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The Ten Seconds of Non-existence

Prologue

Time, a concept so well known but, still, so deviously inconceivable, is all around us: behind us in the past, around us at present and ahead of us in the mists of the future. Man has developed means to measure time a way that suits him best and this method has stabilized its status in the minutes and hours man so intensely follows. But because man knows time the way he does, doesn't mean its the only - or even correct - way of dealing with it. Maybe somewhere or, sometime, there is a being who has a whole different point of view to the phenomenon man has baptized 'time'. Why call time linear, exact or even measurable when all man knows of it is the small part of its flow he's in. Does a germ conceive the concept of 'Man', while flowing in his veins or can a fish in a river understand the wholeness of an ocean? Hardly. So how could man have complete knowledge of time, while he's but one of the germs in its veins himself? The following short story offers one approach in the form of a fictional incident that just might take place in the great vastness of space...

---

Stellar charter Tiny was on its way back to Marinea after a routine flight. Its memory banks were once again filled with the data from a couple of barren planets, a dying sun and hundreds of asteroids. As usual, Tiny's crew were sleeping their icy dreams in the ship's cryochambers. The crew had been awake for two weeks, controlling the data scavenging and now, as their work had been done, they were encased in ice, sleeping the way back home - which was still over a week away.

There had once lived an alien civilization, occupying the area Tiny was charting. The race had never had a name and they lived on another level of existence, in another realm or dimension, if that explains it best. Their knowledge of technology was, by far, superior to that of human's. They could move through space without physical movement, by bending the very structures of space itself, and they had created portals between the two dimensions. Rare were the times when this species came through the portals and entered the universe we know. Unaware of everything, Tiny with it's crew, was slowly floating towards one of these portals.

There was a small flash in the still dimness of Tiny's control bridge as the main computer came to life. It had detected something it couldn't identify. All subsidiary units were immediately at full power, gathering all the data they were able to of the strange phenomenon. The main unit was but confused. Its sensors were picking up a strange source of energy that had suddenly appeared right in front of the ship. There was no visible or in any other way sensible reason to its sudden appearance. The main unit made a request to the other units to leave their routine operations and use all resources to study this source of energy. The only operation that was left with some resources was life support; everything else was under the main unit's strict control. There was just one little detail that the fuzzy logic of the main unit accidentally ignored as it took control of the secondary operation resources: Tiny was headed directly at the energy source, moving at a constant speed and, navigation had lost all resources. Normally, the navigation unit took care of avoiding obstacles and navigating safely through space but, as the navigation unit had not detected any kind of a solid mass the ship might collide with and had surrendered all its resources to the main unit, there was no way to turn or stop the ship; Tiny was going to pass through the portal.

---

A deafening noise filled the surveillance room at the Marinean Space Station as they lost all contacts to Tiny and it simply vanished from all screens in a shorter time than one can blink an eye. That is, in a lot shorter time than one can blink the eye twice. There was no sensible reason for Tiny's disappearance, since the area was supposed to be clear for at least the next two months. Nobody had reported any wandering asteroid clouds, radiation storms or anything. There had been no calls for help and the only thing indicating something was happening to Tiny was that primary computer activity level had risen from the normal 10% up to 98% which was not only extreme, but also against all company regulations.

Immediately after Tiny had passed through the portal all computer units went dead. The navigation unit was the first one to collapse. It wasn't programmed to handle a situation like the current one: a total change in the structure of the universe. Then, while trying to restart the navigation unit, the main unit assigned navigation to another unit. That one collapsed immediately after starting to compare the programmed starmap with the one detected. The main unit, while still working on the navigation unit, also had to restart the second unit and yet another unit was assigned to navigation. This resulted in a chain reaction the result of which was that all subsidiary units were down and the main unit collapsed under the massive stress of trying to restart all the other units simultaneously while analyzing the data the ship's scanners were feeding it. In less than a second after passing through the portal, Tiny was completely helpless. Or at least very close to that. There was one single unit that hadn't collapsed for it wasn't normally active; designers had insisted on including a reserve unit in every ship, in case something would cause a total system crash (the probability of which was calculated to be so diminishingly small that the Marinean Board of Scientists had started a new brand of mathematics, just to figure out whether or not there were any non-zero digits in the figure at all). The reserve unit became active with only one goal: to restart the main unit.

After a while both the main unit and the reserve unit had together restarted all the other units and, at the instant the last unit activated, the reserve unit inactivated itself waiting to be needed again. This time, the main unit was prepared and, instead of comparing the preprogrammed starmap with the one detected, it simply disabled the existing starmap from being used.

The main unit was only allowed to wake the crew in a situation where the ship would be endangered without human control or, when there was a situation so out-of-ordinary the computer units couldn't handle it alone. It decided that the current situation was of the latter type and started defreezing the cryochambers, while the other units were gathering as much data of the new surroundings as they possibly could.

Captain Mike Margand was the first one to be defrosted, with the next few in rank being the security chief officer Ryche Nebulae, commanding science officer Cathie Dawn and the navigator Damius Hart. Rest of the crew remained frozen for they were not really needed at the moment and, defreezing a cryochamber and then freezing it again wasn't exactly energy sparing so, doing that to the whole crew of 1,200 individuals would simply have been mindless waste of energy.

Ten minutes later Mike rose to a seated position with the worst possible cryo-illness he had ever had. His head felt like as if someone was pounding it with a twenty pound power hammer. After a while he stood up and went to the food processor to get something to eat. In the meanwhile the rest of the four were slowly beginning to regain consciousness. After another ten minutes Ryche, Cathie and Damius sat around a table and ate.

  "This must be urgent", Cathie broke the silence, "or we wouldn't have been
defrosted this quickly."

  "Suppose so." Damius responded. "It'd better be 'cause if this is a
false alarm, I'm gonna smash that computer. Oow, this headache is killing me."

  "Yeah yeah, the feeling of being run over by a bulldozer is one of the
side-effects of being defrosted quickly. In our case the computer ran the
defreeze sequence all the way through in only six minutes. That is one and a one
half minutes below the allowed minimum. Had the sequence been but one half minute
faster and we would've all died due to cellular breakdown." Cathie told knowingly.
The captain had walked in during Cathie's lecture on cryogenics. He was as pale as
a ghost.

  "When you have finished your meal, please come with me. Our situation is
critical enough to justify all means the computer has used. Or worse, if
in any way possible."

A sudden silence filled the room. Everybody turned to look at the captain who had a very frightened expression on his face.

  "W-why, what do you mean, sir?" Cathie asked, clearly distressed.

  "The situation is this: I don't have a clue where we are. Nor does the
computer." Mike kept a brief pause before he continued. "According to what
IS known at the moment is that we are definitely not in our galaxy or even
anywhere near the borders of known space. Do not ask me how that happened,
I do not know. The only sensible thing I got out of the computer logs is
that all units were working with absolutely all resources under main
unit's command and that the main unit was studying some... strange energy
source. In addition, ship's computers have undergone a 100% total system
crash."

  "That's not possible, sir, no way!" Ryche yowled.

  "Well, go tell that to the computer logs", Mike said sarcastically.

Even more complete a silence conquered the room as everyone stared at the captain with their mouths and eyes wide open. For a long time they just looked at each other not knowing what to do or say. Suddenly they felt the weight of their ship on their shoulders and the air they breathed seemed to turn into a noxious fume. Growing horror was overpowering them.

 "H-h-how can that b-be? What's happened to us?" Damius finally stuttered
unbelievingly.

At that instant they all started talking, presenting hypotheses and trying to come up with some kind of sensible solution but, only making a lot of noise with their babbling.

---

  "Computer. Show us the energy source on screen." Cathie commanded.

Screen flashed and there it was, right behind them, the portal. It was perfectly round and within it strange patterns slid across the surface. All colours of the spectrum were visible and the portal vaguely resembled a lens. Cathie was astonished by its unhuman beauty.

  "Computer. Initiate full surface scan, electromagnetic scan and,
calculate approximate mass, size and construction. Resource allocation
maximum."

  "Surface scan impossible. Reason: no physical surface. Electromagnetic
scan shows intense radiation levels on all measurable frequencies. With 94.3%
probability the radiation levels are high even outside scanner limits. No
calculable mass. Reason: surface construction unknown. Radius 125m. Target is a
stable, fluctuating concentration of highly energetic radiation. The pattern of
the radiation vibration changes every 58 seconds. Conclusion: Subject not of
human origin."

  "Not of human origin?" Ryche repeated. "What is that supposed to mean?"

  "Exactly what the computer said", Cathie answered.

  "What if it's just some temporal distortion or something?" Mike
suggested.

  "Negative, sir." Cathie replied. "That thing can not be just some space
interference or a random anomaly. I say it was made on purpose."

  "So you're telling us that it's some sort of alien state-of-the-art piece of...
something, whatever?" Ryche was rather suspicious.

  "Yes. I say that thing was made by some so far unknown race", she
continued. "I mean, look at it! A perfectly round, permanent energy-vibrating...
thing... right in the middle of nowhere - nowhere to us, that is. I'll bet my
two weeks salary on that the thing is some sort of transporter or something that
takes ships from one place to another. I'll bet that the time of the system crash
matches with the time we would have flown through that... that 'hole'."

  Says Mike with sudden eagerness: "That's a lot of assumptions, Cathie. What are
your suggestions?"

  "I say we turn this ship around and fly through it again." Cathie said firmly.

  "No way, sir! That is too dangerous!" Ryche howled. "We can't risk the
whole ship on the basis of some hypothetical assumptions. We can go closer
to that 'hole' and study it but, we're not going to fly through it. Period."

Cathie was forced to admit it was much better to try and find out as much of the recent events and their connections with the portal than to boldly go where no one had gone before. Pushing their luck any further just didn't sound like a very wise decision at the moment.

---

Cathie stood by the screen staring at the portal's ever-changing patterns as they slid across it. She was even more thrilled by it's beauty now, as she could see the complexity of the patterns in closer detail. Damius literally ran to her, gasping for breath. He glanced at the screen and said:

"Cathie, this must all be very exciting to you but, this you are never
going to believe! Computer, put coordinates 248:12, 136:78 on screen with image
enhancing and magnifying factor fifty."

The screen went nearly blank excluding the light spots of the distant suns. Then, in the center there was the tiniest dark blur that was slowly moving. As the computer enhanced and magnified the image, Cathie suddenly felt her knees fail.

In the middle of the screen there was a spaceship, moving directly at their direction.

  "Computer, identify ship", Damius commanded.

  "Identification not possible due to missing information. Ship not of
human origin." Came the answer.

  "Wha...", Cathie collapsed. She couldn't believe what she had just heard.

  "What...", she felt completely unable to form words.

  "So it's true, then?" She finally got out. She felt rather dizzy as
Damius helped her up from the seat. "What do we know of this ship?"

  "Absolutely nothing", Damius answered. "We can't run any scans yet for
the ship is still some tenth of a light year away but, we will run every
possible scan as soon as we are able to. Oh, we do know that the ship is
more than thirty times larger than Tiny is and, also, that they seem to be hailing
us."

  "What?!? hailing? Why didn't you tell that right away?"

Within seconds Cathie was on the bridge keeping a keen eye on the communication monitors. The alien transmission didn't, naturally, follow any human patterns and, most of it Cathie couldn't understand. She was, however, able to separate some parts of the transmission that seemed to have similarities with those of human transmissions. Damius sat next to Cathie working on the translation unit trying to make the language itself sensible, while Cathie tried to separate the different parts of the transmission from the cosmic noise for the signal was yet very weak. At the same time Mike and Ryche were scanning the alien ship, saving every bit of information they could gather. The ships memory banks were completely erased excluding data that had anything to do with the portal, the new universe or the alien ship.

  "You do realize that this encounter is the first of a kind, don't you?"
Ryche reminded. "Thus, we are going to have to do all we can not to wake
any suspicions or hostilities. If we fail, it could be the whole human
race that's going to suffer, not just us."

  "Hey, aren't you a little pessimistic there?" Damius asked.

  "No, I'm just cautious. I was trained to be that way, to think of the
worst possible outcome first. It's the security officer's job, remember?"

  "And Ryche is absolutely right." Mike added. "We can't afford to fail now.
We must be very careful."

  Said Mike: "Alright, then. Ryche, keep the weapons operative but
disarmed and raise the shields. Ryche, bring me the latest scan results
and you, Cathie, bring me the latest translator reports."

---

  "Fine. No signs of any hostile activity, their weapons seem not to be armed and
they are still moving at a constant speed. They will enter our weapon range
within two minutes." Mike read the reports out loud. "According to what we
have been able to translate, it would seem that they are greeting us." All interest
towards the portal had vanished as the alien ship got closer; even the
computers turned their attention towards the alien ship on their own will.

  "So far everything is going fine. Let's just keep calm and wait."

A whole galaxy could have exploded right next to Tiny without anyone noticing it for the next two minutes.

A bright, strobing light flashed a couple of times at the instant the alien ship entered Tiny's weapon range. Red lights flashed inside Tiny and the chaotic beeping of an alarm started its concerto.

  "What the hell happened? Report!" Mike commanded.

  "Weapons and shields are all disabled, sir", Damius shouted.

  "Engine power drained to zero, reactors not responding. I even tried manual
override but it doesn't work!", he added.

  "Computer. Status report." Mike commanded again.

  "Engine: disabled, weapons: disabled, shield generator: disabled, life
support: functional, cryo-operations: functional, main power: 100%", came
the instant answer. "Captain, my databases are being scanned remotely", the main
unit continued.

  "Can you stop them?" Mike asked.

  "All security functions have been disabled. I can not stop them."

  "So, they have secured their safety if I understand correctly", Mike
said. "We're like a sitting duck, now. Cathie, what are they doing?"

  "Nothing, sir. The alien vessel has matched its velocity and course with ours
and they are currently doing nothing."

  "Not true", came the sudden, trembling voice of Ryche. "Scanners just detected
distortions on strange frequencies inside the ship. They are sending people down
here."

  "Alright, everybody to the bridge and at this instant!", Mike ordered.

  "If they are coming here, we'd better be together just in case they'll
open hostilities."

  "Couldn't we get them on screen?" Cathie asked. "We have surveillance
equipment everywhere aboard this ship."

  "Of course, why didn't I think of that right away", Mike wondered, half to himself.

  "Computer, locate the aliens and get them on screen."

  "Captain, my scanners detect no other life signs aboard than yours. There are no
aliens on board", it said after a short while.

  "Oh, yes there are!" Ryche interrupted. "Something just entered the cryogenics
compartment."

  "Cryogenics? What in the world are they doing there?"

  "It would seem they are studying the chambers, captain", Ryche continued.

  "Computer. Cryogenics on screen. Now!" Mike commanded.

The main screen flashed as the camera in cryo compartment came into life. Bridge crew stared at the screen in intense excitement, trying to spot the aliens.

  "Where are they?" Mike asked demandingly in growing frustration.

  "They must be using some sort of highly advanced visual detection shields
or something. I cannot even find them with the proximity scanner", Cathie
answered.

  "All there is is a small increase of radiation in the compartment", she
added.

  "Visual detection shields?", Ryche asked.

  "Yes. We were told about them in the academy. It's kind of a suit that collects
all radiation reflecting from a person's body into a spot-like beam and then
releases it in a tight beam. The only way to see a person wearing a VDS suit is to
be in the direction the beam goes in which, usually, is right down. In
zero-g the direction usually changes constantly.

  "Then how come the proximity scanner can't find them?" Damius asked
wondering. "Shouldn't it be looking for some whatchimacallit changes in
something?"

  "Yes. The proximity scanner looks for changes in air density, movement and
temperature. When they breathe, move, or even when their hearts pound, it can be
seen on the display", Cathie lectured.

  "So, where are the readings? Where are they?"

  "I have no idea. The scanner is as blank as my supply of ideas."

  "Captain, the aliens are trying to open an active cryochamber!" Cathie
suddenly shouted. "If they succeed they'll kill the person inside!"

  "Computer, activate cryochamber emergency sealing!" Mike reacted
instantly.

  "Cryochambers sealed, captain", computer replied.

  "Captain, the alien ship is hailing us again", Damius said almost as soon
as the cryochambers had been sealed.

  "Open channel."

  "Channel open, sir."

---

At first there was nothing but the hiss of cosmic radiation. Then, a silent creaking slowly started to louden. Finally the sound was at about speaking level and it sounded like a hundred people speaking at the same time. There were words, too incoherent to quite make out but, still, words. Suddenly the sound stopped and there was a moment's silence. Then, as soon as it stopped, it began again but this time the sound was different. There was only one voice that was crackling and creaking but it spoke with completely clear wording.

  "You must be humans", it said. "We knew one day you would come. It was
inevitable." A short pause then, "So, you have evolved. Indeed have you
grown up. We are proud."

  "Who... who are you?" Mike muttered, stunned as he was.

  "We? There are no words in your language to reveal to you who we are. We are
what we are. We are... us. You are humans. Be proud."

  "What is it that you want of us?" Mike asked with more determination in his
voice.

  "We are curious. We want to know you. You are a strange species. We are
a strange species, but we know us. We do not know you. We wish to know."

  "I must ask you to get your crew back. They are doing something that could
potentially kill members of my crew."

  "How do you know we are on your ship? Indeed are you a strange species.
We see us not. How is it you see us?"

  "That is minor detail right now. Just take your crew back, please."

  "We will leave the breeding area, as you wish. We wish no harm on you. We want
to see you. Tell us where you are and we will come see you. Fear not. We are
friendly."

  "Breeding area?" Cathie repeated silently. "They think we reproduce that
way?"

  "What do you think? Should they be allowed to enter the bridge?" Mike
asked after muting the audio.

  "Well they do seem to be more defensive than offensive. They shut down
our weapons, shields and engines but they didn't touch anything else on
the ship. And, they move in VDS suits or something that closely resembles
them. I think we are safe." Cathie lectured.

  "Safe? What are you, nuts?" Ryche exclaimed violently. "Some alien
freaks capture our ship in whatever kingdom come we may be in, totally
cripple our defenses and you say we are safe! Captain, do not tell them
our location!"

  "Don't be a fool, Ryche", Cathie complained. "Don't you think they would've
blasted us to shreds by now if they wanted to hurt us? Don't you think they can
find us just as easily anyway if they really want to? They have not presented a
single threatening action towards us so far, why would they start now?"

  "Not a single threatening action, you say? How about they almost
killed a member of our crew? Wouldn't you call that threatening?"

  "That must've been an accident. You said yourself they seemed to be studying the
chambers, remember? And, they did leave cryogenics alone immediately after
we sealed them, didn't they?"

  "So? What difference does that make whether they left the chambers alone
or not? It doesn't prove them benevolent, does it?"

  "No, but why would have they done so were their intentions hostile?"

  "Well, because... oh, damn it, you're hopeless, Cathie" Ryche conceded.

  "Have the two of you finished arguing?" Mike asked with sarcasm in his voice.

  "Suppose so", Ryche said from under his breath.

  "Alright then, do the rest of you agree with Cathie?" Mike asked and
looked at the others. Everyone nodded. "Fine. Let's just be cautious,
then." Mike turned to the microphone and enabled the audio.

  "Very well, then. We will let you to the bridge if you agree to come here
visible; we also want to see you."

  "That is not something we can do. We are not able to make us visible."

  "What do you mean? Why not?" Mike asked with a sudden burst of suspicion
in his voice.

  "We are not here as you are; our bodies are not along us in this ship you have.
It is only our awareness and thoughts that travel."

  "Unbelievable!" Damius gasped quietly. "How far in the development of
technology can they be? Purely mental travelling!"

  "What do you say, technology? I'd say psychology", Cathie corrected.

  "Where do they need the ship if they are travelling without physical
form?" Ryche suddenly realized.

  "Hmm, valid point", Mike noted.

  "What do you need that ship for if you are not travelling physically?"
Mike asked to the microphone.

  "We are not able to move very far from our bodies - our capacity to travel is,
as yet, limited. The bodies must move with us."

  "Then, return to your bodies and come here physically and we will allow
you entrance to the bridge."

  "That seems not safe to us. We prefer to be here this way. Trust us."

  "You come in here physically and visible or you don't come here at all", Mike
answered, for the first feeling like they had the upper hand.

  "We wish no harm upon you. We are... 'afraid' we believe the term is."

  "That makes no difference", Mike said. "I apologize if I sound rude but
I'm in charge of this ship's crew and I must act accordingly."

  "You make this situation a difficult one for us. We wish no harm upon you and
we are curious. Yet, you have advanced much sooner than we thought you would and it
is so little we know of you and the habits of your like. That makes us afraid. It
is no distrust we have here but  a... precaution you might say. We wish
no harm upon ourselves either."

  "How could we harm you when you have disabled all weaponry on our ship?"
Cathie asked wonderingly.

  "All weaponry on your ship? We think not. It is only energy weapons we can
control not mechanical ones. We can prevent your laser from operating but we can
not stop a projectile from firing out of a weapon that works on the basis of
rapid expansion of burning gasses. We have advanced far in technology and we
exploit the laws of what you call physics but, still, we are not the makers or the
masters of them."

  "Rapid expansion of gasses? When was it you last visited human universe?
We have abandoned the use of gunpowder operated weapons some one half
millennium ago" Cathie asked.

  "Has it really been that far? We do not measure your time in the human
way and sometimes it happens that we go further away than we planned."

  "Further away? What do you mean?"

  "It is the way we understand what you call time: as an ultimately complex
ribbon entangling the physical existence all around. We found another
very interesting branch in the ribbon and were led further away from your
branch than we had initially planned."

  "You move freely in time, then?" Cathie asked with suspicion in her
voice.

  "In human terms, yes", came the instant answer.

  After a moment's silence the alien continued: "It has been but
interesting talking to you. We have obtained more from your minds and your
spacecraft than we dared hope for. We thank you for this. Now we must go. We are
sorry but you must not go back to your friends and tell about us."

  "Wh-wh-what are they saying? What's that supposed to mean?" said Damius
anxiously.

  "We are sorry. You must forget. Your computer must also forget. We are proud we
found you. Be proud. We will come visit your world when we will return on your
ribbon again. Now, goodbye humans. Thank you."

After those words there was a brief silence. Then, a silent humming or, more like a low whistling started to sound. Before anyone could protest to the aliens' sudden departure they felt as if they had to concentrate on the sound. Slowly, it gained volume and, somehow the sound seemed to become more material, as if it was evolving into physical form. It filled the ships corridors with its pressuring intenseness. Tiny's crew could feel the sound rather than hear it; they felt their muscles go limp and all four fell on the floor, unable to do anything but to listen and feel the hypnotic pattern evolving in the sound. Still the sound gained volume and also its pitch started to rise. In a few moments it turned into a high, ear-shattering whistle.

Suddenly it stopped and the world went black.

Continued in The Ten Seconds of Non-existence, part 2.


© 1997, 2002 Petteri Lyytinen. All rights reserved.

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