When Zach Griffin walked off a commercial lander at Delubruah Interstellar spaceport, his mind was spinning like a pulsar with a bad attitude.
The 26-year-old astrophysicist glanced at the approaching customs window, brushed a strand of off-blonde hair out of his eyes and fought hard to unclench his jaw. He didn’t relish stating the obvious to a team of hulking securitybots. Not when they could scan every qubit of his personal data from his ID chip. Semyon Altov, Zach’s department chair, had tried to put the situation in perspective for him.
“Just protocol,” Altov had said.
Or was it sadism? Regardless, the official rituals weren’t the real reason Zach’s heart had sunk to his toes.
Imagine breaking off an inter-temporal analysis just to follow up on a rumor,” his overactive mind railed.
No matter how Altov had rationalized it, this side trip felt like a colossal waste of time. But as high as Zach’s star had risen in scientific circles, he was still bound by the academic chain of command. It was a humiliation he’d just have to endure.
All the way out of the spaceport and over to his hotel by autocapsule, Zach fumed over his government’s poor judgement. On the basis of a fragmentary police report, WorldGov had ordered him to investigate a mathematical impossibility. For the reported “granular” effect to occur, everything his civilization knew about physical laws, including the Alcubierre-4 engines that had brought him there, would have to be false.
“Any idiot knows better,” he whispered.
The steel blue autocapsule came to a gliding halt in front of Zach’s hotel and its two wing doors opened out and up into the crisp night air. His luggage, decked out with late-model gravity modulators, floated out on a trajectory set by his dark gray, ovoid handheld. The lanky academic, formally dressed, as always, strode into the hotel lobby atrium — where a hovering, mint green robotic attendant greeted him with unctuous grace. It was another consequence of leaving the Centrals for a small lunar colony on the edge of the Cosmic Consortium.
“We trust your stay with us will be most pleasant,” said the shiny ball of a robot. “Third maglev on the left. Your chip will do the rest.”
Zach’s mind overflowed with sarcastic replies. But he was too exhausted by his seven-hour flight to stay angry. Let him just lie down for a bit, he told himself, and replicate a decent meal. Then maybe he could bear to review his notes for the next day’s meeting. It was to be a formal briefing on the evidence presented to WorldGov by the Crelenk. Or rather, by one particular Crelenk female named “Loor TreVal,” who claimed to have witnessed a series of disturbing phenomena.
“Spontaneous disintegration,” was the phrase thrown around in casual academic circles, among the few scholars with sufficient security clearance. The fact that Loor came from a distinguished family had lent her story an automatic credibility, which Zach resented.
“Science, anyone?” he asked the inside of his high speed elevator. As far as he was concerned, he knew everything about the cosmos that mattered. Little patches of shimmery, sparkly air just weren’t a part of it.
Yet even with the facts on his side, Zach was in a tight spot. Explaining the laws of physics to a lay person was always challenging, but Loor’s alien status made the task exponentially harder. Especially, that is, for a young man who’d grown up amongst humans only and, in the past eight years, had rarely ventured off the campus of Bohr University. He had no experience with sentient non-humans and Loor, as a Crelenk, belonged to a species set apart from the human family in almost every respect.
Though the Crelenk were carbon-based, oxygen-breathing and fully sentient, their ancestors had followed an evolutionary path radically different from that of any Earth creature. They had, for instance, nothing comparable to a human head, neck or face. Instead, their external organs were arranged around a roughly cylindrical torso. Four compound eyes ringed the upper portion of that torso and, about fifteen centimeters below them, a semicircle of mouths faced forward.
To the left of the central, speaking mouth, was a mouth dedicated to ingesting protein, followed by one for vegetable matter. To the right of center was a mouth for liquids and one for starches. And surmounting the Crelenk were two pairs of nostrils. Each pair was the gateway to one of two separate olfactory centers sensitive to different categories of chemical compounds. All four Crelenk ears, by contrast, were tucked discretely behind semicircular flaps that opened and closed depending on the ambient noise level.
On average, the Crelenk ranged from 1.75 meters to 2 meters tall. Their torsos were nestled into flexible folds of tough, hairless skin, reminiscent of a terrestrial lizard; the males were a slightly darker shade of brown on average, than the females. Out of these folds emerged four strong but spindly legs, and a pair of arms. Each arm ended in a delicate, seven-fingered hand. Finally, about two-thirds of the way down, an articulation in their musculoskeletal system allowed them to pivot about forty-five degrees left or right.
How, Zach wondered, would he be able to discuss abstruse scientific concepts with a being who, by all accounts, would have a completely different frame of reference? Worse, there was no indication that Ms. TreVal had any scientific training.
That, he told himself, was “tomorrow’s headache.” It was time to relax, dine and daydream. Later on, he might even run a data check on the experiment he’d left running on his homeworld. But right now, the weary traveler only wanted to drape his young body over the edge of his soft bed and just….
Three sharp sonic jabs from his embedded comstreamer shattered his fragile peace like fine crystal. Though he was tempted to bark at anyone who dared call him so late, he forced himself to project a tone of calm professionalism.
“Griffin,” he said.
His ears were greeted by the slurred tones of an alien voice pushed through an outdated translation filter.
“Griffin Zach you come now,” it said.
“Who is this?” asked Zach.
“TreVal Loor. You come now,” said the voice.
Zach bit his lower lip.
“I believe our meeting is for tomorrow … Ms. TreVal,” he said.
“Tomorrow too late,” said Loor. “Much damage. I call Altov.”
‘Wait,” said Zach.
The last thing he needed was a bad report from a disgruntled alien on a moon that WorldGov wanted desperately as a trading partner. A fresh market for human technology products was sorely needed. Especially, that is, when the Alegarli were outshining Earth’s Central Colonies in every discipline.
“Where can I meet you?” he asked.
The answer entered his handheld as a set of GPS coordinates that he could plug into an autocapsule as soon as he was downstairs. Unlike most members of his generation, Zach hadn’t gone totally “internal.” The e-mag radiation given off by all but the most expensive cerebral implants played havoc with the delicate sensors he used to measure spatiotemporal fluctuations.
He dressed hurriedly, but took into account the rapidly falling temperatures on an non-rotating lunar surface. Though the Crelenk had fitted its Haliak lunar colony with an atmospheric system, the expense in credits and resources to give it a spin was simply too great. Fortunately, the hotel’s autocapsule service was more than adequately adapted. He rode in comfort to a posh neighborhood on the northwest side of town. The neopelt overwrap he’d thrown on was simply too hot for the ride.
The town of Delubruah was Haliak’s capital city. Zach wasn’t surprised to find himself surrounded by luxurious homes ─ as oddly shaped as their owners. Whereas a standard human city would have looked familiar, in its general outlines, to any resident of a twenty-first century metropolis, the Crelenk’s interlocking clusters of low-rise octagonal structures gave Delubruah a meandering sprawl unlike anything Zach had seen before. Polyslate walkways traced with color-coded lighting and an embedded signaling system aided navigation.
Meanwhile, the buildings themselves rose from their octagonal foundations into a riot of shapes, whose contours were determined by everything from official function to personal whim. Loor’s home, which he could just make out now on the left, suggested a wildly abstracted mound of vanilla frosting. In spite of himself, Zach chuckled at the improbability of a Crelenk being familiar with human desserts. In fact, the two species had so little in common that their populations rarely mixed. Considering the Crelenk had been members of the Cosmic Consortium of Worlds for the last seventy-five years, that was particularly telling. Where possible, meetings were carried out remotely through AI ambassadors.
The reason was simple. The two species couldn’t share a meal, enjoy the same video presentation, or shoot the breeze about childrearing. Their only common ground lay in commerce and the various branches of science and mathematics ─ at which, in human terms, the Crelenk were a few generations behind the curve.
Nevertheless, by the time Zach arrived at the GPS coordinates he’d received from Loor, he’d settled into the objective frame of mind he adopted in his lab work. Yet as he stood in front of the Crelenk’s circular, e-mag protected doorway, he couldn’t help wondering what could be so urgent. Seconds later, the cladding dissipated and he swept into a purely functional, unadorned entryway, the color of dark chocolate.
A spherical, crimson servicebot no sooner took Zach’s coat than he was face-to-face with his Crelenk hostess. She wore a swirling robe of a silky blue material, which extended from her shoulders down to her four ankles. Black cloth slippers, adorned with slivers of sapphire peeked out from beneath the robe on each of her four, slender feet.
Of course, the expression “face-to-face” was wildly inaccurate. Zach was glad he’d invested time on the spaceflight over to acquaint himself with the Crelenk. Now he was forced to wonder exactly how hideous he must appear to Loor TreVal. Yet if she had any qualms about speaking with him, it wasn’t reflected in the steady pace of the AI-emulated voice that emerged from her translation grid.
“I apologize for my late call,” the voice said, “and for the crudeness of the hotel translation matrix. You must have thought me quite rude.”
Distracted as he was by the sight of her pulsating speaking mouth, Zach still managed to keep his composure.
“You obviously felt it was urgent,” he said. “Can you explain?”
“That, Mr. Griffin, is exactly what I cannot do,” said Loor. “But perhaps if you follow me to the … the locus of the problem, you will find an explanation of your own.”
Without waiting for an answer, the Crelenk made a short, pivoting hop and crawled through an adjacent threshold into the house proper. Zach followed and was soon standing in a large, high-ceilinged room, decorated in an array of multicolored stripes that his eyes needed a moment to adjust to. He reminded himself that Crelenk vision extended farther into the ultraviolet scale than human eyesight allowed. His host saw the world differently than he did.
While the room’s peculiar layout obviously suited Loor’s needs, Zach discovered he couldn’t identify the function of any item in it, with the exception of the octagonal ceiling light. Maybe, he concluded, the interlocking array of geometric shapes in the center of the room housed a holojector of some kind. Along one wall, a structure that looked for all the world like a crockery cabinet glowed with an eerie, pale yellow light.
On second thought, Zach seemed to make out the low pulsations of a sort of music coming from the cabinet. Embedded at odd intervals in the floor were deep wooden troughs, into which Loor, or someone, had planted bright yellow globular flowers. And there, in the far corner, looking completely out of place, was a silvery, transmat send/receive pod, of the kind used throughout the civilized universe. Emblazoned on its circular base was the logo of the Ultramat Corporation: A stylized, bright yellow lightning bolt flashed across a dark blue, simulated star field.
The pod’s presence was so unexpected, Zach couldn’t stop himself from pointing to it.
“Do you use that device much?” he asked.
The lids on Loor’s compound eyes fluttered.
“Why yes,” she said. “Just today, my daughter used it to send me a lovely holiday present.”
She swept a delicate hand down toward her four cloth shoes with what seemed to Zach a rush of pride.
“It was shortly before I called you,” she said.
Zach puzzled over that detail a moment, but as soon as Loor led him around to the back of the oddly-appointed room, all thought of the transmat device left his mind. Around the corner from what might have been a Crelenk couch, Zach saw what he’d rarely encountered in his young life: a physical phenomenon he couldn’t explain.
“See how it … wavers … as you might say?” asked Loor.
But to Zach’s eyes, the wavering was the least of it. Based only on naked-eye observation, the implications were devastating. There before him was the real-world equivalent of a phenomenon no one had yet observed outside of computer simulations. That is, simulations that pushed the prevailing theories of physical laws to their absolute extremes. As one thought-experiment ran:
Given an ongoing attenuation, due to an unexplained gravitational or temporal anomaly, space-time in the immediate vicinity might begin to dissolve into its constituent particles. The resulting instability, if not resolved, could eventually result an erosion of the boundary between one metaverse and the other and a mixing of physical laws with disastrous consequences.
Zach glanced over at Loor’s four eyes and wondered if she had any idea how dangerous the situation was.
“When did this … phenomenon … appear?” he asked.
“Tonight,” said Loor. “But only in this room. It has appeared and disappeared in every room in this house over the last thirty rotations. At first I assumed it was an optical illusion. But my doctor has found nothing wrong with my vision. What do you make of it?”
Zach gulped. There was no need to alarm his host until he had a more precise answer, but there was also no reason not to issue a warning.
“I’ll have to send for equipment,” he said. “Whatever this is, we can’t understand it without a proper analysis. There’s even a slim chance it could be an illusion.”
“But you don’t believe that, do you?” asked Loor.
“No more speculation,” said Zach, “until we have hard data. In the meantime, I urge you not to go near any … granular … space you might see. In fact, I suggest you stay somewhere else for the time being.”
The Crelenk’s torso trembled. Was it with laughter or grief?
“You don’t understand,” she said. “This is our sacred time. I cannot interfere with anyone else’s meditations by entering their home. And the only hotels open now are the ones that serve off-worlders like you.”
Zach took a deep breath and cursed himself for not bothering to learn about the Crelenk’s customs.
“At least keep your distance,” he said. “I can begin taking measurements in the morning with the equipment I brought with me. I’ll send for the rest tonight. May I return tomorrow?”
With a few more translated words, Zach finalized his plans with Loor and headed out into the chilly evening air. The autocapsule that arrived in mere minutes whisked him back to his hotel. His hands trembled as he unpacked a quantum tablet and sketched a series of rough calculations.
A quick survey of recent scientific journals confirmed his suspicions that the phenomenon he’d just witnessed was entirely new. After a lengthy entry in his field journal, he made arrangements for the express, long-range transmat of his equipment, and dozed off.
In spite of his exhaustion — or because of it — the events of the day followed him into his dreams. He saw himself scrawling a white mesh of calculations on an ancient chalkboard, the kind of thing he’d seen only in fictionalized holovids. Try as he might, the solution to his vast equation continued to elude him — until a section of the blackboard began to sparkle and appear to break apart. His eyes bulged as a seven-fingered Crelenk hand reached through the disturbance and grabbed hold of his throat.
Zach Griffin, confirmed rationalist, woke up screaming. In the glare of Haliak’s artificial morning, his night terrors were replaced by the disturbing reality of his meeting with Loor TreVal.
“Pull it together,” he scolded himself on the way to the shower. He took a deep breath and ticked off his plan for the morning. He’d have a quick meal at the hotel, then capsule right over to Loor’s house with his portable equipment. Then a break for lunch, by which time his transmat shipment should have arrived. By evening, with any luck, he’d know what he was dealing with.
It was a perfect plan, whose only missing element was Reality. For when Zach made it back to Loor’s neighborhood in record time, his breath stuck in his throat at the sight of four android patrol units protecting the perimeter of the octagonal house. Undaunted, he moved in for a closer look and was surprised to hear a gruff voice in his right ear.
“Hold it there, Griffin Zach,” it said.
The perplexed human turned to face a tall Crelenk male in a shiny gray patrol uniform.
“I have an appointment with Ms. TreVal,” he said.
“Likely not,” said the patrol officer. “This abode is under investigation, as you might say.”
“But…” said Zach.
“No more words now,” said the officer. “Press release later. Best you returned home.”
Despite the evolutionary gulf separating them, Zach caught the determination in the Crelenk’s manner and turned away, down the sidewalk, leading to the nearest capsule station. Lost in thought, it took him a moment to notice the human female who was dogging his steps.
“Professor Griffin?” she said at last, “Paula Altenberg, Sidereal Chronicle. You mind telling me what your connection is to the victim?”
“Victim?” asked Zach.
“According to my source,” said the reporter. “Ms. TreVal might have stumbled on a bizarre cosmic phenomenon and perished. Would you happen to know anything about that?”
Zach looked off into the distance at the orderly clustering of octagonal homes that spread out for kilometers in every direction. Did each one of them hold the potential to develop a twinkling patch of disrupted space-time? He turned his startled eyes back toward Paula.
“Honestly?” he told her. “I doubt I know anything about the cosmos.”
Mark Laporta is the acclaimed author of the Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series and the new novel, Probability Shadow, published by Chickadee Prince Books, available now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.
Image by Mysticsartdesign / Pixabay