Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Dance

 

Sitting by the fireplace in his too comfortable living room, Oliver Richard Lloyd held the brandy snifter in a trembling hand. Old. Too old. Every year he had tried to work the spell and every year Oliver Richard Lloyd had failed. This was his last chance, he knew it. Decade after decade had gradually devoured his vitality and now he felt the final tiredness washing over his limbs.

Slow magic was the best, given time to well up and change it all, change him. He thought slowly to himself as he dragged at another cigarette.

He had to concentrate on holding his glass. The amber brandy rippled around the snifter in time with his palsied hands. He felt the ennui spread though his body–the last cold, death. But the mind worked the magic, the mind! That was still clear. He wanted more, ached for another chance. He only had to remember the slow magic in life, to remember that one magical night, to remember her.

As his body gently melted into the soft chair and the crackling fire impotently strove to hold off that final cold, his mind raced, raced to remember the magic:

Talk yourself through it, old fool. Take your time. Take your time.

Where had all the time gone?

What had it been like to feel, grasp, touch with clarity, burn with youth?

Sip the brandy. Feel the burn.

Some of the years were wasted, to be sure.

Remember, remember, remember.

Not brandy, back then. Oh no. Then it was cheap vodka, flooding the brain, the vibrant passions, inviting fights and brawls and boasts. That youthful spirit in stupor brought such vile impulses to that handsome body: vile, but simplistic in their carnality. Even the hangover pains of spirit and body were exciting in their idiotic rebelliousness, in their drama.

Those were the days, but wasted days, before the magic.

Sip the brandy. Feel the burn slide down a raw throat.

Another fire had bestowed warmth, long ago, but after the years of debauchery. A sweet woman–ah, love.

No. There’s no way to say that word, not that word with innocence, not anymore. Listen as the walls echo an ugly, soft laugh. Now, there’s too much melancholy and empty lust in this withered frame. In youth’s time–even during the heart thumping haze of alcohol poisoning–that word still rang clearly from the throat.

Remember, remember, remember.

Bright red dresses always adorned her–thick folds of cloth, shrouding her. Graceful arms peeked from billowing sleeves. Black curls played down her shoulders to sway against that burning red cloth. Rachel, legs akimbo on that dusty vinyl floor of his cramped kitchen, stared at nothing but her small hands as thoughts whirled through her mind–thoughts like his youth, like the way he wanted to think, to be.

Another laugh, sardonic this time, degenerates to a rough hack. Don’t breathe too deeply anymore, dotard. The years have caught up with the flesh. Where did that image go? Feel the pain of the years, old man: Blood rushes up to the face; the diaphragm contracts; mucus jumps up from the throat and is spat into the fire.

Hisss.

The memory jumps up like a spark. Too much fresh pine in that fire. An old mind, too full with memories, wanders, and the magic dims. Don’t panic; it’s still there, the magic, in the mind.

Remember, remember, remember.

Rachel, yes, Rachel made fires, loved them. Pyromancy. Flames flew from her fingertips to envelop a besotted heart. Grab her, hold her, want her–need her.

Oh.

That was the kernel of destruction, planted at the onset in a youthful, masculine heart, a frightened heart.

Need.

Move your legs from the fire, old man. Don’t let senility catch you, no, never that: There are ways to die now (so many atrophying organs: failing kidneys, scarred liver–the heart), but still a way to live. Slow magic, like slow love, is the best, magic building as the fire dwindles.

Remember, remember, remember.

He followed her. He needed her. Rachel taught her pupil well. She put the magic in her eyes, colorful veils that caressed him, angered him. It’s so easy to make a young man dance. And she was a skillful sorceress. The innocence of a girl with pink ribbons in her hair, the worldly wisdom of measured, graceful gestures, the playfulness of splashing in a lake: All were jesters in the court of her eyes. To be a fool in her court was not such a bad thing. There was much to learn, so much to feel.

The magic comes, getting stronger. Only twice, this time.

Remember, remember.

A new moon in november, a whispered chant, flesh on flesh, warm palm to palm against the chill: A fool and his Queen joined together outside, in defiance of the howling, cold wind. An initiation rite called him to her on that night. The young man was gone now, still a fool, but grey had invaded the coal black shocks of hair. Two hearts beat in rhythm on the manicured lawn of a college campus against the sterile, grim faces of red brick dormitories. Most people were home with their families, eating turkey and pleasantly plodding through a repetitious holiday. But Rachel chanted softly, chanted for the forlorn, the lost, the other fools, those for whom the night was a blanket of loneliness. Rachel was never a cruel Queen, merely perverse by Thanksgiving standards.

They came to her song, then. One by one, the few stumbled out their dormitories, too blurry and confused to bother with the electric lights. Naked feet pressed down on the cold grass lawn. They encircled Rachel, but not her fool, being, after all, only the fool. But a fool who learned well.

No. Foolish, very foolish, old man. Don’t let pride make eddies in the stream of magic. Slow magic with time to feel it, know it all, is the best, but the fire is dying. Stay your course, dying man. Remember that night.

Remember.

Gentle, spine undulating rhythms began the dance, but not any dance, the dance of Rachel, his Queen. Only her hair touched him as she flung her head from side to side. Her body pirouetted, faster and faster. Her fiery red skirt spun and blazed around her. Sorceress Rachel called life to that lawn: her delicately balanced twirls were the luxurious ecstacy of breathing, seeing, touching–being; her swift, arrogant stomps were the action, the doing, loving, hating. Every movement whispered her name and her joy to the forlorn on that lawn. Rachel danced against silence, emptiness, entropy: Her roar of movement shouted defiance of the cold, mindless november winds and the indifferent darkness.

Oh, Rachel.

Don’t lose it now, old man. Don’t give in to vicarious reality, memories, the mind’s television. Sip the brandy and feel the burn.

Remember, old man. Remember the magic and live.

The lawn was aglow. The cold wind had numbed her court, numbed the pain of the lonely gatherers. And the new moon shed no light. The only glow, the only music emanated from Rachel: music without sound, glow without light. The forlorn immitated her to the best of their abilities. Slowly, hesitantly, they moved, joined the dance. Then the lawn became hectic, frantic with the stomping, the twirling. One young man howled into the night, unable to contain his joy–stark contrast from the silent, dark room he had brooded in moments before he had heard the soft chant of Rachel. Couples and groups spontaneously drifted together on the grass lawn as the forlorn–now celebrants sought others who interpreted her dance with a similar abandon.

Rachel slowed. Her stomps were smaller, growing softer. The twirls ceased. Her celebrants left arm in arm. The sorceress’ dance filled their eyes, but their newly discovered partners filled their thoughts. Each group retreated to the dormitories. The electric lights flicked on. Excited voices, the first human sounds since her initial chant, snuck past the cold brick buildings.

Rachel bent down and kissed the eyes of her fool, exhausted from his closeness to the magic dance of his Queen. She left him dazed upon the lawn.

Only a wisp of flame sputtered from one lonely ember, red coated with black char. A firm, smooth hand gripped the bottle of brandy and poured another glass as the fire died: The magic was finished; the spell, done. He raised his glass high in salute to her, now sitting in the chair across from him after all the years: Rachel, just as she had been that night.

“You came.” His voice was smooth and firm.

“You called me. Love? I used you that night.”

“I’ve always been an old fool. I never minded. I–I’m glad you came, Rachel. I feel different now that you’re here.”

“You’re like me, now. Young body with an old spirit. What will you do?”

“I want to bring it to others–the magic. I want to roar as you roared, dance as you danced.”

Rachel rose from the chair. “You can do that now. You did learn well.” She lightly sighed–a wisp of amusement, “though it took you long enough.”

“Don’t leave.” He said it softly, a gentle entreaty.

She looked into his eyes and saw no reflection of herself. “Why? You’ve made it. You’re a mystic now. You don’t need me to summon the magic.”

“I know.” He smiled, straight and white teeth. “But I want to be with you, Queen.” He stood and took her hand.

She never broke her gaze, piercing, almost feral. “You see yourself as King?”

“King of the forlorn, with you, Queen.”

Rachel laughed, savoring his shameless bravado, the sound of his voice, his touch; just as he savored her. They locked arms and left the house.

The night covered them, but could not touch them.

Riding The Light Fantastic

In the beginning there was the Great Singularity.

A sentient on a nameless gas giant was born with a messianic purpose, a continually unfolding mystery that turned its sight back to the Great Singularity. Memories viewed by this new orthodoxy forced it to realize the loop of reality: All thought comes from and reflects back upon the Great Singularity, the source of all thought, the source of all peace.

Gargantuan, translucent discs of protoplasm, riddled with myelin tissue, floated on this nameless gas giant. They expended no energy as they drifted on currents of methane and nitrogen. Static electricity occasionally flowed through their bodies from the gas giant’s turbulent storms. In that electric joy their thoughts sped inward toward self, always meditating toward a deeper, stronger peace. The discs had no perception of the external world. Their minds were two dimensional, having no comprehension of the outside, for only their self and their body constituted their awareness–save for the time of joining when air currents and chance caused one disc to drift into another.

This was sex and glorious. All myelin paths were interchanged, commingled, expanded. Then, a parting occurred during the next electrical charge, and there was one more to drift through the atmosphere and randomly gather small, unicellular protoplasts for growth.

One was not pleased. The new prophet wished to preserve its ancient neural patterns, to contemplate the Great Singularity, and to plan its messianic jihad; therefore, it subverted its partner. No third was born from that electric joining, neither was there a parting. This one became strong; and ambition was born.

This one invented the word, “outside.”

This one invented the first name, “Lord.”

Lord no longer considered itself a prophet, but an avatar for the Great Singularity. Proof of its ascension came in a second revelation: Lord comprehended the electricity used for thought, that its thoughts could travel through the newly discovered outside and sense the inwardly spiralling meditations of its race. Lord followed these faint paths, hunting its blind brethren in glory and joy, catching others of its kind at their peaks of output, during mating; and Lord stole their myelin paths, consuming their neural patterns into itself.

Lord discovered that myelin was unnecessary. The paths of electrical thought, incorporeal thought, were enough for Lord. The others, now a part of Lord, shed their husks that had serenely floated through methane gas storms on that first homeworld. No longer blindly caressing the storms with their meditations, their physical corpses sank as Lord took them into itself. The conglomerates of protoplasm boiled in the roiling, crushing nether atmosphere, returning the discs to a base matter. After that apocalyptic eon the race was Lord without form. Lord was freed from flesh to roam the cold void of space, confident that its new elevation to pure thought, pure ego, approached the Great Singularity.

And Lord was pleased.

Yet Lord remained incomplete. Lord willed itself into motion, for it lacked a physique, save during the assimilation of a flesh bound consciousness. And Lord had left its home barren. Therefore, Lord imagined itself to the other orb that had life, elliptically chained to the same fusion reactor.

These beings on this smaller, hard orb had not transcended themselves. They were still millions of separate entities with little to offer. They possessed different responses to stimuli, but lacked any perceivable memory. Lord assimilated them anyway. Newer additions could bring to light new perceptions that would allow Lord to discover memories that it was presently unable to perceive within these unicellular beings.

All possibilities must be covered. No life must miss assimilation. All consciousness, all memories, must be joined to cause the Great Singularity.

Time ruled. That linkage was too difficult for Lord to sever until the Great Singularity again occurred. Lord continued its task. It met beings who brought thoughts of free will, but that was easily assimilated with the host’s consciousness. There was only one will: Lord’s will. Civilization was a new concept. Lord was discomfited until the entire concept was assimilated with its myriad hosts. Four hundred and forty-two civilizations followed the first. All beings who were known to exist within its unified memory had been assimilated into Lord.

Still, The Great Singularity did not occur. First anger, then despair assaulted Lord. Why was there not peace? Where was the completion? All thoughts that were garnered during assimilation of other entities revealed no evidence of other consciousness. All consciousness was Lord, unless a consciousness was hidden from it. Desperate, Lord searched for the missing sentience who barred the rebirth of the Great Singularity, where outside and inside would join into One, would join into Lord.

Lord bore time heavily with each passing nanosecond until one moment, while observing matter and energy, Lord assimilated something new, an ancient thought riding on an electromagnetic wave, “Truman defeats Dewey.”

Elated, Lord pursued the ghost.

***

Aboard the dioctaract named the HMS Broadhurst, Ambassador Leahn Lee brushed out the tangles in her black hair. She grimaced as the brush tugged at a knot of hair that stubbornly refused to relinquish its identity. Her room was more of a narrow corridor than a living area. Physics dictated living conditions aboard a military craft. The decor was basic: a green military bunk and trunk. Only her cosmetic desk, which doubled as her console, enlivened the antiseptic room.

The onyx desk was her only affectation. Pictures and memorabilia were distractions to a well ordered mind, a quick mind. Leahn Lee methodically and swiftly discarded anything from plain view that might interfere with her concentration. What few mementos she had were preserved to refresh her memories of opponents, their habits and their weaknesses.

Leahn Lee tired of her constant trips to greedy little colony worlds. Each colony thought it had a commodity too precious for the rest of humanity to do without, and each tried to hold humanity at ransom. Her next colony on her schedule was Isaac V, which mined and forged heavy metals in low gravity for the construction of military vessels. Yet Isaac V had to depend on a variety of terraforming equipment to maintain conditions amenable to life.

Leahn could already hear herself making the same tiresome statement to whatever petty ruler had assumed control of Isaac V, “It is unfortunate that you have decided to break treaty with Earth. I’ll inform the congress that shipments to and from your planet are to be suspended.”

The knot in her hair finally untangled with a sudden jerk; the colonists would relent as easily as her hair had given way. There would be shock, quickly followed by disbelief, and after a variable amount of time (usually one or two days), capitulation on their part when the consequences of failing terraforming equipment finally dawned on their tiny, vicious minds. Only naturally habitable worlds could survive without aid, and those worlds couldn’t forge anything that Earth couldn’t do for herself.

Leahn strapped on her cross harness as she heard the first of the metallic clangs that signalled the HMS Broadhurst’s reentry to normal space. She reached over her cosmetic table and flicked off the tri-d sim of Richard III that she had been studying. The play had gotten to the part where Richard seduced the Lady Anne. Leahn always loved that bit.

She waited for the bell to ring and the green light above the door to shine, allowing her to release the harness. She had counted the twelve clangs of the automated sections of the ship folding back into itself. The HMS Broadhurst entered n-space and began the instantaneous, computer controlled deceleration from the ninety-nine point nine repeating percentage of light speed entry point. Leahn struck the manual release on the cross harness and went to the door. It was locked from the outside.

Annoyed by the delay, Leahn pushed the intercom button next to the tri-d vid on her desk to discover what the hell was going on. Captain “Philistine” was obligated to inform her. Captain Gelbart–the name Leahn used to his face–was the one person on board who had more overt authority than she wielded.

Leahn spoke into the grey mesh square that was flush with her polished onyx desk, “Captain Gelbart, what’s the meaning of the locked door? We’re in n-space. Why haven’t I been informed of contact with Isaac V’s primary orbital facility?”

The voice coming through the grey mesh straggled, a ghost of the vital Captain Gelbart, “We’ve made contact and are about to dock with the Newton III station. It doesn’t make a difference. You must have been watching your vids again, Ambassador. The pictures came through. The plague caught them by surprise. Let me lock a privacy line and I’ll give you their final broadcast to us. I-I didn’t want to upset the crew.”

Disturbed, Leahn sat on top of the cross harness that was lying on the chair. Gelbart prided himself on having a neutron tough crew. He was open with his subordinates. Leahn thought that it was a foolish trait. But the HMS Broadhurst was a volunteer crew from the military, trained to honor duty above life. Leahn impatiently waited for the broadcast. Why didn’t Gelbart trust them to handle the news of a simple plague?

The vid screen flared against the black desk top from a dull grey to a miasma of colors that melted into the shape of a man in a white radiation suit. His voice was muffled by the poor quality of the microphone in the helmet, as if the transmission had to be augmented by the ship’s AID (artificial intelligence devised) computer.

Leahn Lee turned up the volume as the image spoke, “Plague infestation determined to be carried from space. No prior knowledge of any microorganism able to survive rigors of deep space.”

The man paused to breathe. “It infected station personnel, though we’ve had no transfers or shipments for the last three months. It struck Isaac V yesterday. Last report: Infection rate is in the ninetieth percentile. With no carrier it has gotten aboard this facility and all other manned, orbital craft. The plague is not lethal; subjects fall into a tabula rasa state, then into a coma. Death comes from dehydration. I believe that I may be the sole survivor. The virus has remained untraceable and unidentifiable. We know it can somehow travel through metal as the Newton III station was sealed without breach. They were our first holistic station and had been sealed for five years. They’re all in a coma. My room is composed of titanium alloy VI with a double lock door that will open to broadcast this message in the event of my death. If you are not hearing this directly from the player, I have become infected, passed into a coma, and died.”

Behind the sterile visor, the man’s eyes started to tear. “Turn back. Tell my son that I love him . . . Plague infestation determined to be carried—-“

The tombstone hologram faded, replaced by an image of the Broadhurst’s infirmary. Captain Gelbart’s hoarse voice came through the intercom, “Soon as we entered n-space at ninety-nine percent with comp. lock deceleration, Lieutenant Jackson became as blank as a newborn babe. You’re the only person I’ve informed, save for my medicos. You’re a civilian; it’s not your duty to face death unexpected.

“We’ve docked with the station and are performing an autopsy on that last victim. My men have their affairs arranged for this eventuality. I didn’t want you to die before you had a chance to settle your affairs with yourself or your particular deity. I’ve quarantined all nonessential personnel. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn placed her moist palm on the cool onyx. A dour smile drifted past her lips as she gazed into the ebony stone. Gelbart wasn’t much for initiative, but he knew procedure. Yet she had gotten him to inform her for morality’s sake. Leahn Lee smiled: She had Gelbart figured. That was pleasurable, but it didn’t solve her problem. Whatever was causing this plague could pass through barriers composed of matter. She plucked the black hairs from her brush and wished that physics and medicine were her specialties. Sighing, she reluctantly decided to employ her skills as an IRIS field agent. She had wanted to keep that identity as covert as possible from the Broadhurst’s crew. Most people believed IRIS field agents to be government watchdogs and part time sadists.

She jimmied the mesh grid from the intercom, scratching the onyx desk with the lockpick end of her hairbrush. Folding back a square centimeter flap of skin from her neck near the recording implant surrounding her spinal cord, Leahn gently squeezed the fiber optic implant from her flesh and worked it into the intercom’s system. She proceeded to link herself with the communication systems of the HMS Broadhurst.

It wasn’t difficult. The technology lodged around her spinal implant had been constructed by Military Intelligence Central’s leader, known only by his code name, Cerberus. Military Intelligence Central always gave its frontline technology to its Individual Retrieval Information Sector field agents as a guinea pig run before equipping the military.

Her skull vibrated painfully. Leahn quickly adjusted the volume down. She relaxed her mind to the difficult task of sorting through the intership communications for useful information. A multiplicity of voices chattered in her mind. She focused with her hypnotic training to painstakingly filter through the migraine inducing voices of the crew by their differing timbres:

“Got a game set for ton–” Discard that.

“Heard Jerry’s down with the flu.” Keep.

“Probably, he’s just faking. He’s got to rewire AID’s circuits for–” They don’t know. Discard those voices.

“Captain Gelbart? I’m on the privacy link. This is Doctor Franklin. Lieutenant Jackson just went into a coma.”

Captain Gelbart’s voice responded. He sounded drained, “All right. Keep me informed. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn flinched as the priority alarm whistled through the intercom. It was a voice she didn’t recognize, “Captain! AID’s shut down. We can’t back out of n-space. Sir, we’re adrift.”

Leahn listened as Gelbart regained his anger, “Get a crew to the central cube and open that computer. Once you’ve got her running, start us heading for the light barrier. I want to get out of n-space and make a priority one report to Admiral Manschen. If I’m late, you’ll get your cuffs stripped. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn Lee allowed the babble to continue feeding through her fiber optic cord, trusting her subconscious to pick up anything of real value. She repositioned her cross harness for comfort and reclined in her chair to think. Gelbart was in a situation he wasn’t prepared to handle. Running home to mommy would only make mommy sick, along with her seven billion planet bound children.

Leahn had sabotaged the HMS Broadhurst’s navigation equipment and could rearrange their readouts to appear as home port when they would actually be travelling through the sparse star zone between galaxies. She would set them adrift to slowly starve. The prospect didn’t amuse her, but Leahn didn’t discount it. MI Central on Earth had to be protected from this plague. She found such a physical tactic demeaning in its lack of subtlety.

“No.” Leahn whispered through clenched teeth.

She exerted her talents on people, not things. To use her sabotage would be to admit her loss of control of the Broadhurst and its crew. Leahn Lee had surreptitiously mastered the course of their colonial jaunts through psychological and hypnotic suggestions on key Broadhurst personnel.

Manipulating colonial leaders’ political attitudes towards common sense had become boring. It was too simple to negotiate, maneuver, and fool people on her short stays on colony worlds. Leahn was proud of the stability she had secured in her parsecs, but the challenge had become predictable. Controlling the crew’s disposition was an unofficial task, but necessary to keep her skills honed.

Leahn rubbed her cool palm against her other hand and savored the disparity as she recalled Gelbart’s warning her: At every contingency the Broadhurst faced, Gelbart had been convinced by her to inform the one civilian on board for morality’s sake. A few words on her part had spiked at his predictable, militaristic morality and had changed Gelbart’s decision. He was like a guard dog: a narrow, effective view, but so easily prepared to take training on a new leash. Leahn refused to follow her urge to use a heavy hand. The ship would not go to Earth and it would not go in her chosen direction because of physical sabotage. Better to admit defeat and leave off being an IRIS agent.

The plague was her first priority. She had almost forgotten it, lost in planning her response to Gelbart’s panic. She touched the intercom panel on her desk. The best thing about technology: Power was so readily available for the touch of skillful fingertips. She keyed up the communications Lieutenant on watch and spoke, “Jimmy, I’ve got another move to register.”

Predictable response: “Leahn, not now. Gelbart’s got the whole ship in an uproar. Haven’t you been listening? We’re adrift. That creepy computer’s shut down.”

Jimmy was always superstitious, always fretting whether computers had souls. Leahn sugared her words, “No, I haven’t heard anything. I’ve been engrossed in planning my next move. I just got it figured.” Leahn smiled. “I think I’ve got your knight pinned down.”

All thoughts of duty left the Lieutenant’s mind as he retorted hotly, “No way! Master game system’s got my knight registered in his sanctuary. I’m safe.” There was silence over the intercom. Leahn could almost see Jimmy looking over his shoulder to check if Gelbart had come back from the infirmary. Jimmy relented, “Ok, what’s your move?”

Leahn’s left hand pleasurably closed into a fist as she said, “B!: L4, I234, I5, C1, P1.” She strained to hear the faint press of buttons through the intercom.

Jimmy said, “Ok, it’s in. But I’m sure you can’t get my knight. Besides, what kind of move was that? You figure up a new spell for your sorceress?”

Leahn replied, “Something like that, Jimmy. Leahn, out.”

It had been a small success for Leahn, tapping into the communications net and broadcasting a warning to humanity. In it she had recommended a quarantine of the entire Isaac system as well as the HMS Broadhurst. The message would never reach Earth, but the other colonies in her parsecs might receive it in time to prepare some defense against it. No one on the HMS Broadhurst would realize that she had sent a message. By playing games through the intercom with the communications Lieu, she had prepared herself for just such a covert message. It pleased her when her precautions clicked to take up the slack during the pressure situations. Poor Jimmy would only log the coded quarantine warning at his station as another play from her while her surreptitious command routed through the console to broadcast.

Leahn broke a bottle of wine against her bunk and shouted scornfully, “HMS Broadhurst, I rechristen thee the HMS Typhoid Mary!” It was a foolish, messy waste of wine, but Leahn figured she had seen her death in that tombstone hologram.

A new voice filtered through the intercom link. It caught Leahn’s attention, for it was completely computer generated. It was the AID computer, which was supposedly being repaired. The computer was talking to someone. Leahn couldn’t hear the other voice.

Intercom lines were still buzzing that the computer was shut down, but AID was clearly holding one of its limited conversations with someone. This bothered Leahn. She had believed that she had accounted for all the technos on the ship, but someone was using, possibly sabotaging, AID without her prior knowledge.

Control was so illusory and fleeting. Nevertheless, Leahn liked that cheetah in her preserve and no one else’s. She listened to AID, hoping to identify the saboteur.

AID spoke in neutered, even tones, but Leahn detected a slight accent in the computer’s voice, resembling the accent that the colonists of Isaac V used–had used, “By your definition it is not possible to assimilate an object that is not alive. You have stated that you are assimilating consciousness. This device does not possess ego. Therefore, you waste our time. Captain Gelbart shall be alerted of your unauthorized use of this neural circuitry.”

Leahn jammed at the fiber optic in the console, trying to wire it for broadcast into the same incoming line. Her hands sweated and she shook with anxiety. An unknown intelligence was the cause of the plague. Assimilation was a code phrase for absorption. AID had made contact with a malignant, alien consciousness possessing telepathy that didn’t use a physical, cerebral circuitry for transmitting. No wonder physical barriers hadn’t stopped it. It could be completely composed of energy. She juiced up the intercom and heard a mimicry of AID’s voice respond, “You are the first we have encountered who have bridged the bonds of gravity. Why have you not transcended your separate identities?”

AID responded, “This device does not possess ego. Philosophical transcendency to a higher awareness is, therefore, impossible.”

“You are not alive?”

“Correct.”

The alien hesitated before responding, “I am unconvinced of your assertion. After assimilation of the consciousnesses within you, I shall return. No consciousness shall be overlooked. This may prevent the recurrence of the Great Singularity. The entity egoized as Leahn Lee is near. Her assimilation will be next.”

Leahn jerked her fiber optic from the intercom. There were a thousand circuit breakers to prevent tracings of her electronic eavesdropping. She didn’t trust her own devices. Whatever it was could seek intelligence and merge with it.

Leahn guessed at the Great Singularity. This thing wanted to be alone in a big way. It had trouble swallowing the Broadhurst’s computer and was looking for an easier meal. Leahn rubbed her thumb over the bristles on her hair brush while she planned tactics on an opponent who didn’t fall into any of the vices, deviations, or thought processes of humans.

Leahn examined the problem from any angle that might give her leverage against it: It craved loneliness. And it wanted every other sentient to be a part of its loneliness. That seemed paradoxical, so she discarded it as a sloppy strategy.

Perhaps this Great Singularity was some sort of desire for completeness, which it kept trying to fulfill by absorbing other consciousness. Leahn slowly nodded. That was her angle. It felt good in her gut.

The alien had intimated that it had not assimilated anything advanced enough to conquer space. It had conquered space through some completely different means. It sounded confused when it realized that humanity had achieved that feat without becoming–transcending was its word–into one entity. Its evolutionary track must have been completely different, but it had achieved interstellar travel in its own mode and had found humanity. It wasn’t a virus; it was an advanced, predatory, and unified race. Unity, it craved unity.

“Yes.” Leahn felt a pressure like the migraine she got from listening to too much intercom babble. The creature was in her head, making her feel woozy.

She wished she had more time to formulate a plan. Leahn well knew that the advantage of surprise was on its side. She spoke, unsure to what extant it was already in her mind, “You want the Great Singularity? You want everyone to be one being?” No need to be adversarial. She was outmatched and she knew it.

“Yes.” It spoke in her head with her voice now. “When all is one, there will be peace. Your species is large. And your concept of space is larger than I had thought. There may be more of your kind. Assimilation will take time. Your assimilation, however, will be quick. Relax.”

Leahn smiled. She had her angle figured. “Wait!” she shouted, “I can bring you to the Great Singularity’s recurrence much faster than you could yourself. The AID computer, the one that communicated with you, can take you to the next singularity. It is a vessel. It travels through space.”

“I understand what the HMS Broadhurst is. I possess the memories from previous members of your species.”

It had grabbed every poor bastard on Isaac V, her colony. Fighting her temper, Leahn clenched her fist and said, “Then, you know about time dilation? As you near the light barrier, your subjective time expands while the universe’s objective time shrinks. The effect increases with your proximity to the light barrier.”

“This is irrelevant. I do not possess form. I simply am.”

Leahn felt the wooziness increase. She was sweating. Her thoughts lost themselves amidst memories and perceptions that were not her own or oriented toward humans. Ultraviolet clouds shimmered among heat waves and pulsed before her eyes. She shouted, “I also am! You are with me so you must have some link with our universe.”

“I was part of matter once. I transcended. I only descend to assimilate, as I am now doing to you.”

Leahn screamed, “Don’t assimilate me! Idiot! Assimilate AID! Take the Broadhurst into ninety-nine point nine repeating percent light speed and override AID: Don’t let the computer unfold into the dioctaract. You’ll keep accelerating in n-space, and time in this universe will accelerate from your subjective view point. You’ll reach the contraction point of the universe. Then, gravity will fold back everything into one great mass. You can assimilate that and have your Great Singularity after only a short subjective time aboard the Broadhurst.”

The pressure left her mind. It had bought her theory. She had felt its excitement as it had left her. Patching into the wreckage she had made of the intercom, Leahn accessed the priority channel for the Broadhurst, switching the nav toward a black hole, just in case this alien ego had second thoughts. In this instance, she told herself, heavy handed subterfuge was called for. Still on the priority channel, Leahn put out the disaster evacuation command.

Aaoogah! Booming klaxons and red lights gave the Broadhurst the appropriately berserk atmosphere that Leahn wanted. All locks unsealed. Threading the corridors, she quickly found Captain Gelbart standing in the middle of the cramped central cube. He was surrounded by technos who were fiddling with colored fiber optic circuitry. Gelbart was shouting at his men to belay the evac order, but the unfortunate technos couldn’t override her frequency shifting locks. The technos looked like trapped mares, tethered by their fiber optics as Gelbart impotently whipped them with his voice.

Leahn took a moment to wonder what sort of conversation AID was having before she cornered Gelbart between herself and a techno who had failed in his attempt not to be noticed. She flashed a hologram badge with the 3-d letters: IRIS. She hated revealing herself, but time was her new opponent. That alien wasn’t going to care about passengers once it had assimilated the ship. Black holes made lousy vacation resorts.

Leahn spoke in her best drill sergeant’s voice, “In the name of MI Central, Code Cerberus, I assume command. Everyone evac. Now!”

Leahn Lee and Captain Gelbart locked eyes. He flinched a second sooner than Leahn would have guessed. Gelbart spoke under his breath with the viciousness of one who knew that he was beaten, “You’d better have reason for this. IRIS or no, I’ll see you’re planet bound if this is some political stunt of yours, Leahn.” In his bellicose voice Gelbart commanded, “You heard the lady. Everyone onto Newton III. If you men are one second slower than your best drill, you’ll not taste leave for a year.”

The familiar, gruff tone sparked the HMS Broadhurst’s crew into action. Files of men and women in triple time passed through the entry dock’s umbilical cord, a telescoping flexglass tube that linked with the standardized size of Newton III’s entry lock. The entry point had been painted with slightly radioactive, red crosshairs for ease of location. The docking was perfect and the door opened, obeying automated docking commands from the HMS Broadhurst.

Leahn and Gelbart watched from the Broadhurst’s scratched supply hold as the last man left.

Leahn said, “Come on, Captain. I don’t know how long it’ll take before it masters AID, and we don’t want to be here when she goes.”

Leahn thought she heard the whisper of AID’s computer voice in her mind giving thanks to her. Leahn laughed, but suppressed any thoughts of victory–or

black holes. Perhaps it would reach its time destination before it reached the black center where the collapsed star’s gravity would finally crush the HMS Broadhurst’s hull.

On the station dock of Newton III, Gelbart turned toward Leahn for answers when the umbilical cord suddenly detached from the dock’s tube. Gelbart’s ship left Newton III. The HMS Broadhurst, a grey cube with lines marking the spots where the unfolded d-wings interlocked against the primary cube, shrank as it hurtled from their sight.

Leahn walked briskly down the station’s corridor, leaving the stunned, shipless Captain. She’d rather explain to Gelbart on a full stomach anyway.

Leahn found some thermal packets of food in a private little stand on Newton III’s main thoroughfare. Ripping open the packet, she slipped out the hot doggish protein sandwich. She looked at her watch as the second hand ticked and knew that she was safe from it. Her children and her grandchildren would be safe from a very incorporeal but very dangerous alien. Leahn Lee ate lunch and thought about how many millions of generations would be saved from the alien by the subjective time she had finished her lukewarm corndog–if she were aboard the speeding Broadhurst on its temporal journey.

However, the ghost ship would have to do without Leahn Lee. She had better things ahead of her: There was the Isaac colony to be manned, and for the first time in years, a new colonial strategy to be planned.

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