[Editor’s note: read the entire story from the beginning.]
A wash of indistinct noise, accompanied by blurry blotches of light and color, entered the fractured consciousness of a prone figure. A rhythm intruded, a continuous beat, accompanied by a new, distinct sound:
“Ack, ack? Ack? Ack, ack….”
A sudden inward rush of air forced the figure bolt upright. Gasp after gasp welled up from a slim abdomen as two pale blue eyes opened wide to see a military sickbay. The sound transmuted, acquiring a new initial.
“Zach!” said a vaguely reassuring voice. “Lie down. No, don’t try to talk. The doctor will be here soon.”
The figure blinked once, twice, three times, initiating a flood of tears as a soft pair of hands pushed its torso down to the stretched, white sheets. A flicker of recognition began a cascade of self-awareness. The sound, “Zach,” was a name, was him.
“Should be … should … dead,” he croaked.
“Shush,” said a female voice. The soft hands that brushed the hair out of his eyes sent a soothing wave of relaxation down his spine.
For the next several hours, the bewildered fugitive from Crelenk justice was completely overwhelmed by the protocols of physical recovery. The lander crash that had knocked him unconscious had also subjected him to a barrage of bruises, burns, scrapes and contusions. Those were well in hand, thanks to a variation on the same nano-medtech he’d only recently benefited from at an Alegarli facility, His mental state, however, was in a dangerous state of flux.
Between his terrifying memory of the crash and his unquenchable frustration, Zach’s mind veered from rage to despair faster than was consistent with any coherent definition of sanity. No wonder an ethereally calm psychiatrist saw fit to inject him with a customized sedative that was exquisitely matched to his genome, gender, age, weight, height and brain wave patterns.
After an initial period of disorientation, Zach Griffin, brilliant astrophysicist and card-carrying workaholic, felt his mind lose its moorings and drift into a Neverland of peaceful contemplation.
Beautiful universe produces ugly intellects, he reflected. Or are they beautiful expressions of its inherent cruelty?
A magnificent spiral staircase opened out and down at his feet, a masterpiece of tungsten steel, exotic inlaid hardwoods and rare gems from across the cosmos. With an easy flip of his right leg, he slid down its polished right banister. The gliding motion, soothing at first, whooshed him past a thousand recollections of life, including his first fateful trip to Haliak.
Spread out before him briefly, in cinematographic detail, was his breezy lunch date with Paula Altenberg. Her smile, still captivating, even as he glided by, once again soothed his soul. Until, that is, he rounded the next curve, and a fearful acceleration began. Faster and faster and faster he slid, until he felt as if he were hurtling down to a collision with a planetary core. What was it … what was it for … what was it…?
“No, no, no!” he shouted. For a second time that day, he sat bolt upright, in what was now a darkened room, and spoke as if in a trance. “The merger of the overlapping latency fields can be blocked by the steady application of controlled gravity modulation fields in increasing increments, starting at 0.0175 graviton per square millimeter.”
Artificial light flooded his hospital room, which for the first time he identified as a WorldGov facility. Even in his desperate state, its tell-tale characteristics registered immediately. From its high ceilings, ornamented in a curious abstract leaf pattern, to its gentle pastel color schemes and spare, yet impossibly elegant furnishings, it was nevertheless a wonder of functional, efficient design.
A team of nightshift medicos crept toward the edge of his bed, accompanied by a sleek medbot. Zach stared at them quizzically.
It’s like I’m made out of glass, he thought.
“Professor Griffin,” said a male nurse. “You’re a lucky man. The Alegarli nanobots that were already in your system repaired some of the critical damage from the crash before we even got to you. but…”
“Jenkins,” said Gloria Szabo, the resident physician, “let’s not tire our patient with too many details just now. How do you feel?”
“Relieved,” said Zach. “And worried. The longer I lie here, the more likely the fabric of the universe will unravel.”
Dr. Szabo smiled.
“It’s normal to have a heightened sense of purpose after a traumatic injury,” she said. “I promise you, the universe will be just fine until you recover.”
“But….” said Zach.
“Jenkins,” said Szabo, “get the nutritionist up here and see if we can get some food into our patient. You’re looking a little pale, Professor.”
She smiled at Zach again and swept off through the room’s double doors to another part of the facility.
“Sorry,” said Jenkins. “You hungry?”
“A little,” said Zach. “But let me ask you: Did Colin Harris survive?”
“Colonel Harris?” said Jenkins. “Yes, though his military training came in handy. I guess no one bothered to tell you to strap in.”
“Need to … to talk … to …” said Zach.
The effects of the crash took over again. Eight hours later, when his eyes fluttered open, he saw Lieutenant Colonel Colin Harris sitting beside his bed in full dress uniform. For a brief moment, the shiny array of brass and satin medals on Colin’s chest seemed just a tad too fanciful to be real. Zach surprised himself by sitting up with ease.
“It’s time you told me the truth,” he said.
Colin adjusted the cuffs on his forest green tunic.
“What truth?” he said. “it comes in many flavors.”
“Cut it out,” said Zach. “The only truth that matters to me, is that I’m here on my back and the granular effect is still running wild. Sunspots! I can’t even measure it, let alone stop it.”
“If that’s what you’re worried about,” said Harris, “you’ll be happy to know you’ve been officially declared dead.”
“You want to explain….” said Zach.
Colin cut him off with a wave of his right hand.
“It’s really simple,” he said. “Being dead means no one’s coming to look for you. You can work here in secret with no one to knock you in the head or shoot missiles at you.”
Zach’s eyes widened.
“You … you planned it this way,” he said. “I could have been killed.”
“Haven’t you ever seen a magic show?” he asked.
Over Zach’s grunting attempts at indignation, Colin explained the carefully staged faking of his death. The missiles were WorldGov concussion blanks, whose impact sent the lander into a programmed nosedive-and-roll-maneuver to a specific set of GPS coordinates. It eventually came to rest, as planned, over a concealed sliding door in the roadway, through which everyone on board escaped the badly damaged vessel.
But not everything had gone as planned. In the rush to take off, Colin had forgotten to remind Zach to fasten his safety harness — and there was one more unexpected development.
“One of the missiles was real,” said Colin. “Someone must have tipped off the Crelenk, or the Alegarli. Though that makes no sense. We figured they’d want to keep you alive.”
“If you’re right,” said Zach, “and it was the Alegarli, then the situation is worse than you know. If they think I’m expendable, it could only be because they’ve already figured out how to weaponize the granular effect.”
Colin took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes tight.
“Good point,” he said. “But at least now, they won’t be expecting any interference from you.”
“That only matters if I’m ambulatory,” said Zach. “And listen. Whatever Dalamacras is planning, the danger is a trillion times greater than one more interstellar power grab. I’m telling you, if the granular effect spreads beyond a few local occurrences, I wouldn’t put any money on the survival of current physical laws.”
“Meaning?” asked Colin.
“Total annihilation!” said Zach. “Of everything! Can’t believe President Delaney put a ban on research related to the granular effect. If not by me than…someone.”
“Which Delaney is that?” asked Colin. “The one who originally took up the post at Bohr six arcs ago, or the one the Alegarli replaced her with?’
Zach thumped his mattress with both fists.
“We’re doomed,” he said. “I was hoping I could get word to Altov back at the University. He could put a team together.”
Colin rested a hand on Zach’s tender left shoulder and tried to allay his fears. Apparently, his branch of the WorldGov Intel Corps had downloaded Zach’s field notes only hours after he’d uploaded them to the Bohr University cloud server.
“We’ve made some interesting extrapolations,” said Colin. “I’ll show them to you when you’re better rested.”
“Show me now.” said Zach. “Any more rest and we’ll never stop the Alegarli. Come on, you’ve got the uniform — make it work for you.”
“The uniform?” asked Colin. “You have a lot to learn. Let me see what I can do. Meanwhile, eat something and — seriously — brush your teeth.”
Colin bolted out of the room, in what Zach hoped was a real state of urgency. A few minutes later, nurse Jenkins returned with a food cart and strict instructions to eat slowly. The menu, as Zach had expected, was depressingly bland. But after a hearty meal, at least from the perspective of someone who hadn’t eaten for longer than he wanted to admit, he felt stronger, and even more determined.
Yet, as often happens, Zach’s good spirits had a brief shelf life. A familiar blur appeared in the air next to his bed. Just as before, in the Crelenk Rehabilitation Center, the blur resolved itself to a holojection of Dalamacras.
“See what your so-called bravery has netted you?” he said. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but human security systems are not up to current specifications — as set by us, of course.”
“What do you want?” asked Zach. “You can’t have gone to all this bother just to gloat.”
“Again,” said the insect-filled android shell, “your mental agility wastes itself on trivia. Brilliant observation, all the same! Just several rotations too late. We have found the perfect application for the phenomenon you discovered. A little trick of Physics involving emag containment fields. I’d love to show you what we’ve accomplished. An elegant solution really.”
“Mind elaborating?” asked Zach.
“Too late.” said Dalamacras. “You’ve squandered your last opportunity to join us. Know that your fate is, as you humans say, ‘sealed.’ Though implying that an abstraction from basic probability equations can be bound up by … paraffin wax … is simply illogical.”
“Logic’s overrated,” said Zach. “Your very existence proves that.”
“I disagree,” said the tall Alegarli. “At any rate, as of now, this entire facility is rigged to detonate the moment you step out of that filthy hospital cot. Really, on my homeworld, we don’t subject farm animals to such revolting conditions. But this, my dear boy, is the path you have chosen. Enjoy it!”
On that note, the holojection faded away. Instantly Colin burst into Zach’s room with a large uniformed security force behind him.
“They jammed every system,” he said. “We couldn’t get in any sooner.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“What?” asked Colin. “What do you….”
“Something Dalamacras said,” said Zach. “Tell me, did WorldGov ever make progress with that emag cladding project?”
“Shelved it,” said Colin. “As far as I know. The energy requirements were … insane.”
“Get me the specs and the latest test data,” said Zach. “I have an idea.”
“You do know that’s classified,” said Colin.
“You know what you sound like?” asked Zach.
Colin nodded, turned to leave and signaled his adrenalized security team to follow him. Jenkins, who’d hidden pointlessly in a nearby utility closet when Dalamacras’ holojection appeared, peered around the closet door at Zach.
“I’m … I’m going off shift now,” he said. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“Yes,” said Zach. “Get me a quantum tablet and as much caffedren as you can sneak past Doctor Szabo.”
“Not sure that’s a good idea,” said Jenkins. “In your condition….”
Zach pivoted on his hips and dangled his feet over the edge of his bed.
“You heard our friend, right?” he said. “If I don’t get what I want … ka-boom.”
“But … you,” said Jenkins, “you wouldn’t do that. We have fifteen-hundred personnel here, easy.”
“If I can’t find the basis for a defensive weapon,” said Zach, “before the Alegarli go on their rampage, I’d be doing you a favor. Or would you prefer to have everyone you love disintegrate while you watch the flesh drip off your bones?”
Jenkins stared at him, open-mouthed, shook his head and walked slowly toward the room’s double doors, where he paused and turned back.
“You want Sirius Dark or Eridani Mild?” he asked.
Zach shrugged and Jenkins walked out.
“Now we’ll see who’s cornered the market on trivia,” he said.
He pulled his feet back on to his bed and shut his eyes.
The steady application of controlled gravity modulation fields in increasing increments, starting at 0.0175 graviton per square millimeter, he thought. Interesting approach.
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.
Illustration, “A Wash of Indistinct Noise Accompanied by Blurry Blotches of Light and Color,” by Steven S. Drachman