The next morning, Crawford took one of Sky Rock’s four shuttles down to the surface of the asteroid that eight years earlier, he’d worked on day and night. The journey had enveloped his mind in a whirling tornado of fear, anticipation and regret. Yet through those howling winds of emotion, he was still expected to pay attention to comlink jabber from Arielle, Elton and even Gwendolyn. She at least, had offered a constructive thought.
“I don’t know what you’ll find down there,” she said. “But in case it helps, I always recite the Fibonacci series when things get tough. Keeps me grounded.”
Comforting as her concern was, its very existence simply telegraphed the peril he might be in for. The rest of the time, he had to put up with a couple of junior operatives on the physics team telling him what to watch out for. After five minutes of incessant chatter, he broke in on their non-stop advice.
“Hell,” he said. “I should look out for Hell. Got it. Caldera out.”
But the cantankerous geologist’s peace of mind was still nowhere to be found. He no sooner shut down their annoying voices, before 6N7 piped up from a small, transparent storage compartment in the wall of the shuttle’s cabin. Once again, Crawford was struck by the four-legged android’s deep, cultured voice.
“We will land in approximately oh-oh-three rote,” he said. “I suggest you proceed to the airlock.”
“What’s the rush?” asked Crawford. “Does the airlock have somewhere to go after this?”
“Telemetry suggests this sector of the solar system is deteriorating more rapidly than anywhere else,” said 6N7. “I presume you’d prefer to examine the kreljebtra while it still exists.”
“Sarcasm,” said Crawford. “Pretty good for a machine mind. Now how about a little empathy?”
“Release me from this compartment,’ said 6N7. “Then I can assist you. That is as close to empathy as my operating parameters allow.”
Crawford nodded. At least the annoying machine was honest. As he headed toward the compartment, he realized his real problem was having to rely on an android for company at all. His request for “back up” had been denied.
“Too risky,” Arielle had said. “The kreljebtra is a complete unknown, and you’re the only one with a johlantra suit.”
Crawford looked down at his newly remodeled torso, now encased in the one piece alien outfit. Once he put its hood up, a polarized visor would emerge from its top and the suit’s exquisitely miniaturized life-support system would activate automatically. Astonishingly efficient, it was designed to recycle his exhalations as fresh oxygen for up to an hour after its compact oxygen tanks ran out. Speaking of which, he realized, it was high time he attached them.
Crawford lifted 6N7’s lightweight frame out of the storage compartment and set him down on the shuttle floor.
“You think this suit will work?” he asked.
“To the extent to which we understand Skelanese tech,” said the android, “it should function as you expect. Our understanding, however….”
“Sorry I asked,” said Crawford. “Let’s go.”
Maybe, he told himself, if I’d stayed on a little longer … coulda talked Djaleerin out of it. They might have listened to reason.
But as his vivid memory reminded him, the Skelanese mind was entirely different from his. It went without saying that it couldn’t be persuaded with what passed for logic in human cultures. The Skelanese had a goal, and had what they thought was a fool-proof way of realizing it. But given that, one guilty thought still nagged at him.
During his entire eight-year stint with the Skelanese, he never thought to ask what drove them to seek a passageway to a parallel universe. In retrospect, he couldn’t convince himself that their vast, enigmatic project stemmed from “scientific curiosity” alone as he understood it. But what had motivated them? Was it simply a childish zeal to control the universe, or was it, perhaps the fulfillment of a religious imperative?
Maybe they thought their god was on the other side of a souped-up space fold, he thought.
But his hosts had kept their cards close to their blue feline chests. With nothing more to be gained by mulling the past, he flipped up his suit’s hood. The sudden appearance of the visor and the rush of oxygen into his newly formed “helmet” took him by surprise.
“I suggest we disembark,” said 6N7. “Agent Chaplin is getting concerned.”
“Is she?” asked Crawford. “And yet here I am taking all the risks. Open the door, Fido.”
“The designation ‘Fido’ is inaccurate,” said 6N7.
“Debatable,” he said. “But how about we get this booster off the launch pad?”
6N7 stood up on its black back legs and entered a command string into a keypad in the threshold of the airlock with its “nose.” After a resonant clank, the thick door swung outward toward the asteroid’s surface.
The johlantra suit’s visor darkened at once. Crawford stepped out onto the asteroid and hoped that eight years of cozy, isolated living on a “Goldilocks” planet with 1G and lush, green forests hadn’t made him forget how to asteroid-walk.
It was rough going at first, but the thought of running out of oxygen before completing this phase of the mission drove him on. Soon enough, he had the hang of it again, thanks in large part, he was sure, to the alien encounter suit that he’d received as a parting gift from the Skelanese. A curious gift at that, he’d thought at the time. Up until now, he’d never understood why, of all things, they’d given him an item he’d likely never use.
Failsafe device, he thought.
It made sense, His former employers had to have grasped the enormous risk they were taking, by tinkering with the fabric of the Cosmos. The gift was enough of a “coincidence” for him to wonder if the suit contained a hidden clue.
“Message center,” he said.
“The lander’s comsystem is currently offline,” said 6N7. “Shall I activate it?”
“Did I say that out loud?” asked Crawford. “I was thinking of my private comlink. I haven’t checked it in days. Do me a favor, scout out the passage to the asteroid’s center and get an up-close look at the kreljebtra. No sense getting fried in a hidden emag barrier.”
“An implausible outcome,” said the android. “But I exist to serve. I will return shortly.”
When the yellow contraption had raced off on its four black legs, Crawford tried again.
“Access message center,” he said into his helmet. “Ow!”
“Skin sample required for identification,” said an airy voice. “Confirmed. Caldera, Crawford. Human. You have no messages.”
Crawford’s heart sank. He’d hoped for a failsafe message, a relic left behind in case of disaster. But there was nothing, no last word from Djaleerin to guide him, and certainly no cryptic clue like the kind that always showed up in ancient legends.
No genie in a bottle, either, he told himself.
Now there was nothing to do but catch up with Agent Chaplin’s annoying android. Maybe by now, 6N7 had figured the whole thing out. But from the sound of rapid thumping that invaded his helmet, Crawford had his doubts. A second later, the GalaxyPol android appeared in the near distance.
“Do not approach the kreljebtra,” it said. “It has, apparently, become sentient.”
“You’re not sure of that?” asked Crawford.
“My hesitation derives from the impossibility of my statement,” said 6N7. “The kreljebtra cannot be sentient.”
According to the precocious android, the kreljebtra contained no circuit consistent with even basic cognitive functions. It was just as Elton had predicted, though Crawford thought better of sharing a conjecture he couldn’t properly explain.
“You may still be right,” he said. “That is, wrong about the mental state of the kreljebtra. Maybe it only appears sentient.”
But as 6N7 explained, its analysis wasn’t based on appearances. Its sensors had registered the equivalent of brain wave activity. Crawford jammed his fists into his hips.
“I don’t care,” he said. “We have to find out what its game is. Come on, show me the entrance.”
Without glancing back at the android, he set off for the kreljebtra. Now the crunch of the asteroid’s dust- and rubble-coated surface reached his ears through his encounter suit sensors as a series of rhythmic vibrations. Up ahead on the left, he found a down escalator on his own. His heart pounding, he rode the black stairs down to the asteroid’s interior and looked to his right. There, not twenty meters away an odd-looking contraption came into view that resembled none of the sleek, streamlined equipment he’d seem his former employers use.
Like it was thrown together from scraps, he thought.
He activated his helmet’s forward beacon for a better look. The hulking structure, at least nine meters tall was a messy array of … of he didn’t know what. After staring a minute, he decided the kreljebtra’s basic shape was a large central sphere jammed into the middle of a thick cylinder. But that geometric outline was hopelessly distorted — by a host of irregular accretions. It was as if the device had fallen victim to a parasitic infestation, or was the unhappy result of massive birth defects.
As he expected, it faced out on the large opening he’d carved in the asteroid, exposed to the brutal cold, radiation and particle storms of deep space
“Can you identify any of its components?” he asked the android.
“Most of them,” said 6N7, “with reasonable certainty. I cannot, however, tell you how they interact. On that basis, the kreljebtra is even harder to analyze. The presence of multiple redundant components, however, points to a conclusion you may find disturbing.”
“We’re here for the truth,” said Crawford, “and I’ve already seen a rogue planet appear from another universe. So, go ahead, try to disturb me.”
“Then know that I have a hypothesis about the kreljebtra” said the squat AI. “Its redundant components are not of this universe.”
Based on minor discrepancies between superficially comparable components, the android had concluded that the misshapen appearance of the kreljebtra had resulted from a process of accretion. But assuming it was right, was this the result of a malfunction or part of the original intent? 6N7 was of two minds.
“A total malfunction seems unlikely,” he said, “in that the kreljebtra is still functioning at all. More likely what we’re seeing is a corruption of its original programming.”
“And the corruption came from where?” asked Crawford. “Also from one or more alternative universes?”
“A plausible assumption,” said the android. “But only an assumption.”
“OK, but based on what the kreljebtra is doing now, can we interpolate its original function?” asked Crawford. “Maybe we could figure out how to shut it down if we….”
“At this moment,” said 6N7, “the kreljebtra and its inexplicable interactions with other universes is part of the fabric of our own universe. Any attempt to simply ‘shut it down,’ would have unforeseen consequences.”
“Hard to think of consequences more severe than planets emerging from nowhere,” said Crawford. “But wait a minute. If this device is pulling partial copies of itself in from other universes, that has to mean that there are an unspecified number of parallel Skelanese who built a similar device. What if they were all switched on off at the same relative time?”
“Though impossible to confirm,” said the android, “that appears the most likely option. If we had working plans for the kreljebtra, we could also determine if any of its original parts had been transferred to another universe.”
Crawford stared at the strange contraption, still a ways in the distance.
“So we’re flying blind,” he said. “Come on, let’s see for ourselves.”
His breath coming up short, Crawford set out across the asteroid’s surface with 6N7 at his heels. As the kreljebtra came into view, the sheer oddity of its superstructure evoked an uncomfortable mix of amusement and terror. At a distance of three meters from their destination, Crawford felt a sharp electrical jolt that threw him flat on his back. His voice reduced to a dry rasp, he called out to his android companion.
“What the … were you going to warn me about that?” he said.
“The electromagnetic field you encountered,” said 6N7, “did not exist until you came within the three-meter perimeter of the kreljebtra.”
Lucky for him, his Skelanese encounter suit had absorbed most of the shock. With effort, he was able to roll himself onto his knees and push himself up to his feet.
“Won’t try that again,” he said. “Hey, can you make out what’s on that screen?”
Crawford was pointing at a fifty centimeter display embedded in the right side of the kreljebtra.
“It appeared as we approached,” said 6N7, “and is transmitting an image of a female Skelanese speaking with closed captions underneath.”
Crawford cursed his human eyes for not being able to read the text at that distance, until he remembered the zoom function listed on the visual display at the bottom of his encounter suit’s visor. Based on his previous experience with the Skelanese, he gambled the visor would be voice-activated. He whispered the phrase “zoom-in” and felt the tension drain from his shoulders as the display came into view.
Djaleerin, he thought. What’s she saying?
As his eyes adjusted to his encounter suit’s visor, the scrolling text came into sharp focus. He whispered into his helmet.
“Audio,” he said. Djaleerin’s voice flooded his ears for the first time in years. It was as if she were standing next to him.
Beloved Crawford, come no closer. The danger is too great, due to our own stupidity.
From within the safety of his johlantra suit, Crawford listened, slack-jawed as Djaleerin’s image explained the error that had doomed the Skelanese project and now threatened the fabric of space time. Though they’d mapped out a theory of alternative universes in fine detail, and modified space fold tech to enable them to enter different universes at will, they’d failed to make a simple realization:
The possibility of a parallel universe includes the possibility of parallel versions of ourselves, a subset of which would, at that exact moment, also create a version of the kreljebtra….
Too late, the Skelanese realized that they and their counterparts had created what amounted to a cosmic ‘hall of mirrors” which refracted them into a kaleidoscopic array of interlocking consciousnesses, scattered across the cosmos.
We exist still, but in a way we do not understand. Meanwhile, the scattering continues and I fear it will not be long before our thin thread of consciousness dissipates entirely. But, Crawford, Dear, though the kreljebtra will surely continue to create havoc in your universe do not think to destroy it. The consequences will the swift and permanent — the compression of your universe, of all of our universes, into the state of its primal origins.
“The Big Bang all over again,” he said.
….strive instead to shut off the kreljebtra. Fortunately, we did endow it with a form of artificial intelligence. You may be able to reason with it, though there is no way to know how that intelligence may have been impacted by this cataclysm of our making. The kreljebtra may, in effect, be insane. Do not attempt to respond, as this message was recorded in the faint hope you might receive it before … before the end of all.
“Great,” whispered Crawford. “6N7, did you capture any of this?”
“Affirmative,” said the android. “Though I hardly think it contains data of much value. What are we supposed to make of the concept of ‘machine insanity?’”
“You may be right,” said Crawford, “but as long as the kreljebtra protects itself with that e-mag field, this is as close as we can get to an explanation now. Let’s get back to the ship. Maybe one of our geniuses has an idea.”
Crawford was startled to see 6N7 look down and pivot its head from side to side.
“I am experiencing cognitive dissonance,” it said. “between my internal and external sensors. According to the former, we have been on this asteroid for point-zero-four rote. According to the latter, we have only just arrived.”
Puzzled, Crawford’s only response was to jog back to their lander as fast as he dared across the surface of an asteroid with many potential “pot holes.”
Once in space, he put a call in to the Sky Rock. Arielle’s response was, to say the least, disturbing.
“Mr. Caldera, what in the rings of Saturn do you think you’re doing?” she said. “You didn’t spend more than 60 blinks on that asteroid.”
To be continued…. Read Episode 6 here.
A new Episode of A Slight Miscalculation will appear every other Monday. See all episodes here.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.