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Chapter 12

Suspended Reality

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          Nemo did not switch into enhanced time mode with the others. There was a problem in quantum dynamics he wanted to solve without being interrupted. It involved chaotic gravitational vortices, known to be spun off the numerous black holes that littered the inner galactic region. He would organize the equations and solutions, then stir Na into normal time mode to discuss their physical ramifications and significance. Na wasn't attuned to formally solving difficult mathematics problems, but had terrific physical insight interpreting the significance of the formulae. Although both Na and Nemo now possessed equivalent mental powers, their distinct personalities led their thoughts in quite different directions.
          Nemo stopped for a moment, and impulsively looked back in the general direction of his former home. He tried to locate Suol, but it was lost behind a tangle of brighter stars and nebulosity. He momentarily felt disoriented, almost nauseated – no up, no down, only an endless sea of too-distant stars punctuating the empty vacuum that engulfed him. He still wasn't accustomed to the ultrasonic silence. Even the neutrino sky was mostly random noise, when he cared to look. Without his friends, Nemo was certain he would go mad. He decided to join them after all, and sleep.

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A spiraling configuration of black holes encountered by Na, Nemo and Ulixis after they entered the galactic core, with the glowing galaxy center as a backdrop
          Na and his comrades awoke together, as their autonomic sensors detected a strange configuration of spinning black holes, revolving around an indistinct central body, in the distance dead ahead. They had penetrated the outer reaches of the galactic core while they slept. How much time had passed back home? Such thoughts were becoming less and less relevant. There was no here and now, in any global sense. And yet there was only here and now, for Na and his companions.
          The trio had gradually decelerated toward interplanetary speed after entering the galactic core, and both Ulixis and Na approached the unusual system with slow caution. It somehow reminded Na of a coiled vine the octos decorated with bright balls for holiday celebrations. Nemo had uncharacteristically sped far out into the lead. So unusual for any octo, Na thought; was Nemo overcompensating?
          Blinding flash. Wrenching acceleration. Slamming, searing pain. Heavy, sickening smell of metallic plasma. Spinning stars. Pain. Creeping blackness. Spinning. Disorientation. I have killed her! I have killed her. I have killed whom? Why is there so much pain? There was supposed to be no more pain.
          "What … happened?" Na gasped to anyone who would listen. His very soul ached. A fuzzy, distant image of Ulixis swept past him; then again; and again. Na suddenly realized he was gyrating wildly, and willed himself to stop. Ulixis, her side scarred as if from some mighty blast, hung silhouetted against the stars only one hundred rets away. Such a welcome sight! But Nemo? Where was Nemo?! Na and Ulixis stared dumbly at each other, a combination of confusion and naked fear etched in their electronic signatures. Nemo had simply vanished.
          Ulixis was stunned, like she had been stung by a giant bushbee. She knew she wasn't in a meeting of the Planetary Council. Then, where was she? What was she doing here? Lights blinked on. Stars. Yes. She had to maintain her composure. Others were counting on her. They were always counting on her. Is that why she was here? "Na? Na! Are you all right?"
          Ulixis' voice crackled in Na's mind. "I'm not sure … I think so."
          "Is your auto recorder still working? Mine has been wiped."
          Na was relieved to be given a task. He hastily tested his playback memory, and found it in order. "Yes. I'll transmit on channel 1-0-0." Na immediately began to play a recording of the preceding nims. He and Ulixis watched intently as a brilliant finger of plasma shot out of the darkness ahead of them, directly toward Nemo. It somehow triggered a tremendous explosion, which engulfed their friend, and appeared to instantly vaporize him. Na and Ulixis had both reacted instinctively, shifting into maximum acceleration in the opposite direction, and casting a protective wall of energy toward the blast. The primary shock wave was blunted, but still swept into them with terrific force, hurling them backwards with it.
          "Was that an attack? Could it have been natural?" Ulixis pressed.
          "I don't know! The preliminary plasma stroke reminded me of something – lightning, I think. Did you release your distress pod? I believe mine was destroyed."
          "Yes. And a neutrino transmission, toward Jopitar." Ulixis paused briefly. Did they really believe the message would ever be received? "It all happened so fast! I think we should send a follow-up transmission, with the playback." In case someone was still listening.
          "Right." After they had done so, Na realized they were both still accelerating at peak rate away from the scene of the explosion. And the place he had last seen his best friend alive. "Nemo! Nemo!" he blurted into the void behind them, as if there was some chance Nemo could have yet escaped.
          A ghostlike form suddenly materialized out of a secondary blast front that trailed far behind them. Nemo! Without thinking of his own safety, Na slam decelerated and sped at breakneck velocity toward the apparition. He locked onto it, bare nocs ahead of an advancing wall of seething plasma, reversed course, and hauled back toward Ulixis. But the hulk he carried was lifeless, burned out. Nemo had somehow managed to ward off the brunt of the initial explosion, yet had perished in the effort. Na stared in heartbreak at the broken, lifeless body.
          "Na," Ulixis whispered, "Nemo suffered less than we did in the blast. And don't you realize? It will likely only be a few jopes before we will be able to reawaken him."
          Na blinked. How could he have forgotten? He stretched an internal tentacle toward his core, and touched the safe that held copies of himself, Ulixis and Nemo, last updated only one roh before. As soon as the facilities were established, they could build a new meton body, transfer a copy of Nemo's mind, and bring their dear friend back to life! Nemo would have lost only the last roh and the jopes required to rebuild him. Until then, he was merely in a profound and dreamless sleep.
          "But we can't just leave his remains here," Na blurted, the pain of loss swelling anew.
          "Of course not," Ulixis soothed. "It is no burden to carry them with us. Nemo will probably be touched that we thought to do so."
          Na looked lovingly at Ulixis. Impulsively, he extended an external tentacle and smoothed her slippery metallic skin. "I … I feel so strange, Ul. Giddy, almost."
          All of Ulixis' eyes simultaneously opened wide. "We have been through so much in such a short time. Now we are here alone together, facing we do not know what." Did Ulixis blush? "And we both still have our sex drives. Or had you forgotten that also? Perhaps it is only a convenient means to ensure that our race continues to spread across the cosmos. Or maybe it is an appetite we have refused to relinquish." Ulixis internally fondled her own vault, which contained thousands of dormant octo eggs and sperm.
          But Na found himself choking on Ulixis' choice of words – 'our race.' Ulixis sensed the reason, and continued gently. "Na, I think it is the time to let you know. Perhaps we should not have kept you in the dark, but we all wanted to surprise you. Look deep within your inactive reserve memory – octal address 211 from the end."
          Puzzled by her uncharacteristic indirectness, Na promptly did as Ulixis asked. Buried away in a file he would have no reason to access for another hundred jopes, he found a simple message. "Dear Na: We have taken the liberty to include in your seed bank a selection of your own rey sperm, together with eggs garnered from a wounded female rey found just before she died several thoms ago. With these, you should be able to found new rey tribes, in addition to octan colonies. We wish you the best of luck. Sincerely, the Neuro Board."
          Na could not quite believe it. He thought he would never again be able to play such a direct role in the stream of life's creation. He had once had a daughter. So long ago. A misty sadness crept over his awareness. Yes, he was not supposed to remember this too keenly. Still, he wondered: could she have survived the Mother storm? After all, he somehow did. Might she even yet be alive, so far away? He glanced back in the direction of his home planet, helplessly invisible against the endless blanket of stars. No – much too much time had elapsed. She had to be long dead. What an eerie feeling. After all, he was still alive. Could she have had her own children? Then might he yet have flesh descendants?
          Ulixis watched quietly as Na withdrew into himself, wondering what thoughts and emotions this message had triggered, then decided it was time to intrude. "Na – the giant planet J-327 we encountered just outside the galactic core, before we last slept. If you recall, it has almost the identical mass, composition and rotation rate as Jopitar. It should be an ideal place to establish a colony, and develop the facilities to rebuild our friend. Would you be ready to settle in for a while? Twenty jopes should be sufficient."
          Na returned his attention to Ulixis. A new belle, after all this time? But who was she, really? This pretend female, who had never flown with wings of flesh? What did he actually have in common with her? How did he ever get here, to this place and circumstance, this relationship? Yet he was growing surprisingly fond of her.
          "Of course, Ul! I can hardly wait. Imagine – our own Genesis Garden." Then an unsettled feeling crept over him. "But … would we be safe there? We have no idea what just happened. And the planet you speak of – why did it appear sterile? We should have at least seen indications of simple life forms."
          "There was evidence of a supernova in a nearby star system within the last few megujopes. That could have easily wiped out all but the most primitive pre-existing life. But it seems to have been a fluke event. Given the stellar population in that orbit, there should be no unusual risk for the foreseeable future."
          "Still, it is odd that J-327 is so like Jopitar physically. Worlds near the galactic core tend to be carbon rich."
          "The entire system must have originated further out in the galaxy, and drifted inward."
          Logical. "Then we will do it! Though I still feel somewhat uneasy. And, I must confess, restless. There is something I have meant to discuss with you – and Nem – for some time now. The events of the past roh only reinforce my feelings. I realize that our plan all along has been to explore the galactic core. But whether because of natural forces or some hostile presence, it does not seem to me a hospitable place to live. If we do manage to establish our colony, we could commit it to setting up a network of new settlements plus a system of automatic surveillance posts inside the core. But then … I would like to strike out for another galaxy! Leave this star system altogether."
          Ulixis sighed to herself. Would Na never be happy, or at least satisfied, within his own skin? She understood that Na's rey personality might seek unusual situations; but this suggestion went far beyond her expectations. "Are you serious? It would mean a total break from everything we have ever known. The dissonance in time and space is large enough as it is. But for intergalactic travel, we would need to travel near light speed. The journey would be impractical otherwise, even with frequent sleep periods. The time contraction effect would be tremendous. While only one hundred jopes might pass for us during such a trip, hundreds of kilujopes would pass back home. I have even heard it joked that anyone foolish enough to attempt such a passage would probably find octos waiting for them on their arrival. That so much time would have passed on Jopitar, someone there would have discovered how to jump directly across space-time, bypassing the huge distances on a conventional trajectory."
          "But it is theoretically possible. I read about it in the Jopian libraries. The lower density of intergalactic space makes the higher speeds feasible."
          "Well, yes. But travel would still be comparatively risky. Light itself would become a threat. Collision with a stray dust particle could be fatal. Those few who have attempted an intergalactic passage have all traveled in large fleets – never seen again, of course. Over half of the metons have been inactive spares, to permit travelers destroyed on the trip to be renewed immediately."
          "There's no need to decide now," Na mused dreamily. "We should have plenty of time over the next several jopes to consider the possibilities. Nemo will undoubtedly have his own thoughts on the matter."
          How were Na and Ulixis to know that the copies of Nemo they carried were both irreparably damaged by chance events during the blast? That Nemo was truly dead? Even while the biological seed they carried was still largely intact? Their synthetic form was supposed to make them virtually immortal. Each member of a triad following standard operating procedures was expected to live an average hundred million jopes. Maybe, with further development. And then, maybe not. In any case, Na and Ulixis would not discover their real loss for a few jopes. By that time, it would be almost irrelevant.