A Canvas Dark and Deep

by Robert Mitchell Evans

In this absurdly impossible planetary system, while the rest of the exploratory expedition investigated doppelgangers of Mars, Venus, and Earth, Commodore Holt stuck me with its Kuiper Belt.
A duplicate of our home system, its stellar evolution utterly inexplicable, Dopple was the most spectacular discovery since the quickstream, and I did nothing but busy work. My little scouting vessel, the Lovelock, had taken three months to reach Dopple’s Kuiper Belt. Three months cooped up with six scientists, three enlisted spacers, and a ship's network devoid of personality apps. I had little to do but compose weak poems and discover that, just like the theoretical speed of a quickstream, boredom has no limits.
I was in my cabin, little more than storage closet, working on an embarrassingly bad haiku, when someone signaled at my door.
Crew chief Dominguez and lead scientist Doctor Fitzgerald entered. Fitz quivered, on his face a grin that normally signaled the discovery of a particularly attractive snowball, but that wouldn't have interested Dominguez. Fitz started to speak, but the chief cut him off.
"This is big, Captain, really big." He waved towards my display and a local area space map appeared. "Fitz here found a new quickstream."
"It’s not simply a quickstream entry event," Fitz said, his voice shaking with scientific excitement. His bald little head, with its tiny little nose, bobbed like a Ping-Pong ball in a storm. "This is unlike any quickstream seen."
He devolved into a stream of jargon, numbers, and other esoteric terms that the scientific types pass off as language. I held up a hand, but he barreled right over my attempts to regain control of the conversation.
He ignored me, too deep down the rabbit hole to respond to mere conversation. Dominguez, a head and a half taller than either of us, dropped a hand on his shoulder and the torrent stopped.
"No one here is a specialist," I said. "How about you give it to me in real simple terms, eh?"
"This quickstream, Ensign..."
Yeah, the Lovelock was a tiny ship, barely capable of riding a quickstream, and my orders as commanding officer terminated the moment we rejoined with the Diogenes, but she was mine and no matter my actual rank I was Captain.
With a tone indicating that he was patronizing yet another mindless martinet, Fitz continued.
"Captain, this quickstream has the potential to be the fastest ever discovered, several orders of magnitude faster. That means thousands…"
"I know what 'orders of magnitude' mean, Fitz."
"Well, of course you do."
"Sir," Dominguez asked. "Are we going to see how far it goes?"
My stomach flipped and my throat dried up.
"It's hardly part of studying the Doppel system, is it?"
"Captain Newman, you can't seriously be considering not exploring this quickstream." Fitz's hand fluttered like horrified butterflies. "We have to transit this stream and record the events and…" He started going into a spasm of scientific tongues again, but Dominguez waved him silent.
"Sir, Dr. Fitzgerald here tells me that a short trip wouldn't impact their Kuiper Belt survey and it would be an opportunity for truly unique readings."
I started to reply, but Dominguez barreled on, leaving me with nothing to do but close my mouth.
"I took the liberty of reviewing the mission orders, sir.  I think that this clearly falls under section thirteen, 'previously unknown phenomenon,' and you'd be well within your authority in ordering a brief survey to produce a complete report."
I seriously doubted that Commodore Holt would see my sudden excursion out of the planetary system as 'within my authority.'
I mumbled, "I suppose we could signal the Diogenes for instructions."
"Yes, sir, we could. The lag time from our current location is just a hair under seven hours, so nearly fourteen for round-trip communications." Fitz fidgeted as Dominguez spoke, desperately wanting, needing, to argue us to going down an unmapped quickstream. "And with teams scattered all over the system, who knows how long before they get back to us. I suspect our reports aren't exactly on the commodore's priority listings."
True enough, but it stung to be reminded what I did barely mattered.
"But if you confirm this finding, then that's something that even Explorer Command would take notice."
 Oh, that was so easy for Dominguez to suggest. If this didn't pan out, it wouldn't be his butt de-orbiting. Still, he was right. It could be big, really big. They worked me over for another ten minutes, but the outcome never really wavered, and as usual Dominguez got his way.
Twelve hours later the Lovelock, her quickstream engines fully charged, prepared to slide out.
Going superluminal in a quickstream is both easy and frightening. These strange fractures in the fabric of space/time are sort of like faster-than-light water slides, some taller and steeper than others, letting ships slide from one place to another. Don't try to push the water slide analogy too far, as quickstreams flow both ways. The easy part was getting in position, engaging the drive, and letting the ‘stream take you to the far end; the frightening part was how you felt.
If you took the sensation of goose bumps erupting over your whole body and combined it with fingernails scraping across a chalkboard, you'd be getting pretty close to what it is like to ride superluminal. Every moment of every hour of every day is a trial of nerves; people already given to outbursts and tantrums become unbearable in a quickstream.
We took our meds, reducing the worst of the effects and inducing a calmer state of mind, but I still dreaded entry. Dominguez, his blond hair military short and perfect, sat at the pilot-prime station while Takashi backed him up from the relief pilot and engineer's console. She struggled to sit still and project an air of calm professionalism.
"Chief," I said, trying to project command into my voice, "Take us into the 'stream."
With a sly and slightly insulting smile, Dominguez launched us out of the Doppel planetary system.
Our nerves taut and tense, the crew of the Lovelock endured the quickstream. Scientists busied themselves with readings, computations, and heated arguments over interpretations while the crew sniped and insulted each other over endless games of chance.
I tried to relax, working on a report for Commodore Holt that didn't make this mission sound either foolish or entirely the brainchild of Chief Dominguez. Ship's night arrived and I went to my rack, my brain strained with an incipient migraine. My head hit my pillow, the lights went out, and sleep overtook me.
I fled a pack of predatory poetry critics, armed with pruning shears to demonstrate to me the value of cutting. Every time I thought I had lost them by turning into some alley, I’d find my escape blocked by gigantic prints of my poems. Tearing through the poems let me escape, but gave the murderous critics a chance to close.
I awoke, covered in sweat, my heart beating so fast it was just a blur in my ears, and the migraine fully blossomed. I ordered medication from the Lovelock's network and fell into a drugged, dreamless sleep.
Night after night the nightmares returned, some variation of homicidal critics or fans, like a bad horror video, leaving me exhausted. After two days I noticed I wasn't the only person aboard with red eyes and a thousand A.U. stare.
Fitz sat at breakfast. His trembling hands made the fake food on his fork dance and drop before it reached his mouth. The other scientists fared no better, each lost in their own universe of sleep deprivation. I sipped fake coffee, the very real caffeine jolting my system but failing to budge my bone-deep exhaustion. We couldn't let this go on much longer; we'd be in no shape for any kind of survey. Finishing the coffee in one gulp, I went looking for Dominguez.
I found him on the bridge, his feet kicked up on a console, his eyes closed, apparently sleeping peacefully. I started to back out through the door, but he said, "Is there something I can do for you, sir?"
"Were you sleeping, Chief?"
"Naw." He sat up, bringing his feet flat on the deck. "Just checking for eyelid leaks."
"Nightmares?" I sat in the command chair, wondering if I were finally going to see a bit of humanity, or even humility, from the chief.
"Not much to speak of. Probably the same as everyone else."
"That's what's bothering me. I've looked through the files, and I can't find any instance of quickstream travel causing nightmares."
"Something for the smart boys to gnaw over. So we'll have at least one new thing to report. It's not every Explorer who can say that, sir."
"Maybe we should turn back." I sat back, letting my gaze wander around the tiny compartment, anywhere except his piercing, unsettling look.
"It's your call, sir." I swear his tone made me feel like a schoolboy failing a test. "But if you don't mind me offering a little service experience…"
He actually waited for me to nod permission, though we both knew that was a farce.
"This little mission is already promising big things; the kind of things that can help a fella get a jump on a stuck promotion list, but the service isn't going to promote an officer that they think has gone weak in the knees." He scanned the system read-outs, a lifetime of experience judging the systems status with a confidence I could only impersonate.
"It's more than that, Chief. Much more of this and no one is going to be in any shape for regular duties, much less if we have to face an emergency."
"Yes, sir, I can't argue that, but is it going to look that way back at Earth? I could see some tightly wound personnel officer reading your report and telling his bosses we turned back 'cause you got scared." He sighed. Dominguez missed his calling not being an actor. "It wouldn't hurt my career much, but I think it could cause you a whole mess of trouble, sir."
"But you can see what shape the crew is in. If we go on to disaster, that's going to leave a black mark on all our records, don't you think?"
He stood up, a towering figure with twenty years of spacer experience.
"You're the captain, sir, and I've seen tight and hard trouble before. Sir, I think this crew might surprise you. Why don't you give them the chance to prove themselves?"
"It's not that I don't have the utmost confidence…"
"I'm sure you do, sir, but they aren't likely to see it that way. It would be a bad shot to their morale, to be so close to going where no one has gone before and have it snatched away because the captain thought they couldn't cut it."
Somehow he turned the issue around, making me into the villain.
"The first sign that safety has been compromised, and we're turning back."
"I'll back you up if it comes to that, sir, but I think we'll all adjust faster than you might expect."
As you don't salute aboard a ship, he nodded in my direction and ambled off the bridge.
I was struggling with the commodore's report when Fitz and one of his partners in science, Dr. Amanda Hollingston, arrived at my cabin, both wearing reality sets. Despite the wire mesh encircling their scalps, I could see both were fully interacting with reality. Fitz carried a third mesh.
"Not interested in any games right now, doctors." I tried to wave them away because the report was a black monster destroying any positive mood.
"As much as we enjoy your company, Captain, we're here with solutions, not pastimes." Fitz stalked over to my desk and dropped the mesh in front of me, wiping the report from my desktop.
I tried, and failed, to keep the irritation out of my voice. "This is not the time!"
"Put it on," Amanda said, her face lit with an infectious smile. A sucker for unsardonic scientists, I picked it up and slipped the mesh over my scalp. She nodded, her smile becoming a grin, for me to turn it on. Sighing, I activated the reality set, and with the swiftness of a well-executed landing, peace descended on my mood.
I grinned, and then I laughed. That moment Fitz became my best friend. I could have sworn that we had dropped out of the quickstream. Not one tingle of the 'stream's fingernail-grating, teeth-grinding influence remained, the scourge of superluminal flight reduced to a bad memory.
"What happened?" I asked. "I mean, this is fantastic!"
“Dr. Hollingston found the answer." Fitz waved to Amanda. "I'll spare you the math." In my ecstasy I even forgave his patronizing attitude. "But this quickstream event is so powerful that we succeeded in isolating the waveform patterns responsible for physiological and psychological aberrations from the background noise of superluminal flight. It's amazingly close to our reality-set carrier wave modulation. Dr. Hollingston theorized that we could use the sets to block the interference."
"Any trouble using the ship's fabricators to make enough for everyone?"
"Nope," Amanda said. "All we need is your authorization and we can have everyone sleeping peacefully tonight."
"You have it."
I authorized it through the ship's network and, good to their promise, we then slept soundly wearing our new reality sets.
Naturally, Dominguez managed to remind me that if we had turned back, none of that would have happened. You know what? I didn't care and I looked forward to reaching the end of the 'stream.
Then everything went pear-shaped.
Amanda had her place in history. The woman who made superluminal travel comfortable; people would be toasting her for decades, and I’d be among them. Still, no one would remember the lowly ensign who commanded the ship. How many people can name the captain of the Beagle?
Thirty-five hours later we reentered normal space, ditched our reality sets, and started recharging the quickstream engines. While the engines powered through their twelve-hour recharge cycle, the crew got to work helping the scientists deploy telescopes in every conceivable wavelength, and I tasked Dominguez with completing our astrogation analysis. The sooner we knew where we had stopped, the sooner we'd have an idea just how fast that 'stream had been.
Not too much later, Dominguez reported that we were three thousand seven hundred and fifty-seven light years from Doppel; I was tempted to fabricate champagne. The fastest, longest quickstream and we discovered it. I ordered visible spectrum images of Doppel, just something to make our survey complete, and worked on the report, happy and optimistic. Once we learned what new quickstreams branched off from this system, we'd have a whole new network to explore, and I wanted to be out here on the bleeding edge of discovery. Things looked fantastic. Naturally, fate kicked me in the teeth.
Fitz barged into my stateroom with no door signal, not even a shouted warning. Like a ghastly apparition, he just appeared.
"This is an amazing discovery. We've got to stay more than just a dozen hours."
"Hello to you too Fitz." Teaching him any courtesies, much less military ones, was as impossible as breathing vacuum. "If you have good leads on new quickstream entry points, we can stay long enough to map those." Visions of dozens of new quickstreams danced in my head, the sort of discovery that produced meritorious promotions.
"Oh, this is much more interesting than routine quickstream events."
A chill touched my heart and I imagined Commodore Holt's angry voice as he reprimanded me for wasting valuable resources. "What exactly are you talking about?" I managed while quelling a growing unease.
"A unique phenomenon, the sort of event we're out here to find!" He waved at my display and a local-space map appeared, triggering a terrible déjà vu. What appeared had the same false-color coding for a quickstream, but instead of looking like branching rivers, this was like a dropped plate of spaghetti.
"What the hell is that?"
"We have no idea." I'd say he giggled like a schoolgirl, but I don't like insulting little girls. "We've never seen the energy structures associated with quickstream events display anything other than direct connection between planetary systems. Did you know that there has never been a quickstream discovered that failed to lead to a planetary system? There are several good theories on how the collapse of the accretion disk…"
"Fitz, what is that?" I pointed again at the display.
"I told you, we don't know. It's new."
"What about new quickstreams out of this system?"
"Oh." He waved his hands, casually dismissing my future. "There's no sign of any, it would appear that this is another terminus, but this —" he jabbed excitedly at the spaghetti tangle “— is worth a dozen new quickstream events."
I put my head in my hands while black despair closed in.
"Any chance that this might be a new kind of quickstream entry? Possibly leading to new systems?"
"Preposterous! Any fool could see that the energy density of these events is plainly far below the threshold for baryonic matter conversion; these threads aren't even…"
I tried to summarily dismiss him. "Then they are useless to us. We're leaving as soon as the engines are fully charged."
Fitz didn't take my dismissal. I bet the only reason that man doesn't get killed is that people are too afraid of the paperwork.
The intership communications suddenly beeped for my attention, and I activated it.
"Captain Newman," Amanda said, her voice strained, the words coming out with a pronounced deliberation. "Can you come to Analysis?"
"I'm in the middle of something, why don't you tell me what's the trouble?"
"Well," she hesitated, and then blurted, "It's about Doppel. We might have figured out why it's so much like home and, well, it would be a lot easier to just show you."
Fitz stopped, stunned, like myself, into a brief silence.
"Fine, I'll be right there. I'm bringing Dr. Fitzgerald with me."
Her relief came through with the clarity of a laser.
"Oh, thank God!"
 I hurried forward, calling for Dominguez to join us in the scientific spaces. He caught up with us just outside of the door to the four compartments that made up the labs, asking, "What's up, sir?"
"Apparently the solution to Doppel. Who knew it was four thousand light years away?" I doubted we’d found any real answers; more likely, the universe continued to joke with my career.
We stepped inside, and waiting for us was the entire scientific team.
Stepping between Amanda and me, Fitz demanded, "Give it to me first."
"Show all of us," I said, taking an open seat. Dominguez leaned back against a console and Fitz simply stood in the middle of the room, fuming.
Amanda turned to a large display unrolled and slapped up against a bulkhead and called up a stereo image of deep space.
 "This is our visible light image of Doppel."
"Your telescopes got turned around," Dominguez said. "There aren't any nebulas near Doppel."
He was right, again. Centered in the display was a diffuse nebula, dark clouds visible as a shadow blocking out a swath of stars.
Amanda's voice wavered as she answered. "No, Chief, that nebula is Doppel. Point the 'scope yourself if you want, we've done it four times."
Fitz shoved his way forward and began searching through their records, but I knew he'd find no mistakes. Like a macabre xylophone, cold shivers played along my spine and I realized the utterly inescapable conclusion; Doppel was artificial.
Under the influence of shock waves from supernovae, nebulas are compressed into stars and all the assorted bodies found in planetary systems, but that process takes billions of years, and Doppel was less than three thousand seven-hundred and fifty-seven years old, the age of the light currently falling on our optical telescopes. No natural process can possibly take a nebula and turn it into a planetary system in four thousand years, none. Hell, it takes ten thousand years for the photons from the fusion events in a star’s core to work their way to the photosphere, and yet three thousand light years away, Doppel shone bright, ignoring its own impossibility.
I sat there, silent and afraid while Dominguez confirmed the images, but I knew we had stumbled on the truth. Fitz, mumbling about gravitational lensing and imaging objects much further behind Doppel, still refused to accept it.
Finally he collapsed into a chair, muttering, "This is simply impossible."
"It's there." Dominguez pointed to the nebula. "There's no screw-up."
"A nebula can't form a planetary system in a few thousand years, it can't!"
"No, it can't," I said softly, amazed that Fitz failed to even consider the obvious solution. "Someone made it happen. They came along, took that nebula, and duplicated Earth and our entire solar system."
Momentarily, silence reigned, and then, like a bomb blast, everyone began shouting and wildly gesturing. I sat back, letting my thoughts just free-associate while everyone else argued and struggled for acceptance. Without any idea about what to do, I retreated to a quiet interior zone of my mind hoping for inspiration.
"Captain," Dominguez insistently pierced my reverie, "I suggest that we go 'dark' at once. Cease all signals, scans, and shut down anything not essential. Nothing more than life support, and keep charging the engines."
I thought it was a little late to be shutting the barn door, but before I could say anything, Fitz spoke up.
"There's no need to overreact. We’ve got valuable observations to make and there's no sign of any mega-structures in the immediate vicinity."
"Really?" I said.
"Is there something you'd like to add, Ensign?"
"Captain, and yes, you're missing that this is bigger than just Doppel. It’s about the quickstream network too."
I turned to Amanda.
"Dr. Hollingston, that quickstream structure in this system, do those channels connect up with the 'stream we rode in on?"
She looked over at Fitz for approval and then to my surprise looked back at me before he could make up his mind. "Yes, sir, it does."
"So it's really a continuation of the quickstream?"
"Could it be that we've been wrong about the quickstreams? They are not natural and their purpose isn't FTL travel, but a galaxy-wide communication network?"
Fitz started to speak but then shocked us all by shutting his mouth, considering the suggestion.
"Sir?" Dominguez said. "Shall I start shutting down systems? We really need to go dark right now."
"It too late for that, Chief. If they are going to notice us, they already have."
The scientists huddled around Amanda, debating some idea or theory while Dominguez moved up close to me.
"Sir, it's too damn dangerous to run that risk. Whoever built Doppel does not have our best interests at heart."
Fitz dismissed him with a word. "Preposterous."
He turned on Fitz like a hawk diving on a rabbit. "You think they went to all the trouble of duplicating our solar system for giggles? They did it for a reason and it can't be good."
"This is the product of a post-singularity civilization having as much in common with us as we do with bacteria. They are like gods, unconcerned with the messy chaos of our existence."
Dominguez stepped in close to Fitz. "I don't believe in coincidence. They chose us for a reason, and seeing how they didn't bother to say "Hi" before putting their plan in motion, I don't think they give a damn about how we feel."
"Coincidence exists regardless of your belief, Chief. Any species that has transited through the singularity isn't part of our mental universe anymore, they…"
Dominguez snapped a finger towards the display. "Oh, they're still a part of our universe, and your pacifistic daydreams won't matter squat when they get rolling."
Amanda tapped me on the shoulder. "Sir, we've got an idea."
She took me over to the non-bickering scientists, and we spoke in hushed tones.
"We think you're right, it is a communications system and we can access it," Amanda said, her eyes nearly dancing with excitement. "It was the quickstream transit here that made all the difference. We had mistaken the carrier wave for a naturally occurring effect, but it has a carrier wave. That is what creates the psychological aberrations experienced during superluminal travel. Instead of using the reality set to block it, we can integrate the carrier wave into the experienced reality transmission, submerging the recipient into the communications stream."
It stuck me as an unlikely project. "Isn't it likely that anything being transmitted will be gibberish?"
Chuck Shirley jumped in. "Maybe, perhaps even likely, but the fact is that the quickstream effect has always affected the human mind, and we've just been blind to the idea it might have been a carrier wave at all. If it's already influencing us on a subconscious and emotional level, then with a direct connection, communication might be clear."
"Would this be two-way?"
Amanda shrugged. "No idea, this is wholly uncharted territory, sir."
"I had no idea you were a punster," I said.
With a sheepish smile she said, "Never on purpose." She looked over the other junior scientists and then back to me. "Are we going to do it?"
Fitz pulled his head back from his screaming match with Dominguez. "Absolutely not!"
He stormed to us, his hands dancing about like drunken dervishes.
"You have no idea what you are doing. We're talking about a species that has become fully transcendent. Their concerns will be totally alien to ours, communication will simply not be possible. All you could hope to achieve is to become an annoyance."
I said back at him, "If it's that impossible, I don't see what harm we could possibly cause."
"What your mind is capable of foreseeing is quite inconsequential. You are not going to contaminate this site with foolhardy and futile actions."
"Dr. Fitzgerald, I am in command of this mission and I alone will decide what actions are appropriate."
Fitz sputtered, his hands momentarily frozen in mid-air, before he rebooted his indignation. "This has stopped being an excursion investigating a particularly interesting quickstream event. This is now something far too big for you to have any input on, Ensign."
"Ensign! I refuse to play these "bigger-ape" pecking-order games." He turned to Amanda and her group. "You will not do anything of the sort, do you understand?"
Before she could say anything I jumped in, "Dr. Hollingston, I am the commanding officer of the ship, the senior-most officer on the expedition, an expedition I might remind everyone is entirely under the umbrella of the Explorer Corps, and I will make the decisions on how we will proceed."
"Sir," Dominguez said, his voice level, but loaded with patronizing undertones. "Professor Fitzgerald might be right, but for the wrong reasons. He thinks that the aliens have gone all mystical and special, but I say anyone who copies our solar system has got a plan. If you try to communicate with them, well, sir, you're just tipping our hand when we haven't anted up yet."
I wanted to take his tone and those carefully measured words maneuvering me into his plan of action and shove it back down his throat. "Thank you, Chief, but when I want your advice, I'll ask for it."
"Of course, sir, but there is one thing I am obligated to remind you of."
"And what is that?"
"Standing Order number 1, sir, if any Explorer Team discovers indication of intelligent non-human life, that team is obligated to proceed at best possible speed back to the nearest Explorer Flag command and report the discovery for further investigation, sir." His gave me a sad little smile, perhaps intended to placate me with some faked sympathy, but I didn't fall for it. Not this time.
"And that's what we're going to do, Chief, in six hours. As soon as the engines are charged we'll take the quickstream back to Doppel and report our discovery to the commodore. Until then we’ll collect all possible data about the situation as directed by our survey orders."
"Yes sir, but…"
"Until we depart I intend to do everything in our ability to establish who and what is going on here and why they created Doppel."
I looked at Amanda, signaled for her to follow me, and we strode out of the compartment.
We wasted an hour setting out parameters and specifications before she hurried back forward to get the scientists cracking on the software. I reviewed the mission orders, my hands shaking so badly that it took three attempts to get the system to recognize my gestures.
The safe thing, both personally and for my career, would be to do exactly what Dominguez suggested, fly back and leave it all to someone else, but for the first time I didn't want to be safe. I played it safe with my poems, afraid of offending someone, and I played it safe as an officer, never straying from the rules.
Out here, beyond our furthest port, I'd found courage. I didn't care if this burned my career, leaving me disgraced and broke; for once I wasn't going to stand aside. I thought about a drink, but resisted that foolish temptation. The odds were that I'd experience nothing intelligible, but if I did, I couldn't afford compromised judgment.
Alien intelligences. Just the concept felt unreal in my mind. For over a hundred years humanity had dreamt of finding a stellar family. We flew the first quickstreams with grand optimism and high hopes. That slowly degraded into pragmatic searching, before finally corroding into bitter and lonely cynicism.
Fitz and Dominguez sent streams of messages, pleading with me to reconsider, Fitz's concerned about my contamination and Dominguez's with alien butchers waiting for their moment to pounce. I couldn't shake the feeling that both were trapped in boxes of their own design. That something more fundamental lay at Doppel's purpose.
I had no illusion of solving the puzzle, but I was determined to make the attempt. How could we come four thousand light years and not even try? When Amanda informed me they were ready to start, my stomach cramped, and sweat beaded on my forehead. Our engines were nearly changed, and in just twenty minutes Dominguez would force my hand.
I walked slowly, on uncertain legs, to the science compartments. Everyone was there.
"I'm begging you, don't do this." Fitz's voice had no trace of his usual haughtiness. I nearly backed out and gave him what he wanted, but I shoved the fear aside, determined to see this through to the end.
Dominguez, cagier than Fitz, said nothing, his disappointed expression hitting me like a suddenly decompressed airlock. I stepped past him and sat in the prepared seat. Amanda, standing behind me, fitted the reality-set mesh to my scalp, and then bent over and on the cheek quickly kissed me.
"Are you ready?" she asked, standing by the terminal, her hands hovering, ready to gesture. Nodding, I barely saw her hands begin to move before a new reality shoved everything aside.
In retrospect, I can only partially describe what happened next. I ceased to be aware of self, experiencing emotion and sensory impressions without awareness riding interference.
I tasted blue, heard cinnamon, my skin flushed with the hot burn of a charcoal smell, and throughout this tumbling jumble of senses my mood became one of acute anticipation. Like locking in a troublesome digital signal, everything suddenly sharpened, my senses falling back into their familiar, but now cosmically enhanced, forms.
The galaxy lay before me, a vast tableau of stars, dust, gas, and countless bodies in ceaseless motion. With nothing more than a passing desire, I fell through time and space, light years as meaningless as yesterday’s breaths, until Doppel's nebula hung before me.
The clouds roiled and boiled, centuries passing like seconds, the nebula's beauty entrancing in its transience. My awareness splintered, and our solar system spun before me while simultaneously I considered the nebula. Earth, blue and green, vibrant with life, commanded my attention, while the other planets in their orbits enriched the scene. No human had ever experienced what passed though my senses, the entirety of the solar system, perceived as a single whole thing, its vast scale comprehensible.
The nebula boiled and forces reached deep inside, pulling elements this way and that, sorting, compressing, and molding the cloud into a star and planets, guided by the dazzling jewel that was home.
The raw power and beauty of creation overpowered me, and had I a body, tears would have flowed, enough to flood worlds. Colors, only perceptible to myself, erupted from the newly forged planets, comets streaked across the scene, painting the new system with grace, and the very motion of their orbits pulled at my sense of heart.
Doppel swam in my mind, never a mere duplicate but an enhancement. Sol’s ethereal beauty was captured, amplified, and displayed for those with the vision to understand. Humanity was far more lost than any blind man in Plato's Cave. Playing at thought, color, form, and sound as merely the finger paints of the universe, but perceiving Doppel through my new cosmic senses, I knew beauty as an Absolute.
My senses expanded again, perceiving dozens of planetary systems, the quickstreams tying them together, some created, some just admired, all inspiring in their natural glory. The collection was a gallery of Beauty within our spinning, exploding, and coalescing galaxy. My emotional being pulled apart, and inside me fear, love, hate, pride, joy, and nameless emotions collided, vying for dominance.
Cold deck plates pressed against my cheek, and tears flooded down to the deck as I sobbed. Amanda took me by the shoulders, helping me to my feet. Mustering a self-control I had never before realized, I stopped blubbering and looked around the compartment.
Chief Dominguez considered me with unconcealed contempt and Fitz's arrogant superiority had returned. Dominguez turned to Fitz and said, "We'll take care of him until…”
Easily I put fire in my voice. "No need to 'take care of me,' Chief Dominguez, I'm quite alright. Chief, please make ready for superluminal transit." I turned to Fitz. "Doctor Fitzgerald, please be sure your department is ready for departure."
"Something scared you out there?" Dominguez smirked, ready to guide me through an imagined crisis.
"Nothing like that, Chief." A few errant tears continued rolling down my cheeks, but I ignored them, still in the grips of the most liberating emotional experience of my life. "We've got lots to report, including what Doppel is."
They all spoke at once, scientists and technicians all consumed by the same insatiable curiosity that had propelled humanity from caves to the stars. That wasn't our only ineffable compulsion.
"It's art." I turned to Fitz. "You're wrong about the transcendent aliens. We have something in common; the need to create. To put our emotions out there for everyone to see and share."
They stood, silent and dumbfounded, and I said, "Chief, let's get moving. We've got a lot to report before we come back."
He hurried from the compartment and the science team started debating my revelation. I walked out, making my way to the small bridge while turning over and over in my mind the concept that even gods need to paint.

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