An Aurora Rising Short Story
2323: Two Months After the End of the Metigen War
Alex stared at the array of screens organized neatly above the low table. The whirlwind aftermath of the final battles against the Metigen fleet having at last subsided, it was surely time to go back to work.
She tried and failed to choose any particular screen on which to focus. Her vision blurred as her mind drifted….
Understand you are but a glint, a faint spark in the sea of stars of the true cosmos. Aurora was born but yesterday. Your species only moments ago.
Fifty-one lobbies. Fifty-one subordinate portals, mirrored fifty-one times over in an elaborate, interlocking tunnel network. Fifty-one universes.
We have explained to them that Aurora displays the potential to deliver the very answers we seek, but they are no longer listening.
What answers? To what questions?
We cast you adrift to do as you will, with this one warning: do not come looking for us.
But what were the Metigens doing? What purpose drove their universe-tinkering games? She had believed they went to war to preserve the secret of their existence, but what further revelations remained shrouded, hidden beyond those portals?
“The Messier 71 job could be interesting, due to the globular cluster’s hybrid profile and abnormally high metal content.”
Valkyrie’s unsolicited input jolted her out of her reverie. She blinked and tried again to concentrate, dropping her elbows to her knees and leaning in closer on the off chance it might help.
“So the Advent contract pays well, but a week sampling asteroids is hardly what I’d call a good time—if that’s our first job together you’re liable to bolt back to Division before the credits clear the bank. Zwicky Research wants detailed, on-scene readings of the impending supernova WR 102f in the Quintuplet Cluster.” She accessed Valkyrie’s astronomical databanks.
—current core 72-80M
—indicators of secondary core collapse
—detection of rising levels of Ni56 beginning 2322.1215
“But it’s liable to erupt any day now. Even I’m not that crazy. There’s two planetary scouting jobs, one in NGC 3603 and one in Messier 71, and an initial spectrum survey of two sectors way out in Palomar 1.”
A sigh made its way past pursed lips. “What do you think? 3603? I mean, we have to do something, right?”
Her inquiry was met with silence. She gave him a few more seconds then looked over her shoulder.
Caleb stood behind her, as he had for several minutes now. His hands rested on the top of the couch, and he swayed idly back and forth. His gaze appeared to be targeted at the screens displaying her current job offers, but it held no greater focus than hers had a minute ago.
He smiled a bit sheepishly. “Sorry. Well…are you sure you don’t want to risk the supernova? It could be quite the show.”
She peered up at him curiously. His eyes were bright and dancing about. The corners of his mouth were twitching erratically. The corded muscles of his arms flexed beneath rolled-up sleeves as he continued absently fidgeting behind the couch.
“You’re going completely stir-crazy, aren’t you?”
He sucked his lower lip in to chew on it. “Are you telling me you’re not?”
She held his gaze stoically for a beat, then groaned and crossed her arms atop the back of the couch. “I’m about to crawl out of my skin.”
He leaned down to tease the tip of his nose against hers. “Want to go climb a mountain and jump off of it?”
“Yes, I do.”
Caelum Stellar System, Senecan Federation Space
The mountain loomed with icy temperance over the sheltered valley in the pre-dawn light, casting a ghostly shadow upon the small research camp. Khione, they called it, after the Greek snow nymph.
When Caleb had suggested they go climb a mountain, she had assumed he meant Rainier or McKinley, or possibly some notable peak on Seneca. The fact he had instead meant this frozen volcano on the frozen fourth planet in the Caelum system, a planet so cold it was uninhabitable except in a narrow band at the equator, and then solely by a few dozen planetary geologists and geochemists? It only amplified her appreciation of him. This was fantastic.
It had taken them nearly two days to get here, since she still hadn’t managed to acquire the next-generation engine she’d been coveting. Her special use waiver request for the military’s highly classified sLume drive continued to be ‘under review.’ She could steal a copy of the schem flow—okay, she had stolen a copy of the schem flow—but she couldn’t steal an actual engine, not without getting Valkyrie in trouble with the authorities. Because much to her frustration, Valkyrie now ‘officially’ belonged to the authorities.
The arrangement, as well as Abigail returning to the service of the Earth Alliance, had been the only way Project Noetica was allowed to continue following the end of the war.
Alex was not in the employ of the government, but she was tethered to it by a thousand intertwined strands. The policymakers argued and prevaricated over what to do about Noetica, granting and revoking access to various systems by the Prevos on an almost daily basis. She’d been threatened with house arrest three times and relocation to a top-secret research facility twice…at least twice that she knew of.
Her mother was making a valiant effort to protect her from the worst of the inanity, running interference on countless bureaucratic meddling and power plays. It was a thoughtful gesture, but one driven by more than merely familial affection. Alex was a single provocation away from flipping everyone off and taking Caleb and her ship wherever the hell she wanted, permanently—something Miriam without a doubt knew.
In point of fact she would have already done exactly that, but for the risk to Valkyrie. The Artificial was still housed at EASC and physically under military control. If Alex ran, they could shut Valkyrie down. They could dismantle her if they wished, which Alex would not allow to occur.
So until she figured out a solution, she nominally played by the government’s rules. Rules which, for now, did allow her to roam settled space—so long as she informed the military of her location at all times. Tethered.
“The volcano isn’t for sport climbing. This is not a tourist destination.”
Caleb dipped his chin at Dr. Becnel, the research station director. “We realize it isn’t, and we appreciate the serious work you’re doing here. That’s why we’re here as well—work. My companion is a professional interstellar scout, and we were hired to—”
“Oh, I know who you are, both of you. Your faces were all over the news feeds for weeks.” The man’s glare shifted to her. “Ms. Solovy, I was under the impression you worked in space, however, not planet-side.”
They weren’t here on a job, of course. Caleb was lying through his teeth, an act he excelled at. Being somewhat less skilled in the art, she gave the man a blank expression. “I’m branching out.”
He stared at the two of them for several seconds before shaking his head. “It’s your funerals. I can’t prohibit you from going up—but I’m also not obligated to come rescue you when you get into trouble. There’s more than one breed of dangerous wildlife on Khione, not to mention volatile winds and unstable terrain. The days are lengthy here—you’ll have thirty-four Galactic hours of light. But if you’re above three thousand meters come nightfall you will freeze to death.”
Caleb nodded. “Understood. We’ll be careful.”
Alex suppressed a laugh as the man wilted beneath the force of Caleb’s powers of persuasion.
“We have some backup gear adapted for use in Parnes’ conditions in the supply building over there.” He pointed out the semitransparent tarp protecting the office from the elements toward the rear of the settlement. “You’re welcome to borrow it—after payment of a security deposit equal to replacement value.”
Caleb smirked. “A generous offer, but we brought our own equipment.”
“Right. In that case, the sun will be up soon, so I suggest you grab your gear and get moving.”
“Valkyrie, why does the snow have a faint jade tint to it?”
The Artificial had quickly learned when Alex voiced a question aloud, the response was to be directed to Caleb as well, via a livecomm-style interface they had customized and added to his eVi. It was a habit Alex had worked to develop after some prolonged silences led to awkwardness in the early days of their new living arrangements.
“The planet is rich in the mineral zaratite. The active geology in this region in general and the volcano in particular leads to a constant churning of the zaratite through the atmospheric cycle.”
Caleb shifted his pack as the terrain grew steeper. “It’s one reason the scientists are here. The geology is unusually dynamic but fairly stable. The planet’s mantle is constantly being expunged and replaced. Though an active volcano under the strict definition, Khione’s never experienced a violent eruption. It simply leaks materials from the mantle into the ecosystem to feed the cycle.”
She smiled to herself. He’d already known the answer and then some.
He caught her inquiring expression. “Daniel—Isabela’s husband—did a stint here a year or so before he died. That’s how I knew about this place.”
“Ah.” She’d finally been able to meet his sister a few weeks earlier when they’d spent several days on Seneca. She’d found Isabela more reserved than her brother, but the woman displayed the same innate charm that made them both easily likeable. Her daughter, on the other hand, had been a whirlwind terror of energy and stream-of-consciousness chatter. Caleb was wonderful with the little girl, however, illuminating yet another facet of his character…one she hadn’t expected.
“Also, the ground cover cannot accurately be called snow. Rather, it is a mineralized crystal containing only 4-6% water.”
At least Valkyrie had begun to drop the endless decimal places during normal conversation, Alex observed wryly as she inhaled the dry, frigid air. The atmosphere was breathable but thin, and despite the nanobot injections they’d taken to increase oxygenation in their bloodstreams they’d need to don the breather masks soon.
Caleb glanced behind them and came to a stop. “Turn around.”
The research station lay two kilometers down the steep incline. The rays from the white sun, glazed the palest of green hues by the pervasive mineral in the air, now blanketed the valley below. They reflected off the ‘snow’ to create rainbow prisms upon every surface and lit the settlement in an effulgent glow. Off to the left the ice fields peeked out from Khione’s profile in flashes of radiance.
“Well this is sublime, and we’re less than halfway up.”
“Yep.” He massaged her neck through the thermal jacket. “I think if—” His voice cut off with a sharp inhale.
She felt his body tense against her back as first one hand, then the other dropped away.
What is it?
Thirty degrees to our right, eighty meters down the slope. See it?
She honestly didn’t. Normal human eyesight discerned only whiteness decorated by the burnished nickel of scattered boulders. So she opened the full connection to Valkyrie, blinked and saw the scene anew.
The creature stood four meters tall even in its crouched stance. Six slender limbs ending in splayed pads were connected by a translucent membrane. No, ten limbs—the filmy membrane continued on to connect to the four appendages currently on the ground. Each pad was lined in a ring of stunted but barbed talons. Its skull was narrow and gaunt, the skin covering it more chitin than flesh. Two front-facing eyes were fixated on them while the additional two eyes located halfway down the long skull darted around in recessed sockets. The color of weathered flint, the creature blended almost perfectly into the surroundings.
I see it.
Do you trust me?
As soon as I step away, start moving a LOT. If it leaps toward you—which it will—make a show of drawing your Daemon. If it gets too close, don’t hesitate to shoot it. Ready?
She mentally noted the precise location of the weapon attached to her utility belt, brought along in case of an encounter with the ‘dangerous wildlife.’ An encounter like this one, it seemed.
His absence manifested in the increased chill at her back. Her left hand went to her hip. She leapt up and waved one arm in the air as her fingers fumbled with the Daemon’s clasp through the thermal material of her glove. “Hey you! Over here!”
Her pulse pounded with the force of a hurricane in her ears as the creature sprung forward and the clasp came free. Its upper limbs spread out and the dual membranes became pseudo-wings, giving it lift as its lower limbs skimmed across the ground at astonishing speed.
She raised the Daemon and pointed it at the creature’s thick chest. Its elongated jaw split apart to expose razored edges and a spindly, knife-like tongue.
She had no idea where Caleb was, but this beast was ten meters away and closing fast. She fired.
The laser struggled to penetrate the tough, bony hide. The impact evoked a shrill, strangely hollow cry, but the beast didn’t fall or even slow. She kept the trigger pressed to send an unrelenting torrent into its chest, albeit to little effect. Her other arm instinctively came up to protect her face and she retreated backward. Talons extended toward her in concert with the horrifying tongue and—
—the creature reared up, sending a limb and the attached wing whizzing by her face. A shimmer flickered to reveal Caleb atop its spine. His arms wrapped around its skull, and with a violent wrench he yanked its head up and sideways. It fought him, thrashing wildly as it tried to escape his grasp and throw him off.
Then the left-most eye locked onto Caleb’s fierce gaze and the flailing ceased. Seconds ticked by as they stared unmoving at one another.
The creature’s jaw looked as if it dipped slightly. He gave it a tight nod in return. In an exaggerated motion he released his hold and swung off its back to land smoothly on his feet beside it.
Its attention veered to her. She had quit firing, not wanting to hit Caleb amidst all the thrashing, but the Daemon remained pointed firmly at its chest.
It took a series of hurried steps to the side until it was able to watch both of them at once. Its head rose into the air and it let loose another shrill cry, then pivoted and glided off down the slope.
“Are you hurt?”
She spun to Caleb as he hurried over. “No, it never touched me.” A frown materialized as she willfully tuned Valkyrie’s excited chatter in her head down to a low hum and wiped blood from a cut on his cheek. “You are, though.”
He grimaced and wrapped his hand around hers. “Only a scratch, right?”
“I suppose. What just happened?”
“A show of dominance. It respects strength.” With a soft exhale he pulled away and slipped his pack off, then dropped it to the ground and began rifling through it. “It’s an intelligent animal. Probably not primate-level intelligence, but clearly smarter than most canines and reptiles.”
“And you learned how to recognize this…spending your summers roaming the Senecan wilderness as a teenager?”
He shrugged mildly and dug deeper into the pack. “Some of it.”
“I didn’t know you brought a cloaking shield.”
“Habit, and one I’m thinking I’m not inclined to give up.” He finally produced two energy bars from the depths of the pack and tossed her one. “Lunch?”
The summit revealed itself in the flood of afternoon sunlight streaming into the broad, shallow caldera. Alex increased the tinting on her goggles and checked the feed to her mask. Even with the supplemental oxygen, her lungs begged for more air, protesting the deepest breaths as inadequate.
The mountainside had served as a bulwark, but now the wind whipped into them with bitter malevolence. Layers of thermal garments designed to capture and amplify the body’s natural heat felt as effective as porous gauze in the face of the onslaught.
She drew her hood in tighter. “Fuck it is cold.”
“You are the master of understatement, baby. But look….”
She glanced over to find him facing the interior of the volcano. The summit displayed a gently sloping concave exterior. Puffs of jade-white steam shot out of holes in the spongy gray material filling the caldera.
“Whatever. Look at this.” She gestured in the opposite direction, for the view beyond the summit was nothing short of magnificent.
The research station where they had begun their trek was a tiny speck far below and to the right. In front of them the terrain swept downward to a frozen plain stretching to the horizon. Her initial inclination was to liken it to parts of northeastern Alaska, but this was a decidedly alien landscape.
Jagged fissure rifts split the sheets of ice to allow the same jade-tinged steam to escape into the air, unveiling brilliant emerald crystals beneath the surface. Large swaths of the sheets glowed pale green where the ice grew thin and new fissures would soon form. The sun blazed across the landscape, turning the ice iridescent and filling the sky with daytime auroras.
But for the single dot of humanity in the valley below, it was untouched. Untamed. Nature loosed to run free.
An apt description, I do believe. Does the planet feel alive to you?
It certainly looks alive, Valkyrie. But peaceful somehow…or at peace with itself. Hopefully it doesn’t mind us intruding.
She dropped her head onto Caleb’s shoulder. “You take me to the nicest places.”
“I really do. But next week, I’m thinking a sweltering jungle somewhere, full of serpents and flying insects.”
“So long as it’s warm, I’m in. Though I will point out, a nice, luxurious hot tub overlooking a white, sandy beach is also warm.”
“True. And it has other benefits.”
Her chuckle sounded reedy in the rarefied air. “I’m temporarily too cold to think about other benefits. Shall we?”
She opened her pack and removed the small glider harness. It consisted primarily of torso-hugging straps attached to a small rectangular module, but when activated the module would unfurl a pair of airfoils. Made of a hyperlight carbon nanofiber, when fully extended and locked open they were strong enough to endure 240 kph winds and a 150 kN impact. Pockets beneath each wing enclosed the hands to provide the wearer a measure of control during the flight, and tensile ankle straps kept their legs from flapping awkwardly and destroying the aerodynamics. But there was no frame, no motor and no brake; the glider was as close to natural wings as humanity had achieved.
They checked the secureness of each other’s harnesses, then she grasped his hand and squeezed. “I love you.”
“Prove it. Fly with me.”
Brandishing a spirited grin, she stepped aside to create space for the six-meter span of the gliders. The wings unfurled at her side; she slid her hands into the pockets and felt the material tighten reassuringly. She nodded.
She took a deep breath and leapt.
The second of free fall ticked by in a thousand transcendent nanoseconds. The rush of vertigo spinning her stomach. The stronger rush of wind forcing its way past her layers of clothing to bite into her skin like needles of ice. The feeling that she could fall forever as frozen land and endless starshine rushed past her vision in a blur.
For an instant the force of Valkyrie’s exhilaration had overwhelmed her thoughts—had come dangerously close to overwhelming her actions. She blinked and reasserted her own will into the forefront.
Keep on like that and you’ll let us plummet to our death.
Perhaps I became carried away by the experience.
We need to talk about you and your ‘perhapses’—later.
Alex spread her arms, and with a reassuring jolt the wings locked…and she was soaring.
Now, isn’t this better?
There was no response.
I find I am at a loss for words.
A shadow grew overhead as Caleb crossed above her. It had been years since she’d used a glider, and she tweaked the wings a couple of times before finding the proper adjustment to gain altitude and draw up beside him.
Cut it a little close there.
I was in the moment.
He shook his head, but thankfully let her off the hook. They veered to the left, leaving Khione behind to sail above the fullness of the plains.
From above, the sunlight roused the emerald ice into sparkling a fiery, brilliant green. Any imperfections in the tundra vanished as it washed out to a pure white. If only the sun on her back held any warmth whatsoever, it would be perfection.
She laughed in delight as an aurora swirled beneath them, its elusive rays seemingly just out of reach.
Her focus on the colorful show, she didn’t notice they had company until she glanced in Caleb’s direction—she instinctively jumped in surprise, which very nearly sent her tumbling through the air. She jerked her arms level and kept them stiff until the wings stopped teetering.
An animal, the same breed as the one that attacked them, flew barely fifteen meters beyond him. It maintained an altitude and speed to match their own.
Caleb tilted his head in her direction. She looked to her right as two additional creatures banked in to take up positions beside her.
What are they doing?
We’re no longer prey. I think they’re saying ‘hi.’
Here in the air, they projected a far less ferocious and far more graceful manner than one had on the ground. The membranes turned out to serve as true wings, and the extensive connections meant all their limbs were pulled up into the span, giving them an appearance closer to an ocean ray than a many-limbed reptile.
Valkyrie’s voice took on a high-minded tenor in her head. A reminder that danger can often be disguised by beauty, and beauty by danger.
She rolled her eyes. Thanks for the insight, Confucius.
I was talking about you.
The creatures accompanied them for another several seconds before dipping lower and slowing. As she checked behind her to confirm they were departing, she noticed dark streaks of discoloration and an open wound on the chest of the one that had first joined Caleb.
It was the same one they had confronted on the ascent. I’ll be damned.
She murmured a quiet gasp of wonder and exhaled against the wind. With the next breath in she allowed the sensations to consume her fully. This freedom, this embracing of the wild unknown and meeting it on its own terms…this was her life. Now, this would be their life.
She acknowledged the quiet voice in the recesses of her mind, the one whispering it was all a lie—all a contrived creation by its masters beyond the portal—and put it aside for later. Its refrain had become a common one, but it could wait a while longer.
Far in the distance the terrain began to darken into the rocky, uneven crags they had flown past on the way to the village.
We should start descending.
As one their wings dipped, and the icy expanse rose to greet them.
The sensation of motion, of velocity, returned as the ground sped by, and it occurred to her she was moving rather fast and the ground looked rather hard and unforgiving. She rotated her shoulders to create drag on the wings—too much, her altitude dropped precipitously. She decreased the angle. Better.
They aimed for a wide area of unbroken ice. When the surface was two meters below and her speed had slowed sufficiently, she drew her arms in and disengaged the wings’ locks. Her feet hit the ground at a run; then abruptly she was tumbling head over heels. After many bruising revolutions she lurched to a stop lying on her back. Yep, definitely hard and unforgiving.
A heavy thud signaled Caleb’s arrival to her left.
She was laughing, raggedly and in mild exhaustion, as he crawled over and collapsed beside her. When she decided she was capable of movement she tugged her mask off and shifted to rest on his torso. Then she shoved his own mask off and kissed him zealously, high on adrenaline and oxygen and adoration.
He tried to wrap his arms around her, which led to their unfurled wings getting tangled in one another, which led to a more fulsome state of entanglement. Which worked out fine.
She giggled against his lips. “That was spectacular.”
“It was. Should cure our restlessness for at least a week.”
“Maybe even two…” her eyes gleamed in only partially feigned playfulness “…but what then? What’s next? Dare that supernova to erupt on us?”
He regarded her intently. “You know what’s next. The sooner you say it, the sooner we can get started.”
Her protest lodged in her throat. Of course she knew. She’d known for weeks; part of her had known from the moment she sent the Metigen fleet slinking home.
“We’re going back through the portal.”
“Damn right we’re going back through the portal.”
“I mean, what are all those other universes? Are they like ours? Why were they created? What game are the Metigens playing? What are they—”
His mouth smothered hers to halt her rambling, and it was some time later when they came up for air.
She crossed her arms on his sternum and propped her chin up. “We should probably get married before we go. I doubt they’ll have the necessary bureaucracy on the other side.”
“Excellent point.” He had managed to untangle his left arm and reached up to softly caress her cheek. “We should. Let me check my calendar…two Fridays from today looks free.”
“Does it now. Okay, February 2nd it is.”
“I like this plan. And I suspect there are a few other things we’ll need to take care of before we leave.”
“A few.” Her mind was already racing around the implications. Valkyrie was the biggest source of complications, but she’d also need to find a way to obtain the new engine and…his chest rumbled beneath her as he started chuckling. “What?”
“You’re as happy as a kid on Christmas morning right now, aren’t you?”
“Unh!” She punched him lightly in the shoulder and rolled off onto the ice. It was late afternoon in the daylight cycle, and the auroras flitted with increasing luminance above them.
“So, um, how do we get back to the Siyane?”
“I am.” He wrangled his pack off and repositioned it to serve as a pillow. “I contacted Dr. Becnel as soon as we landed and humbly requested a pickup, noting we weren’t technically on Khione any longer. Somebody will be along in a vehicle. Eventually.”
“Terrific.” She curled her hands behind her head and stared up at the sky. “We can start planning while we wait. First, we’ll need….”
Four Months Later
The gleaming façade shone in the late morning sun, radiant and glittering in a way only newness could exhibit. Tiers of steel and glass rose in staggered, winding levels to soar into the sky. A work of functional art, the offset floors allowed for both gardens and landing pads to blend seamlessly into the design of the structure.
It was, Miriam had to concede, a far more attractive building than the one it replaced.
Construction of the new EASC Headquarters Tower had been completed while she was away. It didn’t officially open for business until the next day, but most of the equipment and furnishings had already been transferred from the temporary quarters in the Logistics building, and her new office reputedly awaited her presence.
She almost walked in the entrance brandishing a smile. Luckily she realized her error at the door and donned a stern countenance.
A lieutenant sat behind the front desk testing the functionality of a control panel, but on spotting her he leapt to his feet with a salute. “Admiral Solovy! Welcome, ma’am. We were told you wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow. Allow me to show you to your suite.”
“I assume I take the center lift until it goes no higher, correct?”
“Um, that does sort of cover it. But—”
“Then I shall show myself up, Lieutenant.”
Beginning tomorrow there would be two additional security checks between the lobby and the top floor, but this trip required solely her personal security code. She stepped off the lift into a bright, open atrium. The marble floor felt suitably firm beneath her feet; the secretary’s station loomed with appropriate intimidation over prospective guests.
Beyond the atrium was her office. She entered her security code a final time and stepped inside.
The desk she’d ordered had arrived ahead of her, as had the matching shelves. Everything had arrived, down to the white-silver tea set she’d purchased a few days earlier. Her favorite visual of David, Alex and herself—taken in 2298 on the lawn of their home in San Francisco—was even loaded into the display atop the desk.
The chair wasn’t new, for she’d become accustomed to the one she’d claimed in Logistics. She eased into it and spun slowly around—then was quickly back on her feet and moving to the window.
Except it wasn’t a window; it was a door. She had a garden.
Well, perhaps ‘garden’ was stretching the term a bit. She had a patio decorated in shrubs, flowering morning glories, astilbe and a small table with two chairs.
Beneath her the entirety of the EASC complex spread out. Tiny forms scurried about from one building to the next, and in the distance ships landed at and departed from the spaceport with ordered regularity. Ahead of her the waters of the Strait crashed against the parapets.
Well. This was simply lovely.
“I heard you were in the building.”
She turned and motioned Richard out onto the patio. “I only just arrived.”
“Word travels fast, especially when it’s in panic. They were expecting you tomorrow, I believe.”
She draped her arms atop the railing as he joined her. “I wanted to get settled in while it was still quiet. We’ll see how the practicality holds up under duress, but I have to say so far I’m pleased.”
Richard chuckled lightly. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“How was Romane? More to the point, how was your first vacation in…ever, was it?”
“Not ever, merely the last decade…or two. And it was very relaxing. That’s what vacations are supposed to be, right? Relaxing?”
“That’s the rumor.”
She nodded. “Then yes, it was relaxing.”
“Did you spend the entire visit meeting with the governor and her administration?”
“Only half the visit. I also toured several art galleries, attended a horrifically tawdry circus performance and spent a great deal of time…not worrying.”
“Otherwise known as relaxing.”
“Yes.” She straightened up from the railing but kept her hands atop it. “And now it is time to get back to work.”
“Much of the unrest on the hardest-hit colonies has eased with the improvements in services. Now it’s mostly squabbling over what to build next, where and for who’s favor.”
“What about the Order of the True Sentients?”
Richard grimaced. “They will be a problem, I fear. They’re extremely well-funded, and we haven’t yet managed to find out by whom or what. But after all we’ve faced, they and their ilk seem like pests rather than real trouble.”
“I gave the subject some thought while I was…relaxing. We confronted the greatest threat to our existence humanity has ever seen, and we defeated it. But a year ago we couldn’t see it coming; our most skilled forecasters could never have predicted it. What else is out there on the horizon that we can’t see?”
She shifted to lean against the railing and meet his gaze more directly. “You and I know the true extent of what Alex and Caleb discovered beyond the portal. I fear we’ve seen but a small glimpse of the dangers which may await us—dangers for which we are woefully unprepared.”
“So, I intend to see to it that we get ourselves prepared. We can’t sit on our laurels and be caught unaware a second time.”
“True enough. I’m glad the task is in such capable hands.”
“I’m trying to hone my skills. Speaking of, have you seen Alex recently? I haven’t talked to her in a few weeks.”
“We had a nice dinner before I left for Romane, in fact. She and Caleb have been on Seneca the last week or so helping his sister move into a new place, but I believe they are headed to Atlantis to meet Kennedy and Noah for a long weekend.”
“Good. I’m glad they—”
Miriam held up her hand to silence him. She stared at the message that had come in, searching for the correct reaction. Anger? Fear? Pride? Exasperation?
She settled on the last one, went to the little patio table and sank down in one of the chairs.
“Miriam, what is it?”
She shook her head and laughed. “I’m going to kill her.”
At Richard’s questioning look she called him over and projected the message to an aural.
Kennedy sighed in contentment and curled up against Noah’s chest. The sun’s rays streaming in through the open windows warmed her bare skin, and she kicked the sheet off so as to give the rays more fulsome access. “Mmm…can we not leave this room today? Or even the bed?”
Noah’s chest rumbled beneath her in a soft chuckle as he played with her hair. “We’ve got drinks, so we’re set there. Eventually we’ll need food, but this is why room service exists. So yeah, I think we’re good. Who needs sun and sand and surf when we have this.”
“Not me. Besides, we have sun—and we can see the sand and surf, should we manage to approach the windows.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” His hand trailed lazily down her back, evoking a pleasant murmur from deep in her throat.
“Alex and Caleb will be here today…sometime. They would probably appreciate it if we put clothes on.”
“Probably. Have you heard from them yet? I’d like a little warning, say, three or four hours, so I can….” She shuddered beneath his hand as it drifted lower.
“Not yet. I’m sure they got distracted by—” As if on cue, a message from Alex arrived in her eVi. She opened it with only a fraction of her attention, the rest being occupied by Noah’s increasingly roving hands.
Then she bolted upright in the bed. “I’m going to kill her. I mean it this time. I am well and truly going to kill her.”
Noah raised up on one elbow. “They’re not coming?”
She rolled her eyes at the ceiling and flopped onto her back with a groan. “No. No, they are not. And you won’t believe where they are heading.”
The Siyane hovered in the thick nebular clouds at the edge of the clearing, out of sight of the Alliance and Federation vessels patrolling the perimeter.
The portal was closed, occupying an invisible point at the center of the empty void in the heart of the Metis Nebula. Its activation would give the watching ships an extra few seconds to prepare for their destruction of any alien vessel that might emerge. The patrols gave the area a wide berth lest they get caught in the explosion of metal and plasma which would accompany such activation.
A few modifications had been made to the Siyane in the months since the Metigen War ended. For one, the cockpit had been rearranged a bit. Caleb’s chair received an upgrade, hers moved to the left, and they occupied their seats as equals. Many of the sensors and scientific equipment received upgrades as well and now included a number of new features.
They had even made room for Caleb’s bike down in the engineering well. It turned out Division secured it after Volosk’s murder as part of the crime scene, at first as evidence then later for safekeeping. And who knew? They may need it. On a planet’s surface, perhaps. Or on a space station….
Oh, and there was Valkyrie.
It hadn’t taken long for the combined processing power of three Artificials enhanced by the neural imprints of some damn clever humans to result in a host of technological leaps. The list of ways they were changing the world was long, but most relevantly for the Siyane was the radical miniaturization of quantum boxes and hardware circuitry. What once filled a large room now fit between the interior walls and bulkhead of a small ship.
Abigail had protested the final stage in her loss of Valkyrie, contending she needed the Artificial to assist in the rebuilding of Meno, and in the rebuilding of a human brain. But while quantum communications were able to span the universe—this universe—in an instant, they could not penetrate the portal. Alex needed Valkyrie with her where they were going. She had of course kept that detail to herself, instead arguing the need to get Valkyrie out from under government control.
A compromise had been reached which, while very expensive, did have the benefit of at least partially satisfying the bureaucrats as well: a complete copy of Valkyrie was constructed and an image of her neural net flashed to the new machine.
From the time the new Artificial was activated, it and Valkyrie began diverging, and in a matter of weeks they could no longer be considered the same in any meaningful way. Valkyrie professed no misgivings about the situation, explaining that she intended to view her mirrored copy like a sister. In fact, she was somewhat enamored with the notion of having a sibling; as Alex was an only child it would be a wholly new experience for her.
Caleb grasped Alex’s hand in his, and she stood to join him at the viewport. After a moment she halfway faced him, eyes dancing in delight to match his own. “Ready to see what’s out there, Mr. Solovy?”
“Hell, yes, Mrs. Marano. Beyond ready. Show me this supposed ‘adventure.’”
“Knowing we won’t die simply by going through doesn’t take the adventure out of it?”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and yanked her closer for an ardent, tantalizing kiss which ended far too soon, then murmured against her lips. “No, it does not. Now let’s do this.”
She reluctantly disentangled from his embrace to ensure all the systems were in order. “Valkyrie, how about you?”
“You are taking me to explore other universes. I am ready.”
The aliens had asserted no one should ever come looking for them—but she had never agreed to that particular term of surrender.
She reached down and sent the gamma signal.
The ring exploded outward to fill with the still mysterious, luminescent plasma. Around it the patrolling ships reacted the next instant, rushing to take up a defensive formation.
Her hand slid across the HUD to the thrusters. With a touch she gunned the impulse engine to full power and accelerated into the portal.
AURORA THESI (PORTAL PRIME)
I considered the form lying inertly in the stasis chamber.
It appeared a stranger to me. I felt no kinship, no attachment to the body providing my life force. Memory my aspect, I no longer recalled having resided within it. Even so, logic and the reality of Katasketousym origins dictated I once did so.
To find oneself bound inside the confines of a small, frail body, rendered hapless by its myriad limitations, was anathema to me. I moved the stasis chamber into the deepest corner of the structure. The life support system was designed to function for perpetuity without my intervention. Unseen, it would trouble me no further.
I left the structure and its refuge behind to hover at the shore of my lake, finding myself uncertain of what to do next.
Such had been the verdict of the Idryma Conclave. Exiled from their ranks in name, title and consciousness. Exiled from Amaranthe. My body retrieved from the krypti and relinquished to the dirt of Aurora Thesi.
A watcher with no subjects.
An Analystae with no dominion.
It would be far simpler if it were such a simple matter as this. But my task extended well beyond the rigid strictures of the Idryma. Aurora had been entrusted to me because I understood our purpose more deeply than anyone, save possibly Lakhes.
Histories. Futures. What was inevitable, and all that was not.
The Conclave called Aurora a failure. We would refocus our efforts on the other Enisles, Lakhes proclaimed, in the search for new and innovative prospects. We would try again, Hyperion declared, but ensure firmer restraints were in place from the beginning this time.
To invest time and effort in such an endeavor was foolish, risking all while invalidating the experiment from its inception. Interference may be acceptable in the other Enisles—but not in Aurora, whether this incarnation or any future one. No, the sole path to the answers sought was to serve as Clockmaker Gods, to create the universe then let it become what it dared. But Hyperion’s clumsy meddling had demonstrated a lack of understanding of this most fundamental notion.
The answers, I believed, still resided in Aurora. For what the Conclave was too insular to see—or too fearful to admit if they did see—was this: the uprising by the Humans had in fact proven the validity of the principal thesis underlying Aurora’s existence. Now was not the time to recoil as mettle failed.
This was the kairos. This was what we had wanted. The others might flinch and turn away, but I would not.
I extended, diffusing out over the lake and above the mountains. I was truly alone on Thesi now, as neither Hyperion nor any others would be venturing by to consort with an exile. I was truly alone in spirit now, my consciousness denied entry into the Idryma.
Before departing Aurora for the last time, representatives of the Conclave had placed spatial triggers at the Metis Portal, designed to pitch the apparatus into a dimensional singularity upon its opening from the other side. It had been a near thing, our—their—decision to refrain from destroying the portal immediately. Only my most elegant arguments had convinced the Conclave they need not permanently foreclose this avenue. Katasketousya appreciated the concept of ‘forever’ better than most species, and when presented with the alternative of the spatial triggers Lakhes had eventually been persuaded to not take such irrevocable action.
But the Conclave, eager to be rid of the troublesome Aurora and its equally troublesome Analystae Mnemosyne, had perhaps not paid sufficient attention to the details.
I was and had always been the First Analystae of Aurora. This meant I controlled all the apparatuses of the Enisle, observational and otherwise.
The triggers had been deactivated. I could rearm them at any time, and should it become necessary—should the Humans or their scions attempt to launch an armada through the Metis Portal, one bent on wanton destruction of whatever they found—I would do so, regrettably but without hesitation.
But I was the First Analystae of Aurora, and this experiment was not over. Once a proud member of an underground resistance, I was now a rebel from the rebellion.
As the sea spread out beneath me, an alert transmitted the opening of the Metis Portal. I halted far above the waters and waited.
What emerged from the portal was not the feared armada. Instead, it was a single ship. A familiar ship. I felt a quickening in my atoms.
Clever, dangerous girl. I have been expecting you.