[Editor’s note: read the entire story from the beginning.]
Paula Altenberg, the reporter from the Sidereal Chronicle, would not let herself be brushed off.
“You want to explain yourself?” she asked. “My readers already know you’re a leading light in the current generation of….”
Zach’s pale blue eyes flashed.
“Really?” he said . “And why does your research department believe I respond well to flattery?”
“I’m just quoting what….” said Paula.
“What ignorant people say,” said Zach, “about research they don’t understand. In real science, there are no ‘leading lights.’ There’s just data. Some researchers have more insight into it and some have less. But it’s a collaboration.”
Paula ran her hands through her curly black hair.
“OK,” she said. “Looks like we’re off to a bad start. I’m just curious why someone who has … collaborated … with the best minds in the human community thinks he knows nothing.”
Zach looked into her intelligent, dark brown eyes and saw the same wounded look that had cost him his last two girlfriends.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just … tense is the word. I dropped everything to come to this luxury moon and now the local patrol won’t even let me do my job.”
“If I buy you a cup of caffedren, will you tell me what your job is?” asked Paula.
“That’s classified,” said Zach. “Though I have a feeling it’ll be common knowledge pretty soon. Still … since my mission is completely screwed for the moment, I wouldn’t mind a drink.”
Paula gave him a conspiratorial smile and told him about a human café about four blocks away. Though in a city like Delubruah, the word “block” had to be interpreted loosely. The Crelenk’s preference for laying out streets in irregular concentric circles weakened every landmark a human might use for navigation. In that sense, Delubruah bore a closer resemblance to a colony of cells in a living organism than a human’s tidy urban grid.
But the trim reporter, dressed in what Zach assumed was her “field outfit” of khaki and denim with scuffed brown calf-length boots, obviously knew her way around. She led him without hesitation along a meandering path until, ten minutes later, they stood at the threshold of “Time Lapse,” a small café in the human sector of the city.
“Catchy name,” said Zach.
“Yeah,” said Paula. “I guess, as a scientist, that must make your skin crawl. I mean, there aren’t really any gaps in time are there?”
They walked into the decidedly quaint establishment, whose self-conscious décor was a parody of human style. Yet the homey mood and the smell of non-replicated food put Zach’s hyperactive mind at ease. They found a small table nestled against a floor-to-ceiling window, framed in dark brown neo-wood.
“Gaps in time?” asked Zach. “Well a starship moves space and time around a bit, but you can’t really call that a gap. The process is too orderly ─ and the Alcubierre engine maintains the balance of forces. I suppose a gap might appear if … if an unusual set of conditions disturbed that balance.”
A human waiter came to the table, a rare event in an interstellar community awash with every grade of android ─ from minimally sentient servicebots to mobile AI units that could give History’s greatest minds a headache. Yet the sheer charm of the situation went a long way to settling Zach’s racing thoughts. For the first time in the last two days, he had the peace of mind to smile.
At the sound of a quirky computerized chirp, Paula hunched over the tablet she’d just pulled out of a small satchel. A bit of touchscreen typing later, she looked up sheepishly.
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s my editor. I guess when you’re new at something, there’s always a big shot hovering over your shoulder. Do you get that?”
Zach looked into Paula’s youthful face carefully for the first time and decided she might well be around his own age. His answer began as a weary shrug.
“Yeah,” he said. “They hover until you actually need them and then they disappear. There’s probably an algorithm for that.”
“Cute,” said Paula. “But getting back to what we were talking about. You said that … physical laws … might get out of balance. Do you mean like gravity getting more … grave?”
Zach’s gasping laugh made heads turn in the otherwise quiet diner.
“Sor … sorry,” he said. “That just struck me funny. But yeah, or if time got more timely … Craters, that sounds so stupid.”
“OK, but I guess all that giggling means you think that couldn’t happen, right?” asked Paula.
“Can’t actually say that,” said Zach. “I mean the real problem is that the only language to have this conversation in is Mathematics. Humanistic languages aren’t precise enough. That’s what makes the analogies so funny … at least to me.”
“I get that,” said Paula. “But even if you said it in Math, somehow, the idea isn’t completely crazy, right?”
“Not completely,” said Zach. “But how did we even get onto this?” The last thing he wanted was to get trapped into talking about the phenomenon he’d witnessed in Loor TreVal’s living room.
Just then, the waiter came by with their order of caffedren and cranberry muffins, whose warm aroma seemed to add an ethereal quality to their conversation. Before retreating to the kitchen, the waiter, a forty-ish human male with his hair in a topknot, gave them a knowing smile that they were too engrossed to notice.
“It was something you said about the name of this place, about ‘Time Lapse’,” said Paula. “It reminded me of what my source said about a recent uptick in temporal anomalies in this sector.”
“Unlikely,” said Zach. “I would’ve heard of that. What did he say was causing them?”
Paula fiddled with the placement of her mug on its forest green, pressed cardboard coaster.
“That’s the part I didn’t understand,” she said. “She told me the increase was likely caused by….”
A thundering explosion not more than a hundred meters left of the diner made Paula, Zach and the other six people jump out of their chairs and rush to the diner’s street-facing wall of windows.
Outside was pure chaos, as dozens of Crelenk and a handful of humans rushed away on foot from the site of the explosion. Paula ran to the door, stuck her head out and accosted a pair of android patrol units that were rolling by on lightweight treads.
“What is it?” she called out. Zach hurried to her side in time to hear the taller of the androids say,
“Electrical lines destroyed by unknown phenomenon. Non-residents ordered to evacuate Haliak colony at earliest opportunity,”
The androids rolled away, apparently in response to new orders. Zach’s mind reeled as he squeezed past Paula to grab the arm of a fleeing figure. The astonished face of the heavyset human spoke volumes.
“What did you see?” asked Zach.
“Hey, leggo,” the man snarled. “Don’t wanna get stuck in that sparkly air like the others!”
“What others?” asked Paula.
“How should I know?” the man asked, “Whoever was crossing the street when the sparkles came. I said let go!”
The dark-skinned human wrestled his arm away from Zach’s grip and dashed off as fast as his bulky frame would let him.
“What do you make of that?” asked Paula.
“If it’s what I think, we need to get off this moon pronto,” said Zach. A message in his comstreamer told him his equipment had just arrived by transmat. “I’ll run a few scans from my hotel room, then book a flight back to Central Four. Based on my observations, the team at Bohr should be able to sort this out.”
“Sounds exciting,” said Paula. “… I mean, from a news perspective.”
“Oh, no,” said Zach. “I can’t take you along. I’d blow my security clearance. But don’t get me wrong, it’s been great meeting you.
“How great?” she asked.
“What did you say?” asked Zach. He held his eyes steady, but the left corner of his mouth betrayed him by snaking up into a smile
“Just kidding,” said Paula. “I have to get back to the Chronicle and convince my editor he didn’t fly me fifteen light years for nothing.”
Yet despite the pressure of work responsibilities, neither one of them made the first move to leave, as if fumbling to find the right kind of goodbye. That is, until Paula leaned in and kissed Zach on the cheek.
“See you around the cluster galaxy,” she said.
A stunned astrophysicist, who was used to being in control of every scrap of data in his purview, watched as she hurried off down the sidewalk in the direction of the nearest autocapsule station. His face flushed, his breathing surprisingly asthmatic, it was a good thirty seconds before he could remember the name of his hotel.
But as late morning shaded into early afternoon, Zach regained his composure. The capsule ride back to his hotel was another matter. Was he … could he be …? Like many a brainy twenty-something, who’d spent too many hours hovering over computer readouts, nothing stumped him more than the output of his own emotions. Sure, he’d had girlfriends but, truth be told, that had been largely their idea. While intimacy could be teased out of him, it wasn’t, so to speak, his native tongue.
Ironically, his lifeline in this sea of what most people would consider positive emotion was the evidence of “granular space,” which had popped up on this isolated moon. The universe, it seemed, was coming dangerously close to disintegration. Not for the first time, his fingernails bore the brunt of his frustration.
Can’t be, he told himself.
After a deep breath, he yanked out his quantum tablet and tried to make a rough mathematical sketch of the phenomenon. Or was this, more likely, the manifestation of several different forces going out of alignment at once? The answer lay in the data.
Trouble was, he had none ─ nothing quantifiable, anyway. “Glittery air” wasn’t a variable he could plug into an equation. So the moment he arrived at his hotel and completed the forms the receptionist android required to receive his equipment, he raced to his suite on the seventeenth floor. Drenched with sweat, he slipped out of his ankle-length neoleather boots, changed his clothes and, hands trembling slightly, settled down to work.
After a few clicks on his handheld, the packing material opened and an array of compact components floated out on gravity modulators. Only a few minutes later, after a complex ballet of autonomous action, the components had assembled themselves into a primary cosmic scanner and three supplemental devices. Each of the three smaller devices had a discrete function: one for measuring fluctuations in background radiation, another for detecting traces of antimatter and the third, a dark matter scoop that he hoped against hope would remain empty.
For if dark matter itself had fallen out of alignment on a scale large enough to be detected, the impending crisis would be even more swift and merciless than he already feared.
His first step was to make a general sensor sweep. At least at the level of the solar system, physical forces appeared to be in their typical alignment. There was no indication of an anomalous imbalance in gravity that might create even the tiny patches of relative spatiotemporal instability that typically occurred from time to time. Furthermore, Zach’s check of readings from orbital GPS satellites turned up nothing. “Time,” in the most literal sense, was unaffected.
Yet the more he fine tuned his readings, first to Haliak itself and then to the city of Delubruah, minor deviations appeared in the data. Ordinarily, they would have been too small to raise concern. But the evidence of his eyes and ears told him otherwise. And when he entered the coordinates of Loor TreVal’s residence and of the Time Lapse café, those same deviations became wider and, for lack of a better word, “weirder.”
His temperature rising, Zach turned to his secondary scanners and tuned each one to the same set of coordinates. The result was even more startling. So while the damage, for now, appeared confined to a limited geographic radius, its inherently random nature meant it was dangerously unpredictable. Just then, a headlight that glinted off a wall mirror, from a passing autocapsule, made him duck for cover ─ until he realized what he’d actually seen.
“Have to get off this moon,” he said. The only saving grace was that the bizarre, granular phenomenon was localized to this sector of space-time for now. There was still a chance to contain it here until his team could come up with a remedy.
The insistent chirp of his comstreamer forced him to push speculation aside.
“Griffin?” said a familiar voice. “Altov here. Time to get out of there.”
“I was just about to leave,” said Zach. “The anomaly….”
“Forget Physics for once, Son, and think about your own neck,” said his Department Chair. “Loor TreVal has been missing since you visited her last night.”
“I’m aware,” said Zach. “The patrol suspects the anomaly.”
“Anomaly?” said Altov. “Listen carefully. Loor TreVal was found strangled this afternoon about a hundred meters from her home. Looks like her body was dragged out of her home, and there are human footprints everywhere. Bottom line, you’re the prime suspect.”
“Me?” asked Zach.
“Look, I know it makes no sense,” said Altov. “But right now, drop everything — I mean everything ─ and capsule out to the spaceport. You have less than three Earth Standard Hours to get on a starliner, before the Crelenk government can issue an arrest warrant. After that, I can’t help you.”
“But, my data….”
“The only data I care about are your bio signs back on Bohr campus,” said Altov. “Hurry it up. I’ve got a capsule waiting for you at street level. Tell it to go express. I’ll figure out how to pay for it later. ”
End of transmission. Flummoxed, Zach stared forlornly at his equipment, slipped his feet back into his boots and rushed out of his hotel suite. Down on the street, he leapt into the autocapsule and yelled “Spaceport, Express!” at the top of his lungs.
With that, the normally wingless vehicle sprouted a pair of radically angled wings from its sides, pivoted up on its back and shot straight up into the sky. Now effectively a space plane, it arched high into airless space, before it snapped back abruptly on a breakneck trajectory toward Delubruah Interstellar Spaceport. In less time than it would take the average denizen of twenty-first century Manhattan to reach Kennedy International, Zach could be seen dashing into the next starliner for his homeworld ─ nerves shot and still strangely fixated on a captivating female newsnet reporter.
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 Kalhh / Pixabay