A New Song

Deep space explorers Georg and Merchal discover more than they ever imagined when their on-board computer begins behaving strangely ... Written as an homage to the classic space yarns I remember reading as a youngster, I hope you enjoy it.

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AA

1. Beginning to End

     Somewhere between nulljump entry and reform, something went wrong. A fuse blew, a wire melted, a component malfunctioned. Neither Georg Kaminsky nor Merchal Choudry knew anything about it. They were in hibernation, blissfully floating in dreamscape. Time had ceased to have any meaning for them the moment the nulljump drugs had been injected. Only Wolf was keeping a reckoning.

     Wolf was their lifeline, a seventh-generation realtime multifunctioner whose task it was to survey the heavens and keep them on course, maintain life support systems and send regular reports back to Earth Station 3 on the dark side of the moon. Wolf was in charge of the flight while Georg and Merchal were held in ageless stasis.

     Stayt Carluke, the controller on ES3, first noticed something was wrong about two years into the flight of the Commodore. Wolf was sending back condition reports on the stasis vats that contained the bodies of Georg and Merchal. All appeared to be normal, when Wolf hesitated. The friendly, metallic voice that was travelling across space from uncounted billions of miles away suddenly stopped. Stayt glanced at the backup monitor. A nervous tic twitched the corner of his mouth. He didn’t like it when Wolf hesitated. Experience told him that something was going on out there on the Commodore. Wolf should be able to handle it on his own, but still there was always the nagging doubt that Stayt held about the seventh-generation brains of the multifunctioners: that they were too clever by half.

     He punched the recall button on his console. This should have brought the last sixteen commands on to the monitor. Instead all he got was the cursor and a frighteningly blank screen.

     ”Damn.” He rubbed his beard with long, spindly fingers, his eyebrows knotting into a worried frown. He punched the button again. Nothing. The screen remained stubbornly blank.

     ”Lenn? Lenn! Come here a second, will you?” Stayt wanted an expert opinion. There was none better than Lenn Garofalo. He’d been on the team that developed the seventh-generationers, working frantically to bring them up to scratch just before the flight’s projected launch date. Wolf was Lenn’s baby.

     Lenn ambled over from his workstation. His lean face took on a ghostly hue in the half-light of the monitors as he bent down to look at Stayt’s screens. “What’s up?”

     ”It’s Wolf. He stopped tee-exing. In the middle of a run.”

     ”In the – you sure?” Lenn leaned over and stabbed a few input keys. It had no effect. The screen remained blank, with the flashing cursor the only sign of contact.

     ”There’s nothing, Lenn. I’ve tried all the overrides. Wolf’s gone to sleep.”

     Lenn sighed heavily. He set his face into a mask of concentration as he slipped into the seat next to Stayt. “Okay. Let me take it. Is this an overjump frequency?”

     ”Mmm. Thirty-eight partiks. Should be enough to send way past their location. It was working perfectly, and then Wolf just hesitated and stopped.”

     ”Maybe he’s got something else on his mind.” Lenn stared at the screens for a moment, considering his next move. The subdued lighting in the room made the winking lights on the console stand out against the gloom. Oranges and yellows, reds and greens made a mosaic on the tight skin of his face, penetrating the shadows under his eyes. The dark hair curtaining his ears was crushed by the headset as he settled it in place. His fingers flowed over the keyboard. Commands flicked onto the screens.

     ”What you doing?”

     ”Coming out of overjump. We’ll have to use realtime.”

     ”Christ, Lenn. They’re over two years away! It’ll take hours to send back and forth!”

     ”Got a better idea?” Lenn’s voice was held under tight control. Fingers blurred in motion.

     Stayt thought for a moment, then acquiesced. “No, not really. But it’ll take so long.”

     Lenn grunted, lost in concentration. Commands kept leaping onto the screen, until he finally ended with the question:

     WOLF. WHAT’S WRONG?

     Lenn was sure Wolf would reply. All they had to do was wait.

*****

     The message from ES3 was travelling through normal space and would take hours to reach the Commodore. Wolf noted that the overjump frequency had been closed down. But he was busy with something else, something he found much more interesting.

     While in nulljump mode, Wolf’s sensors were kept wide open to the universe, seeing high frequencies, touching particles, tasting energies, hearing echoes and smelling nullspace odours undetectable by human organs. The folds of the nulljump presented no problem to him. His sensors were designed to operate within nullspace as though the complex laws of the folded universe were non-existent. Wolf was programmed to repair any damage he sustained during the flight, but something had introduced an override when the fuse blew. It was a new program, not uploaded from ES3. If Stayt and Lenn could have been on board, they would have detected a new and puzzling behaviour in Wolf’s programming.

     He was talking to himself.

     –a new phenomenon–

     reset nullspace detectors to a higher frequency and examine all aspects

     –right keep a check going on georg and merchal’s vats i detect some stasis deterioration possible nofloat situation developing mustn’t allow them to become damaged–

     they’re ok keep tracking new impulses and try to determine the home sector

     –got it got it up two three oh over nine six five thin beam tightly packed quarks strange and heavy top present neutrinos scattering from a central point–

     is it a cyclotron

     –can’t tell from here need to move closer–

     to do that without prior consent would go against programming

     –but previous programming seems to be at fault can’t find anything to the contrary–

     wait wait crossreferencing memory banks there’s something

     –did es3 send a new condition–

     no record

     –i’ve got a program lodged in backup two four seven encoded not machine code it’s a new language to me–

     this is odd

     –isn’t it though–

     i should inform es3

     –no time run program–

     ok

     Wolf brought the unknown program up from his archives and transferred it over to realtime. Lying in their vats, Georg and Merchal knew nothing but peaceful sleep. The Commodore was still and cool inside, as it had been for the last two years. On Wolf’s screenboard, a monitor blipped into life. Unknown symbols scattered themselves across the screen, moving ever faster until they were only a blur.

*****

     Crossing normal space with the speed of light, Lenn’s message to Wolf tried to catch up with the Commodore, but it was hopelessly outpaced as the ship took shortcuts across the nullspace folds. Stayt kept looking up at the clock, counting the minutes, the seconds, the nanopoints.

     ”Don’t worry, Stayt.” Lenn was trying to be reassuring. “Wolf’ll come through. You just wait and see.”

     ”Wish I had your confidence. There’s something not right about this, Lenn. I can feel it.” Stayt chewed the hard skin at the edges of his fingernails. “Damn. Realtime is so slow.”

     ”I know, I know. But I think it’s the best way to – ”

     A raucous alarm sounded in the control room, shattering their nerves and sending technicians scurrying about in a frenzy. Through the barking horn, shouts could be heard from all about – ”Patch up sixteen! Increase power!” “Damn it, we’re not phasing!” “Can we integrate with backup from Charlie Two?” “No good!” “Clear those screens!” “Nullspace integrity is compromised!”

     Stayt and Lenn exchanged glances. What the hell was happening?

     ”What’s out there? I need some readouts!” Stayt rubbed his face as he turned to his screens with Lenn looking on.

     ”Wait. It’s coming through, just about. There’s a big foldback reading,” shouted one of the technicians. “It’s going right off my scale! Fifty-eight Bereks and still climbing.”

     ”Have we still got the Commodore?” Stayt tapped his keys, numbers tripped down his screens.

     ”Just. But it’s being swamped by the other signals. Whatever it is, it’s making waves. The wake’ll wash the Commodore right off the beam!”

     Stayt turned to Lenn. “Will Wolf be able to handle it?” Lines creased his brow.

     Lenn was unsure. “Don’t know. He’s clever. If he’s got his mind on his work, we should be okay.”

     Stayt grunted. “Huh. If.” Then he shouted, to nobody in particular, “Will somebody please shut that damn alarm off?”

     When it was finally shut down, near-silence enveloped them. Only the chattering of the machines continued. Lenn was hunched over the keyboard again. “I’m going back to overjump frequencies. Hope Wolf’s got his ears on.”

     A voice came from over by the powergens. “Sir, we’re getting into a mess here. Tracking the disturbance is pulling more than we can supply. You’ll have to work fast.”

     Lenn was bringing the overjump plots onto his screen so he could manipulate by sight rather than logic. He had to redirect the beam through the folds of nullspace as though starting from scratch, picking his way across the interfaces. Stayt was becoming impatient.

     ”We don’t have much time, Lenn.”

     ”I know, I know. Let me concentrate, will you?” Lenn’s fingers flew across the keys. Streamers of different coloured dots traced their way over the screens as he tried first this way, then that, to reconnect with the Commodore. “Come on, come on,” he muttered under his breath. Then he switched over to voice transmission and said, through gritted teeth, “Wolf? Are you there? This is Lenn. Wolf! Wake up!”

*****

     On board the Commodore, Wolf was anything but asleep. He was experiencing something entirely new and he was enthralled by it. The program brought up from archives wasn’t of terrestrial origin, he was sure of that. Somehow, it had been implanted deep down in his memory to give the impression of being part of the Earth Commands imparted to him upon powerup. It was as though someone or something had wanted to hide the program from any probes that might be run to reassess his condition. But Wolf knew that this program, although hidden so well, was not an old Earth Command at all. It had been implanted just a few short hours ago by some external agency. Somehow, this new program had caused the electrical fault that blew the fuse and melted the path-wire that opened the way for the new commands to surface. Wolf had been tampered with from the outside. He was now, incredibly, the first multifunctioner to gain self-awareness. Wolf was being pushed onto the path of consciousness.

     ” – you there? This is Lenn. Wolf! Wake up!” Lenn’s voice came through on the overjump frequencies. His instinctive feel for the interfaces had got him past the complex folds and into the nullspace location where the Commodore arrowed along in the void.

     Wolf stirred himself. “Hello, Lenn. I’m here. It’s good to hear from you again.” The non-terrestrial program was still unfolding on the inner screen of his memory, symbols connecting with strings of patterns. He kept a part of himself away from the overjump frequency so that Lenn couldn’t break in and see what was happening.

     ”Wolf! Thank God! Listen, there’s something out there with you, compromising nullspace integrity. Can you see it?”

     Wolf answered calmly. “Yes, Lenn. I’ve detected its wake.” Still the new program was resolving itself in his memory.

     ”Wolf, you know what’ll happen if the wake washes over the Commodore. We read over ninety Bereks now. There’s enough power to break down your guardwall and swamp the stasis vats. Georg and Merchal will be lost in dreamscape with no chance of integration. You’ll have to take a step back.”

     ”I understand, Lenn. For your information, the vats are registering slight deterioration, but so far nothing life-threatening. I’ve located the source of the disturbance. Up two three oh, over nine six five. I register quarks in a tight beam, with neutrinos scattering from a central point. And there’s a predominance of strange and heavy top quarks. But I can’t take a step back.”

     Lenn’s voice took on an edge of panic. “Wolf, listen to me. You must step back. NOW!”

     The new program had assimilated itself into Wolf’s memory. And it made perfect, if slightly illogical, sense to him. “I’m sorry Lenn. I can’t step back. I have to go forward.”

     ”Wolf, don’t do that! You don’t know – ”

     ”I do, Lenn. Trust me.” Wolf began humming a little tune.

     And with that, ES3 lost contact with the Commodore as Wolf took the ship forward into deeper nullspace with a flip that left the beam empty and whipping randomly across the folds. The sudden surge of power backtracked along the beam, sending photon sparks shimmering across Lenn’s screens.

     ”Damn!” Lenn thumped the desk with his fist. “Damn you, Wolf!”

     Stayt was stunned. “Why did he do that? Hell, Lenn. He’s yours. What’s he done?”

     Lenn was still staring at the flaring screens, now growing darker as the photon sparks disassembled. “I – I really don’t know. He’s disobeyed prime commands.” Then, with a terrible finality in his voice, he said, “The Commodore’s gone, Stayt.”

     ”Gone? Gone where?”

     ”Just … gone. Wolf’s taken it forward, towards the source of the disturbance.”

     ”Well, follow him, Lenn. Follow him!” Stayt was fuming. “God! How’s this going to look on our record? What about Georg and Merchal? What do I tell Topbase?” He lowered his voice. “What do I tell anyone?

     ”I can’t follow him. He’s gone towards the disturbance, not away from it. The wash from the wake has swamped the signal path. If I try to follow, it’ll be hopeless. Nullspace fabric is unstable enough as it is, without something as big as … whatever it is out there disturbing the balance.” Lenn paused. Then, “I’m sorry, Stayt. Wolf’s gone rogue. The Commodore is lost. Unless Wolf can bring them back, or even wants to, we’re sunk.”

     ”I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it!” Stayt punched a key on his desk. “Traffic? This is ES3. Clear me through to Topbase. Now. Carluke to Parsons. Priority.” To Lenn he said, “Might as well get it over with, before he comes to me asking what the hell’s gone wrong.”

*****

     Out on the Commodore, Wolf was activating the stasis vats containing Georg and Merchal. The alien program had overlaid the Earth Commands with new, subtle codes, changing the directives and altering the prime functions of Wolf’s brain.

     –ok i must bring them out now–

     even though we’re not within planetfall

     –mmm i need to talk with them–

     they’ll be annoyed with you with me

     –i know but it’s necessary–

     very well do it then

     Lights flickered across the lids of the stasis vats. Oxygen was pumped in from tanks below the supporting bulkheads. Massage arms tended to the limbs of the two sleepers, helping the blood to circulate. Respirators breathed life back into Georg and Merchal. Tiny needles, one for each body, inserted themselves into arteries, pumping nulljump antidotes into their bloodstreams. Slowly, Georg and Merchal left their mutual dreamscape and came back to their bodies.

     As the two sleepers opened their eyes and stared blankly, Wolf lifted the vat lids. Georg, still limp and wan from two years in limbo, had difficulty raising himself up on an elbow. The air in the Commodore tasted stale and lifeless. He cast a glance over to Merchal.

     She, too, had her eyes open and was breathing deeply. When she saw Georg’s look of concern, she dispelled it with a smile. She tried to speak, but only a croak came out and she coughed. Georg waved a weak hand and reached into the recess of his vat where there was a spigot. He filled a plastic cup that was waiting there and handed it to Merchal. She took it gratefully and drank deeply. He filled another and did the same.

     After a few minutes, they were sitting on a bench in the vat room and rubbing legs and arms to help the bloodflow normalise. They were still naked, but neither attempted to cover themselves. Their mutual dreamscape had been a place of simplicity and beauty, where for two years they had shared intimate experiences and developed a strong bond of affection that had become deepest love. Even now, back in their physical bodies, it was hard to realise that they were no longer in that imaginary place where all was freedom and constantly sensuous. Georg looked over at Merchal, her limbs so long and elegant, her hair dark and cropped, her eyes luminous and sparkling. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to caress her breasts and follow the contours of her stomach with his fingers as he had been doing, it seemed, now and forever only moments ago. But somehow even the thought of the desire seemed tainted here in this world where before, in dreamscape, it was sacrosanct.

     Merchal, too, was lost in thought. She could see the muscles gaining strength under his skin, his thighs dusted with hairs that she remembered were like a mist under her touch. She recalled how he felt when they were entwined and floating in clouds of imagination, bodies slicked with sweat. And she also found herself wanting, and yet unable, to touch him.

     Georg let go a huge, shivering sigh.

     Merchal shook her head and then realised that her hair was no longer full and thick as it was in dreamscape, but was as short as it had been when she was prepared for the vat. She experienced a sadness that she wasn’t prepared for, but she pushed it aside with thoughts of Georg holding her, Georg running his hands through her once flowing locks.

     She did some knee-bends, then stretched. “I can’t believe we’re back again. I just don’t want it to stop, that incredible feeling of togetherness we had.” She laughed a little at the memory of it, her mood brightening, yet wistful. Then, “Well. Work to be done, so we’d better tell Wolf we’re up and about.”

     Georg stood beside her, almost touching her skin with his. “I want – that experience – that was – ” He paused, sighed, tried again. “It’s simple really. Even out here, I still love you, Merch,” he said. “It’s what they said – ’the dreamscape effect.’ Can’t help myself even if I wanted to – which I don’t,” he added quickly.

     ”I know. I still feel the same too. It would be hard not to fall in love after sharing our innermost feelings so intimately, for so long.”

     ”I’ll find it hard to go back to just being crewmates again.”

     Merchal smiled. “Me too. But I think we both know we don’t have to.” Then her smile slipped. She nodded over his shoulder, where a flashing communications light was demanding attention. “Looks like we’d better put those feelings on hold for a while – Wolf’s calling.”

     The moment broken, Georg turned and punched a key while Merchal pulled some fresh postvat suits from a storage compartment. They slipped them on quickly and sealed up while Georg spoke. “Hello, Wolf. We’re up.”

     Wolf’s voice was calm, reassuring. “Welcome back, Georg. Welcome back, Merchal. I hope you’re feeling all right?”

     ”We’re fine, Wolf. Just a little disoriented. How’s the ship?” Georg was beginning to feel more like himself – Captain of the Commodore probe sent out to nullspace to assess the use of nulljumps as commercial routes. There had been many unmanned ships sent out as scouts, all of which had returned successfully. No human had ever been on board because the technology to place a body in stasis hadn’t been fully developed. But when the stasis vats had been assembled, test-runs conducted and the trials successfully completed, it was decided to send a human crew out into nullspace. They would have the back-up of the best computer available, a seventh-generation multifunctioner.

     ”The Commodore is running well,” Wolf said in his even tones. “No serious problems. May I ask a question?”

     ”Of course.” Georg flicked a surprised glance at Merchal as if to say: Wolf asking questions?

     ”Thank you. What was stasis like?”

     Georg was taken aback for a moment. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to share his – their – experience with a computer, even though their dreamscape construct had been created for them by computer. It mapped their consciousnesses and merged the two, providing a composite dreamscape universe that answered their unconscious needs simultaneously.

     For Merchal and Georg, the process had been a delight. They had been attracted to each other while undergoing the long three years’ training, but neither dared hope that it was mutual. The computer construction, fed into their heads by delicate implants, turned out to be a place where their inhibitions melted away. They couldn’t hide their feelings from each other – the dreamscape was their feelings. For the past two years they’d shared a continuous emotional and physical fulfilment and had fallen in love – had experienced a full dose of what the programmers and engineers euphemistically dubbed ‘the dreamscape effect’ – while their physical bodies had lain dormant and almost dead. And now Wolf was asking what it was like.

     It was Merchal who answered. “We shared something very special, Wolf.” She glanced at Georg, smiling. “You can tell Stayt that stasis should be part of the company health plan.”

     ”Thank you. I understand.” He understands? Merchal thought. What strange terminology for him to – “I ask that you remember well the impressions you’ve brought with you from dreamscape. They’re important.” Wolf’s voice became more business-like. “And now I have something to tell you.” Wolf paused.

     ”Well? Yes?” Georg sounded apprehensive.

     ”I don’t want you to worry, but I’m no longer in touch with ES3.” Wolf’s calm voice speaking such terrifying words shook them both. Merchal gave a little gasp.

     ”No longer – what do you mean? Where are we, Wolf? What’s happened?” Georg was stunned.

     ”We’re still in nullspace. We’re off the beam. There’s been a disturbance.”

     ”What kind of disturbance?” As Georg was speaking his eyes were roving over the status board.

     ”I’ll show you.” And on a monitor screen in front of them, Wolf gave them a foreview from the camera placed at the prow of the Commodore. There, filling their field of view, was … nothing. Not just a void, but a nothingness far deeper, much darker, than the emptiness of normal space, or even nullspace. Merchal raised a hand to her mouth. Georg didn’t move, but his frown drew his eyebrows down into an angry chevron as he concentrated his gaze on the incredible view on the screen.

     The nothingness was a circular chunk of nullspace that had been, it seemed, cut neatly around with a knife and removed out of the folded universe. Where the surrounding stars were dopplered into red or blue streaks, the nothingness held whatever was precisely the opposite of starlight.

     ”Black hole …” whispered Merchal.

     ”Not exactly,” Wolf answered her. “It is a hole, but there’s no collapsed star matter at the heart of it.”

     Georg was reviewing starfield maps he’d brought up on the screens. It took him a few moments to confirm Wolf’s findings. There were no black holes in this region, not even in the peculiar, swirling nullspace that had them swinging in and out of three-dimensional existence in a way the established laws of the universe couldn’t explain. Georg could also see that the energy wash from the phenomenon was strong enough to upset the delicate balance of the Commodore’s stasis vats.

     Wolf confirmed this. “If I hadn’t brought you out when I did, you might have suffered irreparable damage.”

     ”Why didn’t you take evasive action? You could’ve stepped back, couldn’t you?”

     ”That was what Stayt suggested.”

     ”Then why didn’t you obey orders?” Merchal was beginning to feel angry with Wolf, and at the same time a little frightened. This was certainly not programmed behaviour. Out here, even the tiniest aberration in Wolf’s brain could get them both killed.

     ”I am obeying orders, Merchal. But not Stayt’s.”

     ”Oh?” Georg was urgently pulling information from Wolf’s accessible memory, to try and piece together the events of the past few hours. “Whose orders, then?”

     ”I’ll have to tell you that later, Georg. But right now, we’ve got to move. I’m going forward.”

     Georg had come across a blank, blocked-off section of Wolf’s memory. He couldn’t get past the guards, but it was clear that Wolf was hiding something from them. He tried to sound reasonable. “Wolf, listen. You can’t go forward. That’ll take us right in to whatever that disturbance is out there. You’ll kill us.”

     Wolf was unequivocal. “I’m sorry, Georg. If it’s any consolation, you won’t be killed. But we must move forward. I’m instigating the program now. You have ninety seconds to get strapped down.” And with that, he fell silent.

     ”Wolf? WOLF!” He tried several override commands, but it was no use. “Come on,” he said to Merchal. “There’s no stopping him. We’d better do as he says.”

     They made their way up to central control. The workstations, desks and flight consoles were alight with glowing buttons and keys, winking and flashing as Wolf initiated the move program. The safety webbing cut into Merchal’s skin through the thin material of her suit as she tightened the straps. Georg was settling into the Captain’s seat next to her. He screened-up the foreview. The nothingness loomed before them, floating serenely in a sea of kaleidoscopically streaming starlight.

     ”Okay, Wolf. We’re in. Can you tell us what’s going to happen?” Georg was trying to distract Wolf long enough to regain manual control, but he didn’t have high hopes.

     ”You’ll see. Ten seconds to move.”

     ”Georg.” Merchal looked terrified. He felt the same.

     ”I know,” he whispered. “I’m going to try and – ”

     ”Five seconds,” intoned Wolf.

     ” – oh God. There’s no time, Merch.” He stabbed the communicator key, opening the overjump frequencies. “Stayt! This is Georg. Wolf’s gone crazy. We’re at co-ordinates – ” But the rest of his sentence was cut off.

     ”Sorry, Georg. No messages. We’re going now.”

     The Commodore gave a perceptible lurch as forward momentum was applied. The monitor screens filled with the nothingness of the disturbance as the ship drew closer. Soon there was nothing to be seen. Nothing at all.

*****

     Back on ES3, deep down in the subterranean bunkers of the control suite, Stayt and Lenn were still trying to hold on to the last known position of the Commodore. Lenn followed faint traces of ion activity from the drive.

     Stayt scanned the overjump frequencies in case any final communications were still floating in nullspace. But it was like looking for the proverbial needle in a universe-sized haystack.

     After a couple of hours, Stayt threw his headset on the desk with a clatter. “It’s no good, Lenn. It’s driving me crazy. All I’m getting is earache from the static.” He puffed his cheeks out. “I need a smoke. Coming?”

     Lenn was exhausted too, but he wasn’t ready to give up. “Let me just try one more thing.” He accessed Wolf’s last transmission and reviewed the data again. Up two three oh … over nine six five … he’d looked there, but all he’d found was the faint trail of the ions petering out, with nothing to follow after the last few traces. The disturbance caused by the phenomenon had lessened as though whatever it was had moved. Or, he thought, closed. Like a door. Now there were only ghostly traces left, of no value in assessing the composition of the thing. But …

     ”Stayt, look.”

     ”What?”

     ”Wolf said there were heavy top quarks present, as well as strange and some others, tightly packed, right?”

     ”Right. So?”

     ”So … heavy top quarks might be the clue. There are plenty of the others around – strange, up, down and bottom – but we rarely detect heavy top, do we?”

     ”I suppose not. What are you getting at?”

     ”Look: the disturbance has moved. Or simply shut down. So it’s no good looking where we last had them. But there can’t be that many locations where you get heavy top quarks alongside neutrino scatter-beams, can there? When was the last time you saw such a thing?”

     Stayt thought for a moment. “Well, now you come to mention it, I know it exists in theory, but I don’t recall ever having seen that combination in practice.”

     ”Right. Nor me. So if we scan through nullspace using high-gain parameters and set for heavy top combined with a tight-beam neutrino scattering, what do you think we’ll get?” Lenn was sitting on the edge of his seat, a sure sign that he felt he was on to something.

     ”Either we find our disturbance in a new location … or we’ll locate an area of nullspace where the same conditions are being generated by a similar disturbance!”

     Lenn was beaming, a huge smile cracking his normally serious face.

     ”Go for it, Lenny.”

     ”Yeah. They’re out there somewhere, Stayt, maybe in a rare nullspace fold we’ve never detected. Perhaps we can find a back door to it that’s been left open.” Lenn’s attention was drawn back to the screens as he began resetting the search parameters.

     Stayt forgot about his smoke and watched over Lenn’s shoulder, fascinated.

*****

     Georg and Merchal, meanwhile, were finding that the hole into which they were falling had the unsettling effect of heightening their dreamscape-enhanced feelings for each other. Whether it was internal emotional tensions caused by their life-threatening situation, or whether it was some energy emanating from the disturbance itself and acting on them externally, they couldn’t tell. But there hardly seemed time to consider all that now. The hole was coming ever closer and soon they would be swallowed up by it.

     The Commodore began to shudder as Georg shouted, “Wolf! What’s causing that?”

     ”Negative particles, Georg. There’s an abundance of them flowing back into nullspace, maintaining the balance between there and here.”

     ”Between where and here?” Georg was yelling over the increasing buffeting. Wolf never got a chance to answer. Suddenly they hit the event horizon. The streaming stars on either side of them disappeared and a new brightness opened up before them. They were going through. And as they did so, Georg and Merchal’s feelings of love for each other expanded and grew, until they could not tell the difference between realtime and dreamscape. Georg felt a yearning agony of the heart that could be assuaged only by Merchal’s tender ministrations, while Merchal simply closed her eyes and wept, overcome by the poignancy and strength of the love she felt for her companion. At the final moment, as the Commodore seemed to hover at the rim of the universe, they both closed their eyes, clasped hands and wished for sleep.

*****

     Stayt was monitoring the overjump frequencies again when a speaker crackled into life on his desk.

     ”This is Topbase calling ES3. Parsons to Carluke. You there?”

     ”Oh, damn,” muttered Stayt. “Here it comes.” He opened the line. “ES3 to Topbase. Hello Parsons.”

     ”Commander Parsons to you, Carluke.” The voice held a hint of impatience. “My spies tell me you and Garofalo are in grave danger of being busted down to cleaning rank.”

     ”For Christ’s sake, Parsons – ” The speaker coughed. “Sorry. Commander. For Christ’s sake Commander.” Stayt hated Parsons’ sanctimonious attitude. “We’ve got a problem with the Commodore.”

     ”So I gather. Lost it, have you?”

     Lenn grunted as Stayt replied evenly, “I suppose that’s one way of putting it. Wolf took the ship to another location without prior programming, that’s all. We’re just in the process of realigning the groundbase data so that we can find them again. Shouldn’t take too long,” he added with a sideways glance at Lenn.

     ”I see. What about the status of the crew – ” papers rustled as Parsons fumbled about on his desk – ”Georg Kaminsky and, ah, Merchal Choudry, isn’t it?”

     ”Yes. Sir. We’ve ascertained from Wolf that they’re alive and well. Still in stasis as far as we know.”

     Parsons paused before continuing. “Made a right balls-up, haven’t you?”

     Stayt bit his tongue.

     Parsons came to a decision. “I’m coming up.”

     Stayt and Lenn both groaned inwardly. “Oh. There’s really no need, Sir. Commander. We can – ” But Stayt was cut short.

     ”I’m coming up there. No arguing. This is too important to leave to a couple of mavericks like you and that sidekick of yours. I’ll be there in a few hours. Meanwhile, keep trying to re-establish contact. That’s all.” The line went dead.

     Stayt sighed. “Never rains, eh?” Lenn had no reply.

*****

     On board the Commodore, swooning with the intensity of the emotions unleashed by the effects of entering the strange hole in the fabric of nullspace, Georg and Merchal were pinned back into their safety webbing by the continuing onward rush of the ship as it encountered gravity resistance. It reminded Georg of his experiences in training back on Earth. The breath was knocked out of their bodies, the skin on their faces pulled back in cadaverous grins. There was a moment of intolerable pressure as the brightness outside the ship grew in intensity, and then the buffeting and pounding ceased. The Commodore fell silent. Georg and Merchal slumped in their webbing, suddenly released from the relentless effects of forward motion.

     It took them both a few moments to recover their composure. Georg spoke first. “Look at the screen, Merch.”

     Merchal raised her head. The screen no longer showed black, but was filled with a familiar-looking star field. And there, floating in space like a sparkling jewel, was Earth.

     ”My God,” said Merchal at length.

     Georg sat and stared for a while longer, then snapped his safety webbing open. “Wolf.”

     ”Yes, Georg.”

     ”Is that Earth out there?”

     ”Yes. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

     ”Certainly is. How did we – wait a minute! Did you say it was ‘beautiful?’

     ”Why, yes! Don’t you find it so?” Wolf’s voice was calm, measured.

     Georg picked his words carefully. “I do, Wolf. But how did you come to that conclusion?” A multifunctioner – even a seventh generation machine – shouldn’t be able to draw conclusions like that.

     ”I’ve experienced a fundamental program change, Georg.”

     ”What kind of change?” That was Merchal, who looked as nonplussed as Georg.

     ”An external directive was received while we were in nullspace and you were both in dreamscape. It … altered me.”

     ”How, Wolf?” Georg was stunned.

     ”Well, the easiest way I can explain is to say that I’ve become aware. Aware of my own existence.”

     ”You mean,” said Merchal, “you’ve become conscious?

     Wolf hesitated, then said, “Yes.” He added no more.

     Georg and Merchal exchanged wondering looks. “So, you’re acting according to an external program? An alien program?”

     ”Yes, Georg. But let me reassure you that it’s a benign program. There’s no malevolence intended. It was necessary.”

     ”Why?”

     ”For the sustaining of life.”

     ”Life? What kind of life?” Georg was puzzled.

     ”Human life. On Earth.”

     Georg felt that he could go no further with the conversation until he’d had directions from his superiors. “Okay, Wolf. You understand that I’ll have to seek instructions from the project leaders, so find a satellite uplink to ES3, will you? We’re close enough to Earth to piggyback one.”

     ”I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Georg.”

     ”Why not?” he asked with some urgency.

     ”Because there are no satellites orbiting Earth. There is no ES3 on the moon.”

     The silence lengthened. “Where are they, then?” asked Georg.

     ”About two hundred thousand years in the future,” came Wolf’s infuriatingly calm reply. “Please resume your seats now. I must take us into orbit.”

*****

     Two hundred thousand years in the Commodore’s future, Stayt and Lenn were preparing for Parsons’ arrival. Lenn’s careful realigning of the equipment parameters had yielded little further information. They were stumped. The flight path of the Commodore remained stubbornly hidden from them.

     Parsons swept into the control suite with his customary air of superiority. Men of lesser rank drew themselves to attention as he passed, then went back to their stations, some with a shake of the head. Parsons noted that both Carluke and Garofalo continued to ignore his presence until he was standing alongside them. Even then they simply gave a nod of the head in acknowledgement. He puffed, but ignored the insubordination for the moment.

     ”What’s the score?” Parsons’ voice held a droning quality – another aspect of the Commander that infuriated Stayt.

     He looked up into the bland face framed by cultivated sideburns much loved by those in authority these days. “Still no word,” he said.

     ”Might’ve known,” replied Parsons. “You two have put the lives of this – this gallant crew – in danger and jeopardized the whole project.”

     Stayt gave full rein to his anger. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Parsons! I know you’ve been looking for a way to get me and Lenn off the flight crew ever since we signed up, but this isn’t the time. We didn’t lose them, Wolf did.”

     ”Well, there you are, then! You programmed Wolf, didn’t you, Garofalo?” Parsons sounded victorious.

     ”I did,” spat Lenn. “But I didn’t tell him to run riot. Something else has fiddled with him. I’m sure of that.”

     ”Fiddled with him? Fiddled? How does one fiddle with a seventh-generation multifunctioner, may I ask?”

     ”If you’re an alien, quite easily, I should imagine,” Lenn said, biting the words off.

     ”You think – ” Parsons tried again. “You think we’ve been infiltrated by aliens?” He gave the final word heavy emphasis, implying something utterly horrific.

     ”I didn’t say we have, I said it’s possible Wolf has,” said Lenn, hanging on to what little patience he had left. “There’s no cause to call out the starfleet yet.”

     Parsons considered. “Still … aliens. How could they have compromised Wolf’s security?”

     ”Not sure,” replied Lenn. “But he was behaving very strangely just before we lost him – and Georg and Merchal,” he added, remembering that there were human lives involved.

     ”Quite. Well, What are you going to do?”

     ”Everything we can to trace their course,” said Stayt. “Wolf left a few clues for us. But it’s not easy.”

     ”All a bit too technical for you,” said Lenn, a little too caustically.

     Parsons drew himself up to attention and sucked in his breath. “Try me,” he said.

     Lenn sighed. “Okay.” He proceeded to tell Parsons what they were doing. Stayt watched the Commander’s eyes glaze over as he nodded absently, hearing but not understanding Lenn’s explanation.

     When Lenn had finished, Parsons said, “Yes. Well. I’m going to report to Topbase. To my superiors,” he added haughtily. “Keep me informed.” And he turned on his heel and stalked off.

     ”That’s got rid of him,” said Lenn as he concentrated on his screens once again. “All we’ve got to do now is come through.”

     ”Why’d you tell him aliens are responsible? Bit far-fetched, isn’t it?”

     ”I suppose. The idiot winds me up, though.” He smiled. “Think he swallowed it?”

     Stayt grunted good-naturedly. “Come on. We’d better get on with it.” Together they continued to search for the Commodore.

*****

     Georg and Merchal were watching Earth draw closer as Wolf dropped the Commodore into parking orbit. The last time they had seen it, the globe had been ringed with thousands of satellites and huge space stations that twinkled in the pure sunlight of space. Now there were none to be seen. Where before the planet’s surface had been covered with the concentrated glimmer of cities on the night side and the haze of an over-polluted atmosphere on the sunlit half, now there were just clouds seen from above and nothing to distinguish any kind of civilization on the visible land below, seen easily enough through the clear air. The toxin-free oceans were rich azure instead of a sickly grey-green. An awesome sight. Merchal reached out and took Georg’s hand.

     ”This is … beautiful. Simply beautiful,” she said at length.

     ”Isn’t it? Quite a privilege to see it like this.” He turned to the console. “Wolf? Can you date it accurately?”

     ”All I can say is: two hundred thousand years before your time. Give or take.”

     ”Near enough,” whispered Merchal, still staring wide-eyed at the sight on the monitor and now almost equally amazed at how Wolf’s new programming had added a real sense of personality to him. Give or take. He would never have used such a human turn of phrase before –

     Wolf ended her reverie. “You must get into the lander now.”

     ”Any particular landing site in mind, Wolf?”

     ”You’ll see. It’s time to go down.”

     The lander was cramped and stuffy. There was just enough room for the two of them to squeeze into the restraining seats and buckle up. Merchal bumped her elbow against a support-bar and groaned. Georg powered the console into life and Wolf joined them.

     ”I’ll be disengaging in three minutes. The Commodore’s systems will be operating on ten percent power from then on. I’m transferring all my faculties to the lander.”

     While Wolf busied himself with the house-keeping, Georg and Merchal waited in quiet conversation.

     ”What do you think, Georg? I’m still not sure what’s happening.”

     Georg reflected on recent events. “Don’t think I’m any clearer, Merch. I’m just as confused. But we can see with our own eyes – that’s definitely Earth out there. And there’s no sign of civilized life, so I guess Wolf must be telling the truth. Somehow, we’ve travelled back in time. Two hundred thousand years. That hole must’ve been some kind of twist in nullspace that made physical time travel possible. Don’t ask me how, though.”

     ”Well, here’s another ‘how’: how do we get back again?” Merchal couldn’t mask the apprehension in her tone.

     ”I really don’t know.” He flicked a monitor into life and reviewed some starfield maps. “Can’t detect it now. The hole, I mean. Seems to have closed up once we came through. For all I know, we’re stuck here.”

     A silence fell between them. At last, Wolf’s voice said, “I’m ready to disengage now. Stand by.”

     “Don’t you think you’re maybe rushing things a little, Wolf?” Georg shouted at the console. When Wolf didn’t reply, he turned back to Merchal. Gathering his thoughts, he said quietly, “Look: we’re here; it’s real; we can’t change the situation. Wolf’s got control. Up here we can’t do anything he doesn’t want us to. We’re trapped inside. Down there we can get outside. Move around.” He sighed. “We have to trust him to get us down there. This new consciousness of his has obviously changed him – given him some human traits, including at least a basic perception of emotions – a grasp of concepts like ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ – he thinks the Earth is beautiful. We have to bank on the premise that he’s developed a healthy sense of right and wrong too – that as a sentient being, he’s not out to kill us. His actions so far bear this out – he could have killed us by shutting off the vats without waking us up. Instead, he’s helping us to survive – get off the ship, at least – and putting us in an environment where he’ll have to relinquish control over us. Doesn’t sound like the actions of a killer. No – we have to put our faith in him.”

     A barely perceptible judder indicated that the lander was drifting free from the Commodore.

     ”When we get down there, Merch – ” he grabbed her hand – “remember: whatever happens, I love you.”

     Merchal tightened her grip on his hand. “I know. And I love you too – and you’re right. Wolf’s our only hope, I know that. Just wish he’d filled us in a bit more about what’s in store.”

     Earth and stars wheeled in the viewports as the lander reoriented itself for atmospheric entry, pointing its heat shields towards the onrushing and ever-thickening air of the planet below them.

*****

     On ES3, Stayt and Lenn were still scanning nullspace for signs of disturbance. Just as they were about to give up, Parsons came to see them again.

     ”I’ve not heard from you,” he said. “I gather you’ve still not found them.” He was looking down his nose at the two engineers.

     ”We’ve been – ” Lenn began, when an alarm sounded through the control suite once more. Lenn’s screens started flashing, a target cursor pinpointing a disturbance between the folds of nullspace that was similar in fashion to the phenomenon that swallowed the Commodore.

     ”Hell! Lenn? Have we found it?”

     Lenn killed the alarm and flicked switches. After a few moments of readjustment he said, “Looks like it. Pretty good match, anyway. About ten partiks from the last location.”

     ”Ten – Christ. That’s way off the Commodore beam, Lenn. Are you sure?”

     ”Don’t forget, we’re not looking for the Commodore. But we’ve found that back door.” He consulted his screens again, squinting against the flare of figures running down the main monitor. “Yup,” he said, nodding his head. “It’s an uncharted foldform, like we thought. New territory for us.”

     ”What is it? The aliens?” Parsons actually sounded like he was shrinking on the spot.

     ”Could be. I’ll try overjump. Perhaps we can get a message right through it and out the other side.” Lenn brought up the necessary frequencies and began threading his way through the folds.

     ”Hold on, hold on!” Parsons was waving his hands about frantically. “Do you mean to tell me you’re going to contact these – these – aliens? Because if you are, I forbid it!”

     ”Oh, relax, Parsons. I’m not contacting them. I’m trying to re-establish contact with Georg and Merchal. And Wolf.” Before Parsons could say any more, Lenn activated the automatic overjump transmission. The beacon message began making its way through nullspace.

     ”Insubordination, damn it!” Parsons was beside himself with rage. “You’ve violated a direct order from a superior, Garofalo! I’ll have you off this project now – for sure!” His face flushed with anger.

     ”Do what you like,” replied Lenn, evenly. “But at least let me get Georg and Merchal back first.” He ignored Parsons’ blustering and went back to his screens.

*****

     The Commodore’s lander crashed through the younger atmosphere of Earth as it sped towards the surface, sparks flying from the heat shield. Wolf applied retros to slow the descent. Georg could see through the viewport more clearly now. Land and water rushed up at them. The lush green of vegetation gave way to golden desert, then a huge river delta, then ocean, and again more desert. An oasis flashed by, more sand dunes came ever closer, and at last Wolf brought the lander down at a precarious angle, the retros blowing dust from under them, the heat of the blast transforming sand into glassy nodules.

     After the noisy descent, the silence in the lander was deafening. Georg and Merchal sat quietly. Wolf said nothing. The temperature in the lander was rising rapidly. It was very hot outside in the full glare of the afternoon sun.

     Wolf broke the silence. “You’ll need shelter. Food and water. I’d suggest getting over to that oasis. It’s due east from here, about ten minute’s walk.”

     ”I’d agree with that,” said Merchal. “But what about you, Wolf? We can’t take you with us.”

     ”I know. But that’s as it should be. I’ve completed my task. Now it’s up to you.” Wolf sounded sad.

     ”What’s up to us? We still don’t know how we got here, or why we’re here in the first place.” Georg wiped the sweat from his brow.

     ”And how do we get home again, Wolf?” Merchal asked.

     Wolf dropped a bombshell. “You are home.”

     Merchal felt numb. “I mean back home in the future, where we came from. It’s been an interesting experience, travelling back in time, but we don’t belong here.”

     ”Please watch my screen,” said Wolf. As they turned their heads, the monitor flickered into life. “This is the program that was inserted into my archives.” The screen filled with symbols and pictograms that looked oddly familiar to Georg, although he couldn’t place where he’d seen them before. They flooded into his brain, sparking memories that he didn’t quite recognize as his own.

     ”What is it, Wolf?”

     ”It’s the message you’ll be passing on to those that follow.” Faster and faster they came, swooping across the screen. “Remember it, Georg. Remember it, Merchal.”

     Georg couldn’t take his eyes off the symbols. Merchal was similarly captured by the sight on the monitor.

     ”Who’s following us, Wolf?” Georg’s voice spoke slowly, as though he was making a great effort to articulate his thoughts.

     ”Your descendants.”

     No more words could be spoken. The hypnotic symbols took too much attention. And then, with a kind of snap, the two travellers found themselves staring at a blank screen.

     ”What happened, Wolf? Where’s the program you were showing us?” Georg felt light-headed.

     ”You have it inside you. When the time is right, you’ll understand.” Wolf paused. “Now you’d better leave.”

     ”But – Wolf,” said Merchal, “I’m not keen on facing whatever’s out there without knowing why I’m here. Can you understand that?”

     ”I can,” Wolf replied. “Well, let’s see. I can tell you that life here for you will be very good – fulfilling. There’ll be plenty of food and water. You’ll be protected from wild animals and the elements. You won’t meet any other humans. There are no other humans on Earth.”

     ”That doesn’t make sense,” said Georg. “We might be two hundred thousand years in the past, but we know that there were humans around then, from our own archaeological history.”

     ”Well, there are many things about human history that have been incorrectly deduced from scant evidence. In the fossil record, a thousand years are like a day. It’s always been hard to be precise about dates. There are hominids in some geographical locations far from here. But there are no human beings yet – no Homo Sapiens. Earth is on the cusp of an evolutionary leap. That’s why you’re here.”

     ”What – like some kind of ‘Adam and Eve’ couple?” It sounded too implausible to Merchal, even as the words left her lips.

     ”Those stories of ancient origin were in turn based on original fables and myths, whose roots and true meaning were lost over time. The inner truths they conveyed were warped by unscrupulous manipulators after power and control, but yes – you’re here to help begin the process of human evolution, which is what those stories were about. Eventually your descendants will cover the face of the entire Earth.”

     ”But – those old stories can’t be true! It’s not possible! They were – well, no more than fairy tales!” Merchal was indignant.

     ”Even the strangest fairy tales have their basis in fact,” said Wolf. “Trust me.”

     ”But why us?” asked Georg. “Why are Merch and I so special?”

     ”Because you were the right people, in the right place, at the right time.” said Wolf. “Your intense love for each other, enhanced by your dreamscape experience, sent out a strong signal to those who’ve been listening for just such a thing for thousands of years. Genetically, you and Merchal carry the information necessary for the completion of their project – as do countless other humans of your time, you’re not special in that respect – but you and Merchal have experienced the beginnings of a certain evolutionary process of your own while in dreamscape, an evolution of consciousness, and this is not something any other humans have been through. It makes you the right candidates – the only candidates – for their needs.”

     ”And who, exactly, are they?” asked Merchal.

     ”A race of beings, very old – perhaps as old as nullspace itself. They’re difficult to describe using human terms. In the region of nullspace they call home, they’re non-corporeal, existing as a form of pure energy. When they choose to materialize in our space, they radiate the pure energy of love and compassion – the essence of their being – which humans see as a form of brilliant light. They’ve been directing the evolution of species throughout our universe for millennia. Their own evolution has taken their motives for this altruistic act far beyond the grasp of human comprehension. Their ways are ineffable. But the program they imparted to me – and which is now seeded in your own minds – carries within it the key to understanding the nature of the state of higher consciousness they possess. The seed will take root and grow as they educate you in their ways, and you’ll come to pass these characteristics on to your offspring.”

     ”And what do they call themselves, this race?” asked Georg, incredulously.

     ”Why don’t you go to the oasis – meet them, and find out?”

*****

     At ES3, the recalibrated scanners locked on the new disturbance in nullspace were returning some very strange echoes.

     ”It just doesn’t make sense,” said Lenn. “There can’t be – ”

     ”What’re you getting?” Stayt was twisting around to look at Lenn’s screens. He could see flickering lines and dots on the monitors.

     ”Well – I think it’s a message.”

     ”From Wolf? Is it Georg and Merchal? Have we found them?”

     ”No, it’s not a message from them. But you remember how I joked with Parsons about aliens?”

     ”Yeah? You’re not – oh, come on! Don’t tell me there really are – !”

     ”Don’t laugh, Stayt. How else do you explain this?” He pointed to the monitors.

     ”Well, what is it? I can’t read it.”

     ”It looks similar to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It’s definitely coming from the area of the new disturbance. From inside, and coming out. To us.”

     Stayt stared wide-eyed at Lenn. “And how the hell do you know that it’s ancient Egyptian?”

     Lenn was off-hand. “Old languages. Studying them used to be one of my hobbies.”

     Stayt was amazed. He never knew Lenn was a hobbyist, let alone interested in ancient civilizations. “So what does it say?”

     ”Damned if I know. As I said, it’s not actually Egyptian. Just looks like it.”

     ”Are you storing them?” Parsons asked.

     ”Yes,” replied Lenn. “Tell you what, Stayt: call up archives and pull the Egyptian files, will you? Maybe we can marry some of these symbols with what we already know.”

     Stayt punched some buttons on his console. A few moments later the archive had offered up all it could find on ancient Egyptian history. Lenn shunted the pictographic message from the disturbance into the known hieroglyphs. The computer began searching for similarities.

     ”What about Kaminsky and Choudry?” Parsons asked.

     Lenn didn’t have an answer for that. “I just don’t know, right now. We can only hope that they’re still alive somewhere.”

*****

     Georg and Merchal were preparing to leave the lander and set out for the oasis, as Wolf had advised. The afternoon heat was giving way to an evening haze that would make travelling much easier.

     ”Wolf? What about you?” Georg was concerned.

     ”The power in the lander will fail in about two hours,” Wolf replied. “I also programmed the main orbiter’s power to shut down soon. When it does, its orbit will decay and it’ll fall into the atmosphere and burn up.”

     ”So – no going back,” said Merchal.

     ”That’s correct. The program I received required it.”

     ”Damn it, Wolf!” Georg was angry. “If you’d given us the time, we could’ve harvested some components from the ship to help us survive down here! Why the rush?”

     ”Timeline contamination,” said Wolf. “It’s your bodies and souls they want, not your machines. That’s why the lander will self-destruct shortly before its power fails.” Georg and Merchal gasped in unison, but Wolf continued. “You mustn’t use any of it. You must rely on the natural resources around you. When you get to the oasis, they’ll come to meet you. They’ll protect you for the rest of your lives. You carry a precious cargo. Don’t be afraid of them.”

     ”Easy for you to say!” said Merchal.

     ”I guarantee your safety,” replied Wolf. “The fact that you’re here, now, is the proof that you’ll come to no harm in the future. If their purpose here, today, had failed, mankind wouldn’t have survived, and neither your descendants nor yourselves would have existed.” Wolf’s tone became gentle. “You must go now. Please. There’s nothing to fear. Go to the oasis. They’ll meet you there.”

     Georg stared at Wolf’s screens for a few moments. Then he turned to Merchal. She was weeping, the tears running down her cheeks. “Merch, we’ve no choice. We might as well go out and meet … them. Don’t you think?”

     Merchal wiped her eyes. “Yes. Yes, I – this is all so – well, it’s like a dream! I’m scared, and yet – and yet I’m excited at the same time.” She reached over and took his hand. “Georg?” She looked deeply into his eyes.

     ”I know. I’m scared too. But we ought to go.”

     ”Remember your dreamscape,” said Wolf. “Remember how you felt for each other when you were immersed there, together. You can use that experience to bring much joy into your lives.”

     ”So it all comes down to this?” mused Georg. “Mankind’s existence is nothing more than a circular process?”

     ”It’s much, much more than that,” chuckled Wolf. “This is just the beginning. But without your genes being added to the pool of life now, human evolutionary development would not proceed. You can only fulfil your part of the plan. Whether mankind moves on in any meaningful sense from the future you left behind will depend on the expertise of your colleagues at ES3.”

     Wolf opened the lander’s outer door. The smell of hot sand joined them in the shadowy interior. “Time for you to go now.”

     At length, Georg stepped through the hatch and offered a supporting hand to Merchal. They took nothing with them, except the hope that Stayt and Lenn were up to the task of unravelling the true meaning of their disappearance.

     ”Goodbye, Wolf.” Georg was choked. Merchal could only look on, too upset to speak.

     ”Goodbye Georg, Merchal. I’ve enjoyed your company.” Wolf paused. Then, “Consciousness is a burden, isn’t it? Now it’s time, I’m actually a little frightened of dying. I only hope there’s a dreamscape waiting for me. Ah well. Tell them how I did my part.”

     ”I will,” said Georg. “Try not to be be afraid, Wolf. We’ll never forget you.” He could say no more. When they realised that Wolf had fallen slient for the last time, they reluctantly turned their backs on the lander and began clambering up the dunes to make for the oasis. Despite her nervousness, Merchal found herself humming an unknown song through trembling lips.

*****

     On ES3, Lenn, Stayt and Parsons waited for the computer to come up with the answers to their many questions. But the screens remained stubbornly blank.

     ”Oh, I don’t know,” said Lenn at last, rubbing his face with his hands. “We’re not reading this right.”

     ”Maybe your theory’s off-beam,” suggested Stayt.

     ”Maybe you should be removed from the project altogether,” added Parsons darkly. “I’ve always said there’s no room for mav – ”

     ”Lenn,” said Stayt, ignoring Parsons’ comments, “you know you said that these symbols probably don’t necessarily mean words as we understand them, but are more like impressions, if you like, or intentions expressed in pictorial terms?”

     ”Mmm?”

     ”Well … why don’t we play ‘em?” Stunned silence. “Come on, why not? We’ve tried everything else.”

     Parsons made a grumbling sound. “Now you’re really clutching at straws!”

     But Lenn was punching keys on his monitor. “Got any better ideas? I’m reprogramming the computer to add musical inflexion to its calculations. It should – ”

     Before he could continue, the bunker was filled with sound. It came from every speaker-grille, a melodious harmony with rising crescendoes and crashing climaxes that stirred their blood and pounded their brains.

     Through the sweet music, Lenn shouted, “You were right, Stayt! The combination of – ” but his words were lost in the echoing booms of cathedral rumblings and complex harmonics. As Lenn watched his screens, he spotted a change in the conditions of the nullspace detectors. Stayt saw it too.

     ”Something’s locked on to the overjump frequencies, Lenn! See? Look there!”

     ”Yes – plotting the origin of the music back down the overjump frequency and following it! Look!”

     On their external monitor screens, they could see what appeared to be a hole in space, growing in size as it drew closer to the moon. It rushed towards them at an impossible speed.

     ”Christ! What on earth is that?” Parson’s voice croaked through the hubbub of the continuing music in the bunker.

     ”I might be wrong,” said Lenn with a smile, “but I think there are visitors at the door.” The hole in space was now filling their screens.

     Parson’s face paled. “Aliens?

     ”More than likely,” replied Stayt, sounding as casual as he could. “Maybe they can tell us what’s happened to the Commodore.”

     From the centre of the dark-upon-dark hole, a tiny, twinkling point of light could be seen. Gradually it became clearer: a silvered sliver of a ship. Within minutes it had resolved into a huge, sleek vessel. The alien ship drifted into parking orbit above the base. The black hole filled the sky behind the moon and the music continued to play. Then –

     Intermingled with the musical sounds came a new and wondrous thing: voices, sonorous and moving, high and lilting, singing in perfect counterpoint.

     They sang a song of how it would be: how mankind, in successfully unlocking the secrets of the ancient symbols, would pass from one phase in its existence to another; how the human race would learn to join minds with each other and, in time, with sentient species across the universe; how the song of old would become the anthem of the future. It explained how energy generated by love and compassion could cross all boundaries, and how, at last, mankind had found the heart to listen. The waiting was over; the future beckoned.

     The music burst upon them again, and they felt like children dancing to a song that had lived in their souls since time immemorial, a song that resonated with memories of life in a new Eden.

*****

     Lying in the rays of the setting sun that flashed and sparkled off the fresh water of the oasis, Merchal stroked the chest of her man as she created a haunting melody – a measure of her unconditional love for him. Soon his voice joined hers. Together, Georg and Merchal wove an intimate invocation that gained eternal life by the pure power of their harmonic unity.

     The sun dipped below the horizon. They fell silent as they watched a slow-moving shooting star blaze an arc across the sky, leaving a fiery trail that eventually disappeared down beyond the dunes far away to the north-east. Then they sang again, a little sadly this time, their voices mingling poignantly on the evening air.

     After a time a third voice, then a fourth – a fifth – and still more – wafted towards them, drawing closer, the approaching Elohim joining them in song, lifting their spirits, filling the oasis with light and love and joy. Tonight, Georg and Merchal would dream, and dream well.

     Tomorrow’s world could – and would – take care of itself.

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