"Claustrophobia is the fear of confined spaces. Kenophobia, the fear of voids or empty spaces. The Spacer's dilemma is whether to be claustrophobic or kenophobic." (attributed to Jer Kellenen 2644-2683, asteroid prospector)
Or both, perhaps, and the one would logically cancel out the other, right?
Wrong. They feed upon one another....
This is my domicile: a pod, a planetesimal, a sphere eight metres in diameter, designed to be a comfortable habitat for the solitary Spacer. The southern hemisphere contains the propulsion, life support and service modules, food storage for a reasonably long period. The northern hemisphere is the biosphere, contained by a marvelous dome, optically flawless, a scant two centimetres thick, yet capable of containing or deflecting a Jovian storm.
The dome offers a prevailing sense of openness, but the bubble-ship has a hygiene facility that is not much larger than a casket. The fact that its hatch has a hermetic seal only makes it worse. My hygiene has not been all that good lately....
The Big Void starts immediately beyond the bubble, and it has no boundary. In theory, if the universe is between twelve and thirteen billion years old, and if it originated with an explosion, it would have expanded at lightspeed in all directions, giving us a bubble which is now more than seven billion parsecs across...closer to eight billion. Beyond that, only probability. There, that feels better, having some sort of boundary. Hm. If I start thinking on a scale of billions of parsecs, though, I'll feel claustrophobic again. And search for a broader outer limit. There it is, Dek, one step at a time.
The occupant is a fifth-year Survey Corps cadet. The mission, in simple terms, is: "Get lost. Scout around. Find your way back home. The mission's duration depends upon how long you can stretch a hundred days' provisions. The purpose of this exercise, mister, is total self-sufficiency. You will seal yourself into your bubble and exercise its capabilities. Deal with the isolation; deal with whatever situations you encounter. You may rejoin the human race only after the hundredth day. Extra credit for extra time."
The briefing officer paused. "Historically, almost a fifth of the cadets never return from this mission. There are unknown risks out there, and I must caution you not to travel too far away from the galactic plane."
After another pause, approximately a fifth of the cadets' hands were raised, including my own. The officer anticipated my question: "How far is 'too far'? We don't know.
"What we do know is that deep space tends to be fatal to heros. And the Corps is no place for heros. You are not equipped to deal with unknown forces. Keep that in mind."
So, using the wisdom I accrued during my first four years at the Academy, I departed from the Valles Marineris spaceport. And for the first time in my life, I felt a bit lonely.
* * *
I'm close to four hundred days at this point. I did the obligatory dry-planet survey simulations, and crept about a couple obviously inhabited systems. Meanwhile, though, I pursued my own agenda, driven by my specific aptitude for things psychic and paraphysical. And I lost track of time...at least, of the way time normally flows.
I was nearly finished with my hundred-day tour of the Sagittarius arm and decided to pay a visit to my home planet, which was officially christened 'Nova Pacifica' during my ten-year sojourn to the Terran system. I missed out on the festivities, which included the removal of the planet's monster moon to a wider orbit, and the beginnings of large-scale planetscaping projects. Huge thruster towers were deeply anchored in an equatorial chain, with the goal of slowing the planet's rotation. After two years of this, the Pacifican day was fifteen minutes longer.
I sent my awareness planetside to my clan; they were coping well with the mostly positive changes brought on by the removal of the moon's dire influences. Flora, fauna, and technology were imported from Terra, and the broad tropical belt was on its way to becoming a paradise. Many of the half-billion population of the terran Pacific were eagerly awaiting the opening of these dune-shaped islands for immigration.
Meanwhile, the Terran scholars began a quest to find clues about the origins of my people there. No clues yet.
* * *
I come from a family of psychic adepts, and our skills had traditionally been dedicated to the service of our clan. Survival on our planet in the 'old' days depended largely upon information that was not available to the physical senses; thus the Ka (as we call ourselves) were quite active in seeking both the dangers and the bounties that our ever-changing habitat might thrust at us.
Lunu is my mother, Nuunu my young sister. Working together, the three of us solved the mystery of the Tlicopaloc, the first Terran survey ship to visit our planet. It was I that first encountered the spacers on their ship, and that first meeting changed me forever: I shared memories with the planetologist Alcide Szveni, and the two of us consequently obtained the ability to integrate into one another's cultural matrix. The wealth of ideas I absorbed during that first meld afflicted the young boy that I was with a yearning for an existence that was unchained from a miserable half-flooded dunefield of a planet.
During Szveni's second visit, in person that time, Lunu melded with him, soul and body. She engineered my escape....
I spent the first half of the ensuing decade with Piku. He was Tlicopaloc's captain, an islander, almost completely blinded from a space battle. He was my sponsor and benefactor, and took a leave of absence from the Corps, so that he could show me about the terran Pacific.
My series of melds with Piku during the first year were instrumental in opening his inner eye. I was gratified to note that some people's Ka just needed awakening....
Having thus been compensated for his damaged eyesight, I expected Piku to dash off into space again as a rejuvenated explorer, but he surprised me. He retired to a sparsely populated rock in the Pacific, and traded his spacer's uniform for a lava-lava and coconut oil. He demonstrated his inner vision to the satisfaction of all, and established a living as a Kahuna. I had no reason whatsoever not to follow him, for the time being.
I met other kahunas, brujos, witches, witch doctors, medicine men, seers...I experimented with their herbs and potions, and learned many useful things. There was a concoction of various rare herbs, the effect of which came very close to the venom potion we used at home. I used it to freshen my link with Nuunu.
She was lonely and very unhappy with her life. The moon was in its new safe orbit; Szveni directed the terraforming operation; Lunu and her 'sister' Cinu, who joined our family at the time I departed, embarked together on a much more esoteric Ka journey. Poor Nuunu was marginalised. We decided that she should join me on Terra. I asked Piku; Piku contacted Szveni; within days, Piku and I greeted our friend Szveni and welcomed Nuunu to her new home.
Nuunu and I began our own Ka journey on the rocky island in the Pacific. We achieved a deep strong meld, we learned to hear the other's silent call, we learned the other's silent name. At one point, we left our comatose bodies in Piku's care for a span of days while we sent our larger Ka into the dark vastnesses, to separate to great distances, and dance together again at the speed of thought.
Nuunu and I had grown more closely attuned as we spent those youthful years with Piku, and during my subsequent years at the academy on Mars, we maintained contact. In her time Nuunu would study and qualify for admission to university, choosing anthropology as her major. Needless to say, we were both favoured by an indulgent and influential sponsor, yet we endured the rigorous entrance examinations as every applicant must.
* * *
Our limit of physical separation had yet to be addressed, but throughout my meanderings in the bubble over a range of hundreds of parsecs, my contact with Nuunu remained true. This was significant. The communications system used by the Terrans, employing simultaneous-resonance transcievers, tended to fade beyond twenty parsecs without the benefit of repeater stations. Our native psychic connection apparently ignored the normal physical law of distance.
Since my bubble-ship had range enough to travel across a good portion of the thirty-thousand-parsec-wide galaxy, I thought a little experiment might be in order. I would need uncluttered space for the project I had in mind, so I decided to travel in a direction perpendicular to the galactic disk.
The Chandler drive, the primary deep-space propulsion system, translates its host to a specified position in space. The limit to the length of a single translation, or 'hop', is around ten parsecs, depending upon the stellar density in the intervening space. Prudence dictated short hops, and five-parsec hops are the standard. The longer hops carry proportionate risks of error, the time-axis drift being of particular significance. The galaxy is an awfully lonely place if you're lost.
I would need to travel between three hundred and five hundred parsecs to emerge from the disk. I took small steps to the two-hundrec parsec mark, and stopped to take my bearings.
Looking 'across', I discerned the demarcation between the galaxy's disk and the dark void. The central bulge was clearly visible now, peeking above the misty surface of the disk. It was attended by a loose swarm of globular clusters, shining like fragile foggy diamonds with hard brilliant blue-white cores.
'Above' me was a sparse scattering of stars, betokening the final northern boundary of the spiral arm. I should begin to exercise caution as I approach it. I selected a bright red star near my zenith and moved toward it. As I drew nearer to this low-density giant in a succession of five-parsec hops, I searched the darkness beyond with both my eyes and my Ka.
* * *
I had ample opportunity to exercise my larger awareness in my roaming; I had become adept at shaping my awareness-bubble, and using its boundary as a sense organ, much as a person in a darkened room will do, carefully navigating obstacles by relying upon fingertips and toes for guidance.
I had acquired a sense of scale, and could tune my sphere of awareness to encompass objects and energies within a parsec's radius, or five, or ten. In normal space, with all its clutter at that scale, the exercise is useless. I could identify a single grain of dust, but promptly lose it in the background. I could locate a small energy source, but only fleetingly.
I found that my Ka could manipulate physical matter: on a whim, I sent a long probe into a dust cloud, and was surprised to have left a neat circular hole drilled through it. I spent many weeks exploring this phenomenon during my first hundred days.
I became one with the dynamics of the galactic atmosphere, and spent yet more time observing the boundary effects at heliopause, the horizon where a star's radiation, gravity field, and ejecta reach equilibrium with the cosmic environment. There was yet a puzzling manifestation of energy at those boundaries, as the pitiful few degrees Kelvin remaining to the star's ejecta were dampened to nothing.
My bubble-ship frequently encountered circumstances where its charged-particle accumulator overloaded, causing dangerous fluctuations to power levels. My Ka, which by this time was constantly extended, derived direct sustenance from these events. In light of this, I was prone to neglect my body's sustenance. More care must be taken....
These observations, discoveries and exercises would not have been possible, had I approached them with the energy with which a sentient organism normally operates. My Ka explorations required levels of silence, patience and not-doing, which when attained, served to bring the native frequency of my human vibration to a much lower state. New vistas were revealed to me with these downward shifts, and I could then perceive the slow physics of stars and planets, at a time scale which gives them speed and vitality. Uncoupled from my body, I can do this.
Uncoupled from its consolidating life-energy, however, the body tends to wither and die. For the first time in my life, it dawned on me how much of a burden the physical organism is. I learned how to grow, where to feed, how to survive as a being composed purely of awareness. My mortal body was now an obstacle to the existence I truly wished to experience.
Unbidden, my mother's voice surfaced from my deeper memory: "Dek, you must know that there will come a time when your pure Ka wishes to be free. You will decide to discard all you possess in pursuit of this freedom. No-one will gainsay you, no-one can stop you. Please remember though, when that time comes, whatever you lose, you will lose forever. Let your life run its course, and you will indeed, soon enough, be free. Do not deprive yourself of the experiences that come with being alive."
I thought of Nuunu. My sister, my partner...my strongest connection to the realm of life.
I approached the red sun yet more closely, and achieved a prudent orbit safely beyond its seething particle storms. To the galactic north, nothing more was apparent, either through the bubble's telescope or my own broader perception. Neither energy nor matter were apparent. This old sun's tenuous atmosphere was the last barrier between the life-form in the bubble and true intergalactic emptiness. I named this lonely star Ultima.
The darkness was much more ominous at close range. In my necessarily brief sessions of slow perception, I could sense viscosity in what my instruments told me was empty space. I had crossed various small pockets of this emptiness whilst travelling to Ultima. My Ka somehow derived a satisfying sustenance from these zones, while my bubble's power system experienced inexplicable surges. There is obviously more here than empty space. I was baffled. I began to form an hypothesis on the premise that a significantly powerful alien form of energy was extant. My thought was that by slowing my awareness to its lowest possible vibration, I could begin to discern these phenomena more clearly.
Thus, a longer session of slow awareness was now in order, and thusly, I would begin the Hibernox treatment. But first I would send my love to Nuunu, and apprise her of my plan.
* * *
...It gives a good feeling to serve the people of Makana well, but the way they lavish their appreciation upon me could only lead to obesity. The Kahu of the elemental Spirits enjoys her perquisites, true enough. Yet, were she just a bit more well-fed than she is, this happy journey could become a struggle....
This was the theme of Keohinani's thought, as she slowly trekked up the sloping starlit path. Her goal was Palilani, the promontory that crowns the island of Makana.
...And this vantage, this sacred spot, this is my most cherished perquisite. Had it been taboo for me, I would obsessively covet it forever, but these people actually insisted that I spend time here. There is nothing too sacred for Keohinani, they say. Always 'Keohinani'...sometimes I forget that I was once named Nuunu....
* * *
The island was a recent addition to the topography of the Pacific ocean. It was the fruit of the first work by the infant Terraforming Commission, more than a century ago. Conceived, planned, and executed as a small-scale experiment, it literally blew up in the Commission's faces.
They created a volcano. They applied their fission drills to a likely spot on the Pacific plate, with no immediate neighbours to threaten. The magma vigorously spewed forth, and the rapidly-growing seamount became a respectable, as well as potentially beautiful, volcanic island.
And it grew larger than anticipated. The Terraformers grew nervous, then alarmed, and eventually contrived to block the outflowing magma. They retired from the island then, thinking it would be stable enough to sow their seeds in a year's time.
But the big beautiful island blew its top, in an eruption that left but a few forlorn ridges poking above the waves, bordering a large submarine caldera. 'Madame Pele's Revenge', the Old Timers dubbed it.
A small wedge of the original cone's eastern side was the largest fragment that remained above the water. The land smoothly sloped from a generous arc of beach to the crest, eight hundred metres above the shimmering sea. The topmost hundred metres steepened somewhat from the lower slope, and would remain devoid of vegetation. The northern and southern flanks were steep, but stable. The narrow western cliff-face plunged precipitously to the sea. The summit itself was roughly level and almost round, less than twenty metres broad.
The island's first years showed vibrant manifestations of life and growth. The Old Timers claimed it, cherished it, and nurtured it for decades. The effort and riches they expended, and the wisdom they applied, were matched by the works of Nature. The ubiquitous coconut washed ashore by the score, found comfortable lodgings, and established new colonies of shady palms along the shoreline.
Makana, the Old Timers christened it. The island, they calculated, would comfortably support a thousand families. A lottery was conducted exclusively among hereditary Polynesian islanders. The lucky ones would inhabit this newly-wrought paradise, provided they eschewed almost all that the modern world offered.
For the Old Timers' strongest stipulation was that the Makana islanders follow the old ways. Attentive as they were to history, they advocated a self-contained society which would embrace ancient Polynesian custom and wisdom.
Somehow, two generations after the initial colonization, Piku Melenameha acquired a holding. A plot of hillside became his own, with all the necessary building materials in situ -- they only needed the harvesting.
Piku, with his his young ward Dek, provided sufficient good mana to the island, in the years before Dek departed for the Survey Corps' academy on Mars. Piku then moved his abode downslope to spend most of his days among the boat-builders and seafarers.
The kahuna's younger protegée, in the meantime, had become the island's beloved daughter. Keohinani was the name universally used to greet her. She played with the winds and the clouds. She stood on Palilani in the dawnlight, and coaxed forth soft curtains of rain to frame the rainbows. She was Kahu, beloved companion, to the sky-spirits. She bestowed her brightness upon all people and all creatures, and her own star shone ever more brightly. All Makana belonged to Keohinani, and Keohinani to Makana.
* * *
Time passed. Nuunu Keohinani was absent from her island for the larger portion of a year. She lived and read in overpopulated Europe, studying the peoples through the fresh eyes of a new anthropologist, and feeling their vibrations with the sensitivity of an aboriginal.
She kept only a small group of friends. Behind their urbanity and contrived gusto, she felt within them a prevailing inertia, and a sense of unfulfillable need, as if the weary time-worn piles of stone weighted the ambitions of their living populations.
She noted the workings of frenetic excess; she noted the effects of frustration and desparation and despondency at many levels of civilization. She could have been assaulted many times, as she made her way through the old streets. Her ever-vigilant Ka enabled her to avoid trouble and indeed to forestall dire confrontations as they arose.
She endured a continuous meld with modern Terran culture. She learned to cloak herself in shadows and ineffable mystery, hiding her clear light from the souls she touched. She felt herself being sampled by an undifferentiated yet implacably hungry force. She was benumbed by it, blinded by it, fed upon by it. Was there a corrupt perverted ghoul of a Ka lurking there amidst the works of history? Did it accumulate souls by the millions and feed as a vampire? Is this then my enemy? She saw the need to retreat. She would return someday to confront the thing, but not without Dek at her side.
When the school year ended, she flew back to the Pacific, landing at the tiny Kiritimati shuttleport. Piku Melenameha awaited her there. He adorned her with fragrant leis of frangipani, and conveyed her graciously to the beach, where Manukumeha, a sleek small catamaran, waited.
Manukumeha was designed, built, and crewed by Makanans. Her materials and tools were undeniably modern, yet her form derived from tradition: twin canoes, with a cabin on a platform between them, and a single triangular sail.
The crew were thrice-blest: they were young, strong, and free under the sky; their marvelous Manukumeha was under the care of the wise and noble Piku; and only for them, was the honour of carrying their beloved Keohinani back to her home.
Driven by a gentle breeze, Manukumeha swept through the Cook Island channel, and rounded Northwest Point. The sun was setting, and the breeze faltered. The crew began drumming rhythmically on the hulls, and chanted Piku's prayer to the spirit of the west wind. They had two hundred leagues to travel, and wished to fly east across the sea at their best speed.
As the final spark of sun faded beyond the horizon, a bundle of european clothing and accoutrements splashed into the dark water. Standing on the afterdeck, still clad in a sweet cloud of frangipani, Keohinani unbound her long tresses and began her dance. The drummers, entranced by her smooth slow dreamy rhythm, faltered and fell silent. The chant, much more attuned to the spell that she wove, continued in a whispered chorus.
The west wind joyfully greeted his long-absent Kahu, and filled her sail.
* * *
She stood now on the summit of Palilani and gazed about, tasting the breeze, feeling the solid rock through her bones, tickled by the vibrations of life on the slopes below. She scanned the canopy of stars surrounding her, and was moved to face north. Dek was out there, somewhere, far away. She had returned from Europe almost a month ago, and had not yet heard his call. She desired to call his silent name, but he was on a quest and she was reluctant to distract him. Perhaps, she thought, I could send him the fragrance of a flower....
The eastern horizon presented a small sliver of pearly blue. She must prepare herself for the sunrise. Lä would sense her longing, yet again. The sun, moon, sky, island and ocean were all aware of Keohinani's desire for her brother's company, and they would all happily intercede for her, but he was far too far away.
Nuunu breathed the spicy smoke, for she planned to fly into the sunrise. She would stand on a sunbeam and dance.
She settled into her ritual posture and composed herself for flight. She opened her Ka-eyes -- and saw Dek standing before her. Her Ka sprang forth to embrace him.
'Oooh. You stink. Don't you bathe up there?'
'Mmphm. Not often. It's an ugly experience.'
* * *
How could I have entertained the idea of abandoning my life? Nuunu understood my dilemma, and expressed her concerns. With her familiars as witnesses to our melded emotions, we resolved to take that final flight together, as one, in the far future.
I partook of a collage of Nuunu's experiences, as she travelled, as she dwelt in the university enclaves of Europe, as she loved, as she encountered that dark yet intriguing soul-hungry presence...and as she returned to her spiritual home. She had grown considerably in strength, in subtlety, in her native sense of joy -- and in beauty. The sobriquet given her by our Makana clan means, The Pretty Girl.
And as she and I have always been closer than siblings, and indeed closer than lovers, I was proud that she was my complement, and was ecstatic that I was worthy of her devotion. I doubted that I could survive without her. And that thought brought home to me the enormous selfishness of my earlier desire to abandon my life. For she would have ended her own, in despairing loneliness, with only a faint chance of joining me. With that issue permanently resolved now, we shared a generous moment of pure satisfaction.
We discussed my quest then. I explained my plan to take myself to a slower vibration than ever before. Hibernox, normally used as a last-resort deep-space survival tool, would maintain my body in deep hibernation for up to a thousand days on my bubbleship. I reckoned a quarter of that time would be sufficient to make a cursory survey of that subtle strangeness in the silent darkness. I would spend eight months asleep, even though my slow pace would compress this time into a like number of subjective minutes. I did not doubt that the Hibernox would aid me considerably.
Nuunu promised me she would look after me. She would enter a slow trance on a weekly basis to join me. She would sit on Palilani for a complete day in undisturbed synchronicity, and her familiars would cooperate on that day, to protect her body from extreme exposure: the clouds would envelop Palilani in a cool misty veil during the hot hours of sunlight; the winds would maintain for her a nest of still air under the starlight; only the gentlest of rains would be allowed to fall over Makana.
We practised the slower rhythms together. We phased into the realm where the living planet spoke to us; we phased deeper into a wider realm where the stars greeted us; we briefly gazed upon the horizon where the ineffable somnolent Awareness beckoned. This would be our venture's destination.
I concluded my visit with Nuunu as night fell over her clifftop. I gave my farewell to her body, slumped in repose, her long flowing veil of hair bestirred by the gentle breeze. As Ka, she accompanied me then to the bubbleship, and we stood together for a companionable moment under my crystal dome, basking in the ruddy light of Ultima. 'Make sure you bathe,' she teased, and she was gone, leaving behind a sweet floral scent.
My preparation for the Hibernox session took a leisurely week. I fed myself heartily, as I studied the instructions. I would need to charge the chemical batteries thoroughly, uncouple the accumulators, disengage the main life-support system, and kill the static-gravity field. Finally, I would sequester myself within the hygiene facility, coccooned in a restraining web, with the lines, tubes and electrodes connecting me to this technological womb. The combination of chemicals in the liquids and gasses would suppress the organic metabolism to its barest minimum.
Power consumption at that point would be limited to the Hibernox life-support and the emergency beacon. I decided to disable the beacon, as I would need no emergency service.
So I ate, and digested, and cleaned my living space thoroughly, and ate, and rested, and ate some more. For the last two days of preparation I took nothing but water.
Nuunu visited as I was making my final preparations. I was naked for my attachment to the Hibernox system. She watched as I powered off the bubbleship's systems from the main console. Batteries checked; accumulators down, life support down, sensors off, lights off; static-gravity off. I stepped now toward my cabinet...and suddenly weightless, I inadvertently launched myself toward the dome.
For a flustered moment, having nothing within my peripheral vision from being close to the invisible bubble of the dome, I perceived myself as floating naked in empty space. Nuunu floated before me then, laughing at my clumsiness. I touched the dome, and carefully pushed off toward the cabinet.
I arranged my body in its harness, activated the local controller, and attached the wires, tubes and hoses. I programmed the system to keep me asleep for 240 days, and sealed the hatch.
Nuunu was with me yet. 'I will stay until you go to sleep. Join me outside.'
I pressed the key; my body felt as if it was rapidly turning into a nerveless blob of mush. My Ka extricated itself easily enough. We merged into a softly glowing sphere of awareness, and observed the body in the cabinet growing rigid and cool. The tiny instruments within told us that all was well.
We drifted through the dome, and away from the ruddy sun.
-It's time to get back to Keohinani.
-Yes. Success to us both.
-Remember our promise.
-I will cling to you.
The sphere of awareness divided, gently, seemingly reluctantly. The one sphere condensed, glowing slightly brighter, and shot into the murky brightness of the galactic arm. The other sphere remained, floating serenely, cooling and expanding to meet the darkness.
The woman on the cliff-top bestirred herself from her languor and rose to stand in the bright sunlight.
The sleeping bubbleship with its sleeping occupant continued in its dark orbit around Ultima.
* * *
I slowed to the stellar phase quickly enough. The murmurings at the heart of Ultima became audible to me. The heliopause boundary attracted my attention: this was where the strange dampening of energy occurred. Choosing the darkest outward region for my observations, I drew near and slowed myself yet again. I dropped below the stellar spectrum, and Ultima's voice lapsed into a whisper.
Nothing registered yet. I sent forth a probing tendril, and felt various small tickles of pleasant energy. I idly flagellated the tendril, and felt tickled again. No clue concerning their nature as yet.
I shifted to the next lower quantum, and perceived a glowing cloud of rapidly-moving motes, shifting and boiling beyond the heliopause. They swarmed to where they could feed upon any stray charged particles and infinitesimal sources of heat-energy, yet I noted that they remained on the 'cold' side of heliopause. They varied in hue and brightness as they fed and moved away. They fed en masse, moved away as a school of minnows moves, dimmed suddenly, and returned.
I grew another tendril, and thrust it through the barrier into the cloud. The motes were instantly attracted to my presence, and attached themselves to my exposed surfaces, dimming as they touched me with the familiar tickles.
I felt a buzzing from within. Nuunu's first week has already elapsed. I waited patiently for her to slow down, and she synched smoothly with me. We watched the motes swarming to the boundary as insects swarm about a light source. We noticed that their contact with us quickly diminished, as if they sensed that we were observing them. Together we burrowed deeper into a lower spectrum, and began to perceive an infinite network of immaterial awareness floating in the void. The buzzing ended, as Nuunu disengaged. No matter...at this speed, she would return very soon.
I phased down to observe the awareness-entity, and essayed a meld. I was immediately drawn to a perspective that watched a small field of quick-moving awareness, lurking behind the bright-matter boundary, occasionally tasting the feeding plankton and pulsing within itself.
-Quick. Nervous. Incomplete. It seeks repletion and rest, it must be drawn from a hostile environment. It is aware, it becomes more peaceful.
I continued to watch it watching me watching it. Nuunu buzzed, synched, and watched briefly with me.
-Small quick one becomes more assured now, brighter, more complete. Small quick one is invited to emerge, expand, join.
[Buzz] I sent a probe into the emptiness. My probe was firmly gripped, and I felt myself pulled from Ultima's atmosphere, as a limp floating corpse is pulled from the waves. [Buzz]
It is quite peaceful and comfortable in this place, [Buzz] now that I can relax and expand. [Buzz] I fed myself on the energy-plankton [Buzz] and stretched out a bit. [Buzz]
-Small quick one.
-New form of entity.
-Two entities, complementing one another.
-Rest. Take nourishment. Abide.
-Extracted now from realm of polluted confusion. Pointless to return. Abide.
-Unwilling. Linked to organic entities within material continuum.
-This is proper abode for small quick one.
I presented the concept of a bubbleship to the larger awareness.
I was answered with a recollection of a bubbleship materializing suddenly within the emptiness. The energy plankton were excited into incandescence by its static-gravity field, and approached it to feed. The accumulators, I saw, were far more efficient energy gatherers than the plankton, and absorbed them readily. The plankton swarms increased, and the accumulators overloaded. The bubbleship exploded then, and a blossoming cloud of hot matter flared brightly, briefly, beyond the ken of any mortal eye. This fatal blast thrust forth a hemispheric shell of adamantine crystal, to spin and tumble on its trajectory into the eternal darkness.
-One of those?
-There are more?
My attention was guided to encompass a large zone of darkness, where at least a score of crystal domes drifted away from the galaxy on their individual straight trajectories. Many other cadets chose this then, the shortest path out of the galaxy, and died here with their bubbleships.
This was important information. I considered my preliminary questions satisfactorily answered, and was eager to return to the Academy with this intelligence. There were yet four months of Hibernox sleep remaining, so I undertook to understand the nature of this large awareness, which by all appearances occupied the void between the island universes. Whether it had an outer boundary would be forever unknown, but as an amorphous being, I suspected that it had no concept of physical boundaries.
It had no name, nor ego, and had long ago forgotten its origin. It existed in a virtually timeless state, sustained by the energy taken from the tattered edges of the galaxy, and fulfilled itself simply with its continued existence.
I gave my excuses and prepared to return home.
-Resolve your material existence. Return.
-We shall. Together.
Nuunu pulled me out of the dead-slow perception that had enabled my connection to this ancient awareness. We cycled up through more familiar speeds, and I consolidated my awareness-field down to something measurable in terms of physical size. My normal perceptions returned to me, and I found myself floating at a distance which rendered the galaxy a broad whirlpool of light. By my reckoning, I had expanded and drifted to a point where I was more than thirty thousand parsecs away.
We paused together for a human moment, my sister and I, drinking in the beauty of the brightly-glowing galaxy, feeling the indescribable harmony of the energies working to sustain its fragile structure.
I found my way back to Ultima, and to my bubbleship in her safe orbit. My awakening was uneventful; I emerged from my casket feeling stiff, groggy, and unbearably hungry. I engaged the power and life-support systems, and derived tremendous enjoyment from a large meal of real physical food.
* * *
As I mentioned before, I have been in my bubble for nearly four hundred days, on a mission originally scheduled for one hundred. I am at rest in the vicinity of Merak, still to the galactic north of Sol, awaiting response to my report for the Survey Corps. It may seem odd for me to stop short, with Sol and Terra and Mars within the figurative arm's reach, but I am curiously reluctant to leave this comfortable openness. I have yet enough provisions for a fortnight....
Nuunu's patience is about at an end, though. 'Skinny boy,' she called me. She promised to tow me along to an interminable series of luaus, to 'put some meat on my bones.' I suppose a little sunlight would be good for me now...Ah, someone's awake!
'Dek, this is Jerez.' Commandant of the Academy.
'Interesting report you submitted. Any ideas on how we can verify this?'
'Ah, robot probes, Sir. At first, at least. Without the accumulators.'
'Keep it in mind, Ensign. Good work. Take your bubble home with you; enjoy the sunshine; report back to Valles when you get bored with the sunshine.'
'Aye, aye, Sir!'
'I'm impressed by your sister's involvement as well. Why don't you recruit her?'
'I think she would have problems with the uniform, Sir. She's aboriginal. She only wears fresh flowers.'