Out in space, as Science Officer Kelatrin had predicted, the unpredictable happened. Up until the last five hundred kilometers of its journey to Ghilos 4, the Dohlfaleer’s sensors reported nothing unusual. Soon after, however, the crew of the Jolatrin vessel began to experience what they assumed were hallucinations.
At first these “visions” felt inconsequential. Mission Biologist Giselle Amethyst noticed that the holocube of family photos perched on her workstation was now showing photos from ten years earlier than before. An image of her twelve-year-old son had been replaced by an image of him when he was a toddler. Other crew members reported similar incidents. But everyone agreed that they had nothing to fear from an anomaly that produced such minor effects.
As the Dohlfaleer came closer to Ghilos 4, however, the temporal displacements caused by the anomaly became more severe. At five thousand kilometers, objects began to oscillate between different temporal states. Chief Engineer Dravulen, for instance, saw the contents of his tool cabinets change in rapid fire. From one moment to the next, a spectroscope might be replaced with an earlier model or worse, with an ancient magnifying glass.
Unbeknownst to the ship’s crew and passengers the anomaly’s most disturbing distortions of space-time loomed on the horizon. At approximately four hours into this badly distorted region of the Cosmos, an assortment of life forms materialized at random, throughout the ship. Whether sentient or not, they were confused, frightened and in some cases violent.
Verthani herself saw a female Jolatrin materialize before her eyes. From the intruder’s purple silk robes, stiff leather sandals and gold shoulder clasp embossed with a blazing star, Verthani knew at once whom she was dealing with. This, she decided, must be a priestess of the cult of Jolatrinaar, which dated back at least eight thousand years.
Strangely, the priestess had lost none of her composure, despite arriving in a strange environment without warning. Simplifying matters even further, the ship’s AI was sufficiently versed in ancient languages to translate her archaic dialect.
“What demonry is this?” the priestess asked. “Return to Jolatrinaar’s Way or face her eternal condemnation!”
The situation went downhill from there, as more and more displaced creatures of various species along with a chaotic array of objects and substances filled the decks of the Dohlfaleer. Though he was as shocked as anyone, Captain Steretak’s single-minded focus was on operations. He convened an emergency staff meeting of his top officers.
“Report,” he said. “Navigation, helm control? Engineering, hull integrity? Communications, are we hearing any chatter from the planet’s surface?”
Communications Officer Togepal piped up immediately.
“At first, Captain,“ she said. “We received standard credentials messaging. You know, approach vectors, landing protocols and so on. Then there was a wild burst of activity. It was like everyone on the planet was trying to call out at once. And now … silence. I’ve checked the sensors and, well, it doesn’t look as if Ghilos 4 even has a communications array anymore.”
The Captain nodded and swallowed his rising panic. He projected an air of calm as the other officers reported in. When they were finished, he spoke as decisively as his racing heart would let him.
“Get this vessel into orbit and let’s see where we are,” he said. “Our famous archaeologist wanted this planet, so I figure the sooner we give it to her, the sooner we can get out of this … zoo. Security, put any stray creature or dangerous object you find in isolation, preferably in stasis. Same for any sentient you can’t reason with. Shut down all non-essential systems. Channel that power into our shields. Maybe if we put up enough resistance on our end, we can create a safe zone around the ship.”
Genion Baltor shook his head.
“That might work briefly,“ he said. “The problem is that this anomaly is so volatile, we’ll be lucky if this area of space-time doesn’t collapse like a soap bubble and take us with it.”
“Nothing like a little realism,” said Steretak. “Work with Engineering. See if you can rig up a new type of shield against this anomaly. Now, let’s get moving.”
By now, Verthani had led the priestess, who called herself Lorneavi, to a large view screen at the end of the main residential bulkhead. The ancient woman’s jaw dropped.
“So these are the heavens?” she asked. “And this, a mere boat, has risen to greet them? What blasphemers you are, to have studied the Dark Arts so assiduously.”
Verthani shook her head.
Why did I think she’d understand? she thought, and decided to try a different tack.
“You must be hungry,” she said. “Let me bring you proper refreshment as befits a guest to my … my boat.”
Verthani brought the priestess to her quarters, where the displaced female’s’ astonishment flared up again. Where, she demanded, was Verthani’s “ark of holy nectarcomb”? After several tense minutes, during which Verthani wracked her brain to recall her ancestors’ ancient lore, she took Lorneavi to meet Athcarone. Fortunately, the savvy Linguist managed to win Lorneavi’s trust, by quoting a few key passages from Jolatrin’s most sacred texts. He went on to explain their current predicament, in terms more compatible with Lorneavi’s ancient frame of reference.
“What crime against Jolatrinaar must these Ghilostri have committed to be punished in this way?” she asked. Verthani reached a delicate hand out to touch Lorneavi’s forearm.
“That is why we would … sojourn … here,” she said. “To learn what became of the Ghilostri, these many cycles.”
“Then you are blessed,” she said. “Jolatrinaar has sent me to your boat to help you. For by my sacred talisman, I know the ways of Evil and can lead you to its source on the surest feet.”
“We are grateful for her wisdom,” said Athcarone. “And for yours. Now, because we have not reached our destination, you may wish to rest in Verthani’s quarters until we arrive.”
“Oh no, I am not in the least fatigued, my son,” said Lorneavi. “Take me now to your sacred shrine that I may pray for continued strength.”
Verthani cast a pained glance at Athcarone who waved her away with a reassuring flick of his hands. Somehow, she knew, he’d find a way to smooth over this latest obstacle to Lorneavi’s acceptance of the truth.
The truth? she asked herself. What actually counts for truth right now?
Had Lorneavi been displaced into her timeframe, or had she herself been thrust into the deep past? Did the concept of “timeframe” hold up in a situation like this? Every sign pointed to the conclusion that she, Lorneavi and everyone aboard the Dohlfaleer, were more or less unstuck from Time. Too bad she had no idea what the phrase meant. Obviously, Time still had some hold on her, because her dorsal aorta hadn’t stopped. In fact, it was pumping faster than ever.
Small favors, she told herself.
Besides, her highly trained mind saw in this bizarre phenomenon an unprecedented opportunity to explore the roots of Jolatrin society. Provided, that is, she survived long enough to return to her own timeline and capture her observations in a holobook.
So while she took modest comfort from the tantalizing prospect of a major scientific discovery, it was quickly shattered by the violent tremors that shook the Dohlfaleer. Her trim insectoid frame was thrown to the floor. She watched, her head throbbing, as bits of emergency equipment, usually tethered to a corridor wall, came loose and careened into the opposite side of the corridor.
Then, as suddenly as the shaking began, it stopped. Captain Steretak’s steady voice echoed out of the ship-wide comlink.
“This is the captain,” he said. “We apologize for the turbulence, You’ll be glad to know it was for a good cause. We should be spared any more strange visitors from here on out.“
Wary, arms aching, Verthani pulled herself upright and caught the attention of a passing crew member in a dark green Engineering uniform.
“Mind explaining what’s happening here?” she asked.
“Quarks if I know,’ said the crew member. “The official explanation is that the Chief cooked up a rapidly oscillating space fold field — so we’re neither in this patch of space-time nor out of it.”
“Think it will hold?” asked Verthani.
“Maybe,” said engineer. “As long as the meaning of ‘hold’ hasn’t changed. Don’t bet on it. Gotta go.”
Verthani looked after her and wondered what it was like to remain calm in the face of so many unknowns. What she hadn’t taken into account was the sentient mind’s ability to use abject fear as a shield against every other emotion, including itself. Still shaken, Verthani took a deep breath, picked herself up, walked over to her workstation and began scanning the surface of Ghilos 4. Had the temporal distortions that rocked this star system also demolished the prize she’d traveled so far to examine?
Her first thought was to call up the coordinates for the lost city of Yeltrex-Drobai that Athcarone had painstakingly derived. Her workstation’s telescopic sensors, which required recalibration, due to the anomaly, sent back disturbing footage. It showed the abandoned city relatively intact, except for some curious gaps.
The magnificent high towers for which the city was famed in song and poetry were now hollow husks. It was as if some creature had stripped out everything required to sustain a high-tech civilization. From wiring and heating systems to water pumps, ventilation — most of it had gone missing. Verthani zoomed in closer and saw grand structures crumbling after centuries of neglect. In one poignant image, she saw a once-elegant hover car stuck nose-first into a broad circular fountain at the center of a large public square.
Life had stopped dead, as if the predator-scenario that she’d concocted to intimidate her superiors back home had nevertheless come true. Later, over the evening meal, she shared her impressions with Athcarone.
“There was a predator” she told him. “The Ghilostri preyed on themselves.”
“Come along now, Verthani,” said the always even-tempered Linguist. “Why would they….”
“Oh not intentionally,’ said Verthani. “Still, who else can you think of could have pulled off this colossal temporal screw up? “
“I know what Lorneavi would tell you,” he said. “Fortunately, we won’t see her for a while. Once she heard we were a ship full of ‘unbelievers,’ she set off on a crusade to bring us the Way of Jolatrinaar’.”
Good luck with that, thought Verthani.
On second thought, she could think of at least ten lonely crew members who might respond to Lorneavi’s unwavering faith. And, truth be told, she envied the priestess plucked from Time. Verthani’s own mission was in shambles, and what would she make of what she’d already seen on the planet’s surface? And what if, despite the Chief Engineer’s ingenuity, they were stuck in this broken-down part of the Cosmos for all of its fractured eternity?
To be continued…. Read the next episode here
A new Episode of Anomaly appears every other Monday.
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.