by Lance J. Mushung
Detectors whispered in my mind. A transfer conduit had formed in the upper atmosphere and two ships had flown out of it. Neither had power and their courses would culminate by impacting the planet.
One ship was a tapered cylinder, a human survey vessel with one or two crewmembers. The other was a stubby wedge, a type used by Sig pirates, and I calculated a 96.8% probability it held ten to thirteen. A single survival pod ejected from the human craft, followed by five from the pirate ship.
They were not the visitors I had been awaiting. However, humans were interesting and welcome. Conversely, Sigs were neither interesting nor welcome.
The Sigs appeared on an emergency vid channel. They communicated using a pale beige patch between their eyestalks to display the multitude of colors of their visual-only language. Our name for them translated into the human language as Signalers, and humans had popularized the shorter Sigs.
The com patches of the pirates, except for one, were flashing a rainbow of colors. The one wore the intense blue rings of a leader on its eyestalks and was blinking vivid orange, Sig for stop. The com patches of the others became plain beige.
The leader said, “End the chattering and report if not intact.”
Another pirate said, “I am intact, but where are we?”
“We are lost. We have no neuro. What will we do?”
“End your whining and control yourself.” The leader emphasized end by blinking orange again.
The whiner would not stop. “The humans stranded us here.”
“That is likely truth. Sapphire Onyx and Magenta Cyan, your capsule will set down near the humans. You will chastise and erase them for all of us.”
I calculated the precise pod landing sites and deployed spyers to observe before heading out myself on my levitation sled. I decided two legs would provide advantages in case I needed to get off the sled and move about on uneven terrain, so I transferred into my humanoid body. A short sprint brought me to the sled. I boarded and ordered it after the spyers at high speed.
I found a good spot to conceal the sled and myself near the touchdown point of the human pod while it was still descending. A spyer loitering overhead showed the pod setting down. Another spyer showed one Sig pod landing only three hills away and the other four coming down spread out further in the distance.
A tall human female wearing a powder blue coverall jumped out of her pod. She had a tan face and long straight auburn hair.
Two pirates stepped out of the nearby Sig pod, each carrying a slender tubular dark-green weapon, a plasma bolt gun. Sigs were on average half the size of humans and covered for the most part by scales colored a range of green hues. With their two eyestalks, four arms, and four legs, humans said they resembled a cross between a lobster and spider.
Sigs were a direct species and I had no doubt they would go straight to the human pod. They did not surprise me.
The human rummaged through the pod’s external locker and yanked out a typical human survival firearm, a compact black automatic rifle that spewed explosive projectiles. After inspecting it, she jogged to a clump of boulders just over the crest of the first hill between her and the pirates, a position providing an excellent field of fire. Her aggressive action made it a certainty she had monitored the pirate’s com, as I had, and knew of their plans for her.
The pirates came into the human’s line of sight walking straight toward her. They halted after closing 89.2% of the range to her position, as if they had sensed something. The human rifle produced a continuous faint yellow-white muzzle flash and they dropped to the ground with pink blood spurting from their shredded flesh.
The human approached the pirates with her rifle at the ready. After confirming their deaths by poking them with the muzzle, she tidied the bodies by placing them side-by-side and straightening their arms and legs. She then shoved one of their weapons into the ground as a marker and returned to her pod carrying their second weapon along with her rifle.
I adjusted my thinking to the human language and Earth measurements and flew to her. Her expression indicated surprise as I closed in, but she did not point her rifle at me. I grounded the sled and said, “Greetings.”
Her eyes ran up and down my body, which resembled the non-intelligent service robots used on Earth: androgynous, three-fingered hands, and soft polymer skin colored copper brown. She responded after her eyes locked onto my golden ones. “I don’t know why a Mechian is here, but I’m glad to see you. I’m Nikita Mears.”
“Call me Max. Would you care to join me at my ship?”
“I certainly would. I hope it’s some distance from here. These scaly turds will kill me, and probably you too if they find you with me.”
“It is 223.79 kilometers from this spot.”
“That’s good. They don’t have a neuro and their devolving will make them little threat by the time they can get to us.”
The Sigs had advanced when a fortuitous mutation produced a gifted subset of their species, the neuros. They emitted pheromones that increased the intelligence of all Sigs. Attempts to develop artificial pheromones had failed, and without regular contact with a neuro the brains of the other Sigs digressed to a lesser state.
Nikita piled everything in the pod’s locker onto my sled, laid both weapons on the rest of her gear, and jumped into a seat next to me. I ordered the sled back to my ship at a slow speed to allow time to become acquainted.
She said, “Max, I can’t thank you enough.”
“No thanks are necessary. How do you come to be here?”
“They jumped my ship, Nikita’s Dream, and fired as I entered a bridge trying to get away. Some sort of feedback overloaded all my power systems, theirs too apparently, and here we are.”
“Were you the entire crew?”
“No. Isaac was with me. He died when a power panel shorted, but he’s an A.I. like you, so the backups of his consciousness on Earth mean he’s not truly gone.”
“We prefer the term nonorganic. I deduce you have encountered Sig pirates in the past based on the aggressive and efficient manner you dispatched the two.”
Her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “I realize you Mechians prefer to avoid violence, but they did plan to kill me.”
A hint of petulance had crept into her voice, and I needed to defuse her defensiveness. “No rebuke is implied.”
“You meant in a cold and ruthless manner, didn’t you?”
“Those are appropriate adjectives also.”
“I have had the misfortune to run into Sig pirates before.”
She wiped her face with her left sleeve. Beads of perspiration had been streaming down her face and dripping off her nose.
I said, “It is uncomfortable here for a human.”
“No kidding. Is it always this hot?”
“The midday temperature is quite uniform at 35.1 degrees Celsius plus or minus 2.8. The nocturnal low is 29.3 degrees plus or minus 1.9.”
She groaned. “Well, I guess it could be a lot worse. The gravity and air are like Earth. The brown rocky hills and sparse plant life even remind me of parts of New Mexico. The blue sky looks like home too. If it weren’t for the blue-white sun and its red dwarf companion, I might be fooled into thinking I was there. By the way, where the hell are we?”
“On a planet in a solar system inside what I call a bubble that is divorced from the rest of the universe.”
Following 3.7 seconds of silence, she said, “Okay,” drawing out the word.
“I assure you it is true.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Research? Okay, I’ll ask about that later. For now though, is the whole planet like this?”
“This is the typical terrain, except for numerous basins in the hills holding surface water and dense green vegetation growing among the rocks. They are somewhat similar to Earth oases. My ship lies in one.”
We discussed the planet’s large shallow oceans and one continent circling the equator until my oasis and gray conical ship came into view.
Nikita began nodding. “What a lovely spot. What’s that bronze cylinder next to the water?”
“A water tank and pump.”
“You need water?”
I put the sled on the ground next to the tank. “This is a good spot for you. Please make yourself a home.”
“A home? We’re staying for a while?”
“For quite some time. I do not know how to leave.”
Her jaw dropped.
“We will speak again later after you have settled in.”
I walked away from her and the sled.
During our flight, I had recorded her answers, vital signs, body language, and actions, such as the placement of the weapons. All the data went into my computation of her trustworthiness, which yielded 99.4% with a 0.36% uncertainty, an excellent result.
Nikita assembled a hut near the tank, placed a privy some distance away, and set up other gear. She came to me late in the afternoon while I sprayed the ever-present dust off my ship.
I asked, “Are you settled in?”
“Yes. As you’ve seen, I have a shelter and latrine. I got the solar-powered food synthesizer working too. The plants are a decent raw material, particularly that tall lime-green grass with crimson tufts on the tips. It reminds me of pampas grass, and that’s what I’m calling it. I’ll have all the nutritious, if tasteless, wafers I can eat.”
“You can consume the wildlife. One of them is similar to an Earth armadillo. They move slowly and should be tasty. Incidentally, none of the animals are dangerous to you.”
She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “I think I’ll stick with wafers. May we talk about this bubble now?”
“What the hell is it for and what’s your research?”
“I currently theorize bubbles are nodes, transfer stations, in a travel network. Mechian history records three high-quality confirmed sightings of unknown ships that vanished after forming transfer conduits, what you know as Einstein-Rosen bridges. The destinations of the conduits were tracked at once in those cases and our ships followed, but the unknown ships were not there. The only plausible explanation was an advanced species using conduits in a manner we did not understand. We named the species the Apex and . . . .”
She interrupted. “I don’t believe we’ve encountered any advanced species that remain unknown.”
“Mechians have traveled through space longer than humans.”
“True enough. Sorry for interrupting. Please continue.”
“I developed a theory on the Apex technique from detailed records transmitted from one of our ships just before it vanished after entering a conduit. The data suggested a power overload had occurred. I experimented with the levels and timing of power surges while entering a conduit, and one combination brought me into a bubble instead of the destination of the conduit. I must admit I expected to arrive at a world or space station of the Apex, not an uninhabited place.”
“Let me get this straight. When the pirates fired on me, it just happened to simulate the right power surge to bring us here?”
“Your sarcasm is understandable, but the outcome could have been worse.”
She shrugged. “You’re right. You said a bubble. This isn’t the first one?”
“This is my eighth bubble. I have formed conduits and repeated my original experiment of altering timing and power levels, but always entered another bubble. And before you ask, I have not been able to exit by simply flying away without a conduit. The force creating the bubble prevents that.”
“What makes them better than bridges?”
“I posit they provide a greater range.”
“I wonder why the Apex have an entire star system and planet here?”
“Each I visited was the same as the others, a binary star system holding one planet with six moons. There is only a 0.00473% probability the planets are natural. My hypothesis is the Apex place a binary star system in a bubble and manufacture the planet, making it similar to their world of origin. I also postulate the Apex install hardware associated with the bubble on the planet, although I have not yet discovered any.”
“You must have some idea on how to get out.”
“I have hypotheses, but they require more work and I am in no hurry.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Why not?”
“I want to meet the Apex. Remaining in one bubble is the best way to do so. I simply need to wait for travelers to pass by.”
She shook her head. “How long have you been trapped?”
“I prefer the description waiting. I have been in this bubble 653.2 local days or 791.7 of your days.”
A slight grin came to her face, the look of a human who believes she has thought of something another has not. “What makes you think the Apex are traveling? They haven’t come through here in over two years.”
“You are making an unwarranted assumption about the Apex.”
“And what assumption might that be?”
“That the Apex have human-like lifespans. A year to them might be the same as a minute to you, and the time between their travels could be great. My expectation is I will encounter travelers at some point. All I need do is remain patient.”
Following a short sarcastic giggle, she said, “It still sounds as fruitless as if you were waiting for Godot.”
“Very droll. I know the play.”
“You don’t mind if I study a way out, do you?”
There was no reason to deny my new companion the opportunity. It would provide purpose and prevent her from becoming morose. I said, “Not at all.”
“May I have access to your records?”
“Certainly. I am my ship’s brain, but I can adjust the ship’s hardware diagnostics system to function like one of your computers and load the information into it.”
We continued discussing the bubble, the solar system, and the planet before she went to bed late that night.
3.37 hours before dawn, the detectors informed me Sigs were approaching and I deployed spyers. Nikita sprinted up 46.2 seconds later, her breathing labored. She wore nocturnal viewing glasses and carried both her rifle and the Sig weapon.
Nikita said between breaths, “I seeded the area with intruder sensors and they say something is coming.”
“The pirates are nearby.”
“How the hell did they get here so fast?”
One of the spyers had the answer and I showed her.
She said, “I’ve never heard of anyone carrying a flyer in an escape module.”
“I did not expect that either. I should have been monitoring them.”
“That’s not important now. What do you want to do?”
“I am activating the ship’s collimated spectrum cannon now. However, it has not been tested for 3.52 years and the diagnostics will require approximately 2.4 minutes.”
Her eyes darted between the projections from the spyer cams. “That’s too long. Those two creeping toward us will be in the oasis by then. At least the two on the flyer aren’t moving in yet. Is four all of them?”
“Four is the capacity of the flyer.”
“I’ll go handle the two closest ones.”
“Do not take unnecessary risks.”
A weak lopsided smile flashed over her face. “I’ll be careful. Take this.” She handed the Sig weapon to me. “You may need it.”
She ran crouched toward the approaching pirates, but the moons cast sufficient light for the acute eyesight of Sigs. I switched on the ship’s external speakers and broadcast a warning. “Nikita, they see you.”
She dove behind a rock before they could fire, and they followed her lead by also hiding behind rocks.
Nikita engaged the pirates by placing her rifle over her rock, firing after aiming for less than a second using its remote aiming sights, and pulling it back. She repeated the action with the rifle placed at different places on the rock. If a plasma bolt hit the rifle, it would be destroyed and she injured by the corona from the bolt. The fired projectiles impacted the rocks around the pirates, the explosive charges producing brief yellow flashes.
The pirates employed a strategy similar to Nikita’s, sending glowing white plasma bolts her way. One errant bolt struck my ship and the hull status detectors screamed into my mind.
The flyer lifted off and flew toward me at high speed. I determined enough diagnostics had executed and powered the cannon as I broadcast another warning. “Nikita, shield your eyes.”
She did and I triggered a burst. A brilliant violet beam appeared for 437 milliseconds and the flyer ceased to exist, along with a portion of the ground around it.
One of the remaining pirates stumbled from behind a rock into plain sight with its eyestalks wiggling. The sight of the dazzling beam had stunned it. Nikita aimed with care and the pirate’s chest turned into bloody pulp.
The last pirate fled with Nikita pursuing. When she reached the edge of the oasis, she had a clear shot and completed the chase with a single round.
Nikita went to her cache of gear while I powered down my ship’s weapon. She picked up a small shovel and headed back to the Sigs. She intended to bury them. I transferred to my body that ran on caterpillar tracks because it mounted an excavator and drove out to her.
She touched her forehead with her right forefinger in an informal salute. “No words can thank you enough for your help, earlier and now.”
We buried the two pirates she had ended where they lay, after which she pushed their weapons into the dirt. The glass lined crater left by my disintegration of the other two and their flyer served as their marker.
Nikita returned to her hut, saying she wanted a few hours of sleep. I deployed spyers to look for the remaining pirates and found five camped in the oasis closest to Nikita’s pod. They had no flyer, so the possibility we would be assaulted again was for all practical purposes zero.
2.17 hours after dawn, Nikita found me while I was in my six-wheeled body refinishing the scorched spot produced on my ship by the Sig weapon. She wore only a short powder-blue wrap skirt and pale tan sandals.
I said, “You are very chic in the tropical resort wear of Earth.”
She smiled. “I fashioned it from what I had. It’s much more comfortable in this heat than what I was wearing before. You seem to know a lot about Earth.”
“I know a great deal about many subjects. Are your nano-meds at full strength to protect your skin from the suns?”
“They are, but my hair is too long for this climate. I don’t suppose you could cut it?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“A pixie cut, if you know what that is.”
“I do. The hyper-model Yvette Park wears that style.” I gestured to a low rock. “Please sit.”
I pulled scissors suitable for clipping hair from my storage container, cut her hair, and projected cam views of her new look.
She nodded. “You could be a famous hair stylist on Earth.”
“I will keep that in mind if I require an Earth career.”
She stared at me. “You know, I can’t tell if you’re serious or not. Somehow I doubt if you’ll be needing an Earth career, but know I’ll be there for you if you do.”
“I thank you, but I was attempting human humor.”
“I still mean what I said. So, why do you know so much about humans and Earth?”
“All Mechians do. You interest us.”
“I’ve heard tell of that, but not why?”
“You are semi-primitive organics, but were able to develop your A.I.s. As we are also nonorganic life, we value how you treat them. They are citizens with the rights of organics. That is a very advanced attitude.”
“I appreciate your vote of confidence in us on behalf of all my species. What about the Sigs?”
“We have studied them. They are a base species even with their neuros and are of little further interest to us.”
“A base species?”
“Primitives with little or no curiosity about what humans call the big questions, such as what is the meaning of existence and how the universe was formed. Now, I have a question for you. Do you like games?”
“Some. Why do you ask?”
“Speaking and playing games with you will provide an agreeable modicum of randomness to my time here.”
She laughed. “I’ll do my best to be unpredictable.”
The days with Nikita settled into a pattern by HHD 4. She had named the planet Hellhole and started counting days in Hellhole days. We talked for an hour or two about every subject imaginable after she ate breakfast, followed by playing human games for the rest of the morning. I preferred intellectual contests like chess, ones I expected to win. Her erratic style in chess had yielded draws two times though. She favored games containing an element of chance, such as cards. She won those on occasion. She spent her afternoons studying my theories.
Nikita altered our daily pattern only one time on the morning of HHD 9 when she said, “The pirates have had enough time to devolve to some degree and I’d like to check up on them.”
“I can assure you they are no threat. I observe them regularly.”
“I’d still like to see for myself.”
“I can deploy a spyer for you right now.”
“No. They could have been lying about having no neuro and be faking. They’ve already surprised us with a flyer. I want to see their reaction upon seeing me.”
We boarded the sled and flew in silence while she cradled her rifle as if it were her baby. The thought she would end the harmless pirates would have been disagreeable if I had not been certain she would realize violence was unnecessary.
I zoomed the sled’s cam projections to show the five pirates as we approached their oasis. The Sigs started as pack animals and had reverted to that behavior. They were clustered near the water in a stand of pampas grass into which they had stomped a clearing and were chewing on armadillos they had ripped apart. Nikita began holding her rifle as if she thought she would need it.
The Sigs stopped eating to watch the sled as we approached, but took no other action. When we started hovering 14.73 meters above the ground and 100.35 meters from them, they returned to eating. Their com patches flashed, but the conversations were equivalent to cave-human grunts about food. I translated for Nikita while she watched for 1.67 minutes as if she thought she could drill holes into them with her eyes. Then, she looked at me.
I said, “As you can see, they are no threat.”
“They do seem pretty pathetic.”
“In four to five days they will not be conversing.”
She laid the rifle on the floorboard behind her and we left.
On the afternoon of HHD 67, a series of vignettes popped into my mind. They included ships of a flowing design made of multi-colored crystal, cities with structures of energy, and beings with indistinct and glowing shapes. The Apex were in my brain. I thought a request for a dialogue, but the images disappeared as they had appeared, with no warning. For the first time since my consciousness switched on, I understood the human emotion of disappointment.
Nikita hurried up to me and spoke in an animated voice. “There you are. Did you see what I saw, the people, the cities, the ships?”
“You have to be pleased. The Apex showed up.”
I said nothing.
“Did they tell you how get out of here?”
I again said nothing.
A quizzical look appeared on her face, followed in moments by her eyes widening. “You got the same treatment I did, didn’t you? They cared as much about talking to me as I do talking nuclear physics to a cow.”
I remained silent.
Her eyes narrowed and her face took on a stern expression. “You’re devastated the Apex think you’re a base species and don’t give two squirts about you. Get over it.”
She pointed her right index finger at me like a stabbing knife which, along with her expression, would have discomforted a human. “I expect your help starting tomorrow on getting us out of this hellhole.”
She walked away with a confident stride. Her expectation would be correct.
Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.
Lance’s work has appeared in Tales of the Talisman, Perihelion Science Fiction, Theme of Absence, Every Day Fiction, Stupefying Stories Showcase, Larks Fiction Magazine, Interstellar Fiction, Ray Gun Revival, and the ebook Body-Smith 401 and twenty other stories: an anthology of speculative fiction.