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Chapter 20

Metons stream from their megon starship, near an Aerth-like planet orbiting an orange star high above the plane of spiral galaxy G-3


          The gamma-scarred megon from Los had successfully parked in a spacious polar orbit some 288 million kilurets from the seductive orange dwarf star, the first substantial body encountered since leaving G-1. The rogue suol soared high above the plane of the majestic G-3, in the outer fringes of its halo. The soft white contours of the target galaxy's spiral arms dominated more than one-third the sky, though only a dusting of individual stellar pinpoints stood out against the amorphous blur of its swirling star clouds. A dwarf satellite galaxy floated in the blackness beyond the spiral arms. G-1 was but a faint smudge in the direction opposite G-3, nearly lost in the broad expanse of sky.
          The metons eagerly streamed out the ponderously opening iris of the megon main access portal, into the warm light, as the megon cut through the ecliptic plane of the planetary system. Released from nearly 21 jopes (ship time) of confinement, they joyfully fanned out to investigate the environs of the deep-space star port. The system included only three rocky terrestrial-type planets, all within 285 million kilurets of the central star, and no gas or ice giants at all. A lone brown dwarf circled one billion kilurets beyond, shining brightly in the infrared. Ulixis set off by herself to explore the outermost planet, an apparently Aerth-like world, while Na and a creatoid work gang inspected the outer surface of the megon. Perhaps Na would check out the brown dwarf and its retinue of icy planetesimals later on.

          Ulixis approached her exotic getaway with electric anticipation. She needed a break from the endless rounds of planning, experimentation, simulation, and contemplation - to get outside herself, to loosen up. She activated her chameleon response, and swooped down on the world like a great bird of prey.
          The deep blue-green expanse of the north polar ocean was broken only by the pink speckle of scattered clouds and a few tawny knots of rocky islands. More than 80% of the planet surface was covered by liquid water. Abysmal oceans at each pole moderated the global climate considerably. Ulixis swung low over the hypnotic waves, south into the suol, following a dazzling strand of dancing golden light. A pair of desolate moons hung in the pale turquoise sky. One appeared enormous; it hugged the main planet in a comparatively tight orbit, raising diluvial tides against unseen shores.
          The ocean seemed endless, eternal. Ulixis was struck by the contrast between this rush of magical something that stretched beyond the horizon, and the empty nothing of the preceding jopes of travel. Yet how different, in truth, were the two realities? Each was an inexorable part of this physical universe; neither could exist, without the other. Still, she savored the change of scenery.
          Ulixis reluctantly coursed back up through the atmosphere, which she now realized was some 50% thicker than Aerth’s, to gain a broader geographic perspective. A fragmented continent straddled the equator straight ahead. The irregular land mass was a rambling collage of ashen grey, coarse tan, and wrinkled yellow terrains, dissected by narrow, pea-green seas. Large tracts of the interior were partially obscured by swirling rain clouds. The sheer variety of the landscape nearly overwhelmed Ulixis, after the tedious sameness of intergalactic space. This was so much more satisfying than a simulation in one of the virtual reality tanks.
          Ulixis dropped down again, and raced over myriad offshore islands, toward the jagged headlands, slender fjords, and stony beaches of the fractured north central coast. The offshore tidal zone was broad, terraced, and studded with deep saltwater pools, which supported thickets of flowing, maroon-shaded seaweed. As she crossed the shoreline, Ulixis angled right to avoid a menacing inland string of snow-capped dormant volcanoes. Below, the ridge crests were covered with lush tropical vegetation. Ulixis finally descended over the rolling hills of an inland rain forest, along the marshy shores of a shallow sea.
          A wild profusion of towering trees, viny shrubs, and delicate smaller plants covered the gentle rain-soaked slopes. The foliage was predominantly a waxy yellow color. The leaf veins of a few species were a bright crimson, adding a splash of contrast. Ulixis spotted an inviting opening in the forest canopy, and slipped inside. Soon she settled on a patch of musty, mossy ground.
          Strange – there was no sign of macroscopic animal life of any kind. Not a single flier, runner, climber, crawler, or burrower. There had been no evidence of multicelled animals in the oceans or seas, either. A rich variety of unicellular animals flourished in the damp earth and in the water. The atmospheric composition was balanced: roughly 74% nitrogen, 25% oxygen, and 1% carbon dioxide. Perhaps the microbes on this planet performed the role of larger animals on most Aerth-like planets. Still, this evolutionary route was extremely unlikely, making Ulixis feel a bit uneasy and isolated.
          Ulixis lofted again, and traveled westward, across a monotonous series of jungles and seas, through drenching clouds and clear humid skies. She persisted all the way to the mainland's western edge. There she followed an arc of islands back into the northern ocean, far into the north temperate zone, to a forested landmass. She sighted an intriguing network of freshwater swamps and bogs, snuggled amidst the choppy hills of an eroded mountain system, and descended for a better look.

          A broad bar of supple gray mud stretched along the edge of a random brushy swamp, backed by a shallow pond. Ulixis hovered a few rets above the flat surface, and contemplated the peaceful scene. A stand of white-barked deciduous trees lined the bank of the pond, and climbed a nearby slope. The trees’ broad, five-lobed leaves were mostly a lemon yellow color, though a few had turned a brilliant green in the waning autumn light. They would probably drop off soon, and blanket the carpet of spindly, scarlet fernelles still pushing up from the forest floor. A lukewarm suol stood midway to the zenith in the south, alone in a soft cyan sky. The only sound was a stiff rustle of swamp grass in the mild breeze. Ulixis listened intently for a faint buzz or chirp, a splash, a lone trilly peep. But there was none.
          A pretty pink pebble lying on the bank caught Ulixis' attention. She levitated the trinket, and tossed it playfully into the mire. It disappeared with a delicious slurping sound. Should she pursue it? Why not. The path seemed so inviting. She slipped downward, following the stone, until she too was swallowed by the earth.
          The tense meton relaxed in the sensual embrace of the warm, thick mud. She let herself be sucked down, slowly through the muck. The external world and its demands no longer existed. Only the immediate, intimate, soothing contact was real. The dark calm and undemanding silence drew her in.
          Ulixis wasn't certain how long she lingered. Eventually she roused herself, and surged upward through the resistant slough. She cleared the soggy surface, feeling a bit disoriented and groggy, and scanned the surroundings. Odd – the colors weren't quite the same as before. And the gooey sludge wasn't rolling off her skin the way it should. A thin layer of slimy scum clung tenaciously to her hull.
          Ulixis lifted rapidly up through bubbly cumulus. A strange chill rippled through her skin. Suddenly she felt soiled, dirty. She hadn't felt this way since childhood, when she had fallen into a wurm pit and almost suffocated. She looked down, and found herself passing over a sprawling typhoon, raging across a serpentine tropical sea. She had to cleanse herself. Ulixis swerved toward the expansive calm at the eye of the storm, and plummeted downward through the singular core.
          Underlying the peaceful mass of air, the sea was in riotous tumult. Ulixis hit the towering swells with an unexpectedly furious jolt, and plunged deep into the restless water. But the impromptu baptism failed to redeem her. The sticky slurry refused to wash away. She broke free of the waves, and sped toward the storm wall some thirty kilurets away.
          A churning blur of mountainous slate-purple clouds swept wildly across a cluster of low desert islands dead ahead. The distant wail of relentless wind grew to a deafening screech, as Ulixis entered the fray. Wind-driven rain, surf and sand pelted and blasted her skin, finally scouring it clean. Only then did Ulixis turn, and struggle skyward through the terrible torrent. Blinding lightning assaulted her tear-stained spirit, exposing pockmarked flesh against an incessant roll of mournful thunder. As the cloud tops rapidly receded beneath her, she looked forward to the cool dry embrace of the vacuum.
          Yet something still wasn't right. Ulixis' chameleon response had failed; she could no longer make herself invisible. And she felt vaguely ill. As if she wasn't even there.
          How many cycles passed before Ulixis found a way back to her tribe? She could barely keep a single eye open. It was as if she were lost in a dream. Or a dream within a dream. At last she felt a reassuring thud, as she gently bumped into the thick hide of her crafton mother. She was inching along the protective skin, seeking a way inside, when Na rushed to her side.
          "Ulixis – where have you been? What's wrong?"
          "I am not … sure. Something happened … on the third planet. It was so beautiful, so … lush. The mud. I felt so … dirty. Messed. Messy. Missing. I have been so … disoriented. Ever since." Ulixis turned a twisted, desperate stare at Na. "Are you real?" she queried intensely. "Or just another layer of my own personality?"
          Na fought a wave of anxiety. "Of course I am real! You are home now. Let me help you to neuroengineering. The elders will know what to do."
          "I can go … myself. I feel … much better already. Probably just some … tainted manna, some … passing contamination."
          Ulixis insisted she could manage by herself, and Na for some reason acquiesced. Ulixis quickly disappeared into the entrails of the crafton. But halfway to the neuro clinics, she remembered she had to prepare for a possible serpent attack, and hurried to the main data banks in the central vault of the outer core. Ulixis expertly bypassed the security program, and began to systematically destroy the personality records and backup copies of all the crafton inhabitants. By the time Na and a security team arrived, the data banks were a shambles. Ulixis floated silently in the thin xenon air, slowly spinning in place, and twitching nervously.
          A thorough examination confirmed Na's worst fears. Ulixis had been infected with a virulent, metal-hungry microbe. It had apparently entered her body through skin pores during the mud bath. The insidious bug had already eaten away nearly half her neural network. Because the personality data files had been destroyed, the damage was irreversible.
          The neurotechs managed to stabilize Ulixis' condition, and restore a temporary modicum of conscious function. But as soon as Ulixis comprehended her status, she bolted for the exit, and accelerated out the main crafton portal without looking back. She appeared to be arcing toward the local suol.
          Na couldn't stand it. How could he continue? First Ki. Then Nemo. Now Ulixis. He whimpered feebly as he hurried after his best friend.
          Neris stared dumbfounded as the two expedition leaders, her ersatz parents, abandoned her for the night. What would she and her meton brothers and sisters do now? Why had they come all this way? It hadn't been her idea.
          Na didn't catch up to Ulixis until she was halfway to the suol. He gently slid against Ulixis' stiff body as they hurled in unison toward the glaring orange orb. They faced one another, and gazed squarely into each other's eyes.
          "I can't leave you Ul," Na whispered.
          "Na, I …," Ulixis stammered. She looked in loving desperation at her partner.
          Na squeezed against Ulixis, and fired a ring of negon beams into her, fusing their bodies forever together. He increased their pain thresholds to infinity, and visual filtrations to maximum. Then he softly recited ancient poems of love to his mate, while they slowly cartwheeled into the blazing light.

          As Na melted into the suol he became a simion, seated lotus-like on a narrow pedestal suspended within the absolute Void. Before him at some unfathomable distance shone a brilliant white Light, which both created the Void and filled it with multispectral Substance. The black abyss that engulfed Na gnawed at his soul. Na focused on the light, then the dark. The dark had meaning only against the light. Sometimes Na's abstract knowledge of the light was his only source of comfort against dark despair.
          Na awoke with a start from a deep trance state. Why didn't he learn to control his dream fantasies, the way Ulixis did? And what was the significance of this nightmare? Na peered ahead through remote eyes, at their still-distant destination. The megon starship was poised barely midway between galaxies. An ancient poem came into his mind:

Alleh-Mallah – Blessed are You
We fear returning to nothing
Yet You blossomed from that Nothing
And We blossomed from You


Photo of a brilliant daisy bloom, against a black backdrop