SF Perspectives

Editor’s Foreword

Geeks be forewarned: Even in the future, it’s the wealthy and athletic types that still get the Spice Girls.

Valerie Halliwell hated dermals; their slick touch always felt fragile, like they would burst at any moment. The tabloids called it ‘N-Phobic’ like it meant something and she had to agree; perhaps it did, being naked in hard vacuum took some getting used to. But she would bury her fears for the moment, for Gordon and his promise of something wonderful.

“Send the suit command, Val. This is kind of time constricted.” Gordon looked like an athlete, his nano-sculpted body pushing at his dermal in all the right places. Hell, he had everything, but she’d be nobody’s pawn, least of all their respective families. Love? Yes, in an old-fashioned sense. But could she live with him? Marry him? She had hoped to find out on this trip, however…

His suit rippled with refracted light. She cued the command through her link and as her suit flowed about her skin from her neck torque; she saw her crazily reflected image slide into mirror, sealing her in against the hostile environment outside the Lander. It felt cold.

As it reached her head and mouth, it bubbled out and became clear. That part always scared her the most.

“Gordy? Why all the secrecy? Since we left Blue Jay 2, you’ve been very coy.”

“Can’t a man show his intended a surprise now and then?”

“Maybe, but without the dermals next time–”

“What you are about to see, and I’m quite sure of this, is beyond compare and suits are definitely required. And anyway, your butt always looks good, skin-tight.”

“Careful, cowboy. No need to get a girl hot, especially in these bags.” She tried to pluck at the suit’s material, her finger coming away empty. Gordon linked the airlock’s external door and as it slid silently aside, Valerie watched a small rocky expanse grow through the opening, shadows, harsh against bright, unfiltered Lander-light.

“Okay Val, once we are down, I want you to take a look around and see if you can find anything odd.”

“Is this going to be like one of those school-girl/teacher scenarios, where I haven’t done my homework?”

“Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. It’ll be your loss. Just humour me. Okay?” She knew when he was being serious; hell she’d been with him for a long time. Outside, the horizon was alarmingly close, it looked only a stone’s throw away. Above, blackness and few bright stars and beyond, the Sagittarius Arm swirled like a smoky tentacle made of stars.

High to the right, Blue Jay 2’s golden hull glittered in bright sunlight. It shone fiercely; perhaps the star they had come to was hotter than Sol. Another vessel hovered above, much larger than Gordy’s private yacht.

“It’s the San Jose, one of the research vessels,” said Gordon. Valerie always found it amusing that he never said, ‘one of my research vessels’, even though his company owned nearly every one in the Confederation. Lowering her gaze she saw that they’d landed on a small, levelled piece of rock. To one side, a wide cut-path led away between small mounds.

“You and your boys have been busy,” said Valerie. She got a raised eyebrow and a smile, before Gordon said, “Okay honey, opaque that visor and we’ll begin.”

“This better be worth it. Or I’ll be opaquing your visor every time you raise it.”

They both laughed. Gordon took Valerie’s hand.

Glancing through a small band she’d kept clear at the base of her visor, Valerie carefully placed one silvered foot in front of the other. Each footfall felt heavy, too heavy for a small rock and as she pondered that, quantum-arrays in the soles of her suit fed telemetry to her link. Just a rocky lump, a standard asteroid.

Gordon said, “Anything yet?”

She saw his feet pull ahead and out of view. “Okay, the gravity’s whacked and that’s about all I can say at the moment. Rock’s just a standard, nothing special–”

“Right on the money. Anything else? “

“Yeah, but I’m too bright to give away my game plan. Have you ever had a date bug out on you Gordon? I have tips you know…”

“Come on, play along Val, it really will be worth it. Who knows, you may even be able to decide if you’ll take the plunge with me.”

“Why Gordy, that’s so perceptive. Okay though, here goes. My suit arrays are feeding me data on micrometeorite impacts in the path’s surface. They’re kind of screwy; got to be something in my virtual processing throwing out figures like these.”

“What do they indicate?”

“Well, two, three thousand years’ worth. Maybe my data on dust density in this region is out?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you teasing me Gordon Petrucha?” She started her suit diagnostic.

“Maybe.”

“Why, I’ll–”

“Now stand perfectly still for a moment. That’s right.”

Valerie remained motionless and as the seconds stretched, she wondered if Gordon possessed a vicious streak that she’d never noticed.

“Right Val. I’m going to ask you to clear your visor. But please be careful and concentrate on standing upright. Okay, now.”

She cheated; first clearing small pinholes before each of her eyes and then, steadily expanding the view. It gave her a second.

To her right a huge mound obscured most of the sky. The path had curved over the rock and then turned to the left. On the left, the ground scurried away. Light had changed. A blue-ness clung to edges and clefts. Before her… Her mind fought to adjust and she nearly fell to the ground. Gordon stood upright on a perfectly flat surface, which tilted at a forty to fifty degree angle to her position. Her instincts kept asking her, ‘Why doesn’t he slip off?’ When no answer presented, waves of dizziness tried to wash her to the ground.

Typical Gordy. At their pairing party he’d been just the same; only six or seven years old and out to impress. Even then Valerie had known that her life could never be her own. That it was her duty to marry a chosen spouse. But Gordy was in thrall to his boyhood ways and wants and couldn’t help himself–A trick with a phase shield and a high-wall balancing act brought out the showman in him. His father’s disapproval and reminder about the solemnity of the occasion, only served to put a wry smile on Gordy’s handsome face.

Valerie had loved him ever since, although the arranged marriage always would be a step too far…

Recovering, she said, “It’s the gravity isn’t it?”

“You bet, honey. Gravity planes. It’s a bloody miracle.”

“But?”

“I’ll explain in a minute. You need to come out here.”

Hesitating, she looked beyond Gordon. In the centre of the space (it reminded her of a courtyard), stood a chair. It appeared to be hewn from the floor material, as if they’d scooped out the pit for the yard and left an up-thrust for the chair.

A smile wrinkled the edge of her mouth, “Gordy? What are you playing at?”

“No, it’s okay. I promise. Step out here, you’re going to have your mental socks blown right off.”

“I hope this isn’t some rich stunt our families have put together to help you impress me into doing the deed–”

“Nothing like that, Val.” He hesitated, then continued, “I guess it might help you decide though.”

Cautiously, she stepped forward.

The universe turned.

Stars and sky swept to the left and her body tilted precariously as she nearly stumbled out into the courtyard. Her foot slammed down and she found a new orientation.

Gordon stood patiently before her and to be sure, Val turned around and saw the path she’d left, snake away at a crazy angle. Blue and velvet shadow etched an almost icy landscape. Incredible. “Okay, Gordy. How did you guys do it? This kind of technology is way out there, years away.”

“Don’t ask questions Val, just turn around and look at the sky.”

“Stars, how romantic.” But as she turned, Val noticed that he didn’t reply. The blue-ness increased and as she final saw what held Gordon’s attention, fear and awe nibbled at her mind.

An eye. No, a planet that looked like an eye. Neptune-blue and white around the sphere’s edge. An eye without a pupil. It made her feel small and vulnerable, watched.

Gordon was talking. “…It’s some sort of aerosol, suspended in the atmosphere. From here there’s less atmosphere to look through directly at the planet’s centre, but as you move towards the edge, it deepens and so becomes more pronounced.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“That it is.”

“Like the universe is looking in on us, telling us we’re small.”

“You’ll get used to it.”

“Used to it? And there I was thinking you were getting all romantic on me, Gordy. If you want to cuddle me, now’s a good time.”

Gordon smiled and said, “Later, that’s not what I brought you all this way to see.”

“It’s not?”

“No. Val, has your array diagnostic finished yet?”

“Do you spy on all your girl friends’ data activity? Some things are sacrosanct you know.”

“I love your data activity, can’t get enough… So, anything new?”

“The same.”

“And?”

“Well, it can’t be right…” Even as she said the words, moulded the thought, she knew she was wrong. Sixty seven barren worlds; rocky, desert strewn, damp and wet, all devoid of life, “… Gordon.” Her knees buckled and she sank to the floor.

“Val, it’s hard to take in, I know. But it turns out that we may not be alone in this universe after all.”

Val babbled, “How? When?”

“It was the gravity that got our attention. The Jose drifted this way doing some gravimetric sheer tests and it showed up. They came here; then I got a call. Took me almost a week to get out here the first time.

“Place has been dug out around a thousand, two thousand years. Gravity is being maintained by a device in the centre of the rock. We don’t know how it’s doing what it’s doing, but we’ll damn well find out. But that’s not what I brought you out here for.”

“A girl can get impatient you know. I’m not sure I can cope with much more. Can’t we go back to playing teacher/bad pupil? I love that game–”

“Val, this is important and later, after you’ve seen the rest and we’ve talked… Well, you’ll be able to decide. And it won’t have anything to do with our families or their precious dynasty building schemes.”

“You sure know how to impress a girl.”

“Come on, get your tight butt off the ground and come over to what we’re calling the throne.”

He helped her up and his reassuring touch through the dermal, provide just enough anchor to steady her dizzying mind. A world watched.

Tall and slim, a sculpture of fine lines and ornate carvings–Valerie thought the throne possessed an elfin quality, a lightness that belied its actual strength. “It’s beautiful, Gordy.”

“After a week or two, I’m still amazed at how alluring the chair is. Isn’t it strange that we find the aesthetics pleasing? Different minds and yet…” Valerie traced a finger over scrolled stone as Gordon’s spoken thoughts trailed away. Small swirls of stone counterbalanced against grand sweeps of carved rock. The micrometeorite impacts were here too, but there were also patches of worn stone on the arm-ends and at the base of the seat, the back of which dipped down and away into the carving.

Not like us physically then.

“I don’t get it. They came here, threw up a court yard and a throne to look at a planet, which they could have viewed from the comfort of their ship.”

“We think that perhaps they were more like us than we could have hoped for.” Valerie suddenly found the enormity of the discovery overwhelming. Consumed by awe and amazement, she felt somewhat surprised as her thoughts drifted to Gordon’s motives for bringing her here. His Conclave seat would be assured by this find and her family, probably his, would insist on the marriage. She did love him and they were good together, but she couldn’t help but feel lost. Her world seemed to work from the outside in, people arranged things and she fell into place, through doors opened and barriers raised. She said, “Who knows besides us?” And then, “Please tell me our families don’t know. It’ll be just the weapon they need.”

“Val, calm down. There’ll be no, ‘Engaged couple make discovery’ headlines and no free Conclave seats for us. I’ve kept it strictly in house. And our families won’t get their chance to further their aims through this. It’s too big.” He hesitated and Valerie knew his link had caused him to pause. “It’s time,” he said. “Now, jump up into the seat and watch the planet.”

“What?”

“Move it, your butt, that throne.”

Cautiously, she levered herself into the seat. Uncomfortable and cold. Of course, she couldn’t really feel the cold; her dermal maintained an adequate temperature that her mind found hard to accept. “What am I looking for?”

“You remember that I said we may have been surprisingly alike…”

“Yeah–” Something nudged out of the planets aerosol haze in its upper right quadrant and Valerie immersed herself in her link, accessing telemetry streams from the San Jose.

Data flowed into her; size, mass, velocity, atmospheric depth, radiation emissions, on and on… She switched off. In the silence she heard her heart beating. It must be huge to look so large from here. A silver teardrop the size of Australia gently drifted into view. Floating in atmosphere, a huge raft made buoyant by high pressures and thermal layers. Its front edge seemed crumpled and dented.

“You down-linked?” Gordon said.

“It’s too much, too fast.” Pausing, she fought down an urge to turn and run, flee to the Lander and forget everything. This felt… Unfair. She was too young for such responsibility. “You know, Gordy? I don’t think I like it. Life used to be so much simpler; us, the universe, real-estate.”

Gordon ignored her. “We couldn’t figure it out. Not until we took some measurements. The object is sinking into the planet’s atmosphere. Some anomalous decayed isotopes gave us some figures to work with. It’s been adrift for over half a million years.”

“Bummer.”

“The front edge appears to be pressure damaged.”

“Gordy? Are we saying that there are two artefacts here? Two constructs by different races?”

“Looks that way. I doubt we could reach the floater; pressure is already way too high. It’s a shame.”

“This is bound to leak. There’s no way you’ll be able to keep the Conclave out.”

“I guess you’re right. That’s why I’ve come and brought you along.”

“It is?”

Gordon ignored her and stared at the planet and its strange cargo. Watching, she saw it slide across the face of the world, a world they could never visit. The builders of that artefact were as distant from them now, as they had ever been. Untouchable. It looked so much like… and then Valerie shed a tear of her own, as understanding bloomed.

“I get it Gordy. The throne builders were just like us. Searching for companionship, a race like themselves, like us. And yet the best they managed was a wreck from time, a drifting hulk in the night. I can almost feel the loneliness, as they came here to sit and watch what might have been… and we came so close.”

“The universe is big and time is deep. We just hadn’t looked hard enough.”

He was interrupted again by his link and while he took in the information she composed herself.

Gordon was speaking again…

“…so much like us. You know, I once felt consumed by this stuff; ancient star-faring civilisations, vast empires and trading routes. Adventure, I guess. As I grew older, it all became… soiled, dirtied by the facts, by the big empty universe. But now…”

“It’s a corker, Gordy. A real humdinger.”

“So, Valerie Halliwell, here’s the bad news. I don’t want to marry you.”

“Wha–”

“Things have changed. I haven’t got time. In two hours, the Arrabella will be here. Blue Jay will be taken aboard and I’ll be going with it. You however, have a choice to make. My dream has been rekindled. I’m going that way.” He waved a well-muscled arm in the direction of the galactic centre, before continuing, “I’d like you to come with me.”

Valerie felt stunned. All the while she’d been worrying about a publicly arranged marriage and now… “Why do we have to go now, Gordy? Don’t you want to enjoy your moment, take the recognition?”

“Time’s kind of constricted.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You aren’t getting any younger and I thought running away would suit you better now, rather than later.”

“So, you’re that sure I’d come with you are you?” She recognised the pattern, pressures from outside, some might call it fate, but not her. “If I don’t agree to come along, you’ll go anyway, won’t you?”

“Probably. I had hoped you’d be similarly inclined.”

“Then, against my better judgement I’ll say yes. But you’d better keep this obsession in check buster, or I’ll be ripping holes in your dermals from here to Sirus.” She’d rationalise later, place the fulcrum-events into pattern and convince herself she’d made the choice. Life could be so cruel, an arranged marriage, a strong independence and true love made sorry bedfellows.

“You’d better get that butt moving, we only have an hour or so.”

“What’s the hurry?”

“We discovered another gravity anomaly about fifteen days travel from here. Same signatures as this one.”

“Thousands of years old. Give a girl a break, eloping has to be planned right you know.”

“No, five days. We swept that area two weeks ago and it was dead, now it’s not. Five days ago someone, or thing switched it on. We’ve got to move.” He patted her behind and Valerie giggled slightly in response. Rekindled sense of wonder certainly put a zing in a man’s motivation.

She let him move ahead and turned to look at the planet one more time. The object that now glided across the lower left quadrant of the planet forced Valerie to think of a crying eye. The universe was a lonely place.

Her dermal felt cold as she rushed to catch Gordon.

 

About the Author

Rob Rowntree lives and writes in Nottinghamshire, England. He started writing after his wife bought him a course of creative writing classes as a gift. Soon, several small press magazines took his work. He now has a regular writing slot with the pro-webzine Ideomancer interviewing other writers. Currently he's working on a novelóDestructive Tendencies, a film treatment and several shorter pieces. He likes spicy food and has been known to enjoy a good night out. He lives with his wife Dawn and his two sons, Ethan and Aidan.

 

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