Distraction



Manipulation is my specialty. I knew it had to be why they’d selected me for the job. I was excited. All the retraining had been worth it. In two days’ time I'd be part of a work team, headed into the Clancy quadrant.

I’d kept track of previous attempts by the Rafferty Group to establish mines on JA20. Rafferty Group was a company focused on energy acquisition and that planet was an outpost with ore deposits that promised considerable profit, but repeatedly the scouring teams sent there had been unsuccessful. It was an embarrassment to the board of directors, but more than that, the failures had begun to cause interest and attention in undesirable areas, threatening a funding cutoff by investors. This latest effort could well be the last and having a chance to be involved was too good for me to pass up.

“Why you?” my friend Hally had asked, with unreserved surprise, echoing the sentiments of a number of my fellow graduates, and I admitted to myself, if not to them, that I’d been surprised as well, until I learned the company wanted an expert to manipulate the graphic repros in old communications data. It was a world I understood—maybe the only one. Entering the digital compilations, doing the complex conversions—it was like sinking into a familiar, warm, certain space, a virtual world untouched by anyone except me. Still, I knew where Hally was coming from. I wasn't known as a team player, and an exped like the one I was about to join required sharing time and information both, which made it all so curious. Every time I thought about that aspect I had the feeling I was Alice checking the next unknown in her Wonderland.

The RG-5 transport would depart in the pre-dawn hours from a point in the Mojave just northeast of Twenty-Nine Palms, near the site of old airbase ruins. I was scheduled to arrive at midnight. It had been a long time since I'd driven through the desert, though once it had meant home, and husband, and a child. A peculiar outbreak of flu had ended that eight years before, when the two-hundred-year-old remains of a plutonium dump site had been found under our town. But the virus that spread from it hadn't affected me at all. Thinking about it, the old rage and bitterness entered in for a moment.

Moonlight covered the distant San Bernadino range. It lighted the brush and rocks on the plain with an odd, pale green hue that intensified the closer I got to the launch area. They had activated a force field and I knew they’d be stopping my advance soon.

A robotic guard materialized before me at almost the same time as the thought. It didn't speak, just ran its monitor over the vehicle. Then it nodded and waved me on. Machines everywhere now that are useful for everything, I thought, except holding off mortality.

Crossing a series of small slopes in the valley, the road then veered to the west for another mile. I put on the MAWS they had given me to be able to detect the outlines of the subterranean fencing, impossible to see with the naked eye but as bright as day with the microwave scanner. It lay before me in a triangular depression, the actual destination lying on the second angle. Hardly had I stopped my jeep tracker when the ground opened and pulled me and the vehicle half a mile down. Not until the descent was finished was there any visible light, when the shaft opened into a large mirrored room where the rest of the crew had assembled. One person broke away from a cluster of people and came over to me as I got out of the jeep.

“Tessa Raines! Glad to see you’re joining us here! Remember me?”

“It’s only been three months—of course I do, Mr. Loren, a pleasure. You’re the one I should thank for my getting this assignment, I’m told.”

“Call me Max. Well, I am principal coordinator of this show, true enough, but you had the vote of everyone. Joe, especially, was keen, in fact.” Loren was my height and carried a few extra pounds. I remembered his open enthusiasm. He’d been gracious toward me during the testing and had certainly manifested an eagerness to talk with me after the conference exams ended. Captain, Joe Lennis, whose ship I was now on, was a different story. I’d never gotten to meet him. Where had he been during the exams, and what made him select me without an interview, I wondered?

“We had four hundred applications,” Loren said, as if reading my mind. “Didn’t want you to know then, of course—that can be a bit daunting to a candidate, don’t you think? Now,” he said, taking my arm and leading me toward a door on the other side of the room, “since we're going to be working closely together for a good while, I'd like to get you ready for departure and introduce everyone a little later on, if you don't mind?”

Behind him there was a sudden commotion of activity, as the people who had been standing around when I arrived began rushing away to prepare for the countdown. Or so I assumed.

“Countdown?” Loren said when I mentioned it as he led me along a low-ceilinged corridor. “Oh, no. We don't do it that way. Just tell me when you're all set. My priority is to make sure everyone's reported, and then off we’ll go. After all, it's not straight up any more, is it!”

He laughed, which made me feel at ease and banished any residual nervousness I was feeling. I’d slept poorly the night before, worried whether I’d fit in. Loren seemed to have no such reservations about me. Or maybe, I thought, that isn’t what this is about. Maybe fitting in doesn’t matter. Still, a voice in my head reminded me that when I was with people, I couldn’t be as free as when I was alone, not really. People had expectations. I would have to just listen and observe and do my job. That was the best I could offer, end of story.

The corridor led directly onto the bridge, an octagonal room with twenty stations, some already occupied by the crew. I didn’t see any chair for the captain. Loren showed me which console was mine.

“You need anything, ask Mike Annerly. He’ll be here soon. All right if I leave you to it?”

“I'm ready anytime,” I told him. As I watched the man leave, I was struck by the sudden feeling that he seemed distracted and had been putting on a show for me more than anything else. The thought made no sense and I dismissed it.

“You think too much,” Hally had often said to me. “You need some fun in your life.”

There was a time when I would have agreed with her. A long time ago. Before the outbreak. But I hadn’t shared those memories with Hally, or with anyone. At worst the story would bring pity, and at best, well-meant words that wouldn’t bring Sam back, or my sweet Mira. Six years old, so soon gone. No. The information belonged to me and a few bureaucrats who insisted I sign forms that required me to provide my background before every new assignment. Fortunately, they never shared anyone’s personal history, not out of concern but because it took too much time. An inverse blessing. I had become very protective of my past.

The room was quiet except for the sound of low voices going over checklists and the gentle whirring of the air plates above my console. A few minutes later I noticed that we had already passed the moon and were accelerating. There was no thrust, no intensification of pressure. Loren was right. It was a long way from old times. A lot of years since my last assignment into the quadrant.

I turned back to the panels before me and began drafting the JA20 terrain from the binary data they’d supplied. In less than ten minutes I had a fairly detailed map of the intended setdown area. I moved on to establish some outlines of the extended five-mile perimeter, when several more members of the crew entered the room and went to empty stations. One of them approached me to introduce himself.

“Tessa Raines, I know. Mike Annerly, at your service,” he said, shaking my hand. “I handle on-board system repair and ground retrieval. How's it—well, hey, look at this,” he said, studying my drawing. “You've got JA20 laid out for us already. They said you were good. Bridey, Harrison, come over here.”

Two of the crew left their stations and joined us, a woman and man who both stared at me and said nothing. “What d'ya think, guys and gals?” he said to them, gesturing at my screen. The two moved in for a better look. Their manner changed slightly, and they nodded in approval.

“They like it. Good news for us. They're the ones who go down first, and they’re real sticklers for detail,” Mike declared as the two walked away. He glanced after them fondly. “Don't be put off by them,” he added, seeing my look. “They have no facial muscles, can't talk, or show expression. Side-effects of that epidemic flu outbreak during the hazmat crisis some years back. At least they survived it,” Mike added.

I turned away, wishing I could be less vulnerable to remembering.

“Hey! Trust me, they like what they saw,” he said. “So, any questions?”

“Where’s the captain,” I said. “I don't even know what he looks like.”

“So you’re not aware?” Mike gazed at me with interest.

“Aware of what?” I asked.

“Well, Max or someone should have mentioned it. There's no ‘Captain,’ not the way you’re thinking, anyhow.”

“What does that mean? I know he's on board.”

“Yeah, sure, but he doesn't run things quite the way you're probably used to. He never comes on the bridge, for example, not that we know about, anyway. And only a very few get to go on the JA20 expeds, and that’s because of him. Not everyone can handle his methods. You must have done a hell of a job on your improv to be considered, no matter how good you are at those graphics.” Mike said, looking at me curiously. He pushed his fingers through his auburn hair, making parts of it stand on end.

“The improv? I don't see the connection…and what do you mean by how things are run here?”

“We’re a little informal, for one thing. No titles, right? Answer me this. How did you choose in the improv—which Macom scenario?”

We had just passed beyond Jupiter, I saw out the port window, which meant someone would be making adjustments for immediate trajectory out of the solar system. Even then I heard nothing more than the occasional voices of the people at work around me, no sense of movement at all, no engines throbbing in the background.

Remembering the application scenario the year before, the first stage in getting accredited again for outpost expeds, I found myself smiling. “Well, they gave me the conditions. You know them—no power to the engines, radiation penetration, all the obstacles. So I was given the choice—destroy the ship, and me, or surrender to the Macom.”

“And?” Mike prompted.

“You really want to know? I must warn you, I can drill down too much sometimes…so I’ve been told…maybe you just want the high-level version.”

“Not at all. Trust me, I really want to know. I’m listening, see?” He glanced out at the port view. “We’ve got some time.” He pulled up a chair and sat down, resting his elbows on the back of it, waiting.

“Okay,” I said, hesitant at having a rapt audience, something I wasn’t used to, but warming to the subject. “Things were really confusing, and it was going to be a disaster any minute. Besides that, I hadn’t been assigned as the commander, so I didn’t have to go down with the ship. He was dead, anyway. There were no other survivors, of course. After the ultimatum from the Macom, I rearranged the screen pixels to display the central communications room with nothing but the dead in it--I'm afraid I sat the commander in his chair for display.” I stopped. “Are you sure you want to know all of it?”

“Yes. Absolutely,” Mike said to me. “I’ve been curious about you since I heard you were selected. According to your history logs, the last exped you took was eight years ago. That’s a long time between trips. Hard to sustain a skills level like yours without being out in the field.”

“Yes, eight years.” I paused a moment and then continued my narrative. “Well, I knew I could sustain the image for four and a half minutes before there would be an automatic dissolution of the multiplane grid I'd set up to eliminate my presence. During that time I got a reading on their communications console, doing that at very low frequencies so I wasn't detected, and using a remote repro I translated their code on their screen to represent the approach of a fleet of our ships. They had no sensory input to support what they saw, but they assumed the incoming fleet had somehow sabotaged their readings. They got out in a hurry. Actually, in about one minute, forty seconds, which was longer than I thought the remote image would hold, since I had to include a timer that insured a steady progression of the fleet on screen, and I'd never used it before.”

“You said all that in one breath,” Mike smiled. “Cool outcome. But tell me this, why didn't they detect your presence, no matter what you did with the screen? Their sensors should have picked you up.”

“That was temporary, too. Since Macom shields are made of specified filaments that form a grid they could use to block another ship from getting readings, I configured a shield exactly like theirs around me with the small reserve power that was left. I figured it'd be good for maybe two or three minutes before the reserve was depleted. I could blend in with the scenery, so to speak. I got lucky. Then the ‘Macom’ creators opened the door and let me out and said I'd passed.”

“They kept their eye on you after that, you can bet. Your masking solution would have especially interested our ‘Captain.’ You’ll definitely meet him at dinner tonight. I’ll look forward to hearing your impressions.”

A sudden tremor passed through the room. Mike looked up at the ceiling, puzzled. “Back in a sec,” he said, and left.

It wasn't until a few hours after dinner ended that I saw him again. One of the team had recommended I check out the sheer transparent wall that circled the ship. I felt disembodied as I moved along the perimeter walkway, surrounded by space, awed by the light from a sea of stars. It was all so different from before, I thought. Eight years ago I had seen the views from a communications surveyor. It had been a very small window into infinity, like the port window now on the bridge.

“What do you think?” I swung around at the words and found Mike standing behind me.

I suppressed a wave of impatience. I'd rather have been left alone. Vaguely I gestured out toward the dazzling display.

“Yes, it’s a terrific view, but I was talking about Joe. How'd he perform at dinner?”

“You might have given me a little more information,” I said, working to keep a neutral tone in my voice, “or someone at headquarters should have.”

“Well?”

“I like things better the way they usually are. It's difficult to sustain a conversation with a superior who looks exactly like me.”

“Or me. Or Harrison. Or any of us. All depending on whoever he's talking to, and sometimes he’ll assume one of our personalities when we’re not even there. I find it invigorating.”

“Really. I can’t say I share the feeling.”

“Hey, Tessa, take it easy. I’ve been on three assignments with him now. Joe is probably the best convoy scout I've ever worked for. He's utterly fearless and he gets the absolute best out of everyone. After all, how can you say no to yourself?”

“A captain who assumes the identity of anyone he's speaking to--it's a cruel manipulation,” I answered. I turned away from the star-dusted spectacle and went down the ramp into the main corridor, Mike Annerly trailing behind. As I started off to my own quarters he stopped me.

“Just remember this,” he said. “Joe wants to know what he can expect from each of us. And he likes to psyche people out. He chose you because he needs your skills base, but then he’s going to push to get more out of you. I’m just saying, you need to be ready for that.”

“Right. That’s his call,” I responded, but I still found the chameleon identity of the captain disturbing. It struck me as a violation, at some level.

Arrival at JA20 was seven days away. I spent most of that night and the next morning laying out the entire sequence for Bridey and Harrison, who would conduct the first foray beyond the site abandoned by the last three teams, according to the routes I programmed. If even some of the area could be mined, that would not only justify the mission, but ensure there would be others to follow.

On minor journeys over the last few years that hadn’t gone much farther out than the asteroid belt beyond Mars, I had traveled on old ships and fallen asleep with the muffled sound of core engines lulling my senses. The absolute quiet of the RG-5 was an unwelcome surprise. Somehow it had never come up in training. The simulations had all been carried out by generating local energy. I also noticed how quickly voices on the ship were absorbed, the startling absence of resonance. The silence was becoming a distraction, something I knew I couldn’t afford. I had to be able to rest, but sleep eluded me more and more.

“It’s something we all go through at first,” Mike said, when I mentioned it. “There’s a legitimate cause why it affects you. See, the engines do have sound, but at a really low frequency. Bridey calls it heavy air—which isn’t a bad term, when you think about it. That’s what you feel—a kind of oppression from the weight of the sound—it’s there, you can feel it—but it’s out of range, and that makes you distrust your own senses. You get used to it. Took me about a week. Harrison’s still not used to it and she’s been on board in pre-op for over a month. I can get you something to help you sleep, if you want.”

“No,” I said, “I have to be alert. Now I understand what it is, I’ll adjust my responses.”

“I’m sure you will—after all, that’s your specialty,” Mike said to me with a grin.

They should have brought it up in training all the same, I thought. The next night I slept better. It just required the right information to manipulate the outcome.

For the next four days I only saw Captain Joe Lennis at dinner. Where did he keep himself the rest of the time, I wanted to ask Mike, but didn’t. Maybe he went around in disguise all the time. I looked for Loren but was told he was engaged on a project behind closed doors. Then, five days out, Lennis showed up.

I was using an afternoon break to explore the engineering section of the ship, hoping to discover the source of the “heavy air” Mike had described. The area intrigued me. There was almost no equipment and only one crew member besides the engineer, who was absorbed in taking notes on an internal viewer and just glanced up at me as I walked through, nodding briefly and returning to her work.

The room was built in an octagonal shape like the bridge. Then I saw the power source, and realized nothing about the room was randomly designed. A single thin, red cylinder, not more than six inches in diameter, hung down from the center of the high ceiling, almost touching the matte silver finish of the floor, with only a foot to spare. I thought at first it was a relay, given the laser-thin strips of red that were suspended from the ceiling, spanning each of the eight walls. But it was much more than that. I could feel the vibration around me, a gradual sensation that grew stronger the longer I stayed standing there.

It wasn’t an ordinary pulsing. I sensed the rhythm of it after a few minutes, a sequence of eight on and eight off. Yet that couldn’t happen, for if it was off, how could the power be sustained? There had been no suspension in the ship’s acceleration, not a fraction of a delay. I was certain of that.

“Interesting, isn’t it.” The engineer stood behind me. I jumped and swung around. I hated being surprised, or interrupted. A young, freckled face met my inspection.

“Sorry if I startled you. I wear these soft soles. I’m Jane.” She was disarming. I relented.

“Some setup you have here.”

“Want to know how it works?”

“No, not the slightest interest,” I said with a laugh in reply. “How about we start with the on and off—what’s that about?”

“Not many detect it so quickly,” said Jane, impressed. “It’s actually pretty simple. I’m an intern and they’ve left me in charge here, which should be some indicator. We rotate—I guess switch is a better word—between perceptual grids. When it’s on we’re in one location, and when it’s off we’re in another. But it happens so fast, usually no one notices. Like a light that flickers but our eyes can’t consciously perceive that.”

“And what’s the point of having it this way?”

“Because we save energy,” Joe Lennis said, walking towards me from the side door. I heard my own voice and saw a copy of myself, a mirror image of long, wavy black hair and green eyes and intense expression, and I knew that at the same time Jane saw her own exact reflection in the captain. It was still unnerving. So he had this peculiar ability—great. He didn’t have to use it. What made him keep us all off-center this way, I wondered? But he was ignoring my stare.

“The off cycle preserves the power grid, which is sustained here,” he said, reaching over and almost touching the red cylinder in the center, but pulling his hand away at the last moment. “If I really do make contact with it, and it’s in an off cycle, there I go, right along with it,” he said, with a smile that didn’t reach the eyes. “Highly unlikely I’d find my way back. We either do it all at once, together, or we don’t. Jane is right—we’re either on or off. No mixing.”

“But where is ‘off’?” I asked, now fully engaged.

“What difference does it make? So long as we return. Agreed, Jane? As to power—your real question, I understand—the cylinder draws energy from the off cycle and brings it here. We use what we need and store the rest. There are always reserves. Now, everyone has work to do, Jane included,” he said, leading me from the room and then going his own way.

It wasn’t until I was back in my quarters that the question arose in my mind. How did he—or any of them—know for certain when they were in one cycle or another? Something nudged at my mind, but it was elusive. I had a sudden inclination to review the Macom theme again, but shook it off. Nothing could be further from what I was dealing with now. Yet I was well aware of what Lennis had not said. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to reveal where the “off” cycle existed. In some other dimension? Probably. But why hedge on it? What difference could it make if I knew the origin?

We entered the Clancy Quadrant on day six. Asteroid fields were everywhere, which was why this sector was so desirable. Only seven percent of them had been mined so far. Most of those were like the 22 Kalliope, a large M-type asteroid where I’d carried out part of my refresher training in our solar system five months earlier. I studied the view for hours from the transparent walkway as we maneuvered through the clusters of shattered stone.

On the seventh day, on schedule, we arrived at JA20, one of three planets that circled a red-dwarf star. I made final preparations at my console on the bridge. Below us the surface of the planet was hidden under a luminous cloud of methane and ammonia. Several underground sites had been constructed for oxygen filtration, but it was doubtful they were still operating. The last team had left nearly nine months ago. But if Bridey and Harrison found what we were looking for, it was an easy matter to restore appropriate operating conditions.

“That’s what we’re waiting on,” Lennis had told us in a pre-op session en route. “That’s all we need. One site. One decent layer of the stuff. Which you will access for us, right, Tessa?” I had nodded in accord to my mirror image.

Bridey and Harrison were already in the locking pen, their faces showing the familiar blank patience. Once they arrived on the surface and I started the program, they would proceed to run their analysis using the Proxi, a device of mine that projected virtual simulations of the mining routes I’d designed the first day on board. The paths were bright flashing trails that raced through the virtual sphere of the planet I’d suspended in the center of the bridge area. I had generated it from the data Mike had provided. The routes that had already been explored in previous expeds were outlined in red. The seven routes in green were unknowns. The longest of these went sixteen miles underground. Bridey and Harrison would leave that one until the end.

Loren had shown up for the first time in days and was watching the process, and me. He was oddly subdued and said almost nothing. Something was bothering him, but there was no time to wonder about it.

A slight tremor went through the room just as I set the final parameters. I looked over at Mike, who was staring up at the smooth shell above us.

He left for a few minutes but returned and signaled me to proceed. I raised an eyebrow in question, but he shook his head. I would have to learn what he thought had caused the vibration later. Though the ship made no detectable sound, yet the motion had been unmistakable.

“All repros set and waiting,” I said to everyone and no one in particular. I nodded to Mike, who placed his hand on the wall outside the locking pen. Bridey and Harrison disappeared. I ran a few more calculations on the console and looked up at the Proxi sphere. “They’re down there. Let’s see what they find.”

Loren dimmed the lights, making the display more vivid in the near darkness. The routes shone with green and red trails that were always in movement. In the exact center we could see two upright figures in motion, each six inches in height. Bridey and Harrison had entered the first of the seven unknown paths in the radius. All but the last one were short enough to promise a fast analysis.

“Hey!” Mike called over to me. “Like I said, looks like Joe knew what he was doing getting hold of you.”

“Yes, he did,” Loren echoed, smiling at me, yet again he seemed preoccupied.

“Why isn’t he here, now?” I asked. Wouldn’t the captain want to see the action for himself, I wondered? I looked over at Mike but he was absorbed in his instruments. I made a mental note to ask him later.

“Tell me more about this, what you’ve configured,” Loren said

“But you know already how it’s—”

“Not completely. That’s why you’re here,” Loren interrupted. “I’m serious, Tessa. I want to know what you’re doing. I can see that it works and I was sure in your hands it would. It’s just that I need details to help other people. That’s my job as the coordinator, after all, right?”

“People here seem to know what to do without help from anyone else. In fact, the ship is like a—”

“Well-oiled machine,” he interrupted for a second time. “That’s exactly what it is, and it’s taken a lot of effort on my part to get it that way. All I’m asking is that you indulge my enthusiasm for this program of yours. I’m impatient, bad at waiting, and we’ve some time on our hands until we hear from the team down there. Now, please go on. Show me how this process of yours really works.”

I glanced at what the Proxi was displaying at that moment. Bridey and Harrison were on the second unknown route, making good time, but had clearly found nothing so far. There was no good reason to doubt Loren. He’d been nothing but helpful to me until now. My skepticism—or had it become cynicism?—had gotten me in trouble more than once. “Yield in small things,” Sam had told me once, long ago. I sighed mentally and began explaining the protocol to Loren.

“Since we can’t visually penetrate the surface—I mean, since none of our usual instruments can, anyway, although we don’t know why—I knew we’d have to resort to using some form of light converter, and that it had to be in perpetual motion. I knew from Mike’s prep sheets that the ship possessed advanced technology for manifesting remote data, sound and sight together, into a volumetric display, without visual distortion. Your own work is remarkable in that area. I used it.”

Loren bowed slightly. “I’m honored to have you say so.”

Bridey and Harrison were now entering the third route. A faint hissing sound emanated from inside the sphere, simulating the steady current of the gases that moved at an accelerated rate around the planet. If the team had anything to report, it would reach us through the Proxi.

“Then what?” Loren prompted me as he watched the display.

“It’s all a matter of projection,” I said. “Here, look.” It was a process I understood, a place where I could immerse myself at will. I pointed to graphs laid out on the console. “This is a comparison of statistical and what I call synergetic probabilities. In previous operations, the teams focused on odds of survival based on the supply chain and the unknown terrain. There are over two hundred thousand paths and ancient roadways down there, all of them below ground. The teams made their calculations based on routes that were possible by their standards. It was good work, but an inadequate premise.”

“I see,” Loren said, not taking his eyes off the Proxi, “and you disagreed with that premise.”

“Not at first, but later, yes. The routes shown over there,” I said, pointing to the flashing display, “are based on paths that have in fact changed over time.”

“Changed? JA20 is a dead planet. It’s been that way for several hundred million years, Tessa. The only thing that changed was the start of Rafferty’s mining operations, and that happened only ten years ago.”

“That assumption is why the statistical projections failed before,” I said. “Dead planet or not, if we calculate in terms of re-creation, something else emerges, something entirely different.”

“You’re saying what—the routes get modified? How?” Loren’s tone was abrupt, so much so that I wondered again what was bothering him. Still, the mission was in a critical state and I couldn’t blame him for doubting what I was saying. He wouldn’t be able to believe it until everything was over.

“Every step that teams have taken in the past synergetically influenced both the direction and exit options that appeared next,” I said. “That’s why the ore has eluded teams until now. They were looking for fixed, predictable paths to get to it. The reality is fluid—literally. Nothing is where it seems to be. It’s the nature of this planet.”

“So how can we track anything? It seems to me those are fixed routes that I’m looking at. You can’t deny that Bridey and Harrison are walking in a straight line, and adhering to your calculations.”

“No, they’re not.” I held my hand just above the console and then ran it across the entire panel. The Proxi inverted. The flashing paths swept past us, literally only inches away, filling the room.

The crew stopped what they were doing. Mike looked up at the sudden silence. “Wow!” he said, his features tinted red by a trail that hovered near his head.

“I made no fixed calculations,” I said to Loren. “What I gave Bridey and Harrison was a series of probabilities as options. And every time they use one of those options, the routes change. It’s like the planet is a roulette wheel.”

“Again, how can we find out anything that way?” Loren asked. The crew had gone back to work. Only Mike continued to listen and watch from his station, an expression of awe on his face as he stared at the paths moving through the room.

“This probability variation has to have been why the other teams failed, that’s what you’re telling me,” Loren said. “With that kind of outcome, Bridey and Harrison won’t find the ore no matter what they do. We’ll end up with nothing, which is what happened on the other expeds!”

I placed my hands on the console. His agitation concerned me. “It’s fine,” I said to him, my voice sharper than I wanted it to be. Ease up, I reminded myself.

The paths in the inversion swirled among us, the Proxi no longer contained but instead opened, showing us a holographic overlay of the planetary terrain far below the ship, with detail so exact we might have been on the surface ourselves. That was made clear when, as we watched, Bridey and Harrison passed right by us, life-sized figures now, walking down one and then another of the routes, their solemn faces intent on their work, their protective suits a reflective cobalt that dimmed their outlines. Each route they traveled and discarded was reset by the Proxi into a thin gold line that wove itself among the other, thicker, red and green paths. Only three green ones were left, the longest one trailing out past Mike and the locking pen, arcing across in a broad streak through the outside wall of the ship beyond our range of vision, leaving behind a scintillating trail like stardust.

“If you let me finish, I’ll explain why we can succeed,” I said quietly. Loren hadn’t taken his eyes from the flowing colors that surrounded him and the hologram of the two team members. In one motion under my direction the Proxi had shown him something he’d never imagined. He seemed to wake from a trance and gestured for me to go on.

“Synergetic probabilities are not endless,” I said, aware I needed to make it as clear to him as it was to me. “There are predictable patterns within the inherent dynamic. They form families of response. Those are identifiable. Those are what I tracked and what enabled me to isolate these seven routes that you can see among all the others. They each showed the same pattern, that is, they changed in the same way. They’re the only ones that did. That means they are the only possible routes where mining can occur, within that collective pattern. For us, at least. With some adjustment for the constant of progression, my judgment is that mining operations could be very successful indeed on JA20.”

Loren had been pacing back and forth. He stopped and focused on me. “You aren’t suggesting that Bridey and Harrison can follow this theory of yours.”

“It isn’t a theory, and they don’t have to. All they have to do is take the routes I’ve given to them, let them expand—which the routes begin to do the moment the two of them step onto a path I’ve programmed, as I said—and check for the ore. When none appears, they back down the residual route and move on to the next one.”

“Which, by then, has already changed,” Loren said.

“Yes,” said I, indicating the console and then the flashing tiers of lights that filled the room. “I see that happening with the pattern and make the necessary adjustments for them. To Bridey and Harrison, it’s all transparent. For them, perception is normal.”

“Just a piece of cake, obviously,” said Mike. He had come over to my station to listen to me describe the process. “Gotta tell you, Tessa. This is by far the most interesting assignment I’ve been on. Thanks.” He smiled and walked away through the trails of light, a harlequin silhouette in the darkened room.

“Hello!” he said, and his tone caused Loren and me to turn around. Mike was peering intently into the display. “Bridey and Harrison—they’re not here—not there, I mean!”

“They have to be,” I said. He was right, the two figures had disappeared. I moved my hands over the console, containing the paths until they were compressed back into the sphere. I walked over to the Proxi, once more suspended in the center of the room.

“This just isn’t possible,” I said, half to myself.

“It might not fit your probability theories, but it’s obviously possible,” Loren said. “So where are they?” His voice sounded almost threatening, but I took the thought as overreaction on my part.

“It’s just an unexpected probability that has appeared,” I said.

“Is there any other kind?” Loren asked. He moved closer to me. “It looks very much as if your ‘fixed’ probability patterns have been compromised.”

“Please. Give me time.” I focused on the Proxi and made small, careful motions on the console.

“If we fail in this mission, no one else will ever get here. This source of power will never be ours. Do you have any idea of the economic impact of that loss? Or for us here?” Loren said, and he leaned even closer toward me. “We haven’t let many know just how critical this is.”

I didn’t answer him. I was focused on the sphere, much more concerned at that moment for Bridey and Harrison than the Rafferty Group profits.

“Hey, there they are!” Mike ran over to the Proxi. On the outside of the sphere, far above the inner routes laid out in their red and green and gold, two figures walked the circumference in single file.

I let out a sigh. “Of course!” I whispered.

Loren stepped back and stared at the display. “So what the hell is going on now?” he asked, his voice loud and frustrated.

I didn’t answer him right away. To me the implications were almost too great to acknowledge. If I was right…

“I’m going to invert the Proxi again,” I said.

“No!” Loren objected.

I looked at him. “I’m not asking permission. You want those two back, you have to trust me.” Before he could answer, I triggered the inversion. In another moment, Brady and Harrison stood beside us. Then I contained the Proxi again.

Harrison started to remove her head gear.

“Don’t do that!” Mike cried out, rushing up to stop her. “You need to decompress!”

“No, she doesn’t. Neither of them do,” I assured him. “They’ve always been here. That’s what I didn’t plan for, but it makes perfect sense. They never left the ship.”

Bridey and Harrison went over to the locking pen and shed their protective clothing. Mike ran his diagnostics over them.

“Nothing,” he reported. “No elevated heart rate. No dust from the surface. No reaction to the radiation. There isn’t any change in their blood work. You’re right, there’s no way they spent time on the surface,” he said, his bewilderment evident. “But we watched them!”

Loren grabbed my arm. “I don’t understand! What’s happened?”

I twisted out of his grip. “You can stop the pretense—Captain Lennis!”

The man’s eyes flickered and he gave a slight bow toward me as he stepped back. He moved over to the sphere and rested his hand lightly on its malleable surface. “I can’t say I knew what to expect. I had hope, however, and it’s justified now. What you’ve done with this inversion opens up opportunities to assess a planet’s resources without the expense of on-site scouring, exactly what I wanted.

“Tell me, how did you know who I was?” he asked, looking at me with Loren’s eyes, but conveying the arrogance of the captain.

“Wait a minute. What are you talking about?” Mike said, looking from one of us to the other.

“How could I avoid it?” I said to Lennis, unable to keep the anger out of my voice. “I’m just sorry it took me so long. The Loren I met when I came aboard behaved very differently. He was an extrovert, among other things, and far too loyal to you, something you didn’t deserve.”

Lennis drew his hand away from the Proxi and looked at me. “That wasn’t what gave me away. What else?”

“Then…Tessa is right?” Mike asked.

“It’s just what you told me,” I said, turning to him. “Remember? You said sometimes our captain likes to assume one of our personalities when we’re not even there.”

For a third time I felt an almost imperceptible movement of the ship. Mike was looking up at the ceiling yet again. I focused on Lennis, wishing it really was Loren standing there. Where was he?

“I can tell you how I knew,” I said. “It wasn’t hard. For one thing, Loren wouldn’t need me to explain synergetic probability to him—he would have understood what I did with the inversion when it happened.”

“Which was?”

“Which was,” I continued, barely controlling the rage I felt at his deception, the words spilling out, “to grasp the reality of what the inversion had revealed. It had opened a route not into the probabilities but into the lack of any need for them—it had opened a virtual dimension. The plane of reality I had configured initially was immersed in the three-dimensional aspects of the planet’s surface, its own terrain—configuring the paths required that material moment in time. What Loren would have recognized just as I finally did was that the routes that entered into this room during the inversion were partial segments of another reality created by the inversion itself and time was no longer a factor.” I stopped, struck by another thought. I was sure I was right.

“The trails we’re seeing now are non-self-intersecting loops, dividing the reality I had programmed as one entity into two separate versions—giving us the inside and outside of itself at once. Like a virtual Moebius strip, one with more than three dimensions. We had no need to go anywhere. It was—it is—all here, superimposed on and expanding our own perception.”

I stopped again, wondering why I was telling Lennis anything. “Tell me where he is. Where is Loren?”

Lennis nodded, studying the Proxi, ignoring my question. “Brilliant, I have to admit, though you’re right, I can’t pretend to understand your process. After all, a good captain has to know what his crew is doing, but not necessarily how.”

“A good captain? You used me,” I said.

“You of all people should appreciate the subtlety of manipulation,” he said, watching me.

I looked over again at Mike’s station. He’d left the room. I began to walk toward it. “Where is Loren?” I repeated

“Let’s say he’s traded places—permanently. He went just that much too close to the off cycle in the engine room. Careless. Not watching what he was doing, talking to me, talking and talking. It was not a difficult process. He made it easy for me, you see.”

Stopping at Mike’s console, I looked at the wall where the seventh route had spun out earlier, seeing the debris the expanded trail had left in its wake, like so much glitter on the floor of the ship.

“I have another question.” I turned and looked at Lennis. “Why?” I said.

“What difference does it make to you?” Lennis asked. He glanced at the Proxi and looked at his hand, as if remembering the feel of the sphere on it.

“Well?” I said, when he remained silent.

Lennis smiled, the friendly Loren smile that, knowing its origin, was grotesque to see.

“Tell me, Tessa, what is your specialty?”

“What?”

“A simple question. Why did we bring you on board, you, in particular? Do you know?”

I wished Mike would return. Bridey and Harrison were no longer in the locking pen. The crew seemed to have disappeared as well. “To work the repros,” I said.

“Now, now, you can do better than that,” Lennis said.

“You know as well as I do.” I took a few steps further away from him. He was exerting a powerful presence, much more than he had been during the programming.

“Ah, Tessa. I can see my companionship no longer pleases you. Let me tell you why you’re on this ship. Manipulation appeals to me, just like it does you. And thanks to you, I have a way now to make things happen however I want, without boundaries. I can manipulate the whole damn universe, using your little device. The inversion was the missing element. I see how it works.” He looked around him with satisfaction. “Everything can simply merge into a new, available reality—as you say, another dimension. The Proxi lets me do it all from on board.

“I plan to visit quite a few worlds now. To them, I will be a force they’ll never be able to identify. I’ll be able to take what I want from them, free of charge, and they won’t even know what’s going on. The company’s shareholders will be pleased.”

I leaned against the wall. The enormity of what he intended overwhelmed me. The joy at being part of the expedition over the last seven days dissolved into an intense disillusion. What I had imagined and dreamed I was part of on this journey wasn’t real. “It’s all been just a con,” I said.

“Perception, as always, is relative,” Lennis said. He gestured to the Proxi as he stepped closer to me. “I think now is a good time for us to discuss we need to do next. After all, you know how to use all of this so well.” He grabbed my arm and started to pull me over toward the exit. Mike arrived at the same time. He took in the scene before him, and then focused on what he had to tell us.

“Loren…Joe. Tessa.” His even tone belied the fear in his eyes. “You need to see this. On the perimeter.”

Lennis continued to grip my arm as we followed Mike. “This better be necessary,” he said.

Mike stopped and pushed Lennis away from me. “Let go of her. Whatever you think you’re doing, Joe, you’re making a mistake. A big one. I don’t know how Tessa saw through you, I’m just sorry I didn’t, but trust me, that’s not your biggest problem. This might be.” With that he opened a door that led onto the transparent walkway.

I stared through the glass, incredulous.

Before us was not the blackness of space or the scintillation of stars that filled our view. Surrounding us was a sea of rock, a cavernous mass of red and gray that pushed against the outer wall of the ship.

I tried to grasp what I was looking at. How? What was it? Then, in sudden insight, I understood. We were underground. The inversion had placed the ship there, beneath the surface of JA20. I thought nothing had moved except in a virtual capacity on board. I had it wrong.

“What is this?” Lennis asked, his eyes showing an apprehension he couldn’t hide.

Mike spoke first. “The seventh path. I’m right, Tessa, aren’t I? The one that left the Proxi during the inversion, the one that breached the wall. We’re in it.”

I breathed out. “Yes.” Then I stared at Mike. “But how did you figure that out? Mike, I mean….”

“It’s all right, I know what you mean. But it doesn’t take a lot to figure you could have opened another dimension or two or for all we know ten when you created the inversion. And instead of opening us into the one occupied by the planet, you opened the planet into ours.”

“You’re telling me this ship is underground?” Loren shouted. “The whole freaking ship? You have to fix it!”

I looked at the oppressive rock and considered its weight and wondered why it hadn’t crushed us already. If what Mike said was true, and I was sure it was, then we were subject to the laws of gravity. We had to be. Except, maybe not, I thought, as an idea began to shape itself in my head.

“Listen. It’s just as Mike said. The seventh route. That’s why Bridey and Harrison never reached the surface. That path had disappeared.”

“I said that?”

“What are you talking about?” Loren said.

“The inversion,” I said, looking at Mike. “The seventh route exited the ship. It became the bridge between the planet and us. You’re half right, Mike—we didn’t enter the planet’s dimension. We merged together…occupying the same space, but now visible space, not invisible. We aren’t surrounded by the rock so much as immersed in it, as it is in us. Simultaneously. We are both here, and not here—all of it at once. This is marvelous. Do you see? That’s why the ship isn’t harmed, why we aren’t crushed to death, which if it were rock and if we were underground and only in one dimension—we would be. Instead, we simply exist within each other.”

“That’s what the vibrations were from, that I kept trying to track,” Mike said, grabbing at my words. “They didn’t start until you began your calculations.”

“Echoes from the other dimension, just as this rock is a visual echo of those same vibrations, that same dimension.”

“What about the ore?” Lennis said, looking from one to the other, his features suffused with anger and confusion.

“We’re inside it now. It’s here with us. You’re looking at it, but we can’t touch it. We never could. That’s what we didn’t know—I mean, what I didn’t understand,” I said. “The paths changed over time, yes, but in another dimension, not in ours. We can see, but we can’t touch. Do you understand? We’re all in the off cycle right now, but it’s static, not dynamic. We’re fixed on the other side of the power grid. See? No mining here—or anywhere. No way you can take this ore. Do you understand?”

“NO!” Lennis lunged at me but Mike stopped him, holding the captain’s arms in a savage twist behind his back until he was still.

“Maybe you should tell us how we get out of here, wherever we are,” Lennis said in a sneer. Beneath his tone I heard the fury increasing, but there was also fear. This wasn’t the good time he’d been after.

“Actually, I think we can solve that and get out of here, yes,” I said.

Mike looked at me in surprise.

“You do? We can?”

“I put us into two dimensions—or more, like you said, but each one has two directions—in and out, or rather, off and on.” I felt awed by the truth of it. “Let’s get back to the console.”

“After I put our captain in a nice, secure place where he won’t bother us,” Mike said.

Mike told me later that when he went to lock up Lennis in the ship’s holding cell he’d found the rest of the crew in there already, courtesy of the captain. Whatever Lennis had planned for them, it wouldn’t happen now.

Back at my console, I opened the Proxi again into a full inversion. The paths filled the room, the same trails lay before me, the same glittering path extended beyond the holding bay to the outside of the ship.

I walked over to the point where that last trail passed through the hull. Kneeling down, I ran my hand through the swath, which was when I saw what I was looking for.

“Mike!” I called out, seeing him walk back into the room.

“Right here.” he said. “Lennis is taken care of for a while. I still can’t believe what he did. I really trusted the man.” Mike stood beside me console, trying not to show the anxiety he felt.

“Our dear captain had an agenda. Don’t knock yourself. There’s no way any of us could have known until it was almost too late. But listen, I think I know how we can fix this,” I said.

“Your eyes are glittering like that trail over there,” he said.

“Look, what we have is what’s here, right?”

“What we have here? You mean the inversion? Yeah. That’s pretty obvious.”

“No. No, I mean—look at this.” I drew my hand along the seventh path, toward its exit point. As I did, a faint tremor ran through the ship. I repeated the action. A second tremor.

“See?”

Mike shook his head. “Not exactly. I’m afraid I—”

“It’s the part I didn’t see before. I should have. It never occurred to me to calculate the vibrations after the inversion, only before. What I didn’t realize was that the dimensional transformations were still ongoing.”

“Another piece of cake,” said Mike, “now that you’ve told me…”

I saw his expression and smiled. “Nice try. I already know how smart you are. Look. What it means is that when the inversion took place it had residual energy, and that’s what forced the seventh path to exit the ship.”

“A kind of wild card,” said Mike, “or like an aftershock.”

“Exactly. Good analogy. And by pulling that back in, reversing the flow, altering the time span—stopping the aftershock, as it were—I think I can compress the sphere in a way that gets us back to where we were, in orbit, outside the merge.”

“Back into just one dimension? I think I can live with that,” Mike said.

“Me, too,” I said, laughing. It occurred to me that it was a strange time to find humor. But in fact what I really felt was a kind of joy bubbling up.

For a while Mike watched me work as I moved between the console and the exiting trail, until I saw the trail begin to narrow, gradually receding from the hull until it had been absorbed into the inversion that filled the rest of the room.

“Last step. Ready?” I said to him. And I moved my hands over the console one more time.

“When you do that, it makes me think of conjurers,” Mike said.

“Only this isn’t magic, it’s very real. Or as real as probabilities get,” I said, and I gave my complete focus to the configurations I needed to make.

The collapse of the paths was sudden, sending out a series of vibrational waves that almost threw us to the floor. As I gripped the edge of the console, I saw the swirling masses of trails flow together, letting out a stream of light so bright I had to close my eyes. When I opened them again, the Proxi was contained as it had been in the beginning, empty of trails, transparent as glass. All I could see was the gentle wave on its surface, evidence of the compressed energy now radiating inside toward the center.

“I’ve contained the frequencies by setting up an electromagnetic barrier. The light you saw was the barrier initiating.”

“Some bright light! But what’s happened to us—I mean, to the ship? Are we out of the merge?” he asked me.

I shrugged, trying to keep myself detached from the excitement I felt. “Let’s go see,” I said.

We walked down the corridor, leaving the sphere suspended behind us. In a few minutes we reached the ramp to the outside walkway. Hesitating just a moment, sending a reassuring glance to Mike, I opened the exit door.

It all spilled in before us, distinct and defined--the distant, scintillating points of light, a black backdrop of space, with filaments of nebula farther away.

“It’s gone,” Mike said, hardly trusting his eyes. “The rock isn’t surrounding us anymore. Or we, it. Whatever way that goes.”

“No,” said I, “it’s not gone. We’re still in the same place. Our perception of it is gone, that’s all.” I wanted to shout the words. It had worked! I had done it!

“I can’t say that makes me feel any better. It’s manipulated my perception once already,” Mike said, and his voice betrayed his doubt.

“That was because of what I did at the outset, before I realized what was happening,” I said. “We’re in the frequency we understand. That’s all we have to know.”

“The vibration of three dimensions, of course.”

“Yes, good old three.” I turned around and went back into the main corridor.

“The captain—he knew what you were capable of. That has to be why he brought you on board. But how could he depend on the outcome?” Mike asked as they walked back together to the bridge.

“He couldn’t know for sure. But he guessed. I just wish I had been the one doing more of the guessing. For a while, he knew me better than I knew myself. Lennis is gifted that way—look how he managed us all so well. I wasn’t as attentive as I should have been. I had a lot on my mind. This assignment…I had signed up for it as a distraction.”

“Is that so? Remind me to stick around when you’re focused,” Mike said.

I thought about his words. When I was focused. It was time. I had come into my own again during this trip, acted with the same energy I had felt a long time ago, before Sam and Mira were taken from me.

I looked at Mike and smiled. “Stick around, just in case.”