If books tell stories, then what does a shelf full of them have to say? A good question, or a sign that he was getting desperate. Standing before the bookshelf, reading titles with the glow from the gas giant dominating the view outside the satellite station, Carter wasn’t sure. Like every other human, he was a pattern-seeking animal. But knowing the difference between finding and imposing a pattern was the real trick.
“What is it?” Rachel asked, looking up from the painting she held. It was a crude thing, a half-completed watercolour still life of leafy plastic plants in bright plastic pots. She stood below him, in the shelved nook at the room’s centre, surrounded by abandoned art supplies. Like Carter, she was trying to find meaning, some clue, in this bright mess, amongst the children’s toys and learning objects.
Carter looked back at the bookshelf, which was large enough to run the length of the room’s inner wall.”The complete Third Edition of the OED,” he said, hefting one of the thick volumes.
“I thought that never had a print run,” said Rachel.
Carter examined the spine, the inside cover. “It didn’t,” he said. “Not officially. This is a custom job. Very expensive. What does that tell you?”
“It’s into descriptive linguistics?” Rachel asked without seriousness.
“Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies,” Carter read titles at random. “Have you heard of any of these?”
“A few,” said Rachel. She ran fingers through the holographic interface projected over her right wrist, read words as they scrolled through the air. “Popular with children at the start of the 21st century.”
Carter crossed the room, hopping over the narrow valley on his way to the room’s transparent outer wall. He crouched down over an electronic device, a heavy keyboard attached to a folding LCD screen. “An antique,” he said, poking at the keys. “Something else they would have in the early 21st century.”
“What are you trying to say?” Rachel asked as she collected paintings and drawings.
“That nothing here is an accident,” said Carter, picking up the laptop as he stood. “It never is with this thing. A dictionary published in the 21st century that describes the language of the age, and a computer that isn’t compatible with anything designed or produced since before either of us were born. But it’s something that any kid who read that Harry Potter book would know how to use.”
Rachel nodded slowly, as if she’d only half-heard him. She was looking at another of the paintings, holding it up to the light. Carter moved to stand behind her so he could see it as well.
They stared at it together, neither sure of what to say, until Carter saw the flash of something shooting past in the sky outside. Meteors crashing into the planet’s atmosphere. The sun was breaking over the horizon, brushing the scattered clouds in the sky around them with deep blues and fainter purples. In the background, the gas giant hung like an omen, its moons shifting in and out of shadows. An arresting view, even to those familiar with it. “Why is it,” Carter asked, “that it never painted what it saw outside?”
In the painting Rachel held, smeared watercolours described a domestic scene. A small humanoid creature with large eyes and short limbs stood between a pair of bushy green trees. Next to the creature were two larger versions of it, and each had a label. The tallest was “Dad,” then “Mom,” while the small one was “Me.”
“I guess it wasn’t interested,” said Rachel.
Their comm units came to life. “We found something,” said Martin.
“A survivor?” Rachel asked.
“Not really,” said Martin. “Just get down here as soon as you can.”
The corridors rang hollow with their footsteps, the sounds emphasizing the empty, still spaces, like they were walking through a tomb. Carter and Rachel passed open doors, each showing a room as strikingly different from where they’d just been as seemed possible. Bleak, steel-grey workstations, labs scattered with electronics and junked parts, thin, sweat-stained cots in corners. They’d searched every room, found nothing of use. And no survivors. Every one of the abductees was present and accounted for, that was obvious immediately, but each lay glassy-eyed and still in a personalized pool of blood, their nostrils still dripping and crusted red. Nearly one hundred and fifty people in all, dead because they were still one step behind this thing.
But maybe not for long. Some of the corpses were still a little warm when they arrived, and they had the low-orbit satellite surrounded. It had to be here, somewhere.
They found Martin bent over some sort of jury-rigged control panel in the cargo bay, with the rest of his team scattered about checking boxes and containers.. “What did you find?” Rachel asked.
Straightening, Martin hit a series of keys, then toggled a switch. “Check this out,” he said.
A machine in the centre of the room started to whir into life, a set of thick coils slowly raising from the ground to spin around a metal spire.
“What is it?” asked Carter. “Did you find a survivor?”
Martin held up a dog-eared stack of papers. “No survivors,” he said, “but they did leave something behind. Notes. Can’t make much of them yet–might never understand most of it–but the alien had them at work building this thing. You know, before it killed them all.”
“Anything about what it is?” Carter had to raise his voice over the hum of the coils as they spun.
“Like I said, there’s a lot in here that’s illegible or that will require some work to crack, but I can give you the gist.” Martin pointed at the machine, where arcs of energy now danced between the coils and the central spire. “It’s some sort of wormhole technology. I’m certain this is how it got away. We’re not going to find it anywhere on this station.”
Rachel scowled. “Wormhole? As in travelling through space?”
“Yes,” said Martin. “Space and time.”
Carter showed Rachel a raised eyebrow and a sad smile, a look saying “I told you so” to both her and himself. “Any ideas where?”
“Not quite,” Martin said. “And I doubt I’ll find out reading these notes. I figure it set the coordinates itself before going through. But this was more than getting off this station.”
Of course not, Carter thought. It didn’t need to kidnap and murder a small village for that. This machine was the endgame all along.
The machine was now roaring, and the floor vibrated as the coils bounced off each other. Martin’s team started to back away from it, toward the walls. “It doesn’t look good,” said Carter.
Martin looked at the panel, at the heavy wires leading into it and out to the device. “There’s no guarantee I can get it to work again once I shut it down,” he yelled.
Carter thought about the picture Rachel still held, and all the places they’d tracked it to on the way here. The derelict cruise vessel with a passenger list in the thousands, the small research city on the planet below, the mining base on the third moon. His home town back on Mars. Not once had they found a single survivor. This alien thing, loose in the universe, in the time stream even. It was too much.
“Don’t shut it off yet,” he told Martin.
Rachel’s eyes widened. “You can’t be serious, Carter.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“It’s gone. This is as dead as dead ends get, and we’ll never see or hear from it again. We got lucky.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. I know you don’t want to believe it, but you saw everything in its room. You know as well as I do where it went. I can’t allow that.”
“Who’s to say this even works?” she asked.
An energy field formed around the spinning coils, a globe of shimmering black about three metres in diameter. It began to fizzle and pop, and the lights in the room dimmed.
“It’s not going to last very long,” Martin shouted. “If you’re serious about this, now is your only chance.”
Carter shook Martin’s hand, then pulled him in for a back-slapping hug. “You’ll explain this, right?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Carter turned to Rachel and offered a hand. She looked at it, then up at him. “Save it till we’ve finished the job,” she said, then took a deep breath and ran toward the energy globe. Her body hit it without an impact, and disappeared.
With one last look at what he was leaving behind, Carter followed her into the unknown.