Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lukewarm Welcome

“Good morning, Mr. Sorenson.” Shawn, the technician who monitored Alex during the mornings had a twangy martian drawl. After six days of waking up to that, it was starting to grate on him.

Alex squinted into the overhead lights as they warmed up and rolled onto his side, looking at the clock through the thick observation wall. Six AM, just like yesterday and the day before that. Just like every day since they had taken the portal back to the Solar System. “You got half of that right.”

“Sunny as always, I see. Please proceed to the scanner.” Shawn’s voice was coming from somewhere in the ceiling, likely working from a different part of the station. Alex hadn’t been able to locate the speaker. All he could see was the single air vent, a scanner array and a half-dozen burner nozzles. Not being there in person probably made it easier to fry the room if need be.

“Bathroom first.” He swung his legs out from what passed for a bed, standing with a stretch. A quarantine room was a strange place. With the exception of the ceiling and observation wall - 150 millimeter thick impact resistant glass with an airlock - it was nothing but white, curved surfaces with varying levels of resistance. The bed itself was little more than a soft plateau rising up from the hard floor.

Shawn didn’t reply, but the lights on the camera nodes went off. He didn’t know if they actually shut the cameras off, but there were laws that allowed basic levels of privacy, even in quarantine. There were a host of other ways they could monitor him without violating those laws. Heat scanners, sonar... that big
observation window. While the hallway it was open to was currently empty, it was the most difficult thing to get used to when he was taking care of his business.

Coming home had not been triumphant. Not that it wasn’t great at first, when he gently accelerated the Kshlavo out through the ring. That first minute had been tremendously exciting. He had been on top of the world.

As it turned out, having large object of unknown origin just appear out of nowhere in your home system set off all of the alarms. Having it spit out a ship that should have been dead in the water several thousand light years away just exacerbated the response. There had been a lot of very authoritative yelling on the com.

A boarding craft had come for them, soldiers in full boosted armor escorting them off the Kshlavo at gunpoint. It was hard to tell if someone was sympathetic or not with the faceplate they put on those suits. The flight to the medical station had been very, very quiet.

That had turned right around just as soon as Alex had been sequestered into his quarantine suite. Several branches of the military had come around to take statements on what happened in the dyson shell. Most of it, anyway. He may have omitted the part about taking a nap with his alien girlfriend.

They had been particularly unhappy that he had shut off his recording equipment. None of them seemed to like the answer that he had just wanted some privacy while he went to relieve himself and had forgotten to turn it back on.

Once they had gotten enough information, they disappeared. Alex hadn’t spoken to anyone but Shawn in the morning and then Lorin in the evenings since then. They both seemed like good people. He hoped they were, anyway. They had access to the button that would burn the room, after all.

He washed his hands and dried them on the mint green scrubs they had furnished him with. “Done.”

The camera lights came back on. “Good. Now proceed to the scanner.”

It was only three steps away. Another platform rising up from the floor, narrow and directly under the medical scanning array. He climbed onto it, head resting on a squishy lump at one end. There were three scans per day in quarantine. Alex closed his eyes, expecting to pick up some more sleep. Not like they needed him to do anything other than lie there.

The scanner hummed to life above him. “You want your five day evaluation?”

Alex shrugged, eyes still closed. “Sure, why not?”

“Everything looks good so far. Even taking into account the repairs made by the mediboard, you returned in slightly worse shape than you left. That is consistent with how the body reacts to long periods of elevated stress.”

“I don’t recommend getting shot up by the Ehom.”

That got a chuckle out of Shawn. “In addition, your scans have been clear of any sign of infections, viruses or foreign bodies - with the exception of that thing fused to your sternum. That’s giving the boys in the lab a fit.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yup. It doesn’t scan well or appear to do anything. It just seems to get them all riled up. They think your account of how you got it is impossible, but there it is.”

“Shame they weren’t there, could have experienced it firsthand for themselves.”

Shawn sounded particularly entertained by that idea. “I don’t reckon they’d like that very much.”

“They have any thoughts on what it is?”

“I’ve heard a lot of things being floated around. They seem to come back to your first assertion all the time, that it’s a sort of passive tracking or ID tag.”

“Good to hear, but it feels like cold comfort right now.”

“I can understand that. As long as nothing changes, you’ll be out of there in another day.”

Exposure to unknown alien environments had a one week quarantine. The scans were to make sure they weren’t missing anything that could have adverse effects. “So soon? How’s Shipmaster Tshalan doing?”

“Hang on.” There was a long pause. “Feisty. So I am told. She’s just as clean as you are.”

Alex smiled and laughed. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

And Go Home

When they returned to the alcove, the bar in the middle of the timer was still turning. Their estimation had been accurate, just two dots on the inner ring remained now. The rest had faded out, faint blue ghosts against the flat grey material.

"Just in time" Alex turned his suit's recorder back on and swept the video camera mounted on his shoulder over the arch and timer. The portal was still frosted over but he could make out the Kshlavo gleaming in the distance.

"Yes, less than eight minutes remain." Carbon appeared to be doing the same thing, slowly twisting her torso from left to right. The second to last light flashed and then seemed to evaporate, turning translucent like the rest. She looked over at Alex. “Four minutes.”

“Good, I’m ready to get out of here.” He blew out his breath, ragged and uneasy as he played what-if in his head. What if it wasn’t counting down to open, but rather to go to a different portal? What if it was shutting down? What if it just didn’t open? They were going to have a hell of a time surviving on seasonal fruit.

They waited in silence as the timer spun down. Alex shifted nervously from foot to foot as Carbon just stood, face placid but otherwise unreadable. He knew her well enough to know she was covering something up - that was one of the two expressions he had seen her use during the first few months on the ship.

The bar stopped suddenly, sitting vertically as the final dot faded like the others. Nothing seemed to happen at first, then the frost-like haze covering the portal thawed and disappeared, leaving it clear. Alex heaved a sigh of relief, looking over just in time to see Carbon relax and break into a grin. She reached out and took hold of his arm, “let us go now, before this closes again.”

He didn’t need to be told twice and they stepped through the portal together. No surprises going this way, no searing pain. One foot after the other and they were done, back in the landing area with the ship. It didn’t frost over again, but it only took one shared look to know they didn’t intend to go back through just yet.

Carbon retrieved her weapons from the outer arch and set about reattaching them while Alex looked around. Nothing had changed, which wasn’t surprising. They hadn’t even been gone for a day. That wasn’t even long enough for dust to settle.

But that was the problem: nothing had changed. He looked up at the portal ring embedded at the top of the dome, as empty as it had been when they left. He balled up his fists and glared at it up there. “Shit. Just... fucking shit!”

Carbon’s head snapped up from re-affixing the holster to her armor, startled by his tone. She stepped out of the arch and stood next to him, not yet seeing the problem. “What is- Oh, no.”

He seethed in silence, unable to form a cohesive thought that wasn’t just profanity. Finally, words returned to him. “What the hell does this thing want? Do we have to go all the way up to that building at the top of the shell? There’s no way for us to do that!”

Carbon started to speak, picking her words carefully. “Perhaps... this has a timer as well? It could just open at a preset interval.”

Alex gritted his teeth and tamped down on his temper. “Why would they do that? They could turn the thing on whenever they wanted when they brought us here.”

“I do not know. I am just offering it as a possibility. I think we could also create a powered sled of sorts from parts of the ship to make overland travel faster, if need be.”

“Are you insane? That would take a decade, at least.” Alex spun on a heel to face her, finger leveled at her nose and anger in his voice again. She looked back at him, somber blue eyes filled with worry shut him down before he could get any further. His arms dropped and shoulders slumped, the fire in him dead. “I’m sorry. I just... I just want to go home.”

“I understand that, but be-” Carbon stopped abruptly as the floor started to vibrate, as though the entire dome had been rung like a bell. It grew to an audible drone and rose to a roar, ending with a massive clap of thunder as the portal activated.

It wasn’t the dusty mess of the globule they had taken refuge in this time. Space as black as ink with a few winking specks lay on the other side of the portal now. As they stared up at it, Carbon was the first to speak. “Where do you think it goes?”

“It couldn’t... Come on.” Alex turned and started running to the ship as fast as he could manage in the suit.

“What is it?” She only managed two steps before she stopped and dashed back for her swords. Alex was almost to the ship when she started after him again.

He hadn’t responded at all, possessed by what had taken root in his mind. He stumbled through the airlock and was sprinting down the passageway before Carbon had even gotten back inside.

“What is going on?” Her voice came in over the com link, anxiety in it clear as if she were standing next to him.

“Just need to see something.” Alex finally replied as he plowed through engineering, breathing hard from the run.

She followed him back to find him sitting at the backup console, fingers tapping a rapid beat across the control surface. “Alex, what are you doing?”

“Nav’s back on, and this...” He brought up an live scan on the display and slumped back into the chair, gesturing at a little yellow speck. His chest still heaved as he looked over at Carbon, surprise creeping out around exhaustion. “This is Sol.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pack It Up

“Yes.” Carbon didn’t hesitate, didn’t appear to think about it. She knew what she wanted. A moment later came a sigh and Carbon shook her head. “No. My people need me, I cannot just disappear. Not with this discovery.”

“You sure?” Alex slipped his gloved hand into hers again, fingers tightly intertwined.

“I am. I would like to stay with you, but I have many commitments that are more important than my happiness.” She shifted over and rolled onto her side, resting her head on his shoulder.

He mulled that over. “More important than us?”

She grimaced in the dim light and draped an arm across his chest. “I did not mean- I like the idea of being with you but this place unsettles me, I do not know if that will ever change.”

There was no small amount of relief in his voice. “I get your meaning now. Really, I was hoping you’d say no. I didn’t think that through, there are lots of things that I’d still like to do that aren’t here.”

The corners of her mouth turned up and she stretched out, planting a kiss on his cheek. “I have noticed that you will do that on occasion. It is usually appreciated.”

“That’s good, I’ve always been like that. Don’t think it’ll change.” Alex laughed and reached up to massage the base of her antennae.

“You wear it well.” Carbon nestled awkwardly against him in her armor, eyes closing as she laughed with him. “This is not as satisfying as I had hoped.”

“Take it off. Not like there’s anything here.”

Her eyes stayed closed as she shook her head. “It is still here and this armor requires an external frame for ingress. Trying to wriggle out of this without it would be troublesome as well.”

Alex grinned. “Oh? I’d be happy to watch.”

“I am sure you would. Despite that, I will not be getting out at this time.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “Sounds like a lot of trouble anyway. We’ve only got, what, 14 hours till the portal opens?”

“Mmm.” Carbon squeezed him gently, face pressed into his shoulder.

Alex looked down and watched her breathe - slow, steady and very asleep. He got smug about that. Despite being somewhere that made her uncomfortable, she still trusted him enough to fall asleep.

He checked his wrist monitor, a little under 13 hours left, actually. He dialed in an alarm for two hours ahead of the timer running down. No sense in being late, particularly if they could actually leave the parking garage. They still had eight days before the Search and Rescue ship could even arrive. It was still better to be safe when it came to getting a pickup with no FTL drives.

Which was problematic in that they no longer had any FTL communications, with the exception of the emergency beacon. Sublight communications still took time and the globule was not optimal for those. Well, there wasn’t anything he could do about it yet, no point in getting worked up.

His eyes turned skyward again, to the artificial stars and moon. Earth didn’t have nights like this in many places anymore. He’d never seen stars so densely packed and vibrant, even against the half moon. It was nice here. Peaceful despite the weirdness, silent save for the wind in the grass.

Alex woke up to his forearm being twisted about, a quiet beeping alarm coming from the speaker on his wrist monitor. In the dim morning light he could see Carbon curled around it, bleary eyed and poking at the screen. The alarm cut out and she let go, stretching out beside him again.

Then she remembered where they were. She pushed herself back up, surprise struggling through the haze of sleep. “Sch- Why did let sleep?”

“It had been a long day, I didn’t see any harm in it. Not like there’s anything else to do here.”

She shook her head, eyes clearing up as she stood and brushed grass off her armor. “That is not a good reason. Things could have happened. Have we missed the portal?”

“No, we’ve got two hours yet.”

Carbon relaxed visibly at that. “Good. We should head back, I do not want to take chances on how long the portal will remain open.”

“Soon enough.” Alex had the scanner out again, drawing the sensors over the fruit she had gathered the previous day. “Clean enough to be safe. Have some breakfast.”

“I am not hungry right now.”

He snapped the scanner closed and gave her a dubious look as he bit into one. The texture and flavor were both familiar, pear-like with a hint of cinnamon. “S’good. Real, too. When was the last time you had food that didn’t come out of a printer nozzle?”

Carbon avoided his eyes for a moment, then sat down across from him and picked one up. “Five years, fourteen weeks and nine days.”

He almost choked on his fruit. “Why so long?”

She didn’t reply, instead sinking her teeth into the ruddy skin and tearing away the white flesh beneath. She savored the hell out of it, closing her eyes while she chewed. It took her almost a minute to finish, finally swallowing with a smile. “When it became clear that our fresh food resupplies would be reduced, I stopped eating them so the crew could have more. Most of the command staff lowered their intake, only myself and the captain abstained fully.”

“Wow.” He didn’t have anything to say to that, now eating to keep his mouth busy so he wouldn’t have to talk. Dispenser food was perfectly reasonable, but you could tell it wasn’t real. It seemed to get more pronounced the longer you ate it, as well. He’d only been off fresh for a year now.

“It was a time of sacrifice, it was not a difficult choice.”

He nodded and they continued to eat in silence till they had turned the little pile of fruit into a pile of cores. Alex pushed himself off the ground and offered Carbon a hand. She likely did not need it, but this did not stop her from taking it. “Hour and a half left. Better get a move on.”

She laughed, her gloved hand once more in his. “We should. It may take us several minutes to walk back.”

Alex chuckled, then grew quiet. “Hey, when we get back to the ship...”

“Yes?” Her head tilted, inquisitive.

“I call first on the bathroom.”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Question

Like many things, getting to the north pole of the shell was going to be easier said than done. After a few measurements and some number crunching, Alex and Carbon had determined that the whatever the green triangle was pointing at was roughly thirty million kilometers away. Not exactly an afternoon hike.

The map was aware of their presence. When they left the clearing it shut off and surged to life again once they returned. Alex returned to the pedestal and watched it turn, leaning in to get a closer look at the fine detail. He pressed his face to the very edge of the hologram and learned that it would react to touch when a mountain range ran into the tip of his nose and the whole thing drew to a stop.

Alex jerked away from the hologram and it began its slow rotation again. He reached out and pushed a finger into a desert plain. The surface resisted and then gave way, a small hexagonal section of the globe sinking in and popping back out. It flexed to reflect the actual curve of the interior wall, growing to the size of a dinner plate.

It worked rather like the tablets he was used to. He could grip the edges and felt resistance and the screen responded to various pokes and prods in a way that was instantly familiar. He looked over his shoulder at Carbon, who was doing something with the trees. “Hey, come check this out, the map does stuff.”

“In a moment.” He heard Carbon’s shields pop off and she took a deep breath and exhaled with content. “It has been too long.”

“It is good, isn’t it? Now come look at this, these are solid holograms.”

She sidled up to the pedestal, arm to arm with him. “Interesting. I have seen static implementations of similar technology, but nothing this detailed or useful.”

“Really? I’ve never seen it before...” Alex looked at her as he tilted the map piece, scrolling over towards the grassy field they were in. Maybe there would be some other building they couldn’t see nearby or some other hint as to what they were supposed to do.

“It was a technical demonstration.” She waved a hand and squinted up at the sun analog, the light it was putting out starting to turn amber as thought it were late afternoon. “Inefficient in too many ways.”

“I don’t think efficiency is a big concern here.” The big lake appeared on the display, the tiny grey alcove and then the copse they were in. The zoomed in map was dynamic, grasses waving and the globe lit up, a bright light surrounded by an almost perfect ring of trees. Alex flexed the display down towards the globe.

“Is that...” She trailed off and looked up again. The black shape next to the pedestal shifted and for a moment Carbon was staring up at Alex through the display. She looked back down just in time to see him to squint up into the sun. “It is a live display.”

“You know what? Not that surprised anymore. A little unsettled, though.” He zoomed out and rolled the view slowly over the surrounding area.

“Mm. Have you seen anything useful before now?”

“I’ve seen lots of untouched land, but no other structures.”

“If you find anything, let me know. I am going to gather some fruit.” She sounded happy and had that getting-away-with-something smile again.

“I will.”

After two more hours of investigating the shell through the map, night had fallen and Alex still hadn’t found anything aside from a massive building at the north pole. That answered that question, at least.

“You must come see.” She slipped her arm into his and literally pulled him away from the pedestal without further warning.

“Alright, just let- okay.” He flailed his free arm at the display for a moment, intent lost as he stumbled to keep up with her.

Carbon sat down in the grass, legs folding neatly as she pulled him down next to her. She watched him expectantly, a wry smile on her lips. “Do you see it?”

His eyes darted around for a moment and he felt panic rising. What was he supposed to see? The grass was the same as it had been. There was a little pile of fruit and she looked the same as she had before. “No?”

A little mischief worked its way into her eyes and she gave him a shove, laying him out in the grass. Then it made sense. In the darkness a half moon shined down, what looked like the milky way spilled out across the sky. He relaxed and took it in. “Surprised again. How does that work?”

Carbon laid down next to him, head next to his. “I have a few ideas, but I do not know.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“It is.” She slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze. They laid there for some time, looking up into the false sky. Alex disentangled his hand from hers and shut his recording equipment off. He held his wrist monitor up for her to see what he had done and gestured for her to do the same. Carbon looked off for a moment before giving him a nod.

“Awhile back, you said you didn’t like your job, that you wanted to stop but you felt that you couldn’t.” He took a deep breath and ordered his thoughts. “When the timer runs out, if we can leave... Would you like to stay?”