Systematic Destiny (Part 6)

This story is part 5 of our series inspired by our conversation with Dr. Joel Green of the Space Telescope Science Institute and set in the sci-fi universe of Civilization: Beyond Earth. For part 5 of the story, click here.

The heat-haze blurs the shape of lizards as they retreat to the cracks in the wall where they will spend the mid-day. Above me circle the vultures, looking down on the Instut as they always have, as they always will, on this circle of sterile, scarred concrete. I push the trolley into the middle of the forecourt and gently unfold the PV panels in the way my father-brother taught me, and begin the count.

“You must say the names of the first twelve systems,” Father-brother said. “That gives the batteries enough time to charge.”

I park the trolley, raise my morning tea, and salute the plains beyond: “Alpha Centauri Bb. Kepler 438b. Kepler 296e. Golf Juliet 667Cc… “

When I was younger, I could hear the whine of the battery charging.

“Kepler 442blessed. Kepler 62e. Golf Juliet 832c…”

I have not heard the whine for many years, but I take it on faith that it still happens. Usually the batteries manage to boot the Indexer, and then I wheel it back to the observatory to get a few hours of time synced to whatever telescope might be working that day. Last week, the Indexer recorded a new entry, so the work is not entirely futile.

“Epic 2013 June d, Spitzer 728blessed…”

The father-brothers will welcome me in due time, because I kept the charge. The Aunts tell me they are close to creating my son-brother. It is incumbent on them to complete their charge before I die. They still have some time, so their work is not futile, either.

It is important to have faith, and to remain devoted to the work, I believe.

“Koi 4427b, Webb 909c…”

There is a whine. This is not the whine of the batteries charging. It is not an animal, or a vehicle, or a sensory aberration. The sound is coming up through the ground, through my bones. I can feel it in my teeth and my sinuses. The dust of the forecourt dances before rising into tiny whirlwinds. The tea in the cup forms standing waves.

The air above the plain shimmers, and then the sky opens up. There is light, and a blast of wind, and the smell of ozone, the fleeting sense of an object of infinitesimal size rushing towards the Instut and blossoming into endlessness. A hole appears in air above the plain, a discontinuous continuity, the avatar of a tesseract.

The edges of the hole are the most beautiful thing I have seen, all light and motion, more turbulent than heat-haze, more reflective than mercury mirrors. The whine is now a drone, its lowest resonances visible in the dance of dust.

I know what this hole is. This is a cave connecting two points of the universe. Father-brother described it once, long ago, and now it is made real before my eyes.

There is someone coming towards me through the cave. The edges of the hole are turbulent, chaotic, hypnotic, but they are not as hypnotic as the steady pace of the person approaching. I think it is a woman. She is taller than I am. Her pace is measured and steady. She is clad in an environmental suit, and her helmet obscures her features, but she is tall and lithe and fearless, and she has seen me.

This woman exudes power and the confidence of the strong, and fear is rising within me. The Instut has never been strong. We survive on the sufferance of the forces that vie in the world around us. Our little Instut is too poor, too strange, and too old to be a prize. We make the work available to any who ask, although who now wants the names and locations of habitable exoplanets?

Who is she? Where does she come from? These are important questions, questions that the father-brothers would want me to ask, I am sure. But right now, they are academic matters. The question pounding out in my pulse is: Will you do me harm, stranger? One who can make a hole in the universe has strength to spare.

She stops, a dozen paces away, and she raises her right hand. She says a brief sentence that I don’t comprehend, pauses, and repeats it more slowly, her articulation precise.

What to reply? My mind returns to the well-worn ruts of ritual, and I begin the daily chant again. “Alpha Centarui Bb,” I mutter, and her head locks.

“Rhigil Khantarus,” she says. The old synonym, a name used rarely. She points to the ground beneath her feet, says two syllables, hard and spare. She turns her body towards the wormhole, points with her whole hand, gesturing. “Rhigil Khantarus.”

I fall to my knees, the teacup crashing to the ground. “Woman-distant-sister!” I call to her. “Have you come back to us? What do you bring?”

But she has no interest in what I am saying. She is gesturing towards the wormhole, her hands guiding immense machines that are now broaching that doorway, monoliths of metal that throb and hover, and unfold limbs to land on the plain. More of them by the moment, now people moving with purpose and precision, some with weapons.

First Father! I have kept your charge! We son-brothers saved humanity, guiding it as it Seeded distant worlds! But who is this returning?