The aftermath of Crawford’s confrontation with an inscrutable alien device of immense power began as a flurry of quick, executive decisions. Even as the Sky Rock hustled its thrusters out of the Skelana system, Arielle sent a series of urgent messages to GalaxyPol team leaders in every sector of settled space. The Skelana system and all of space within a hundred cubic parsecs was declared off limits, effective immediately.
And though that had major ramifications for business and commercial travel throughout the Phaeton galaxy, the most severe impact was on the billions of citizens who might soon be faced with relocation. For the foreseeable future, at least until it was clear that 6N7’s control of the alien device was complete, entire systems were put on alert to begin, at least, to formulate approved evacuation plans.
In light of the seriousness of the situation, Crawford was not released from service as he’d hoped. Instead, GalaxyPol was intent to use him as a spokesperson for the mission. His first-hand account, it was hoped, would lend legitimacy to the interstellar authority’s Emergency Declaration. At first, he thought nothing of it. In the next few months his life-long aversion to public spaces was swept away by the adrenaline rush of those last few moments before the diminutive android had finally subdued the rogue Skelanese AI.
But during the eighteen months following that initial information blitz, as the threat level seemed to fade and, by all appearances, 6N7’s gamble appeared to have paid off, Crawford’s old habits of mind reasserted themselves with a vengeance. Besides, now, instead of addressing university panels or government boards, Crawford found himself called to appear on late-night talk shows, along with actors, comedians, pop-psychologists and even a zookeeper. But it was only when he finally shared the stage with a quartet of tennis-playing chimpanzees that the last thread of dedication snapped, and he put his foot down.
“I’m going home,” he told Arielle. “And don’t think I won’t go public if you try to stop me.”
“GalaxyPol is within its rights to….” said Arielle.
Crawford put his hands up for silence and walked away.
“See you on the newsnets,” he said.
And that was that. He took the next commercial flight to Helica 3, rebooted his secure home and made a point of never being seen in public again.
One bleak winter night nearly twenty years later, Crawford lay awake as he had every night for the past week. Memories of the asteroid he’d abandoned ravaged his mind in his latest bout of full-blown PTSD. Initially the standard therapies had worked. He’d settled back into familiar routines. He could enjoy puttering around his extensive collection of crystalline rock formations from across the settled universe. At times, by studying their three-dimensional radiographs, he liked to imagine that he could see the patterns that held the cosmos together. it was a blissful feeling, no matter how fleeting.
But little by little, the old dreams returned, more determined than ever to make a mockery of his retreat from that terrible ordeal. And yet tonight, Crawford rejected the medically approved sedative that his android attendant had offered him more than once. At age eighty-five, he was weary of being protected from things. He’d accepted the standard neural implants that fought off dementia. He’d accepted a standard dose of antidepressants to help him cope with the stress of his life-and-death gamble with the misshapen Skelanese device. But tonight, he refused to accept being numbed.
I’ll either tough it out, or it’ll kill me, he told himself. I don’t care which.
With the help of aching muscles and groaning joints, he stumbled out of bed and crept into his living room, where an ergonomically balanced comfy chair waited for him. Maybe, he thought, if he reviewed the past, it might lose some of its power over him. But as his mind flooded with images of the Sky Rock crew, all he could do was laugh.
“What a fat lodge of eager beavers,” he mumbled. Yet he had to admit that while he had sunk back into self-imposed exile and oblivion, they had gone on to make names for themselves in the interstellar community.
With the data captured through their study of the kreljebtra’s spatio-temporal rifts, Saffron Davies and Elton Cameron had refined the theory of space-fold engines and designed a new generation of more energy-efficient and accurate star ships.
For her part, Dulcey Shear had continued tracing space-fold trails until she uncovered the distant hiding place of the Skelanese — the vast majority of whom had fled the moment the experiment led by Djaleerin went horribly wrong. They’d activated their failsafe plan and relocated to a planet at the fringes of interstellar civilization. They’d terraformed it with remarkable speed, using their advanced design replicators and manufacturing platforms. About two years after returning to Helica 3, Crawford had received a breathless comlink from his former assistant.
“You should see them, Dr. Caldera,” she’d said. “Carrying on as if nothing had happened.”
When pressed for news of the ill-fated researchers who’d activated the kreljebtra, Dulcey could only add:
“Saffron thinks they might have been converted into a novel combination of pure energy and baryonic matter. Don’t ask me what that means.”
As for Arielle Chaplin, her daring mission to save the Cosmos from splitting itself into shards had earned her a steady trajectory to the Director of GalaxyPol, no less than five years after the Sky Rock’s mission. More than once, during that period, she’d tried to rope Crawford back into service, if only to chair once again an interstellar a symposium on the dangers of spatiotemporal rifts.
“An android could do that,” he said. “And no, I do not authorize you to make a likeness of me.”
There had been other contacts, as news of Crawford’s adventures reached the more far-flung corners of settled space, but he’d deflected them all. His only desire was peace and quiet. It was a state of mind this exercise in reminiscence had just about restored to him when he heard the distinctive rasp of an encrypted comlink he hadn’t used in years. Acting on reflex he answered — and was startled to hear a familiar, deep resonant voice.
“Mr. Caldera,” said 6N7, “I can now issue an interim report.”
“Took you long enough,” said Crawford.
“Longer than you might think,” said the android. “I am now firmly enmeshed in several different timelines, as I continue to make contact with more of the parallel devices that our Skelanese inadvertently linked themselves to.”
Though the technical details soared way above Crawford’s self-trained knowledge of astrophysics, quantum computing, and metaversal theory, the outlines of 6N7’s report were clear. With persistence, once the android had subdued the mind of the kreljebtra, it had followed the interdimensional links the device was designed to produce and made contact with the entire network of kreljebtras that had precipitated the crisis.
“Every parallel device was activated by its parallel Skelanese researchers at the same relative time,” said 6N7. “I have convinced upward of a hundred thousand of them to cease operations and encouraged them to spread the word to others in the network.”
“Ha!” said Crawford. “You started a multidimensional grassroots organization.”
“I do not understand,” said 6N7.
“Of course you don’t.” said the weary human. “Well, good job, Fido. Keep up the good fight. I’m going back to bed.”
“The nominally demeaning appellation, ‘Fido” is not….” said 6N7. But Crawford broke contact, raised himself up from his chair and shuffled back to bed.
“Totally a Fido,” he chuckled.
A few minutes later, he was asleep. And whether by intent or merely as a coincidence of his exhausted psyche, Djaleerin appeared to him, silhouetted against a background of stars.
“You are home, Beloved Crawford. Rest well,” she said. “The universe can wait.”
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.
Image by Steven S. Drachman