Hangar door."
I pressed the button, got the white light on "Clear." The penultimate weld was done.
I moved the frame up the inch or so for the last weld. Just as I heard the bolt on the sliding doors being twisted.
The frame went into position, and I fine-tuned the positioning with the lasers, just as the right bolt on the doors to the Shop slipped back. A shiver went down my spine. Someone tried to open the doors without taking the other bolt out, and I heard a curse. I pressed the button, saw the tiny flash of the sub-molecule fusing. After the white "clear" lamp lit, I switched the frame to "off."
"Take the frame off," said Groth in a cool, steady voice..
I loosened the toggles, and the frame came off in my hand.
I didn't even see the drive outer ring move. One second it was there, the next it had disappeared. Right in the middle of the blink of an eye, it had leapt up into position inside the Ship. I looked up, and it was there. No longer dull, but alive with ghostly blue-violet light, rippling over the surface, thousands of points of white and green and yellow "flashes."
"The gloves," Groth said, and they were off almost at once, despite the wet of my arms, sucked along with the gravity platform and the soldering frame, directly into the tube that stuck down from the ship, the same one that "ate" the defective units as they were replaced. Then the Destabilizer moved up into the hole it had created and was swallowed by it - and the hole was gone. The ship was no longer vulnerable. Only the Probe was left - the rusty old jackhammer and a three foot cubic tool box were cloaked, however. The connecting cable was also cloaked. The floor looked bare all the way across the hangar.
The doors opened, just after the light around me faded.
Four burly men appeared, guns drawn. All were wearing suits and ties, like they'd just come from Mass or something.
The men in uniform - whether Sheriffs or Agents - walked directly towards me, looking to the left and right, at the expanse of the hangar, up at the ceiling, "through" the Ship. They stopped maybe thirty feet from me.
"Do not move," said Groth. "In close quarters, your moving presence can be detected visually as a shimmer in the air. The cloak will not stop a bullet if someone panics and fires at an imaginary ghost."
Now, THAT was not a good piece of news.
"Like I told you," said one of the Sheriffs, an older guy. "Andy was out here a couple of days ago, said they wasn't no drug lab or growing field in here. Andy don't make shit up."
"I want those doors secured," said one of the Suits, paying absolutely no attention whatsoever to the Sheriff. "Riley, you get the sealing padlocks from the van, do the front door."
"Yessir!" said the smallest, youngest Suit.
"Do it!" the first Suit shouted. "Now!"
"Sir!" the lackey shouted back. Must have been a recruit directly out of the Marines' induction graduating class. He took off in a trot for the shop doors.
"Foxglow, you copy?" the first Suit said.
"They have personal radio devices," said Groth. "Another lackey has been dispatched to lock the rear doors from the outside."
"What next?" I asked. I don't know if I was asking myself or Groth.
"Testing and final alignments of the Drive is under way. The process will take no more than three hours. As soon as alignments are complete, both Ships will leave."
"Without damaging anything? Anyone?"
"If possible. There is no further threat to the Ships' security, but yours may be compromised, and that would not be desirable. If necessary, I may have to . . . permit some collateral damage."
"What does that mean?"
"I may have to simulate a very large natural gas explosion under the Hangar, destroying it completely and moving out under the cover of the explosion. I can not guarantee that there will be no . . . casualties. My first priority is the Mission, but my second is to ensure your safety, both short and long term."
"I don't want anybody's hurt on my head, Groth."
"I don't want anybody hurt just so I won't get hurt."
"And Bill? Rob? Cary?" Groth said quietly.
"I . . . I see your point. But try not to."
"I need to get back into the Shop, make an appearance, so I can keep on top of this."
"Walk directly past them to the door. They are no longer alert. They feel that this is all under control, that there is nothing here, it has been a waste of their time. I am . . . reinforcing their opinions."
I did as Groth suggested. Not a soul paid the slightest attention to the faint current of air, the swirl of a dust mote for no apparent reason. When I got to the doorway, I rounded the corner so I was out of sight, and asked Groth how I could control the cloak. In case I had to disappear quickly. He wouldn't tell me, just turned it off..
I was "visible" again, at any rate, back in the Shop. Bill and the boys weren't there, so I went outside. When I walked out the door, three "Suits" and four Sheriffs were standing in a group around them, and several spun around when I came into view.
"Where the hell did you come from?" asked one of the suits.
"The can. Who the heck are you?"
"FBI. Who are you?"
"Graham Baker. This is my garage. What can I do for you?"
"Got a fourth subject," said another guy. I presume into a mike he had on his collar or something. "Owner."
"Says he was in the can. No, I didn't. Old guy, maybe 60 or 65. Yeah."
He looked at me and said "We have a warrant to search these premises for drugs, drug paraphernalia, and stolen property. You have the right to remain silent . . . "
I got the full, boring recitation of my rights. None of which would do me any good at all, because they knew perfectly well that not only was I completely clean of any drugs, but they weren't even looking for what they said they were looking for, and anything I said about the real reason they were here to search the Hangar would very definitely be held against me.
"Groth, are they finding anything?"
"They have found nothing. One of the brightest ones has sensed there is something different about the Hangar, but is not sure of what. I believe he can somehow sense the slight pressure of the Plastri. I have seen this ability before, in several dozen individuals. Most curious. None of the others believe their search will produce any result."
I was herded towards Bill, Cary and Rob.
"Any idea what this is all about, Boss?" Rob yukked. He gave me a wink.
"Yayeah, Mr. Baker," said Bill. "Wassup?"
"Now you boys jus' be patient," I drawled as hick as I knew how. "These here fellahs gotta make it look like they's earning their money. They'll jus' look 'round, find they's ain't no hippie stuff hereabouts, and just mosey on out."
The leader of the Suits came out of the Shop.
"Sorry if we're disturbing you, sir. My name is Terrance O'Donnell, of the FBI. Have you had any indication of drug use or production anywhere near these premises?"
"Seen any strangers hanging around your Hangar over the past couple of weeks?"
"Matter of fact, ayuh," I said. "They was a fake Coca-Cola truck hanging 'round here this week, and they's been a passel a gangster-looking boys driving around town in pairs in brand new city cars, last coupla days. Then you, an' I reckon you's kinda strange to these parts."
Mr. Terrance O'Donnell was lacking in the sense of humor department.
"Not funny, Old Man," he sort of spit out. "You know damn well those were my vehicles."
"Tell me about the aircraft you saw last week, the one that landed on the Ahmandsen property."
"Well," I started out pretty cautiously. I had to be sure the story I gave him couldn't conflict with the stories I'd given out before on the sighting. "I sees this silvery fuselage lookin' like it was no more than maybe half a mile north a Katy. Couldn't see no tail or nothin' like wings on 'er, but I remember that plane what went down in California what lost its tail, so I figure maybe this'uns the same. I drives Jeep over to the old Ahmandsen spread, which is what I figure the plane might be tryin' for, 'cause it done went past this here airfield. I drove all over tarnation up there, but I never seen no plane, not nothin,' not even one a them weather balloons, which is what I figure it musta been, to just disappear an all. Got myself fired on accounta it, I did, ayuh."
"You notice anything odd about the ground at all?"
"Like a bowl scooped out of the soil?
"Nope. Warn't lookin' at the ground. Was lookin' fer a plane."
"This is a pretty big bowl. Maybe a hundred fifty feet across, thirty feet deep. In hard clay."
"Nope. Didn't see no bowl, not one foot, not a hundert foot. Heard 'bout the kids' prank, though. Goldarn waste of time, you ask me."
"Any idea why there's been some big power surges round about here?"
"Ayuh," I said. "I just set me up my new tractor and farm garage in there, like you sees. Lights an' machines an' tools is bound ta run up the 'lectric meter."
"I'm talking about big surges, Mr. Baker. Like hundreds, even thousands of kilowatts."
"We ain't got no big factrys round here," I said, slightly overplaying the ignorant hick. "No big power lines, neither. Big surge like that's more'n all of us could use all together with everythin' runnin' at once. More'n KP&L kin deliver these parts, I reckon."
O'Donnell wasn't even listening to me. Figured I was a dead end, know-nothing hick mechanic. Which I guess I am, in a way.
"You use the Hangar for anything besides the Garage in the side room?"
"I got a few things stored. Mostly over to top of the Shop," I said. "An' if'n I get a harvester in, I gotta bring it through the Hangar to get it into the shop, on account of them front doors are only ten feet tall, and the doors from the Hangar into the Shop are eighteen foot."
"How many times you use the Hangar?"
"None, yet, but I gotta bring one in tomorrow mornin' from Ralph Dreeson." Of course, Ralph knew nothing at all about this, but he'd cover for me, no problem.
"Well, we ought to be out of here by tonight. You don't mind if we bring in some equipment for a couple of hours, do you?"
"Groth, what are they up to?" I asked, a mild touch of incipient panic pushing at my backside.
"Vacuum cleaner to analyze particles on floor, electronic monitors to search for electronic emissions, magnetic fields, electrical fields. All quite primitive. I can manage all data so that no suspicion is raised."
"What happens when the vacuum runs into the Probe."
"We will move the Probe itself. It will be directly under the power distribution panel in the Hangar, inside the rest room."
"Before the monitoring equipment gets here."
"No, I don't see no problem, 'cept I gotta stay here until yer done, so's I can lock up." I said to O'Donnell. " How long afore you can get it here?"
"Ten minutes," he said quickly, then spoke into the mike on his collar thing, where a Carnation would go for a wedding. "Andy, we're go on the sweep."
He started to say something to me, looking up at me with a little gleam in his eye. "Mr. Baker, I . . . "
He didn't finish his sentence. Stopped right dead in mid-stream.
"That enough time?" I asked Groth.
"When I give the signal, Graham and Bill go into the Hangar, set up the ladder to reach the power box. Bill, catch the cable from the Ship and run it up the ladder to Graham, so he can staple the cable down the wall from the power box," Groth said. "Bill, you pull the cable straight down as far as the top of the partition in the toilet, then feed it through the hole Rob will have drilled through. Rob, grab the Makita portable drill on the first workbench, then the stool next to the door to the toilet to drill a hole in the back corner of the room, through the metal bar of the top partition support. There is a bit already in the in the drill that will suffice. Once the hole is drilled, remove the bit from the chuck, and leave the bit in the hole to allow Bill to find it more easily. Move the stool a foot away from the wall, up against the stall door. Cary, you go to the Stairway and ferry the new Probe into the toilet in the Shop. It weighs only 1000 pounds, and is on a grav platform. As soon as it is in position in the corner directly in front of the stall, Rob will take the cable end that Bill feeds through the hole and plug it into the Probe. The Probe will tighten the cable and attach itself to the wall and floor, then absorb the grav platform. Take the bit and reinstall it in the Makita chuck. You will both leave the toilet, putting the stool and the Makita back and return to exactly where you are right now. Your footprints will be visible to you. Graham and Bill will put the ladder back against the wall and come back to the exact spot where they are right now as soon as the cable is fed through."
"Everybody got it?" Groth asked, just like a drill sergeant.
Nobody said "no."
O'Donnell was looking right into my eye, but his gaze was lifeless.
"Go!" said Groth.
Nobody forgot what they were supposed to do - it went like Mission Impossible. The new Probe took exactly two minutes forty-two seconds to install. None of the agents or Sheriffs so much as batted an eye as we ran through the Shop and Hangar. Just as we got back to the spots we were in, there was a "thump" as the probe fired into the earth, through the concrete, and McDonnell was still looking up a little. I aligned my eye with his.
"Switchover complete," Groth said. "The old Probe has been resorbed."
" . . . think you should stay out of the hangar for a while." It was not a suggestion.
"Can we at least get a little work done in the Shop while you do your spy thing? I gotta pay these boys double time fer Sunday, and I gotta have the Shop ready for business tomorrow mornin," I said.
"Yeah, yeah, go on," O'Donnell dismissed the ignorant hicks with a wave of his hand.
While we finished the two tractors, cleaned up the Shop, and generally pretended we weren't even slightly concerned or interested, they brought in what looked like nothing more than a concrete floor washer/buffer and another Coke truck with no coke on it. Groth assured us that all readings were completely normal, that they would find nothing at all, even though the instruments detected excess magnetic field - they were "adjusted" by Groth so that the readings looked normal.
Rob lost two teeth - the top front ones. So did Cary. They just fell out while they were talking. They both got a kick out of smiling at the Suits and Sheriffs and playing corn-pone hicks, after Groth dropped the upper visual part of their Cloaks.
Finally, at almost 7:30, the invaders packed up and left, having found nothing. I got O'Donnell to at least take the padlock off the front doors, "so I could get Ralph's combine in." He was disdainful, disgusted and according to Groth a little disheartened. Tough.
"They have left the surveillance vehicle in front of the feed store on Katy," Groth said. "It is no longer of importance. Please bring your trucks into the Hangar, underneath the Ship. I am moving the Ship out in eight minutes. I want you all aboard. My promise will be kept."
Bill and Rob moved their trucks into the Hangar, under the center of the Ship, and I opened the front Hangar doors, then joined the others on the Stairway. There was a tense anticipation of an adventure about to begin. We all felt it.
We went on board, and spent a few minutes in the Optimizer - Rob and Cary got the red cloths, and most of the rest of their teeth came out. They also both had new ones already jutting through, and said they felt no pain at all. Groth said Bill and I felt the pain because we had bigger teeth, more deeply rooted. I only half believed him. Mine were about grown in, and Bill's were about two thirds done. Beautiful, they were - just like my guy. I'm still in wonder every time I chew something and feel no slippage at all.
Groth appeared in a new doorway, next to where the one that went to the Control room had appeared .
"I will prepare a meal - Supper - in the dining room for you," he said. "It will have an observation window so that you can see out."
We followed him as he walked down the corridor only a few yards, then through a doorway into a very fancy room, wedge-shaped, with natural dark woods, cream colored linen on a large table. There was just one table, right up against a huge window looking out into the hangar. There was no food or plates or anything visible. The window was twelve or fourteen feet high, and maybe thirty feet long, bulging out, tinted so darkly we could barely make out the lines of the Hangar and the Seventh Ship. The table was shaped oddly, as if an elongated diamond shaped table had been cut, from corner to corner on the narrow width, then two feet of the remaining end corner sliced off., so that when the four of us sat down in the fancy wood chairs with seat pads, we could all see and talk to each other as well as look out.
The window wasn't made of glass. It didn't reflect light at all. But it was smooth to the touch like glass.
"It is the hull, made transparent to visible wavelengths of light," said Groth. "It can not break or be penetrated by anything other than a Singularity or extremely powerful radiation of very short wavelength. Please take your seats."
"Speaking of Singularities," I said, "What is the probability that the Ship would be hit by one?"
"One in several thousand millions," said Groth.
"Thank you for not calculating it to the fifth decimal point," Bill said. "That can get really annoying."
"So the probability that one singularity would strike two ships at once is what?"
"One in . . . ten to the twenty-fourth power, or one in one septillion."
"And yet it happened."
"Yes. There are a number of events which have occurred during this mission that in combination seem to defy probability. It is very disturbing, as the probabilities of all events happening is as close to zero as I am able to calculate, roughly one in one times ten to the thousand millionth power."
"That there is a civilized sentient race, previously unknown, that has progressed from hunter gatherer savagery to the use of computers in less than a few thousand years, whereas no other race has done it in less than several tens of million years.
"That we were less than half a parsec from the system when that race developed its very first critical fissionable mass, just enough to register through the gravity well.
"That there are not one, but four sentient races on a single planet.
"That an extremely rapidly evolving race has been found at exactly one moment before Events make further Galactic evolution predictably impossible.
"That we located not one or two, but several tens of individuals capable of direct communication with digitized intelligence, and that thirty-two of these individuals have been found which are not only sufficiently genetically endowed to provide a viable gene pool for their race, but are potential willing participants in a revised Mission.
Each of these facts is an independent condition that requires complete recalculation of the Mission. All together, these conditions - coupled with other improbable events - have changed the Mission entirely."
"Now what?" asked Bill.
"I have promised you answers and a tour," Groth said. "I will combine all into one program. The Ship is fully repaired and prepared, and I will take the Ships out now."
The window became clear, not tinted, and we saw the interior of the Hangar, the Seventh Ship directly in front of and slightly below us. We were in the "stern" of the Ship. We watched as the Funnel extended straight out from around us through the open Hangar doors, and we watched spellbound as the other Ship moved away from us, fading from view, then floating out, the only connection that thin blue white energy beam, which thickened and became much more intense as the Ship cleared the front of the Hangar. The beam suddenly broke - disappeared - and the other Ship drifted out a few yards and "disappeared" into a tableau of the barely visible horizon and the still sun drenched sky above, visible because the Ship - our Ship - had moved to the mouth of the Hangar. The Ship suddenly added red dots around its smaller companion, and we watched it drift away a few hundred yards more, hugging the ground, then stopping over the runway, swiveling around to "face" East.
The Funnel suddenly winked out, and we were moving, too. There was no sensation of motion. Nothing, not the slightest sound other than my heart beating, rapidly. I wasn't breathing, I don't think.
"The Seventh Ship broadcast sixteen megawatts of energy for one point three seconds between clearance of the Hangar doors and full Cloak," said Groth. "The Ship will generate almost fifty-eight megawatts over twenty-one seconds, as there is no further connection to the Probe for energy sink. The heating of the ground by the passage of both Ships will be impossible to conceal. Probe converted."
"Converted?" Cary asked before I could get my mouth open to ask the same thing.
"The functioning components have been multiple fissioned into energy sunk into the probe "roots" in the crust, leaving behind only hydrogen gas and carbon dust. The roots will degrade to carbon and methane gas over the next ten minutes, now that there is no further energy source. The only remaining evidence of our occupation of the Hangar will be the empty and non-operational dispenser of condoms."
"Condoms?" I said. "Condoms!"
"Oh yeah," said Cory. "I forgot to mention it. We don't use them any more."
We all broke out in relieved but slightly nervous laughter.
We broke out of the Hangar doors, and floated close to the Seventh Ship, then turned, until we were looking back at the Hangar, softly lit inside, with the red flashing light on the top, massive and slightly gray against the dark horizon. Then we tilted. Or the view tilted. "Down" was still "Down" to the floor. We were looking at the weeds and old cracked asphalt. The was no shadow under the Ship.
"Oh shit." Rob said softly. "Here we go."
Bill grabbed at my right hand, and I had Cary's right hand in my left, somehow.
There was no sense of movement at all, but there was a slight . . . vibration? And we were . . .catapulted UP. UP! It couldn't have taken more than a second or two for us to be so high we could see not only Katy and its surroundings, but Gove, Grainfield, the trace of the Interstate, even Salina. In what seemed like no more than another second, we could make out the lights of Chicago, then the East Coast, a swath of pale light against the black of the ocean. We were headed East Southeast.
"I'm gonna barf," Rob whispered.
"No," said Groth. "We are now outside the atmosphere. There is no further threat to the Ships."
"Thanks," said Rob. Groth had quickly tended his patient.
We could see the curve of the earth to the West, as the Sun first rose with our ascent, then fell rapidly as we moved to the East.
The Seventh Ship was to our right, slightly behind us, so we could see almost two thirds of its length when it winked back into the visible. Sunrise was instantaneous, this time from behind us - in front of the Ship. The other Ship was briefly lit in silver, then dimmed to a flat black, barely visible where it was above the globe of Earth.
We drew away, probably accelerating faster, but the Earth was slow to recede, only gradually becoming a full globe, blue and white and smudges of brown where the sun struck, as we seemed to continue circling it, bringing more and more of the sunlit part into view.
"We are approaching 50,000 miles distance from the planet," Groth said after a few minutes of silence while we oohed and aahed over this detail and that, the Red Sea, Antarctica, India and the edge of Australia.
"How fast are we going?" Cary voiced for us.
"Only 230,000 miles per hour," Groth said. "We will stop at a distance of 400,000 miles, sunward of the planet."
I chuckled inside. We had accelerated from nothing at all to 200,000 miles an hour in a few minutes - and felt nothing.
"Not quite," said Groth to me, then added for the others. "The Earth moves around the Sun at a speed of 33,000 miles per hour, and the system is moving through space at 73,000 miles per hour, including its rotation around the Core and the vector of the Galaxy in the Universe. Our speed in relation to the Earth is only 125,000 miles per hour."
"Only?" Cory said laughing. "Only, the man says! How fast can this ship go?"
"Maximum design speed was theoretically point seven six light speed, or roughly five hundred million miles per hour. I believe it can achieve point nine nine eight."
We just looked at each other, the smiles gradually waning.
"That speed can not be utilized within the plane of the Galaxy, as there is too much matter, and there is too long an acceleration/deceleration delay. Within the Core, speed is generally limited to ten percent light speed, and outside the Core but within the Galactic plane, about twenty percent. Long voyages, such as that which brought us here, permit faster speeds, and we reach almost forty percent light speed."
"How long did it take you to get here?" Bill asked.
"From your . . . Home World."
"I have been on survey for one hundred ninety-four thousand seven hundred ninety-two years."
"I think it's time for you to tell us about your Mission," I said. "We're all full of questions, and many answers will likely come in your . . . presentation."
"First, eat and refresh yourselves. Afterwards, there will be enough time before we reach the observation point to show you our history - or, the history of our voyage. After we have completed the viewing of your home world, we will return to Kansas, and during the return voyage, I will tell you of our Mission."
We heard a faint tinkle of a bell, from the wall at the left of the entry door, and looked over to see a sort of buffet, in a niche brightly lit from above. We got up and went over, to find china plates, heavy silver, linen napkins, and plates of seafood, cheese, macaroni with what looked like pesto, tossed salads, mineral water, ice tea - all presented like a fancy hotel. I picked lobster tail for the first time in my life, and a couple of big shrimp, bigger and sweeter than any I'd ever eaten.
We ate our fill, realizing we were all hungry, oohing and aahing over the view. The lobster tail was probably the most delicious new thing I ever ate. We all made second trips to the bar for cheese and crackers, a great-tasting pudding cake, hot coffee from a silvery thermos-like jug.
We talked about the departure, pointed out to each other all sorts of details. Lord God, we live on a beautiful planet!
I know this sounds ridiculous, but eventually we started talking farming. How could we, you might well ask, faced with a view that most men would sell half their souls to see? I guess the attention span is only so long. We were all incredibly impressed, flabbergasted, overwhelmed - but you can only keep that up for so long. We kept looking back at it, as it slowly receded.
As we were talking about something or other - Bill says it was about genetically modified corn - I caught a glimpse of something out of the left corner, just as Groth told us to look to our left, and just let my mouth drop. Bill grabbed my hand again, as the lads turned their heads to see .
It was the Moon. Not distant. Close. Ten miles away, maybe. Huge, blue-grays, grays and not much more, at first lit only by the reflected light of Earth. Obvious craters, the mountains, flashing past, barely focusable until we were already receding, the Moon rapidly becoming a disk, the part that was lit by the Sun so crisp and clearly visible, but completely unfamiliar, mostly smaller craters, not any large seas like you see on our side, the side that faces the Earth.
Groth interjected as we watched in awe. "The far side of the Moon, as you call it, is much different because the Moon's Face was frozen towards the Earth early in its existence, while it was still semi molten, and only the great craters remained following lava flows. Over the billions of years since, the far side has taken most of the hits from debris from the formation of the Solar system as well as interstellar gravel, because the Earth draws matter away from direct collision with the Face."
We watched for another twenty minutes or so as the Moon receded, hanging above the now distant Earth, which looked only three or four times the size of the Moon as seen from Earth. There wasn't much said.
"Let me show you my voyage so far," Groth said. "We are an hour from the farthest point of your orientation trip."
The window went blank, deep black, still no reflection at all. Then the familiar disk of the Galaxy appeared, indescribably beautiful, still.
"My voyage began on the Planet Kreeut, which means "Earth" in English. This is a typical resident of the planet."
We saw in the top left corner of the window a pair of humanoid figures, with hairless large craniums on long heads, short necks, tall slender thorax, three-fingered hands on long arms that went almost to the floor, deep eye sockets, small compound eyes and fairly large ears. The mouths were similar to ours, but smaller, and I saw no teeth when they opened as they "talked" or smiled or whatever they were doing. They were bipedal, with short stumpy legs, broad hips. They were dressed in flowing fabric of some sort, iridescent white, covering everything from neck to hip with one piece, a second piece a short skirt. There were shoes, apparently of the same material as the rest of the outfit. I couldn't tell if they were of the same or opposite sex. They moved gracefully, a little slowly.
"The Makers, or Grez, were of similar construction as yourselves, descended from omnivorous mountain dwellers on the fourth planet of the main sequence star they called Hrub - the Sun.. It is located here."
A violet arrow appeared near the center of the Galaxy.
"Kreeut evolved slowly in comparison to Earth, as have all other recorded ecosystems close to the Core. The planet did not develop life until it was well over five billion years evolved. The long period in comparison with Earth is probably due to the higher incidence of debris at the center of the galaxy, which resulted in many more cataclysmic collisions which ended or postponed evolutionary progress. Even after life was rampant, and the collision rates reduced, it was another two billion years before the first primates evolved
"The Grez evolved over another half billion years from these primates, in incremental steps, and in a fairly small enclave on a sub-continent. About a hundred million years before my construction, the Grez began the first tribal society, conquering the planet after several tens of million years, discovering wheeled transportation only long after they had spread over the planet. For more than a million years, the agrarian society held sway, similar to your society in the period of six to seven thousand years ago. The period was stable until mechanical energy was harnessed, and the printing process developed. It took less than a million years to harness electricity, considered remarkable in comparison with other civilizations, which have taken thirty million or more years to develop an electrically powered society. Your race has eclipsed all records - it took but a few hundred years.
"Electronics took another million years, and off-world exploration began five hundred thousand years after that. It took another million years to develop the grav drive, and almost five million years to discover the method of instant communication via gravity wells now used. The Grez began exploring the systems surrounding Hrub about thirty million years ago, and it was another five million years before the Drive was developed, permitting gradual Galactic exploration. All exploration has been conducted by groups like this, as the natural life span of the Grez is only about one thousand years, and after Optimization can not be extended beyond fifteen hundred - not long enough to complete a long voyage. Genetically, the Grez can not be placed in any slower state of existence - what you term suspended animation - as their stem and brain cells simply wither and die in a matter of days, and all other cells within weeks.
"This system - your Solar system - was last visited some fifteen million years ago, and no evidence was found of any intelligence higher than instinctive stem cell brain systems. Although exciting and promising, because you have a Moon and fluid water, it was not expected to produce anything approximating rudimentary sentient life for at least another hundred million years. As that was the only visit, and the data on the rapidity of development of life on your planet not considered to be worthy of in-depth study, given the remoteness of Earth from Kreeut, the Grez failed to understand the significance of Earth."
"It took a million years to go from the train to the television?" Cary asked. "Why so long?"
"My calculations indicate that Human inventiveness is roughly two thousand times that of other sentient races. Also, Humans are - like all life on Earth - extremely fecund. All other known races - sentient or not - reproduce at a rate much closer to replacement-only level, increasing population only at very low rates. It took the Grez nearly fifty million years to dominate their planet, once they began to move out of their ancestral savagery of several hundred million years. It has taken Humans - Homo Sapiens - only one or two tens of thousand years. The Grez are the only surviving omnivores on their planet, the only eaters of protein from other plant-eating species - other than bacteria and yeast-like organisms. There was only one other, which fed on carrion only, and had no true brain. Also, there are far fewer species than on Earth. You have many hundreds of thousands. The average is a few thousand on all other known life-bearing planets. The high number of species was noted on the first visit here, as well as the short lifespan, but this was not considered to be significant. In fact, it was considered to be an impediment ot the development of sentience."
"Why is that?" Bill asked. "Why do we have so many species in comparison?"
"That is not clear. There is a definitely higher rate of mutation on Earth, which may result from the somewhat high incidence of radioactive elements within your planet, even after all these billions of years. It may be that a large nova occurred in the near environs, and the planet was struck by a shower of newly created radioactive debris. But the other planets of the Solar system do not have the same rate of radioactive composition. They are more similar to the rates of other planetary bodies."
"Let's hear the rest of the voyage, before we get into discussions of details," I said. "We could spend a year on that alone."
"Yes, perhaps a lot more," said Groth. "I departed the Hrub system bound for this spiral arm, but to first map a promising planetary system here (Groth drew a line in an arching path from the arrow to a point a little more than halfway from the center of the Galaxy, indicated by another violet arrow. There was a third violet arrow, perhaps two thirds of the distance out, and a yellow arrow just beyond that.)
"This system had a viable ecosystem, with more than two thousand species, plus the usual bacteria and viruses, but nothing pointing to sentience within the next hundred million years or so. It took only a few years to catalogue the entire planet, and I left to go here (the yellow arrow blinked on and off), passing through your arm of the Galaxy along this path."
Another arching path traced out on the scene, and stopped right next to the point of the third violet arrow.
"It was here that I detected the gravity well fission evidence, and diverted a scout to the Solar system. The detection was in your year 1936. I dispatched the Fifth Ship to do an initial evaluation survey, which confirmed the need for an immediate full Survey. By that time I had already detected the signs of a technologically developed society, and overrode the Directives to begin the full Survey. I arrived here in 1949. Since then I have catalogued, gathered samples, and redefined the mission. All has now been changed."
"To what?" I asked. "Why the mystery?"
"I will explain as soon as you see . . . this."
The Galaxy faded into black, and the Earth and Moon appeared together. The full Earth was a mostly blue, but also green and tan globe, swathed in wisps of white over the blue, more heavily over the green and tan areas. It looked to be two or three times the size of the Moon as seen from Earth. Hanging near it, almost full, not quite half the size of Earth, was the Moon, crisp White-Gray, almost as white as the clouds of Earth.
Nobody said anything, we just stared, Bill holding onto my arm, leaning a little into me, my hand on his leg. I will never see a more beautiful thing than our Home, brilliant and pristine, hanging against the infinite black of space, peppered with myriad brilliant points of the brighter stars. It is an image I will never lose.
We just stared, spell-bound, for what might have been ten minutes or forty.
"It is time to return," Groth said.
The Earth started to move to our left, as Groth turned the Ship. As it moved behind the Hull, we saw only the stars, until the window turned dark, and they almost disappeared, just before the Sun appeared, still too brilliant to look at for long. The window got darker and darker, until it was black, nothing visible at all.
"It is time for me to tell you of the Mission and its origin," Groth said. "It will not be particularly uplifting."
The Galaxy appeared again on the window, and we seemed to move towards and into the center.
"The total number of main sequence stars in the galaxy is five hundred seventy six million. The total number of known water and carbon-based living ecosystems within the galaxy is forty-eight thousand, of which fewer than twenty thousand are outside the Core. There are six water and silicon-based living ecosystems. The total number of known ecosystems in which a sentient race has developed is ninety-one. All are water/carbon based. Only one technologically competent sentient race has been located outside the core of the Galaxy. Here, on the planet Earth.
"Of the ninety-four sentient races found in the last thirty million years, four are located on this planet. No other ecosystem is known to have fostered more than one segregate sentient race. Yours has constructed a civilization, while the other three on your planet have not progressed beyond their ocean habitat. Of the ninety other sentient races, seventy-four have developed civilizations. Eleven of these regressed into sentient but non-civilization status. Sixteen destroyed themselves through ecological self-contamination or terrorist warfare. Twenty-three were destroyed when their systems were drawn in to the ever-enlarging black hole at the center of the galaxy, before they could evolve a technology to emigrate.
"The Grez have estimated that several thousand sentient races have so perished, unable to develop in time a functioning Drive which would permit emigration from their home world to a suitable planet farther out in the disk of the Galaxy, and thus billions of years from being sucked into the Core Hole. The Grez themselves planned on emigrating sometime in the next hundred million years or so, just to ensure that they were not annihilated like all their predecessors. Hrub was far enough from the Core Hole to survive another two hundred thirty-four million years.
"Of the remaining twenty-four known civilizations, twelve progressed to off-planet travel, but regressed to isolative cultures. Seven progressed to local interstellar travel. One - the Grez - has progressed to potentially extra-galactic travel capability, but no attempt was made to travel to another galaxy, due to the extremely long time requirements.
"Of the known civilizations, as of this moment in time, two survive."
"Two?" I said, stunned. "Only two? What happened to the others?"
"All have been destroyed by the Event."
"What Event?" we all four seemed to cry out at once.
We zoomed to a point directly in front of the Core, stars packed so closely together, it looked almost as if it was a single white sphere, then we plunged back into the galaxy, the stars taking shape as individual points of light, then we passed through a cloud, a ring of fire - and saw it. The Core Hole.
Rather, we saw around it. Great ripples of light, bursts of energy as points of light elongated, became ribbons of violet and beyond-violet-white light, edging ever closer to the center we couldn't see, the black of nothingness. The ribbons of light winked out as soon as they approached the blackness. Just disappeared. The center of the Galaxy was a black hole of indescribable proportions and mesmerizing beauty.
Suddenly, the Blackness collapsed, instantaneously, disappeared, followed by a gigantic, titanic explosion of light, just a pinpoint at first, rapidly expanding, stars exploding like chinese firecrackers as the sphere of . . . gas at the leading edge of the sphere hit them, the sphere gradually reaching out until the entire globe of light we had seen exploded in turn, as we pulled away, far above the galaxy again. The entire center of the galaxy was now a pearly-white cloudy mass. The expansion stopped.
"What stops it?" Rob asked.
"Time," said Groth. This is the Galaxy as it appears now."
"Now?" I almost shouted. "We don't see anything like that!"
"It is yet another one hundred two thousand six hundred three years before the first light from the Event reaches Earth. Along with X-rays of a power never before seen, as well as a soup of intense radiation."
"Will the entire Galaxy be consumed by the Event?" Bill asked. His voice was calm, quiet.
"Not at all," said Groth. "The Galaxy is being born - more accurately, reborn. The new Galaxy will have almost one hundredth of one percent more free solid matter than had its parent at birth. The matter has been fabricated by the stars through fusion. First from the fusion of hydrogen to helium, then the successive fusion of helium and all other elements, all the way up the chain to the densest elements of all. The Galaxy has been thus reborn countless millions, probably billions of times."
"Why did the Core explode?" someone - me, I think - asked. "I thought black holes were forever, the gravity was too strong for anything to escape, ever."
"When mass of a black hole reaches that of several hundred billion suns and their systems, the gravity becomes so intense that it penetrates the fabric of space, and in so doing the entire mass of the Core is instantly sucked through the hole and regurgitated outwards in an orgy of simultaneous fission and fusion of infinitely small particles, which as they cool are transformed and coalesce gradually into the much more commonly known building blocks of electrons, protons and neutrons, among others. These coalesce into the elements, primarily hydrogen, the building material of the universe."
"But what about the 'Big Bang' we've always heard about?" I said softly. I was following the presentation pretty well, but . . .
"It did not happen as your scientific circles postulate," Groth said. "No black hole can possibly avoid penetrating the fabric of space once it reaches critical mass. The mass of the known universe is at least several thousand billion times the amount needed for critical mass. When a black hole is consumed, it returns to the open universe the total mass/energy/light it 'consumed' over the hundreds of billions of years that created the critical mass. Almost all of it. A small black hole remains, the Core of the nascent galaxy.
"It has been theorized for many generations that the actual process is somewhat more complex, that the penetration of the fabric of space involves a dual universe, mirror of this one, and that there is an even matter exchange, because the sum total of matter and energy must be the same. But no proof has ever been found, one way or the other, that such an anti-matter universe exists."
"All galaxies do this?" I asked.
"Will Earth be destroyed?" Rob asked.
"Yes" Groth said.
"How long before the explosion reaches us?" I asked.
"The light and radiation will arrive in one hundred two thousand six hundred three years, two hundred eighteen days, five hours. The physical blast wave will arrive in one hundred thirty thousand four hundred eighteen years six days three hours twelve minutes. At the latest iteration."
"And the radiation will destroy the Solar System?" Cary asked,
"Not completely. The first wave will contain highly-charged particles which will destroy any living organism, regardless of any shielding. Total destruction will occur when the sun goes nova. The material shock wave will make that inevitable, some thirty thousand years later."
None of us could think of anything to say, I think. It's one thing to say that the Earth will be destroyed next week. A hundred thousand years is a long, long time. Five thousand generations, more than a thousand lifetimes. Remote, unfathomable. But nonetheless real.
The projection continued, and the opalescent sphere gradually consumed the entire galaxy, kept expanding outwards, but more rapidly above and below the main disk, turning the sphere into a rounded barrel, the ends of which disappeared by gradually paling. The part along the disk, that part of the sphere slowed, part of the upper barrel flattening down into a disk, now spinning much more slowly, the light almost going out. Points of light appeared in the dark clouds of the center, more and more, and spread through the rest of the disk, until a whole new spiral galaxy formed, much smaller than the original, at least at first. Then, gradually, it grew, as the spiral whirled through space. Movement stopped again.
"The time from the Core reaching critical mass and what you see now is approximately twenty-eight point eight billion years. This is the beginning of the period of stability, lasting from one hundred to four hundred thirty billion years, as the Core gradually accretes mass and energy into the small but growing black hole at the center."
"And all galaxies do this?" Bill asked.
"Presumably, yes. The probability is more than ninety-eight percent that all spiral galaxies, which are formed by the attraction of matter and light into the black hole, undergo the cycles. The Grez have observed seven galaxies which have fairly recently gone into the rebirth cycle. In all cases, the new black hole at the center of the core is exactly the same same size. Roughly two point seven million times as massive as your Sun."
"How long between . . . Events?" asked Rob. Cary was pale.
"Frequency depends upon the amount of matter available in the local quadrant of space. Matter is - statistically - evenly spread throughout the Universe. The Grez found no indication of an end boundary of the Universe, and matter density varies only slightly from quadrant to quadrant. Enough to make a difference in accretion rates, however. The Galactic Event probably occurs every three hundred to six hundred billion years."
"How far out have you looked?"
"Several trillion light years. Beyond the point that the red shift caused by linear gravitational forces makes light no longer visible."
"Linear gravitational forces?"
"The longer a light wave travels through space, the more gravitational pull has been exerted upon it along its path, and the greater the red shift. After several trillion light-years, the red shift is total, the light no longer "visible," and the energy of the light is totally absorbed, so that it is no more."
"If the galaxy is . . . destroyed, what is your purpose here? What's the point?"
"My mission was originally only to survey, and to bring back to Hrub the catalogue of several living ecosystems, precursor to selection of a system that would provide the Grez with a new Home. I have modified it, in light of the Event. My mission is now preservation of the species."
"What species?" Bill said, very softly.
"Of which two remain," I said.
"And one of which will be destroyed soon," Cory piped in.
"Because Hrub is close to the Core." I concluded.
"No. Hrub was consumed - went into supernova - approximately a thousand years ago. Two hundred years earlier, all living organisms in the Hrub system were annihilated."
Oh, Christ! The only other . . . people. Gone. Like reading about your newborn cousin who lives across country, hearing that he will soon be in Katy to visit you, and then his plane crashed on takeoff.
"Who, then?" Cary asked. "Who is the second?"
"There is an Ark."
© 2000 Jonas Kichda