The Book of Nathan

“What can you make of this?” The woman pushed the image across Nathan Shipley’s desk. Her soap-scrubbed scent contrasted with his unwashed odor and the mildew of the basement office. Nathan slipped his wire-rimmed spectacles back past his long hair and around his ears, then glanced down at the image. It was a single ideogram retouched to obscure its background, possibly a rubbing from a monument or headstone.

“Can you give me a little context? Where was this taken?” Nathan looked into the woman’s expressionless face. She appeared to be in her early thirties and in excellent physical shape, certainly not an academic. Military, he guessed, although she and the two large men with her wore gray business suits rather than uniforms.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Shipley,” she said. “I’m not permitted to reveal the location. Can you give me anything at all?”

“I’d guess it’s early Mycenaean, a predecessor to Linear A. But you knew that or you wouldn’t have come to me. Did it come off a building, a clay tablet, perhaps a pottery shard? With some context, I might venture an interpretation.”

“You could translate it?” Her eyes suddenly locked on his.

“With a wider sampling, most assuredly.” He feigned confidence, hoping he would get a chance to try. He touched the image. “This ideogram indicates time—the side marks are qualifiers.” The woman leaned in, eyebrows raised. “The leading qualifier negates prior time, the trailing one negates anything coming after.”

“Nothing before and nothing after?” The woman’s pressed palms almost clapped. “Alpha and omega?”

Nathan nodded. “Or infinity. If this came from a palace or a courthouse, it might symbolize final authority.” He scratched behind his hair-thatched ear. “On a tomb, it might indicate that time had lost all meaning.”

“Thank you, Dr. Shipley.” The woman pushed back her chair to stand. Thinking she was leaving, Nathan stood to see her off.

“We need you to come with us, Dr. Shipley.” She waved her two friends forward and whispered to them.

“I should be able to…” The woman grabbed his coat as the two men rushed him out to the waiting limousine. “Wait, my work…” Nathan protested.

 

Four months later, Nathan found himself on the observation deck of a Global Space Agency research lab far out in space.

“You brought me up here for this?” he asked, staring at the massive, metallic-glass sphere beside the lab. When GSA found it in Earth’s orbit three years earlier, they had keep it a secret—its location, hidden behind the far side of the sun, raised too many questions.

“What do you expect me to tell you?” Nathan asked, raising both hands, palms up. Beside him stood the woman who had kidnapped and accompanied him on the long trip to the space station.

“What it is … How to get inside,” she said, pointing to the sphere. “We’re at a standstill. You know how much money, how many scientists, how many crazy ideas are kicking around?” She looked at Nathan, her face contorted. “We’ve tried blasting, cutting, drilling—not even a dent. The thing just wobbles a bit and heals, like some indestructible bubble. We can’t even do a spectral analysis. We have no idea what sort of technology we are dealing with.”

“I suppose you tried going in the front door?” Nathan asked, tilting his head toward the sphere’s ornately embossed, other-century-style gateway.

“A field appears and blocks the way whenever we approach. Other than that, we’ve found no defenses and have gotten no reactions. Remember the symbol I showed you in your office?”

“The infinity ideograph?”Slide1

“It’s on the panel beside the gateway. You said you wanted context, a wider sampling. We think the panel might be interactive.”

“That’s it?” Nathan asked. “You want me to just walk up and say ‘hi.’” She nodded, lifting her eyebrows sheepishly and smiling.

Sixty minutes later, suited up for a spacewalk, Nathan hooked onto the cable-rail along the two-meter-wide platform connecting the GSA lab to the sphere.

As he approached, a field of white bloomed in the gateway, fluttering like wings of light. Then a clay-tablet-like panel emerged with the impression of the ideograph.

“Infinity,” Nathan murmured as he traced the panel’s symbol with his gloved finger. Another ideograph replaced the first, Who? Beneath it, Nathan clumsily traced an ideograph in the clay for “name” then the numeral six. The sixth day. The wings of light fluttered down. He entered the sphere.

The interior was bright. Gravity pulled Nathan’s feet onto a flat deck covered with living grass. The dome above displayed sunrise in a morning sky filled with drifting, puffy clouds, and a flock of birds, geese, honking like those he had seen as a boy, camping with his uncle up north. A stream-fed pond at the far side of a flowery meadow was nestled among trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Beyond them, hills rolled back to the horizon. Whitetail deer grazed nearby, lifting and lowering their heads.

“You have served your time, child of the sixth day, and may return,” a warm voice said. Nathan looked around for the source but saw no one. The fluttering white field again blocked the gateway. Longing to taste and feel the air, he removed his helmet and took a deep breath.

“Return to where? Where am I?” Nathan asked, feeling the sun warm his face and a breeze rustle his long hair.

“I prepared a special place for you, one with many rooms,” answered the voice.

“Is this a game or for real?” Everything felt, looked, and smelled Earth-like: gravity, atmosphere and terrain, plants and animals, the stream and clouds. More idyllic than Earth-like, Nathan thought as a hummingbird landed on his arm.

“I reach you where you are,” said the voice, “with what your mind is able to grasp. Your technical culture recoils from scrolls and clay tablets, anything not reducible to mathematical code, anything connected to your past. In growing, you have become uprooted. That is why I sent for you, Nathan Shipley.”

“You sent for me?” A chill shot up Nathan’s spine.

“By contacting your culture in the manner I did, I compelled scientists to seek you out and to ask the questions they have long forgotten. I created their paths for discovery long ago, in the stones, in the stars, and life itself—all things great and small. Yet those who followed my well-marked paths took credit only unto themselves, boastfully dismissing questions that would bring deeper understanding.”

“Why me?”

“You seek meaning in all things, not just the arrow pointing to the next arrow further up the path—the arrows I set. Your culture seeks the arrows only so its quiver might be filled.”

“I am just a collector and student of artifacts and ancient wisdom.”

“You are the one who will carry my message to my people,” the voice said softly. Nathan swallowed hard, feeling small and very frightened. The voice continued, “I will come again soon with a greater reality. It is a reality many will fear, for it will come upon them like a storm upon the sea. Others will embrace it. The wind will fill their sails and carry them forward. You must go and tell my people.”

Nathan trembled uncontrollably. “It is too much. I am weak and unworthy.”

“Two gifts I give you, fruit from each of my great trees.” A figure of light came forward with a tray bearing two star-like fruit: one green, one golden.

Nathan started. “But it is forbidden to—”

“Soon all may taste this fruit. They are for your mission.” The figure of light held out the tray and Nathan consumed the fruit. “Now go and tell my people.”

Light dimmed as the sun set beyond the hills. Other lights along the path directed him back to the gateway. The fluttering white field parted like a curtain. He found himself outside on the platform with his helmet in place.

Upon returning, Nathan was surrounded by scientists, engineers, and executives in the GSA main conference room. He had met and spoken with aliens—scientists refused to consider any other explanation. The medical staff found no damage from what the aliens had fed him; indeed, his health was extraordinary. The alien message that Nathan delivered threatened some and cheered others, just as the voice had told him. Most attributed it to post-trauma stress and delusion.

Nathan felt only calm. Cleverly worded legal documents he understood at a glance—even without his glasses, which he no longer required. He knew the tests scientists gave him were intended to twist the message he’d been given.

The next morning, a team prepared to re-enter the sphere. As they approached, the sphere vanished. Everyone at GSA seemed surprised, except Nathan. They decided to wait for its return. Hadn’t the message said, “I will come again?”

Nathan hid a smile. His new discernment told him the return would not be to the far side of the sun. “I must tell your people,” he murmured, remembering the voice and sensing the warm sun on his face.

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And To All A Good Night

Jamaal’s projection popped up in the middle of his family’s media room. He wore a Global Space Agency tank top with the GSA logo stretched across his left pectoral. Though his wide brown eyes looked tired and his gaunt cheeks spouted scruffy corkscrew hairs, he was all smiles. The wall behind him bore the words, ‘Callisto Command Center, C3’, arched over a picture of Jupiter and a confusion of dials, gauges, monitors, and switches.

“Hi Mom and Dad, and Merry Christmas.” His eyes sparkled as he revealed what they both knew already. “Yup, I did it. Your runaway son is alive and well, and is spending his Christmas alone on Callisto. ALONE. Whew, and lonely.” He cocked his head and let his tongue loll from his open mouth. “I still have three Christmases to go before I can come back.” He scratched the hairs on his chin. “Sorry, I won’t be graduating this year like I told you. I only took enough classes at Stanford to qualify for the Jupiter mission. You wanted an engineer. Instead you got a glorified service station attendant.” He shook his head and shrugged.

callisto
Callisto – Home for four years.

“Been here a week, so I’m still settling in. This far out, the sun’s just a really bright star. Jupiter looks about twice the size of the moon, and it stays in the same place, just above the horizon. Gravity is one-eighth of Earth’s, but that feels heavy after two years in zero G traveling here. I should’ve taken the Cal-Pro meds like the doc said … I wouldn’t have lost so much muscle.

“I know December is cold in Saginaw, but if you get Kryn to set up my old telescope, she can show you, Coraleen, Raymond, and the grandkids where I am. Once you find Jupiter, Callisto is the fourth moon, the third out to the right if you look tonight.

“It’s cold up here too, minus 140 degrees centigrade. And I will have a white Christmas—Callisto is covered in an ice crust.” Jamaal turned in his seat and pointed to a robot tilted back into a recharge station.

“That’s Leroy. He’s my only buddy. Does most of the work outside. You remember Leroy from Elon Musk High School. I pasted his prom picture on the robot’s dashboard and loaded Leroy’s voice into the robot’s synthesizer. Did I say I was lonely?” He scratched his chin again and bit his lower lip.

“I haven’t had any visitors yet, but GSA assures me business will pick up. They have a lot of plans for C3. They want to make this a space dock, repair yard, and refueling station for outbound space missions. The electrolysis plant makes and stores hydrogen for nuclear engines. We’ll make our own repair parts from what we can salvage from space. Up top it looks like a junkyard: old boosters, landing modules, habitats, that sorta stuff. They drop everything here. We even have the entire spacecraft from the last failed deep space mission. Lotsa cool stuff onboard.” He smiled and nodded wide-eyed.

“The additive manufacturing plant will make the replacement parts—some call it a 3-D printer. I’ve played with it some. Tried to use the junk outside for feedstock. That got me into some trouble.” He raised and shook both index fingers.

“Dad, remember when I got that cortical implant so I could run the VR Dragon Lord Empire? You hit the ceiling and said I was wasting my college money.” Jamaal squinted, pursing his lips. “Well, I have to confess. It caused some problems back home, and up here it’s started talking to the C3 main computer.” Jamaal looked down at his lap then back up.

“I was rehearsing a little Christmas show I wanted to do for you and … ahh, the computer tried to help. The security recording just about captures it.” The scene switched to the side of Jamaal’s head nestled into a pillow.

“Ow! Ow! What the f – – -.” In the recording, Jamaal batted at his face and forehead hurling two purple spheres across the room to the far bulkhead.

“Hey, why’d you do that,” the tennis-ball-sized spheres responded together in high matched voices.

“What are you?” Jamaal said, gaping and sitting up in his bunk. “And what are you doing here?”

“You requisitioned sugar plum fairies,” the nearest purple sphere said, blinking its anime eyes.

“Sugar – plum – fairies?” Jamaal squinched up his face.

“Well, sugarplums that dance,” the sphere said. It rocked upright, checked its spindly limbs for damage then pulled up a virtual checklist. “You know, ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.’ Your cyber link failed to specify design parameters for sugarplums. With the Christmas deadline so close, the best we came up with was ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ from The Nutcracker.” Both sugarplums gestured mechanical palms upward. “We didn’t think you wanted actual ballerinas on your head.”

“Hmm,” Jamaal said, arching his eyebrows, “ballerinas on my—oh, oh no, certainly not. But I didn’t order sugarplums either, not dancing or otherwise.” He reached up and pulled a conical hat off his head. “What is this?”

“‘And I in my cap’, one sleeping cap, check,” the plum said, raising a spindly metallic finger. “Well, the order went in … and it came from you, Jamaal Washington,” both sugarplums chimed together.

A terrible racket suddenly came from above. Jamaal scanned the ceiling and ran out to check the command center. The sugarplums followed.

“… a clatter heard on the roof, check,” one plum said. Then came a sharp staccato rhythm. “… the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.” The plum pivoted toward the hydrothermal heat exchanger bedecked with sweat socks. “Stockings hung by the chimney—or suitable appliance—with care, check.”

“Now what is that sound?” Jamaal said looking confused and exhausted.

“You don’t have a chimney for Santa to come down. The only outside access is through the refuse chute.” Both plums smiled.

Jamaal ran to the bathroom. A red worm slithered out from the toilet, then another worm, then a white one, a black one, several more red ones. They kept coming. As Jamaal watched, the worms collected on the floor, braided together and transformed into a black base of two pillars topped by red then white then more red. The figure kept building and transforming, red fringed with white. It took a human appearance, a short heavyset elderly gentleman with shining eyes and a full beard as white as the snow. Several red worms collect at the top to form a hat. The last black ones formed the stump of a pipe that hooked into the figure’s mouth. Check, said the plums together.

“Hey, now,” Jamaal protested, “I didn’t authorize—” The figure shook its finger and raised it to its mouth for quiet, then it walked directly to the sock-bedizened hydrothermal exchanger. “Excuse me. Can you explain—“

“Jamaal, Jamaal,” the plums interrupted, “your specifications were clear on this. Santa is not enabled for direct verbal communications. ‘He spoke not a word but went straight to his work.’ ‘Not a word’, you said.” Check, said the other plum.

Jamaal clenched his jaw and fists, and watched as the Santa figure stuffed wrapped gifts into his soiled socks. The jolly figure turned to Jamaal, laughed until its belly shook like jelly, and winked. Then it strolled to the bathroom and disassembled into mechanical worms that leaped into the waste disposal and vanished. The two sugarplums jumped in after Santa.

And the scene returned to Jamaal laughing from the desk console in front of the Callisto Command Center. “That’s all I have time for now. The console says there’s an incoming transmission, so I have to sign out.” As Jamaal waved and his image faded, the incoming message came from the C3 speakers.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” Check!

Family Pride

“What do you mean, we look good. You look good.” Jackson pointed to his mental imprint projected across the table. “I wasn’t sure you or Galactic Phoenix survived when CANUS was overrun. I barely escaped, but I kept the GP schedule on the calendar just in case. When Sezuia told me my ‘brother’ had reserved the Shigematsu room, I hoped it was you.”

“We had to keep to the original schedule. The starship’s program is hardwired to update in sixty-eight years.” Jackson’s imprint smiled. “That’s how long it will take my program to catch up with it. The update window’s only open for three days; that’s to keep it from begin hacked.” The imprint cocked its head. “I’ve been training for this for ten years and it still sounds crazy.

“You must be ready to leave,” Jackson said.

“I’ll transmit in ninety minutes.”

“How’d the training go?”

“Great. I can repair tech gear and restore any antique from the last century.”

“Mom and Dad would be proud,” Jackson said.

“It’s strange. Remember how we’d hide whenever Dad needed help with the plumbing or gamma shields?” Jackson nodded. “Never thought that’d be my ticket to the stars. A lot of physicists like me applied, but when they reviewed the flight roster they decided what they really needed was a handyman. That’s how I made the final cut. When I arrive at Galactic Phoenix, I’ll have two years to get the old starship online, fix whatever needs fixing, and keep it running until we land on Skolni. By then GP will be over two hundred years old.” He looked at Jackson. “Unless we discover some sort of FTL drive, this’ll be the last time I see you.”

“If we do, my son’ll meet you on Skolni.”

“We have a son?” The imprint’s face twisted. “Does that make me a father … or an uncle?”

“Not yet, but there’s still time. I’m young and Janet’s young,” Jackson insisted. “Do you miss having a body?”

“Not as much as I thought. I still think about our old cravings: food, gin, women … okay, just Janet. But my ego needs have certainly changed, or maybe the engineers deleted that from my imprint program,” he shrugged. “Fear too, all gone. That’s probably part of not having a biological body.” He looked up. “Speaking of bodies, when we land I will get a robotic humanoid body. That’s another advantage to being the GP’s handyman. The other two scientists’ll have to make do with farming and construction equipment until we can build more humanoid chassis.”

“Sounds like you’re still excited about the mission,” Jackson said.

His imprint locked onto his gaze. “It’s everything to me. All I can think about is getting my family safely to Skolni. I feel like every one of those eight billion embryos and seeds are my children. I love them, all of them, every toad, dog, worm, fish, spider, bird, goat, reptile, all the plants, too,” he rolled both hands out, “and all the humans, of course.”

“Do you know whose genes they selected? That data hasn’t come out.”

“It doesn’t exist anymore,” the imprint said, looking down at the table. “Galactic Phoenix was classified. When we evacuated CANUS, all the records were lost or destroyed.” The imprint glanced down at the table’s embedded clock. “Since human survival demands genetic diversity, we think they sent a cross section of the Oslo Gene Bank.”

“Time to leave?” Jackson asked.

“Almost. I’m happy to be going, but I know I’ll miss everything here on Earth. Send regular updates, particularly about my yet-to-be-conceived son.” He frowned. “I won’t get anything until I reach the starship, but then they’ll keep coming for as long as you send them.

“Will do. I’ll send movies and pictures, too,” Jackson said, tearing up. “Thanks for doing this for us. It’s been our dream since we were boys.”

“Send things for the children, too. Anything you can think of. I’ll have about a million kids to raise, and they’ll all want to know about their Uncle Jackson.” His imprint waved and faded. “Take care of Janet for us.”