“This was clearly built by someone” Will Adorjan, the aeronaut, told his crew, and the Hydra recorder. They were studying the monolith at Coda, a tiny, remote orb, a reach-out from the Sombrero galaxy. He playfully rubbed his gloves together before using the expanse, between the LifeRaft® and the Coda monolith, to test the present level of gravity. Two steps, like a long jump, easily-covered ten yards in the air, and it caused a crew man to quip, “First down.”
It was one of many dated conversations between Will Adorjan and his crew, which landed years ago, and inexplicably disappeared from Coda at the face of the inscrutable blank monolith; most of the views of this ill-fated journey were dog-eared technologically by Aji, the mission’s supervisor. She whispered, “They were here one minute, then gone into the thin air.” Will was watching his fellow aeronauts in the corner of his eye; their steps bounced upon the gravels of Coda’s surface. They bumped together, and she heard them chuckle, piled like two sides of a football team after a run play. Will focused attention on the Coda monolith; the pod sensed an unusual event, and activated a closet recorder; AI captioned the record with italics. Aji X-ed the pod’s film from her screen; then frustrated, she would restore it several times.
It was a secret part of the LifeRaft®, a device known as “SUM,” an acronym for the “Selective Unit Monitoring” system which busily recorded unusual events simultaneously, and in real time, largely unbeknownst to anyone, except perhaps for a man in a room in a room at the control center on Hydra; SUM seemed to enjoy the vast, irregardless of any passengers; it had been developed to sequence incidents if the crew, or a member of the crew, failed to notice it, or, for some reason, unable to document it. SUM probably belied Aji’s suspicions about Hydra, as it was secret, and her general misgivings, but adapted to it in time, as it was what it was.
Their pod emerged from Laniakea at Bootes Void. She was not a fan of this Great Vast, the “Great Void,” a giant, ubiquitous molecular cloud, an aeronautic “crawl space,” Aji told him, adding to a daunting list of Bootes’ cosmic adjectives.
Elsewhere, Milt pondered his career. The elderly professor was kind of a university legend, popular among the students at Marsh, and he reflected upon it, — whether it was sincere, or simply conventional, the sort of respect due to a senior fellow at a college. He secluded in a lounge chair for a moment at the New Hampshire lake, Pawtuckaway, on their trip. Milt starkly considered an incident from the day before, in New York, on I-495. He was commuting in his Malibu in the city’s usual traffic, a “moving parking lot,” and began to cough, not earth-shaking, in itself, but his cough continued for the last fifteen minutes of the terrifying, one-eyed drive. He finally navigated into a parking space at Marsh, his eyes watering and breathing deeply, barking with distemper how the ride was like “an Apollo splashdown.” He exited the auto swiftly, slammed the door, and stared at the innocent college buildings. HIs cough didn’t really subside until Milt had fully–emerged from the vehicle, stood, and mustered strength from his body’s muscles to draw a deep breath.
The gaping super void, known as Bootes Void, or “The Great Void,” was acquired by a veil nebula after exiting the orbit of İo into the vast, a generic term; the expedition was, as Bud Adorjan, the hero of Hydra, once officially remarked, “a plummet into madness.” He should have been petrified, and, gazing at Aji, wondered why he wasn’t. Bootes Void is a mere seven-hundred million light years northeast of Virgo, wherein lies Sombrero, and also vaguely Earth, further away but containing Coney Island. The Great Void, Bootes, was “a lapse of Nature,” and “a great mistake,” the lacuna, essentially a magnificent empty blur, has also been called by other of Hydra’s aeronautic notables, Bud’s favorite, “a pause in space.” Bootes Void seemed to exist without dimensions, and smudged physical laws, “space without a safety net,” and it presented itself to them, he and Aji, greeting them by immediately plunging their LifeRaft® into dark space, immersing the pod in black.
It has been dubbed, Bootes Void, as the “creepiest place in the Universe,” and it housed as well the planet known as “The Ponds,” which was their destination. The venture into the Vast, which to him was now any place outside Jersey, was a trip through ancient geology; abruptly rising into view, resulting in a noticeable breath of relief for both of them, was the blue, and orange planet, OG 19, The Ponds, beyond the veil in Bootes Void, and east of the Hercules Super-cluster. Hyperbole was not a sin in the greater cosmos, he decided. Aji termed The Ponds as “a nemesis of Pio, with a mind of its own,” and situated as it was, in the Great Void, the “most beguiling place, in the most unearthly cloud, in all Laniakea.” He was willing to give it a chance. The largest void in the universe, Bootes Void was actually a gigantic rotary. The Ponds shined a dazzling blue, a last-stop gas station in a desert, alone, and with nothing more in Bootes’ three-hundred, thirty million light-year diameter, everything else was a huge, black, empty blur. The Ponds had become popular in Sombrero as “a Grand Canyon of a kind,” said Aji. “Everyone used to go to The Ponds. Las Vegas is an even better example. The place had everything, — a great, Goldilocks Sam’s Club warehouse. A star in the desert. Now, it’s totally barren. And it won’t let anyone land.”
The Ponds had adapted many of the characteristics of Bootes Void. “It’s abandoned, there’s hardly any scientific interest; they say it was exhausted, and there’s a bit of a nod to reflexivity, but it’s just the last stop in the veil nebula and like Pluto, not considered to be part of the traversal universe.”
She talked about a perplexing “dumb-bell model.” He didn’t really listen to much of it, as it seemed to be kind of a rambling mumble, and he was more taken by the colorful, angular formations near the veil. He gathered the dumb-bell model was a theory sent to Aji by Hydra, attached to a file of photographs, and wikis about vacuums, causes-and-effect, and dialectical syntheses. He adopted the status of furniture at such times. The Hydra file provided photos of a Houx Tree on The Ponds, an Ilex. This did interest him. He used the LifeRaft® tab embedded in his arm rest to Google it: “Houx” was derived from the French word, “houx,” which first appeared in Virgo, eighty million years ago, as a holly plant. It was a telling coincidence to him, perhaps indicating his forgotten, subconscious education. He knew holly plants were toxic, especially to children and pets; consuming more than twenty holly berries would be fatal; yet, on the other hand, they are a staple of many other birds, and animals. The Ilex had appeared spontaneously in vast tracts of The Ponds five million years ago, she said, the victim of “allopatric speciation,” that is, the “dumb-bell model.”
Aji said, “This is interesting in the great Vast, because, with these vales, the gene flow of a biological species is easily segregated, or isolated, and genetic interchange interrupted by geology, such as glaciers, continents, bodies of water. The same species become a separate, distinct species, and no longer reproduce, because the evolution has been different.”
“Like Martians, the beginnings of Martians,” he dryly observed. “No Mas.” It troubled him only slightly Aji did not disagree, or immediately refute him.
The device, SUM, buffered to refresh a video of the masonry of the Monolith on Coda, an orb in the reaches of the Sombrero galaxy past Lazarus Taxa, an outlaw hideout. They didn’t see it, because it was occurring within the servers. The orb, Coda, possessed a magnetic field, an atmosphere, which resembled aspects of the theory of an “edge” of the universe, a path to a “vry, a multivry,” a multiverse. The monolith was cold and harsh, smooth and completely blank. Will Adorjan was rubbing his gloves against it, several times, front, and back, to mark it in his mind, and searched the construction for an inscription of some kind, or possibly a flaw, indicating it was something that had been paused by its creators, but there was nothing. The monolith was hewn carefully, and rather beautiful in a spare form, somewhat Zen-like, and jagged in waves at the juncture of the cement base and partition. Two of the crewmen joined him, and another, a crew woman. They prattled about how the monolith appeared to be man-made, but naturally desolate. Will was not inclined to listen, and he was apprehensive, not annoyed to see them, but he was distracted. Will told them after a moment, through the microphone of his helmet, “This was clearly built by someone.” He was amused to watch his fellow aeronauts in the corner of his eye, and how their steps bounced from the low gravity of the Coda surface. He returned his attention to the monolith. Adorjan took an easy step to the hidden side of the monolith. “That was easy,” he commented, ironically, to the others. He viewed on his arm a prism ringlet, a circle with many colors. He recognized the prism as a signal point.
The signal was sent from the LifeRaft®, and comprised a small oval to the arm of his suit. He moved his arm to avoid a plausible burn. It had happened before. The crewmen did not appear to notice, and they continued to inspect the monolith’s facade. Will took another step, still ignoring the signal, and it shortly expired; after two more steps, Will waved his arm, in the usual motion to the pod to indicate a pending change in course, like a swipe of an Android smart phone. It was an ostensible reply to the LifeRaft® signal.
The far side of the monolith where Will traversed was draped in darkness; it was no more than one or two steps in front of the monolith before the crew was no longer visible. The crew members joined Will beyond base of the monolith. Will was studying the skies by this time: Sombrero was most obviously changed; simply put, it was no longer there. The monolith behind him became no more than a dappled fog, the shape, and the size, a dimming, floating rectangle, a wavy door, but not a doorway. His crew stepped with him around the monolith. Will lifted his foot. The weight was normal. He moved his body; normal. The atmosphere was different, it seemed heavier, and more humid. He ordered the crew not to remove their helmets. “It’s not likely to be oxygen,” Will said, matter-of-factly, but with a sense of rising alarm. They nodded. Will began a smile, slowly, and gestured to the sky. “Now, okay, who took Sombrero?”
The crew was usually subdued, soldiers, but advanced in their fields, and it took just moments for them to share his concern. One of them, a crew woman, gasped as the photograph registration of the pod, an inline computer which streamed pop-ups to corners of their transparent helmet shield, ceased activity. Only more striking than the continuous panoply of white, and bright shooting stars in the sky was a shrill, sudden sound, a human sound, reminding one of them of the vintage Pink Floyd recording, “Comfortably Numb.” Will saw a tall, quiet aeronaut, an engineer, step into the graying dust with his back to them, and saw the man adjust his shield. He deployed the automatic control, and he opened it without a word, — knowing fully the air could instantly condense, and “freeze-dry” him. His space suit stood tall in a shadow like a caricature of a Western gunslinger punctured by a bullet on a main town road, as the knees buckled surprisingly, and the space suit dropped deliberately to the ground; his face in a sundry wind whooshed, and crumbled into a handful of smooth dust. His timely shriek was unforgettable. Adorjan’s unspoken alarm sunk towards despair, stuck in the slow motion of shock, and he watched too far away as the man’s shield was opened, and he uttered a last meme with a dead-eye gaze at this new Vast, the futile scream: “Aaaaaaaa!”
¤ JUKE BOX ¤
Theme: “Comfortably Numb,” Pink Floyd | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 38).
In flight, Aji laughed, “Adorjan – Bud – used to call me a perfect binary system.” They were watching an orange-blue circle, once the bounty of The Ponds, expanded in the fore, and bow shield.
“How’s that?” he said, awed watching the planet, The Ponds, arise.
“So I researched it, being a young woman, as it were,” she recalled. “There’s actually different types of binary systems. (Laughs.) There are ‘wide binaries,’ where the objects have separate orbits, and they evolve without ever effecting each other. Like me, and Will. (Laughs.) I think Bud meant an ‘astrometric binary,’ an object moving around something, but it can’t be identified, only inferred. It can’t be seen. More fetching.”
“We can’t always relate, I think, sometimes, because something is always in the way, like an abyss, only synthetic,” she said. “The human brain doesn’t have a direct channel. It rejects answers. It processes everything as another question, like an organ transplant that fails. It’s just part of our nature.”
He imagined a video once streamed for his classes about DNA, of microscopic bodies bumping away, and into each other, and then reattaching somewhere else. He said, “The DNA is like the bees. There is no Milky Way in a beehive.”
The path through the nebula, and the pitch sky of Bootes Void, devoid of stars, light, or large galaxies, had not been “memorable”; invisible quotation marks formed in his mind; it “needed more scenery for sightseers, something like the vale of apple trees.” He asked, “Are you still planning on the Grand Lumineres?”
Aji nodded without comment. “I have my itinerary,” she said eventually and brightly, then, “Hydra has an itinerary, too, but we don’t always agree.” The LifeRaft® reported Yon Raulyn was somewhere in the Void, en route the Diamond Planet. She rued, about Sawbones, “How about just settling for – paradise.”
The steps from the dust of Coda in the Sombrero Galaxy into whence, and wherever they had gone, was seamless, and invisible, a doorway of uncalculated physics, perhaps a molecular cloud, too, a teeming wall of heavy mass with size, but without shape, a fading threshold. Will scratched the face shield, meaning to scratch his chin, frowned very quickly realizing it, and said, “It’s disappearing, going – somewhere else.”
“Temporal,” said a crew man.
Will Adorjan, and the crew were searching for the sky for analogs to their personal astrology; one believed he recognized a system similar to Trappist-1, but it was not a stunning, dazzling red, as it ought to have been; the system was an absolute black, and white; a row of orbiting stones possessed a purple color, and it arranged in rows like marbles, similar to an ultra-cool dwarf star appearing in ancient NASA files, and confirmed in Hydra; notably absent was the constellation Aquarius. The LifeRaft® computer, gathering photographic evidence of the Coda environment, had been depicting the Trappist systems before they had landed. They focused an inset telescope on the similar system, and shared video in their helmets; thousands, and thousands of white specks appeared in a dijection sequence of the Vast; the computer stopped to record a single video, it was frames from the surface of one of the countless strange planets, numbered sequentially as it elapsed. The video revealed activity of primitive kinds, – many protozoan, microscopic worms below an enormous, and fairly awesome reef; rhesus monkeys tarzaning through rain forests; the ecosystems were reminiscent of Earth, the land, mountains, oceans and streams, but the atmospheres were variable by their measurement, and had an unusually different tint, more beige; they were stopped, and speechless, to view the slow hustles of scarcely evolved men and women completing their daily, mundane tasks, in spans of rock, and gravel. It took a few minutes of gaping at the prehistoric forms for anyone to comment. “We are the aliens,” a crew woman said, sadly. “We’d be the flying saucer.”
Another added,“The look so – happy, so peaceful.”
Will observed, “Forget us. They may not know about each other – “
“We’ll have to head back to İo before too long,” Aji said. “I forgot this was just a ride for you back to Coney Island. I wanted final data for my trip.”
“I wouldn’t dream of asking you to go with me,” she said. “But you should volunteer, yes. Maybe not. Not with your condition.”
He thought, and replied, “A Coney will suffice for now.”
“Mmm,” Aji admired, gazing intently into the Vast. “Well, imagine it.”
Aji said, “Something else. The LifeRaft® is watching Saturn. I guess it’s always watching Saturn. It can become a real drag. But it’s part of the mission, the duty time. Like, otherwise, I can’t borrow Hydra’s ‘car’? Data collection. Data collection. And the computer is confused.”
Aji said, “That’s what I call it. It may take a while for it to ‘recuperate,” and get back to bothering us with dumb-bell, dot matrix notes. It could be readjusting, downloading a new program, we never really know. It thinks it’s funny, but I am not sitting here for light-hours. I want to go to the Lumineres. So I endure. You’ll be all-set for auto-return – auto-pilot, they used to call it.”
“What’s it confused about?”
Aji said, “It’s hard to say. It’s stuck on Saturn – it’s smitten with it. Saturn is ‘unstable, unstable,’ I’m sick of hearing it. I think it’s actually a code word. It is technically meaningless, which I can explain. You see, Cassini is the computer’s hero. It’s like a kid’s a favorite TV show, and you can never figure out why? It’s a passion. Saturn is always unstable. It’s trying to reconcile the fact by saying Saturn is stable. If it wasn’t unstable, it could be dangerous. You know what I mean? Just a ruse.”
“Maybe it is unstable. How would it say that?”
Aji grinned, “Good question.”
“It would be different, it’d be a problem.”
“If it was actually ‘stable,’ that would be something,” Aji said. “I think I’d stay. Maybe not! It will tell us soon enough. We’ll pass by Saturn, and it’ll reboot as always. The computer will suddenly ‘remember!’ Saturn, Saturn, Saturn. Cassini. Cassini. The one with the rings.”
The Ponds were not navigable; the LifeRaft® courted the atmosphere, shunned the flight plan, and reset on a path to Sombrero. He remembered Aji added, cryptically. “There’s one more thing you should see.”
He squinted in a bathing glare of Florida’s morning sun. He had returned a call to Gabriel, his neighbor in New York. There had been a brief tropical storm overnight; palm branches were strewn in the street, and over cars; mud caps had rolled into buildings from a surge. “Kapitolina’s gone?” he asked.
“Yup,” he said, still squinting. “She must be in Minsk, by now.”
Gabriel asked, “When?”
“From the hospital, I guess. Never saw her. She left a message on my phone.”
“Too bad man,” Gabe said. “She was special.”
He said, “Yeah, and the world is full of lollipops. The sand on the beach is cotton candy.”
“You’re making me hungry,” said Gabriel.
“It’s dark,” a crewman said, somberly.
A crew woman agreed, “Dark, at night.”
“I hate that saying,” the crewman contradicted her, anxiously. “It’s dark in the daytime, they’re supposed to say. It is always dark at night.”
She answered, “Hey – call it in. Nobody knows.” Will interrupted the spat, frustrated to see their LifeRaft® was no longer visible, although they had not moved more than a few yards. She continued, “The stars are gone, they’re, like, gone, that’s all I mean.”
Another crew woman agreed, “She means long, long gone.”
“Look,” Will said, gesturing to a distant mass. “Let’s not get carried away. There are still stars. The Great Attractor. And those are the Pleiades.”
A crew member said, “There should be asteroids, the Pinwheel, Whirlpool. We’re nowhere near Lazarus Taxa.”
The crew woman asked, “Where did we go? How did we move?”
Will shook his head. “This is the same place. This is Coda. It’s exactly the same.” The yellow rectangle, the monolith, had now almost disappeared, as well, lingering in the air as a pixelated dust.
One of the crewman bravely burst towards the yellowing rectangle, the monolith. Adorjan did not realize what the man had in mind, and had no chance to prevent it. He cursed inaudibly, reacting, but not before the crew member had charged the remnant door; it was as if the man was deleted in slow motion. His gear fell grimly near the disappearing doorway, like it was some kind of black humor, — one part at a time, neatly in a single pile, and it struck Will Adorjan the stack was exactly how the manual instructed a space suit should be folded, and stored.
The crew woman admonished, “Clueless!”
And another, “You can’t teach stupid.”
The first commented, wryly, “Well, at least we know we’re not dead.”
“He is –”
She observed, “And there’s no going back.”
Will frowned, turning to the open, black sky. He said, “Let’s find a signal point.”
He had a sinking feeling, and it had begun to consume the crew. The effort was short-lived; they knew prism signals had to be acquired and contained, or they’d expire in the Deep Vast, like light, for millions of years. There was no LifeRaft® to send a signal in their dimension; wherever they were, the LifeRaft® was on the proverbial “other side.”
The crew woman said, “If there is another ringlet, a prism signal, it’s also important to say it might come from somewhere else.”
He nodded. Will tried to conceal any drama in his voice, asking, “Why are they lumped together like this? The Pleiades aren’t near the Attractor..”
The crew woman said, “We are obviously somewhere else. The only good explanation is true time. T2.”
A crew man conjectured, “Maybe the past merges at Coda into the distant future, like U.T., in T2. Maybe we’re right, now. Perhaps there is a different set of laws, different physics?”
Will said, “There is more gravity. T2 is just a gauge, it’s like saying the universe is flat. Either way, that’s no help. But — we’re still working here. Good.”
The crew man said, “Omega. Proxima Centauri. No Alpha.”
Adorjan fretted, studying the formations, tight-lipped. “A-yeah.”
“Maybe it’s a multivry,” the crew woman proposed. “Maybe they just look like the Pleiades.”
The crewman returned to old ground. “And maybe it’s all green cheese!”
“Got to be it,” Will decided. “We haven’t changed anything. It has changed. You know what I think –”
“I do, I know what you’re going to say,” said the crewman. He opened his arm to the dark sky.
Will proclaimed, “We’re missing the point, people.”
“What’s the point?” the crew woman asked.
Adorjan said, “The question is – ask yourself this question: Did we do it? Did we find it?’” He paused, urging them, “A multivry. Did we find it – the edge? The edge of the universe? Did we do it!”
“Then this is a multivry, ” the woman surmised.
Another said, “I don’t know how we’ll get back. Do we have that plan?”
Adorjan said ironically, “Sure we have a plan. A plan for everything – in the pod.”
The first crewman stepped away, abruptly, and glared at the strange objects in the orbiting rows. “You think we found the edge. I think we found madness!”
The other crewman tipped his helmet. “This is not Sombrero. The monolith closed the door.”
The segue had unveiled a void of choice. Will knew this was not lost on the crew. There was the looming possibility of a multivry, a seam in Laniakea, at the Coda monolith. The science supported it. The true wonder of the new reality few could well convey. Simple logic implied a multivry. The bright Orion nebula was not visible, additionally, and one crew man noted a flaw in their view of the ‘Pleiades’; the haze subsided, revealing just five blue stars.
Searching, Will peered into the Deep Vast, at the colorful orbs, and the great dark spaces between them. He had to make a decision. He resisted the surge in his heart at the beautiful twinkles of light emanating from these new stars. A broad smile rose on his face. He chided them, “We did it!” ◊
The Echo By Seas is one of three works by Soda Tom.