Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of this work, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.

From An Antique Land

By Paul S. Gibbs

Reid was a man who seldom drank--and with good reason.

He knew, from long and bitter experience, how small a quantity of ethanol was required to transport him directly from cold sober to maudlin and stumbling, without a single intermediate step. It was a weakness he regretted, but accepted, and devoted considerable time and effort to concealing. Alone in the welcoming depths of the Officer's Club lounge, with sheets of wind-blown rain chattering against the windows and whitecaps dancing on the darkening strait below, he felt the first twinge of a familiar buzzing tightness behind his eyes, and knew he'd had enough. Ought to keep my wits about me, I suppose, he thought. Don't want to miss the end of the world.

He pushed aside the watery remnants of his bourbon-on-the-rocks, and leaned back into the booth's sumptuous padding, letting the quiet hum of conversation--human and otherwise--drift over him like the roar of the distant sea. Didn't make it out to the coast, he realized suddenly. No time now.

Lieutenant Commander William Reid, Combined Forces Security, was essentially nondescript--a fact which he considered a definite asset in his line of work. Average height; average weight; a face that was pleasant but unmemorable, with short dark-brown hair and small, shrewd medium-brown eyes. Some achieve fame and fortune by standing out from the crowd; he earned his modest pay, and whatever glory the CF would vouchsafe him, by blending into the background. Occasionally his black uniform made him the subject of unwelcome, even fearful, attention--but that night the passersby gave him scarcely a glance. Considering the circumstances, that was just as well. Soon now…

The Officer's Club at CF Headquarters was a massive four-story building, perched above the water on the eastern edge of Mare Island, a space formerly occupied by the cranes and drydocks that a modern era's Navy no longer required. The lounge and dining room--though undeniably popular--were only two of its many inducements. Gyms, swimming pools, saunas, mud-baths and vapor chambers, barbershops and grooming facilities, holo-theaters and libraries…almost any facility that could be provided for the relaxation of the dozen member species of the Alliance--or at least those who chose to become Combined Forces officers--had been gathered under one sprawling roof.

…But it was to the lounge that everyone gravitated, sooner or later, and as the storm worsened and the lights of Vallejo winked on across the channel, Reid gazed out across a sea of booths and tables, occupied by a shifting kaleidoscope of sentient beings. Humans mostly, but also a good number of others: tall, reptilian Centaurii, graceful feline Sah'aarans, elephantine Quadrians, insectile Xerxians…and even one or two Hattosh, their snakelike bodies draped in lazy coils over their chairs, their eyes blazing like coals in the darkness. Many wore uniforms, of grey, blue, green or brown; some wore civilian clothes, and others--the Centaurii mostly--wore nothing at all. After more than a decade in the CF, to Reid it was a scene both familiar and comforting. Comrades, fellow officers, bastions against the darkness…Should I warn them? he wondered. Should I jump onto the table and tell them they might have ordered their last drinks? He chuckled softly and shook his head. And spend my final moments in a security cell, waiting for one of the Psych Boys to come diagnose me? No thank you.

Lost in thought, Reid was unaware that he had gained a companion--until a large and unfamiliar hand clapped down on his shoulder. Cursing his inattention, he looked up sharply--and found himself gazing into a broad beaming grin and a pair of devilish green eyes.

At a guess, the man was fifteen years older than Reid--and a good head taller. Scarecrow-thin, he had thick red hair flecked with grey, and a long, sardonic face with deep laugh-lines around his eyes. He wore a brown Ops uniform, with the stars of a full commander on his breast, and he held a foaming mug of dark beer, fresh out of the tap. "May I join you?" he asked.

Reid quirked a curious eye--there were plenty of other available tables--then shrugged. "It's a free Alliance," he said. "Commander--?"

"Inman," the man said, settling in across from Reid. "Lawrence Inman. Call me Larry."

Reid's eyes narrowed. "I've heard of you," he said. "The Czar of the Ops Division, right?"

Inman shrugged modestly. "I have a certain influence over the movement of ships within Sol system. And yourself?"

"Reid. William Reid."

Inman nodded sagely. "With the Special Investigations Unit, if I'm not mistaken."

Reid's jaw dropped. "That's right," he confirmed. "How did you--?"

Inman grinned. "I make it my business to stay informed," he said. "And I happened to see you listed as a passenger when SV Sinkyone pulled in yesterday."

"Oh?" Reid said. "And what made that so memorable?" As if I didn't already know…

Inman shrugged. "The circumstances of her arrival were a little unusual. Parking her in orbit instead of in the Docking Facility; evacuating her crew. Even I wasn't privy to all the details…"

He quirked a curious eye, and Reid nearly burst out laughing. "Very few were," he said simply.

Inman grinned, accepting defeat with good grace. "--But be that as it may," he went on jovially, "you look like a man who could use a drinking buddy."

Reid smiled and shook his head. "I'm through drinking," he said. "But you might be right about the buddy part."

Leaning back, Inman made a surreptitious gesture in the direction of the cocktail waitress. "So," he said, "what's eating you, Agent Reid?"

Reid sighed. As if by magic, another drink appeared at his elbow, and without seeming to notice what he was doing, he raised the glass and sipped. "I," he said, "have either just saved this planet, or destroyed it. The problem is, I don't know which."

Inman's bushy eyebrows rose, and he took a long, slow pull on his beer before replying. "And when will you know?" he asked finally.

Reid glanced at his chrono. "In about fifteen minutes, I'd say."

"Time enough to tell me about it?"

Reid gazed into his new friend's eyes, and saw only amusement. Clearly Inman didn't believe a word he was saying, and thought him either drunk or mad. A brief flash of anger pulsed through him, but faded quickly into resignation. He shrugged. "Sure," he said. "Why not. It started about three weeks ago, when Sinkyone picked me up at Outpost Ten…"

###

"I really appreciate the lift," Reid said. "I was beginning to think I'd be stuck in the middle of nowhere forever."

Captain Thuussaa nodded her ponderous grey head, all four facial tentacles stretched wide. "You're quite welcome, Commander," she said, with a thick, bubbling chuckle. "Though I fear I can only take you as far as Terra. You'll have to make your own way back to Centaurus."

Reid smiled. "That," he said, "I think I can manage."

He leaned back, sipping appreciatively at a cup of steaming cup of black Quadrian coffee. As Survey vessels went, Sinkyone was not perhaps the most impressive--less than a third the size of the legendary Zelazny, and not particularly fast--but after five weeks on a remote and dingy space station, stranded by a missed connection and a minor skirmish on the Chrysaoan border, to Reid that little ship seemed literally heaven-sent. And certainly its commanding officer, a middle-aged, affable Quadrian trained as an astrophysicist, was far better company than the grim, brooding admiral in charge of Outpost Ten--a man utterly convinced that he was being punished for some unknown transgression.

Reid glanced around the small, bustling Officer's Mess, its walls decorated with spectacular holos of nebulae and spiral galaxies, its large portholes full of stars. "If you'll forgive me for asking, Captain," he said, "what brings you so close to the frontier? Sinkyone doesn't exactly strike me as particularly well-suited to extended-survey duty…"

"You're right," Thuussaa agreed readily. "We are a little out of our usual territory. We're on what might be termed a courier mission. Have you ever heard of the planet named Epsilon Borotis II?"

Reid nodded slowly, his eyes narrowing in concentration. "I believe so," he said. "As I recall, it's one of the great mysteries of this part of the galaxy. A highly-advanced civilization, utterly wiped out--and no one knows why."

Thuussaa nodded. "The entire planet, pole to pole, is studded with gigantic cities, as big as anything ever built on Terra or Centaurus--let alone my homeworld. All destroyed. We have no real idea what kind of people they were, though we can make some rough guesses about their physical size and shape. They left behind no remains, and precious few artifacts. Nothing more than millions upon millions of shattered buildings."

"And--if I'm not mistaken--a ruined climate," Reid said.

"True enough," Thuussaa confirmed. "Whatever happened there had dramatic effects on the upper atmosphere. And it does seem to have been an effect, rather than the cause, of the general destruction. Huge ion storms develop entirely without warning. They're fairly harmless to someone on the surface, if he's able to take shelter--but ships are another matter. Even vessels in orbit are in danger of having their electronics fried. To pilot a landing pod through one of those disturbances would be suicidal.

"But as for exactly what happened…no one knows. Some of our best scientific minds have worked there: Dr. Sah'larrah of Sah'salaan University, Commander Ehm'ayla of the Planetary Research Center…"

"And failed," Reid observed with a grim smile.

"And failed," the captain agreed. "Though scarcely through lack of trying. But recently there's been a breakthrough--of sorts." She rose, straightening her pillar legs. "Come with me," she said. "I have something to show you."

Hurriedly gulping the rest of his coffee--the captain's private stock, and the best he'd tasted in weeks--Reid followed Thuussaa out into the corridor. She turned left, toward Sinkyone's stern, and the Security man had to hurry to keep up with the massive Quadrian's rolling stride. As they walked, Reid gazed around, impressed despite himself. In his business, one took advantage of whatever transportation presented itself: battleships, Patrol cutters, even freighters. But despite Sinkyone's diminutive size, seldom had he seen a vessel so well-kept--or a crew with such obviously high morale. Officers and enlisted alike greeted the captain as they would an old friend, and she responded in kind, invariably calling them by name. The Survey really is a different world, Reid realized--as he did every time his duties brought him into contact with the scientific branch. Certainly it was nothing like the stern discipline of the Navy, nor the cloak-and-dagger paranoia of his own division. Is it too late to put in for a transfer? he wondered ruefully.

They traversed several lengths of gleaming corridor, and descended two decks by drop-shaft. And as they went, the captain spoke quietly over her shoulder. "Just over a year ago, the Survey placed an Extended Planetary Exploration vessel in orbit around Epsilon Borotis II. Its crew has done a truly heroic job, under extremely difficult circumstances; they've spent literally thousands of man-hours on the surface. Unfortunately, they're no closer to understanding what happened down there--but about a month ago, they made a most remarkable discovery."

They passed through a wide archway, past a sign reading "Science Labs," and into a wide, semicircular lobby, lined on three sides with narrow, closed doors. The captain turned right, toward the portal marked "Geology"--and as she did, she chuckled. "We're keeping it here," she said, "for lack of anyplace more suitable."

Reid frowned--"It?" What's "it"?--but held his peace. Thuussaa keyed in an access code, and the door slid silently open. She ushered him inside with a wave of her tentacles.

The lab was typical of its species, Reid noted--though perhaps a trifle smaller than most. Narrow, black-topped benches lined the walls, covered with stereo microscopes, balance scales, laser spectroscopes, isotope-resonance detectors, and all the other common paraphernalia of scientific investigation. The glass-fronted shelves above were crammed with rocks and crystals, of dazzling color and strange, literally unearthly form.

On a massive table in the center of the room a small object stood beneath a clear dome, brightly spotlit from above. Whatever the thing might be, simply to look at it made Reid's eyes water, and after a brief glance he gave up. At any rate, the lab contained something far more pleasant to stare at.

She was Sah'aaran, obviously--but very different from most members of that feline species Reid had previously encountered. She was quite tall, for one thing, her eyes almost on a level with his own; and her fur--what little he could see of it--was curiously light, just a shade darker than beige, with a random sprinkling of faint, coin-sized brown spots. Her long mane, braided into a thick rope that hung halfway down her back, was bronze, with reddish highlights. The three stars of a lieutenant were pinned to the breast of her grey jumpsuit. As she caught sight of him her golden eyes widened in alarm, and he smiled reassuringly. To most CF personnel a black Security uniform meant trouble--and unfortunately, they were usually right.

"This is Lieutenant Ehm'kaathaa, our geologist," Captain Thuussaa said. "Lieutenant, this is Commander Reid."

The Sah'aaran's brow cleared, and she smiled. "Our passenger from Outpost Ten," she said, her voice, as Reid had expected, a low and throaty purr. "Pleased to meet you, sir."

"Likewise," Reid said. He nodded toward the table. "Is that what you wanted to show me, Captain?"

The three of them filled that small space to the point of claustrophobia, and the captain, dropping to her haunches, squeezed her bulk into the far corner. "It is," she confirmed. She fixed him with her inner pair of eyes. "So what do you make of our little treasure, Commander?"

Taking a deep breath, Reid forced himself to look again--and as before, had to shift his gaze just seconds later, as dizziness threatened to overtake him. "It's giving me a headache."

Ehm'kaathaa giggled. "Believe me," she said, "it does that to everyone."

"Does the shape remind you of anything, Commander?" Thuussaa asked.

He almost blurted out, "What shape?"--but bit back the words in time. He risked another quick glance. The object--whatever it was--appeared to be about half a meter wide and tall, though even that could not be said with certainty. Crystalline and gleaming, with a faint electric-blue glow, it was all corners, the angles shifting, multiplying and propagating in all directions, even as the eye touched them. It seemed complex beyond human understanding--or Sah'aaran, or Quadrian--a shape the mortal mind could not wrap itself around.

"If I remember my high-school geometry," Reid said, "it looks like a hypercube--the three-dimensional representation of a four-dimensional object."

Captain and geologist exchanged a brief, amused glance. "Very close," Thuussaa said. "But as with most things, the truth is somewhat more…interesting."

Reid quirked an eyebrow, and Ehm'kaathaa explained softly, "We believe it to be a true trans-dimensional object--or rather, one which exists at the interface between our dimension and the next."

Reid's jaw dropped--but whatever stunned comment he might have stammered out was interrupted by the captain. "One of the first tasks undertaken by the EPE vessel was a thorough, meter-by-meter radar-mapping of the entire planet," she said. "Something which no previous expedition was able to accomplish. That thing showed up almost immediately, in a city in the northwestern hemisphere--and needless to say, it produced some extremely interesting echoes."

"It was found almost fifty meters underground," Ehm'kaathaa said. "Beneath the ruins of what may have been a scientific installation of some kind--which seems logical enough."

Reid nodded slowly. With practice, the object became somewhat easier to look at, but continued to shimmer like a heat-mirage on a desert highway. "What is it made of?" he asked.

The Sah'aaran shook her head. "We have no idea. It resists analysis--the instrument readings make no sense. And it's impossible to take a sample."

"Too hard?" Reid guessed, and Ehm'kaathaa grinned toothily and shook her head.

"Not exactly," she said. "The object appears to be not entirely tangible. Nothing we have can bite into it…"

"Not even a laser?"

"Not even that," she agreed. "The angles shift, and your tool suddenly shoots off in the wrong direction."

"As if it doesn't want to be sampled," Reid observed thoughtfully.

The captain shook her head. "There's no sign of intelligence," she said. "Nor even power generation."

Reid waved his hand. "Idle speculation," he said. "Still, an interesting phenomenon."

"Very," Ehm'kaathaa agreed. "It's very difficult to transport, too--and not only because it keeps slipping out of the manipulators. There's a discontinuity between its mass and its inertia."

Reid blinked. "How's that again?"

"At rest," she explained, "it masses no more than eight kilos--a little heavy, but not unusually so. But it has the inertia--the resistance to motion--of an object ten times more massive. Trying to lift it, or move it, can be quite an interesting experience."

"I can imagine," Reid said. "Has anyone actually touched it? Barehanded, I mean," he added. He glanced at the captain and smiled. "If you'll excuse the expression."

She chuckled. "Of course," she said. She shook her head. "But to answer your question--no. Thus far we've handled it entirely with remote manipulators." She indicated the dome. "And we've kept it under a radiation shield. It seems inert--but we have no idea what contact with a multi-dimensional interface could do to living flesh."

"The next logical question would be," Reid said, "is it an artifact, or a natural object?"

The captain nodded. "And if the former, did the inhabitants of Epsilon Borotis II construct it, or find it?"

"Questions which, needless to say, remain unanswered," Reid observed dryly. "You said you were on a 'courier mission,' Captain. I assume you mean you're taking this thing to Terra?"

"Yes," Thuussaa said. "Along with a number of undisputed artifacts--pieces of broken buildings, mainly." She nodded at the table. "Obviously, that's our most precious cargo."

Reid smiled at Ehm'kaathaa. "And you're its caretaker?"

"By default," she said ruefully. "It could just as well have been our astrophysicist, or our Anthro-Paleo--or an alchemist. We'd all have about an equal chance of discovering anything useful."

"No doubt the Planetary Research Center will be better-equipped," Reid said. He refrained from asking the most obvious question of all: why had a small--and completely unarmed--Survey vessel been dispatched to collect such a monumental find? Had it been up to him, he would have sent the largest battleship the Navy had available. But that was his Security training talking, and he knew--again, from long experience--that the scientific branch simply didn't think that way. In their eagerness to bring the object to Terra for study, they had sent the first ship that came to hand. And in a certain sense, they had a point. The ruins on Epsilon Borotis II were millennia old, and the hypercube had lain buried beneath them, quite harmless, all that time. Hardly the makings of a doomsday device. Bet they had a nervous few minutes the first time they hyperjumped, though.

Abruptly then, a heavy load of exhaustion came to rest on his shoulders, and he stifled a yawn. "My apologies," he said, with a brief embarrassed smile. "I appear to still be operating on Outpost Ten time."

"Quite understandable," the captain assured him. "I'll show you to your quarters." Her outer gaze shifted. "Carry on," she told Ehm'kaathaa.

What with? the young Sah'aaran appeared on the verge of asking--but she merely nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"I'm very glad to have met you, Lieutenant," Reid said. He smiled. "I imagine we'll be seeing more of each other before we reach Terra."

"I imagine we will," Ehm'kaathaa said, her ears and nose briefly--and inexplicably, so far as Reid was concerned--flushing red. "Rest well."

"I will," he replied--but he wondered, as he glanced back over his shoulder, if a certain strange writhing object might not have given him a bit too much to occupy his mind…

###

Reid gazed around the small, cozy Rec Room--and sighed. That, without a doubt, was the worst aspect of life as a Special Investigator: being constantly surrounded by strangers. And just as they were on the verge of becoming acquaintances (never mind friends) he was off again, to confront yet another sea of unfamiliar faces. And it was at times like these, when he encountered the easy camaraderie of crewmates who had served together for years, that the irreducible loneliness of his wandering life became most poignant. True, he had been everywhere; he'd logged more hyperjumps than the most seasoned Navy captain. But as he grew older, he began to wish he could trade a portion of that wide experience for a little continuity…

Sinkyone's Recreation Room was small but comfortable, a collection of chairs and sofas, game tables and holoscreens, enclosed within walls covered with artwork, a softly-glowing ceiling, and a deeply-carpeted floor. That evening the place was crowded--a significant fraction of the crew of fifty having decided to seek entertainment all at once--but not noisy; and that was good too.

Almost immediately his roving eye caught sight of a familiar, lithe form, draped bonelessly across a sofa along the far wall, her legs tucked beneath her and a palm-reader in her lap, her tail flicking lazily back and forth. He hesitated--she was a virtual stranger, after all, and Sah'aarans were notoriously protective of their privacy--but then, with a shrug, he crossed the room, stoically ignoring the spreading wake of silence that followed him. She could do no worse than to tell him to get lost. He cleared his throat softly. "May I join you, Lieutenant?"

Sinkyone's geologist glanced up in surprise, her tail bristling; amazingly enough, it appeared she had not heard him approach. She wore a blue-striped day-robe and a black beaded collar, and her mane, released from its braid, lay like a dark cloud across her shoulders. She smiled. "Of course, Commander."

He pulled over a chair and settled in across from her. As he did, she set aside her palm-reader and shifted her legs, exposing her right ankle--and the sapphire-studded platinum band clasped thereon. Reid knew the significance of that ornament, and knew too that she had not shown it to him by accident. A brief surge of disappointment tightened his stomach--but then his quirky sense of humor came to his rescue. She isn't exactly your type, bud, he told himself wryly.

"Did you have a good rest?" Ehm'kaathaa asked, and Reid nodded.

"Yes, I did," he said--somewhat untruthfully, as it happened. "Outpost Ten was built with material mined from asteroids. I'm convinced they stuffed the mattresses with the leftover rubble."

She giggled, a low-pitched sound, halfway between a cough and a hiccup, which he found strangely charming. "I take it our bunks are more to your liking?"

"Very much so, yes."

"For me they're a little too hard," she said. "But I've gotten used to it."

Reid chuckled. "That could be the Combined Forces' motto," he said. "'You'll get used to it.'" He nodded at the palm-reader, its screen filled with indecipherable Sah'aaran pictograms. "What are you reading?"

Once again, as they had in the Geology lab, her nose and ears reddened. "A book on baby care, actually," she said.

His eyebrows rose. "Meaning that you're--?" he began, before he could stop himself. She nodded and laid a hand on her abdomen--and thankfully, she appeared not to have taken offense.

"About two months," she said. "It happened during my last shoreleave. My mate and I…well, let's just say we didn't venture outdoors very often. We'd been apart a little too long."

"Congratulations," Reid said. "So--what happens to you now? Will you have to resign your commission?"

"No," she said. "Though obviously this will be my last deep-space mission for a while. I've managed to secure a teaching position at the Officer's Academy. My mate is on Terra now; he's found a house for us in…" she frowned, searching her memory for an unfamiliar word. "Sonoma. Yes, that's it--Sonoma. It's only about ten minutes from Mare Island by ground-shuttle." Once again she rubbed her stomach. "When they're grown, I might accept another off-planet mission--if I can tear myself away from my mate."

"I'm sure you'll all be very happy," Reid said with a smile.

"I know we will." She peered closely at him. "And you, Commander? Is someone waiting for you back on Terra?"

"Centaurus, actually," he said. "If you mean my home--such as it is." He shook his head. "But no. There isn't. I don't imagine there ever will be."

"There will," she assured him placidly. "There must."

"Perhaps," Reid said. He hesitated. "I hate to talk shop when you're off-duty…"

"But?" she prompted.

"But--I've been thinking a great deal about that…thing…down in the Geology lab." In fact he had thought of little else these past several hours, as he lay sleepless atop a surprisingly-comfortable bunk, staring up through the darkness.

Ehm'kaathaa frowned. "What about it?"

He smiled thinly. "Call me paranoid," he said, "but something about that object bothers me. Frankly I'm not sure I feel safe with it aboard."

She made a slashing gesture. "It's not dangerous," she said. "Admittedly, we don't know all of its properties yet--but we've taken every reasonable precaution."

"As did the inhabitants of Epsilon Borotis II?"

"Meaning what?"

He shrugged. "Consider where it was found," he said. "Fifty meters beneath a demolished building, on a planet full of ruined cities--destroyed, so our scientists believe, by a simultaneous, global catastrophe. A coincidence, perhaps--but are we willing to bet our lives on that?"

Uncurling fully and planting her feet on the floor, as if preparing for fight or flight, Ehm'kaathaa leaned forward earnestly. "Permission to speak freely, sir?" she said, reminding him delicately of the one-step difference in their ranks.

"Of course," he said. "I'm certainly not your CO."

"Thank you," she said. She took a deep breath. "Commander, everything you've said was considered very carefully, before we brought the object aboard. As we see it, there are three possible scenarios. Either the people on that planet created the thing, and in so doing unleashed some kind of disaster. Or perhaps they found it, and were wiped out by something that happened while they were investigating it."

"Or," Reid pointed out mildly, "the object itself is harmless--but the inter-dimensional gateway through which it came destroyed the planet."

"Or that," she agreed readily. "Or maybe it's sheer coincidence, and the cube's unusual properties allowed it to escape an unrelated catastrophe. But in any event, we're forewarned, aren't we? The object has survived four hyperjumps already, with no ill effects--and believe me, we were watching it very carefully the first time. We moved it to the pod bay, and we were ready to jettison it at a second's notice. It seems entirely stable in its inter-dimensional state."

Reid smiled. "So does a fusion grenade," he pointed out. "Until the pin is pulled."

She peered at him uncertainly, her tail twitching. "Is that why you're here, Commander?" she asked quietly. "Have you been sent to judge how well we're handling our mission?"

"No," he assured her. "Not at all. I came aboard entirely by accident. I'm simply expressing my personal concerns. I don't like unexplained phenomena, and I don't feel comfortable sharing my personal space with them."

She relaxed visibly, and inwardly Reid sighed. Someday, he thought, I'll find a place where this uniform doesn't make me a pariah. She leaned forward then, and clasped his hand. "I understand," she said. "Believe me, I do--because I had those very same thoughts when we brought the thing aboard. We all did. But I wouldn't be working with it--and the captain wouldn't force me to, especially now--if we weren't absolutely convinced it's safe."

He bowed his head. "I can ask no more," he said. "But still--I'll be just as happy when this ship arrives at Terra."

She smiled and winked. "Me too."

###

It wasn't enough.

For someone like Reid, who had built a career on suspicion and skepticism (some might even say "paranoia"), it could not have been. No answers, no assurances could possibly satisfy him--except those he formulated himself. And so, late that night, exhausted but with his much-abused internal clock stubbornly preventing him from sleeping, he sat down for a long discussion with Sinkyone's computer. There in his darkened cabin, with his bathrobe wrapped tight around him and a cup of cocoa in his hands, he gradually put together a picture both fascinating and disturbing.

The information he needed--text and holos both--was readily available, for the most part, and when occasionally he ran into a roadblock, he blasted it aside with his Special Investigator's clearance codes. Captain Thuussaa would not be pleased, if she were to learn what he was up to; but hopefully he had covered his tracks sufficiently. If not…well, he would simply have to take the consequences. It certainly would not be the first time.

Finally, well past oh-one-hundred hours (though that meant nothing to him) he shut down the terminal and leaned back, chuckling. He knew the Combined Forces, inside and out; and most especially he knew what the various divisions thought of each other. To the Navy--and, to a lesser extent, to the Patrol and Ops as well--the Survey was the "Egghead Brigade." Scientists and map-makers, with their unarmed vessels and their heads in the clouds, they had no idea what a hazardous place the galaxy could be--nor any inkling of the dangers they faced every time they approached an unknown world. There were exceptions, of course--no one would ever have accused Isaac Haliday of being incautious--but by and large, the Survey was chock-full of absent-minded professors, who insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, on seeing the universe as their personal plaything.

…Or so ran the caricatured view. Reid--knowing that the Survey regarded the Navy as a gang of homicidal Neanderthal thugs, who shot first and couldn't think of any questions to ask later--usually remained neutral when such discussions occurred. But he had to wonder, now, if there might be a few atoms of truth adrift in that sea of prejudice. Certainly this situation was a perfect demonstration.

Innocent until proven guilty. A fine principle in criminal justice, perhaps (though Reid occasionally had his doubts) but scarcely applicable to exploration. Sinkyone's crew had taken aboard a strange and unexplained object with scarcely a murmur of protest, and were now cheerfully transporting it to one of the Alliance's two capitals--with no real idea what it was, nor what it represented. True, the thing might be entirely harmless--or it might make a Chrysaoan planet-buster look like a damp firecracker. There was no way to know--and in Reid's mind, that was exactly the point.

Abruptly then he rose, and reached for his rumpled uniform. He knew what he had to do--or at least he believed he did--but there was still one question left unanswered, one piece of evidence as yet ungathered. Dressing hurriedly, he left his cabin.

Deep into the night-shift, the corridors were nearly deserted, and the few crewmembers Reid encountered glanced at him in trepidation and quickly looked away. In other circumstances that might have bothered him. He located the Science section without difficulty--having memorized Sinkyone's far-from-complex layout--and he was pleased to find the door to the Geology lab closed and locked. Once again his clearance codes made short work of that obstacle. If it were me, I'd have posted a guard…

He peered anxiously around the tiny, dimly-lit room--but fortunately (as he had expected) he was alone. Alone with a bizarre trans-dimensional object, as mind-twisting as ever beneath its radiation-proof dome. Closing and locking the door behind him, Reid slowly circled the table. "What are you really?" he asked aloud. He did not expect an answer, and was not disappointed when he received none. As before, his eyes began to water as he stared at the thing, and he wondered uneasily if prolonged exposure might actually damage his optic nerves. Probably not, he decided finally. If that was a danger, surely it would already have happened to poor Ehm'kaathaa, with her far-more-sensitive Sah'aaran eyes. No, the true source of the disorientation lay in his mind, not his eyes--or, more specifically, in the part of his brain responsible for determining the size and shape of solid objects. Having evolved in a three-dimensional universe, there was no way his sensory equipment could adequately cope with this.

Are there beings who can? he asked himself suddenly. Creatures who exist in a world that contains more than height, breadth and depth? Would they regard our world as sketchy, a mere approximation of the universe's true complexity? And if such beings did exist--somewhere--how could a denizen of a three-dimensional world even begin to communicate with them?

Abruptly then, angrily, Reid shook his head. Stop stalling, he told himself sharply. You know what you came to do--get on with it!

Slowly--reluctantly, despite his firm resolve--he took hold of the crystal dome and tried to lift it away…but it would not move. Mag-sealed to the tabletop, he thought sourly. He cast around for the controls, and found them--a dial and a switch--mounted to one of the table's legs. A high-pitched humming, of which he had been no more than half-aware, died suddenly as he switched off the power. He tried again--and this time the dome came away easily. He set it aside.

He hesitated then, and wiped his suddenly-sweaty hand on his leg. This might not be a good idea…but according to the captain, it was the only experiment left untried. The only one, at least, that required no specialized equipment. Taking a deep breath, he extended his right hand and touched the hypercube.

Or did he? It seemed that his fingers encountered resistance; but not the rigidity of a solid object. Nor was it spongy, nor even liquid. It felt more like a stiff, constant wind, blowing from all directions simultaneously. It was neither hot nor cold, but nonetheless he felt his hand begin to tingle, and he gasped, wildly imagining the flesh being flensed from his bones. Fortunately the sensation remained mild, like the coming back to life of an awkwardly-placed limb that has "gone to sleep." His hand seemed intact--or so he hoped. He had no way of knowing for certain--because the instant he touched the cube, his remaining senses went haywire.

A bitter, almost metallic taste filled his mouth, and he inhaled a sour odor, like strong vinegar. A deep, rhythmic throb, like the largest pipe of a city-sized organ, or God's own breathing, rumbled in his ears. The hypercube's electric-blue gleam invaded his eyes, driving away all other colors; and when he glanced down at his hand it was as if he viewed an X-ray image. He frowned. No--not quite; not unless he had recently developed six fingers, two thumbs, and a half-dozen extra joints per digit. A strange mixture of emotions flitted through him, seemingly at random: panic, elation, anger, lust, joy…

Something gripped his shoulder then, and he cried out; not in shock, but in pain. The touch was agonizing, half electric shock and half red-hot pincers. He looked up--straight into a grinning death's-head with three huge eye-sockets and multiple rows of jagged, thorn-like teeth, atop a slouching, monstrous, multi-legged skeleton. With an effort he tore his hand away…and as he did, the universe shuddered its way back to normal. With a jolt, he found himself peering into the furry face and wide, green-gold eyes of Sinkyone's geologist.

"Commander--?" she began.

He cleared his throat. "Lieutenant," he said. "What are you doing here at this hour?"

She frowned. "Pardon me, sir?" she asked. "My duty shift began almost half an hour ago…"

He looked up at the chrono above the door--and astonishment sent him reeling against the edge of the table. Clear and unequivocal, the glowing numbers read O829. He glanced at his wristwatch--which he clearly remembered resetting the previous afternoon, to match Sinkyone's clock. 0215. What in God's name--?

"What--uh--what are you doing here, sir?" Ehm'kaathaa asked. "This is a restricted area…"

He smiled bleakly. "I know," he said. "Curiosity got the better of me, I guess." Quickly he replaced the dome, and mag-sealed it down. "No harm done, though," he went on glibly. He held up his hand--back to normal, thank God, and undamaged. "I don't imagine it will be necessary to mention this to the captain--?"

She paused, her tail whipping. "No," she said finally, reluctantly. "I suppose not."

He smiled. "Thank you," he said--knowing full well that she probably would report the intrusion anyway, once she'd had time to think it over. Hopefully no harm would come of it--none, at least, that he couldn't bluff his way through. "I'll leave you to your work, then," he said. He turned to go--but at the door he paused and glanced back over his shoulder. "One question, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, Commander?"

He indicated the cube. "How do you think the scientists on Terra will proceed?" he asked. "What will be their first move?"

She shrugged. "If it were me," she said, "I'd start by putting it in a particle accelerator--since we don't even know what it's made of."

He nodded. "That's what I thought. I'll be seeing you, Lieutenant."

Those lovely eyes, narrowed now in suspicion, followed him as he beat a hasty retreat. He retained his composure until he reached a deserted section of corridor; and there he paused, leaned his forehead against the cool solidity of the bulkhead, and gave himself over to the shakes. In a matter of seconds, so it seemed, he had lost more than six hours--but where exactly had they gone? He did not feel particularly stiff--as he would if he had been standing motionless all that time, mesmerized or paralyzed. So--had he somehow been thrown forward? Or had time slowed to a crawl within him? How to know--and was there really a difference? Only one thing seemed certain: he would not be getting those hours back anytime soon.

###

Alone again in his cabin, he paced, four steps up and back, over and over until he could almost see the beginnings of a shallow groove in the deck-plates. Finally he shook his head and flopped down into the desk chair. All right, he thought. No use delaying the inevitable. What he was about to do could make him extremely unpopular, both aboard Sinkyone and at Survey HQ--but he was used to that. He keyed the intercom. "Control Deck," he said. "Compcomm."

"Compcomm," a pleasant and entirely-too-cheerful voice replied. "Lieutenant Hoyt."

"This is Commander Reid," the Security man said. He quirked a smile. "Your passenger."

"What can I do for you, sir?" she asked. Human, obviously; young, clearly; and enthusiastic, definitely; but to Reid, a complete stranger. For some peculiar reason that thought saddened him.

"I need to send an encrypted hyperzap to Security HQ on Centaurus," he told her. He swallowed. "Official business."

Hoyt paused. "I understand, sir," she said. "But I'm afraid I'll have to clear it with the captain first…"

"Please do," he said. Thuussaa would approve the transmission, he knew. Like most CF officers, she lived, if not in outright fear of Security, at very least with a healthy respect for the division with the black uniforms. "I'll wait."

"One moment, sir."

He leaned back, drumming his fingers nervously on the desk. Yes, Sinkyone's CO would approve the hyperzap--but if she ever learned its contents, she might well regret that decision…

###

Reid received his answer a little more than a week and a half later--almost simultaneously with another, more alarming piece of information.

He could have expected the reply no sooner, though the wait seemed interminable. Node to node, hyperzap messages travel much faster than any ship; but they are far from instantaneous. And too, his report would have to percolate through numerous layers of bureaucracy before reaching someone qualified--in fact, or in his own mind--to deal with it. And what, he found himself wondering over and over as the days lengthened, would his superiors order him to do? To stop worrying, perhaps, and mind his own business? Orders which--albeit without enthusiasm--he would obey. Or maybe…but speculation in the absence of facts was a habit Reid despised.

He spend the intervening time in seclusion, venturing no farther from his borrowed cabin than the mess hall. In so doing, he knew, he was disappointing no one--and doubtless pleasing quite a few. But he had another reason for making himself scarce: he wanted desperately to avoid the quadruple gaze of Captain Thuussaa. Without a doubt, Lieutenant Ehm'kaathaa had reported the incident in the Geology lab--and he had no ready answers for the captain's inevitable questions. By keeping himself out of sight, perhaps he could also keep himself out of mind. Until, that is, he received his answer; at which point it would cease to matter--one way or another.

The message was waiting for him that evening when he returned from a very quick and solitary dinner; and the moment he saw the header, he knew it was the one he had so anxiously awaited. The text itself was brief, even terse: just five words. But the implications behind them spoke volumes.

He was still sitting there, contemplating his next move, when a voice crackled forth from the intercom: "Attention--attention all hands! Turnover in five minutes! Repeat, turnover in five minutes!"

Reid smiled sourly. That warning--so common as to be almost literally universal--was a holdover from an earlier time, before the invention of artificial gravity. At some point during a journey, a vessel must flip itself end-for-end, to begin shedding its excess velocity. A maneuver which, in the old days, would be accompanied be a few seconds of zero-G--always distracting, occasionally even dangerous. On modern ships that no longer occurred--but still, the warning was always given: tradition.

He leaned back, gazing into the darkness, only half-aware of the continuing countdown. His experience in the Geology lab remained strong in his mind, more than eight days later, invading his dreams and returning frequently to disturb his concentration. Had he experienced nothing more than a vivid hallucination, a massive distortion of his time-sense--and all his others as well? Or--as he suspected--had he himself been drawn halfway into another layer of reality? If so, then what he had seen, heard, smelled and tasted might be something akin to metaphors, the symbols with which his mind attempted to decipher the indecipherable. The phenomenon might be entirely harmless--and in fact he had escaped without injury, though with several hours of his life irretrievably missing. Yes, it could be a situation that called for no more than elementary caution…but Reid could still not force himself to believe that. And now, with that message staring him in the face, perhaps he could actually begin to do something about it. But what, exactly?

"Turnover in ten seconds," the intercom blared. "Nine--eight--seven--six--five--four--three--two--one--now!"

The ubiquitous rumble of Sinkyone's fusion drive suddenly quieted, and as the attitude jets spun the vessel smoothly on its axis, Reid felt himself pushed back into his chair, so briefly and gently that he almost dismissed it as imagination. He smiled wryly. Looks like the grav-plates need a little tweaking, he thought--and at that instant, even as the drive roared back to life, the entire ship gave a sudden convulsive shudder. The lights flickered, and out in the corridor a half-dozen different klaxons began to wail.

Leaping to his feet, Reid dashed out into the hallway. The overhead strip-lights were dim, and red warning strobes pulsed at every junction. Not knowing exactly what had happened, but knowing with absolutely clarity where, he made his way swiftly aft and down, toward the Sciences section. He passed crewmembers, grim-faced and pale, on their way to their emergency stations; many carried tool-kits or tightly-rolled pressure suits. More than one shouted at him to get back to his cabin--an instruction he ignored.

He was not the first to the scene: the captain and Lieutenant Ehm'kaathaa both preceded him, as did several Techspecs in silver radiation- and fire-proof suits. They stood in a tight knot in the corridor outside the labs, staring in slack-jawed astonishment at…something. One of the techs made way for him, and he pulled up panting alongside the geologist. "What--" he began--but then he saw, and the question died on his lips.

The what was obvious now--painfully so--and the more pertinent questions had suddenly become how, and why. To his right, the door to the Geology lab hung at a crazy angle, torn halfway off its tracks, its lower half buckled and battered as if kicked in by a giant's boot. No--not in; out. Within, the heavy black-topped table was overturned, the wires that ran down its legs ripped loose; and fragments of a shattered crystal dome lay everywhere, like a glittering snowfall.

Nearer at hand--directly at his feet, in fact--a deep groove creased the deck, a half-meter wide and deep, like the track left by a huge blunt plow. Along its path many of the deckplates had been torn loose, curled back upon themselves, and in several places the circuitry beneath sparked and smoked. From somewhere came a liquid gurgling, proving that at least one water pipe had been breached as well. How the deck below had fared Reid could not imagine; fortunately it was only a cargo bay, completely uninhabited.

At the far end of the furrow, almost four meters from the blasted door, lay the hypercube, deeply embedded within a nest of rucked deckplates. It appeared undamaged--a fact which surprised Reid very little. It had, after all, come unscathed through a global catastrophe. He cleared his throat. "It appears," he said mildly, "we've discovered another anomaly."

###

They met in the captain's tiny office, Reid, Thuussaa and Lieutenant Ehm'kaathaa. The Quadrian was coldly furious--as any captain is wont to be when her ship is so rudely violated. The Sah'aaran, however, simply looked tired and miserable, her tail skittering back and forth behind her and her whiskers drooping. And Reid…as usual during a crisis, he felt himself filled with a kind of implacable calm, which canceled emotion and left only icy, crystalline logic behind. It was a habit which had long ago given him a reputation as distant and uncaring. Which was not, in fact, true--but it often suited him to allow others to think it was.

"Fortunately the damage was relatively minor," the captain was saying. "It's beyond our capacity to fully repair, however. We'll have to wait until we reach Terra."

Reid cleared his throat. "Do we have any idea what happened?" he asked. He glanced at Ehm'kaathaa. "I seem to recall you mentioning a discrepancy between the object's mass and its inertia…"

The geologist nodded. "Yes," she said quietly. "Apparently--though we had no way of knowing--the difference has increased steadily, the farther we've gotten from Epsilon Borotis. At rest, the object still masses no more than eight kilos. But its resistance to motion now seems to be about ten thousand times that--and it's still growing. It's almost as if the cube is fastened to that planet with a huge elastic band. The farther we go, the more it stretches. How, why--we have no idea. It's an entirely unique phenomenon."

Reid's eyes narrowed, and the captain nodded grimly.

"You see the implications," she said. "During turnover, the grav-plates fluctuated slightly. This isn't a young ship, and that's one of the minor eccentricities we have to endure. Just a tiny hiccup--but enough to let that thing 'feel' a shift in direction. You saw the result."

Reid nodded. "I did," he said. "And now what?"

Thuussaa lifted her tentacles. "I have precious little choice, Commander. Until we reach Terra, we leave it where it is. The techs there will have to figure a way to remove it. I'm ordering a grav-plate 'cage' to be assembled around it--to keep its inertia balanced, no matter what."

"A sensible precaution," Reid said agreed. "But will it be enough?"

She blinked. "Meaning?"

He shrugged. "You heard what the lieutenant said. By the time we reach Terra the object's inertia could amount to millions of tons--enough that even the slightest fluctuation in gravity could allow it to tear your ship apart."

The captain sighed. "Yes, of course I've considered that," she said. She shook her head. "But what can I do?"

"If returning to Epsilon Borotis isn't an option," he said, "then get rid of the thing. Jettison it, here and now. Evacuate the Science section, seal it off, and cut through the decks below. Let it drift through into open space. It won't be pretty--but it's better than having the thing plow through your fusion drive."

"Tempting," Thuussaa said with a hollow chuckle. "But I'm under strict orders to bring the object to Terra--if it can be done safely. I'm not yet convinced it can't."

Reid turned away, and sat silent for a moment, gazing the slowly-shifting stars beyond the portholes. Finally he said, "Captain, a little more than a week ago I hyperzapped my superiors on Centaurus about your cargo."

Thuussaa nodded calmly. "I know. Or I should say I guessed. In your place I'd have done the same."

Would you? Reid thought. I wonder. "I told them that in my opinion, bringing that object to Terra represents an unacceptable security risk. This evening I received a reply."

"Which was--?"

He swallowed. "'Proceed as you see fit,'" he quoted. "I can show you, if you'd like…"

"No need," she said. "I believe you. Very interesting. And just exactly what do you see fit to do, Special Investigator Reid?"

He shrugged. "That depends entirely upon you, Captain. You know my recommendation--"

"Yes," she agreed. "I do. And that it runs counter to my orders--and my inclinations."

"And that's the crux of our dilemma, isn't it?" he asked. "If it were up to me, I wouldn't allow the damned thing to get a millimeter closer to Terra. I have the authority, and my superiors would back me up--but I can't do the job by myself. Not now."

"No," she said. "You can't." She leaned forward then, and her voice suddenly hardened. "And if you attempt to enlist my crew to assist you, Commander, I will have you up on charges of mutiny--your orders from Centaurus notwithstanding. This is my ship, and I am in command here. Do I make myself clear?"

He nodded calmly. "Absolutely, Captain." He paused. "I really don't understand why we're butting heads over this. By now you must surely realize that object--whatever it is--is dangerous. It has a distorting effect on the mind…"

She snorted, and inwardly he grimaced. Obviously she knew very well how he had come by that information.

"--And on the laws of physics as well," he went on. "Simple prudence suggests that we don't screw around with things we don't understand."

She sighed. "After what happened tonight, Commander, I'm almost tempted to agree."

"But--?" he prompted.

"But," she said heavily, "I have my orders, as you have yours. The Survey wants very badly for the cube to be brought to Terra."

He smiled wryly. "At any cost?"

"No," she said, refusing to be baited. "Certainly not--as you know very well. I'm not an idiot; I won't needlessly endanger my ship or crew for that…thing. But if I can do so with a reasonable degree of safety, I will complete my mission." She paused. "At any rate, Commander, I think it may be far safer to let the proverbial sleeping dog lie. Jettisoning the cube would be an extremely tricky maneuver, especially at our velocity--and I'm not willing to punch holes in my ship this far from home."

He spread his hands. "Then it appears we're at an impasse," he said. "And since it's your ship…"

She chuckled. "Yes," she said. "It is." She turned away then, and sighed. "I've already apprised the Survey of our situation," she said. "Perhaps they'll have a different opinion now. Perhaps your superiors have already contacted mine--or perhaps the Admiralty will step in. This entire situation might soon be taken out of our hands. But until it is, I can think of no better course than to keep going, and hope for the best."

And that, Reid thought sadly, is where we differ the most.

###

Out in the corridor, Ehm'kaathaa took hold of his arm, bringing him to a halt. "Commander," she said quietly, "may I speak to you for a moment?"

"Of course," he said. He gestured. "The rec room?"

"All right."

The Sah'aaran remained silent, her expression somber and her tail flicking, until they had seated themselves. Then she sighed and began to speak softly, her eyes averted from his. "In my experience," she said, "everyone who attends the Officer's Academy brings away something different from the experience."

He quirked an eyebrow. "I daresay."

"Some people are fast-tracked from the moment they arrive," she went on. "He's perfect for the Navy; she's a born Compcomm--and so forth. And some people don't know where they'll be assigned until they graduate."

He smiled. "And usually end up in the Patrol," he quipped.

Briefly she matched his grin. "True enough." She paused. "I knew I was destined for the Survey from my very first day. My aptitude tests, my previous education…there was no doubt that I'd end up a Scispec. My entire course of study for four years was skewed in that direction."

He nodded. "Not unusual."

"--But now I'm wondering if I might have missed something."

"Meaning--?"

She raised her head to peer deep into his eyes. "I've been trying to understand you," she said. "And I can't. I can't comprehend why that object--that cube--troubles you so."

He sighed. "Because it's dangerous--" he began, but she interrupted.

"Yes," she said. "It is. I can't deny that now. But so are a lot of things, if they aren't handled correctly. Don't you see, Commander, that if we were all like you--if we wanted to jettison everything we don't understand--the Alliance would have gotten nowhere? Don't you believe in scientific progress?"

"Certainly I do," he said. "I'm not anti-science. I'm simply pro-caution."

"Is that really it?" she insisted. "I know what the other branches think of the Survey. I know what they call us. And maybe we are a little too eager to stick our noses in where they might not belong. But you--you've spent your entire career in Security; you told me that yourself. Isn't it possible that your training has made you overly-cautious? That you crave a degree of reassurance the universe simply doesn't provide?"

He turned away. The emergency in the Sciences section was long since over, the area secured as much as it could be; but even so, the rec room was nearly deserted, and the faces of the few crewmembers present seemed ashen, their expressions harried. They too had begun to question the wisdom of having that damned thing aboard--but whether that feeling would override their loyalty to Captain Thuussaa, Reid had no intention of finding out--because he strongly suspected it would not. Not yet, at least.

Finally he said, "Maybe so. I honestly don't know any more. You're right: I have spent the last ten years seeing enemies in every shadow--and doubtless that has colored my thinking, more than I care to admit. But let me ask you this, Lieutenant: do you feel safe with that thing on board?"

Slowly, reluctantly it seemed, she shook her head. "No," she admitted. "Not any more. Not after tonight…"

"Just tonight?" he asked pointedly.

"Well--no. Not just tonight. A few days ago, when I found you in the lab…you had your hand on the cube, almost in it, and your whole body was glowing blue, as if the thing had begun to absorb you. I grabbed your arm…and just for an instant, before you let go, I saw…things. Weird, bizarre, frightening things. I haven't been able to put it out of my mind…"

"Nor I," he said. "I doubt I ever will. But to me, that isn't the worst of it. You remember I asked you what the scientists on Terra would do when they got their hands the cube?"

She nodded. "I said they'd probably put it in a particle accelerator--to try to find out what it's made of."

"That's right," he said. "A standard procedure." He swallowed. "Just before I came to the lab that night, I studied the holos from Epsilon Borotis--the ruins where the cube was found. It's impossible to tell what the building once was--but it occurred to me: what if their scientists followed the standard procedure as well? What if that structure, fifty meters underground, was all that remained of a particle accelerator?"

She drew back. "We don't know that it was…" she began, and he nodded grimly.

"Exactly," he agreed. "We don't know. And until we do…"

She glanced away, and nodded. "I understand," she said. "Even if I still don't entirely agree." She paused. "What--what will you do now?"

Smiling, he reached across to pat her knee. "Whatever I must," he said. "As always."

###

Above the rim of his beer-mug--his fourth or fifth, Reid had lost count--Inman's eyes widened. "So that's why Sinkyone didn't dock at the ODF," he said in hushed tones.

"Thash ri'," Reid said. He heard the alcohol-spawned slurring of his voice, and he fought to control it. "By the time we arrived in Sol system the object's inertia had risen to almost three megatons. Captain Thuussaa's Techspecs enclosed it within a grav-plate cage, making it 'think' it was at rest. We had no further trouble--but still, it was far too dangerous to try to dock with it aboard."

"Agreed," Inman said. All trace of a condescending smile had vanished from his face, and his ruddy complexion had lightened several shades. Clearly--all too clearly--he believed what he had heard. "So--?" he prompted.

Reid chuckled, a trifle unsteadily. "So," he said, "we had quite a time, those last ten days. The hyperzaps were flying--to the Survey, to my people on Centaurus, to the Admiralty. For a while none of us knew what might happen, what we might be ordered to do--but then, finally, the Navy stepped in."

Inman frowned. "The Navy? Why, in God's name?"

Reid shrugged. "We can only speculate," he said. "Did the Admiralty decide they were more qualified than the Survey to investigate the thing? Or did they become interested in it on their own? As a weapon, maybe? A kinetic bomb? I don't know. But they spoke, and the Admiralty listened. They ordered the object transported to a Navy research station in the Nevada desert."

"And--?"

Reid gulped at his latest drink. Already he had no feeling whatsoever in his legs, and the numbness was quickly spreading upwards through his body. He would not be leaving the lounge under his own power. "Earlier today Sinkyone was entirely evacuated and depressurized, and her fusion drive was powered down. Then crews went to work cutting through her hull. A little more than an hour ago the object was floated free--or I should say, Sinkyone was floated off from around it--and the cube, still enclosed in grav-plates, was loaded aboard a landing pod." He barked a bitter laugh. "A robot pod--I talked them into taking that precaution at least, thank God."

"So that's it, then?" Inman said.

Reid smiled. "Not quite," he replied. He glanced at his wrist chrono, squinting to make the numerals come into focus. "About now, the pod is entering the atmosphere--and as it does, the grav-plate cage will fail."

Inman choked on his beer. "My God," he said, aghast. "You didn't--!"

"I did."

"But that means--"

Reid nodded. "Exactly. The cube will experience the pod's acceleration--and resist. Its inertia will rip the pod to pieces instantly, I imagine. And then…"

Inman started to rise, but Reid waved him back to his seat. "Don't bother," he said. "You can't stop it. Nobody can. It's too late."

Pale and wide-eyed, Inman sat back down. "But that means the thing is plunging to earth with megatons of momentum behind it!"

Reid nodded. "Basically."

"--And God only knows where it will hit…"

"If the pod followed its filed flight-plan," Reid said, "somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific. The chances of it landing on a populated island are small…"

"And you think that makes it all right?" Inman demanded, so loudly that the conversations around them briefly ceased, and several faces turned their way.

"I think so," Reid said quietly. "I hope so, anyway."

"I don't understand."

"I had to gamble," Reid explained. Something--the alcohol perhaps--had left him in a curious state of detachment, as if he were discussing the happenings of some other universe. Which, in a sense, was true. "I kept remembering something Lieutenant Ehm'kaathaa said," he went on. "That the cube seemed fastened to Epsilon Borotis II, as with a huge elastic band. The farther from that planet we got, the tighter it was stretched. I have a feeling it's ready to recoil."

"Meaning what?"

Reid shook his head. "I don't know," he confessed. "But if the CF ever decides it's worthwhile to go looking on the bottom of the ocean, I don't imagine they'll find anything."

"And if you're wrong?"

Reid shrugged. "Tsunamis, at the very least. No radiation, of course--but a hell of a lot of displaced water. Hopefully there'll be enough time for evacuations…"

"And if you're very wrong?"

"Annihilation," he said calmly. "The same thing that happened on Epsilon Borotis." He glanced again at his chrono. "I imagine we'll know soon enough."

"I don't understand you," Inman said. "Any more than your friend the Sah'aaran did. Don't you realize what you've done? Even if you're right--even if we live through this--there was so much we could have learned from that thing! That time-distortion you experienced, the discrepancy between its mass and inertia--none of that had even begun to be explained. You've robbed science of the discovery of the century!"

For a long moment Reid gazed out at the storm. Finally he said, "And you think I didn't consider that? Of course I did. I spent three solid weeks thinking about it." He shook his head. "But the cost was too high. I kept remembering Epsilon Borotis, and imagining the same thing happening to Terra. I know their scientists triggered the disaster that destroyed them. Something they did to that cube, some test they performed--maybe the particle accelerator, maybe something else--backfired on them. I couldn't risk that happening here. One way or another, dropping it in the ocean seemed the safest course."

"And who were you to make that choice?" Inman demanded coldly.

Gazing at him through tired, wounded eyes, Reid shrugged. "Who did I have to be?"

Inman opened his mouth to reply--and the entire universe seemed to grind to a shuddering halt. For an instant--or an hour, or a century--the lounge was filled with an eerie, electric-blue glow, and a single, booming note, like the beating of a colossal drum, pounded into their ears--or, more likely, directly into their brains. Inman's narrow face, pale and drawn, became a naked, snaggle-toothed skull, his hand a set of crooked talons. A moment, an eternity…and then it was gone. The sudden silence was broken by the piercing crash of breaking glass--and then everyone was talking at once, their voices high-pitched and half hysterical.

Reid cleared his throat. "Well, we're still alive," he observed, above the din. "Maybe we'll even stay that way." He paused. "There won't be any tsunami, Commander. Call it a premonition."

"You're crazy," Inman told him. "You know that, don't you?"

"Am I?" Reid asked softly. "Am I really?"

"They'll find out," Inman said. "The Admirals. They'll investigate, and they'll know exactly who's to blame. You'll be court-martialed…"

"Perhaps," Reid said. "But I still have that order; it was never rescinded. 'Proceed as you see fit.' Carte blanche, I'd say."

Inman shook his head. "Why?" he said. "That's all I want to know. Why did you do it?"

Reid stared into the watery depths of his drink, then downed it, ice and all. "For a couple of Sah'aaran kits I'll never know," he said sadly. "I don't imagine they or their mother will ever thank me--but at least they'll be around to make that choice."

##END##


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