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September 2011 Message from Dan

Dear Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

A change of pace for this autumn’s Message from Mr. S. Enough seriousitiousness is my motto these days. We’ve discussed complicated and difficult topics here from time to time. Time for a break. Time for me to give you – my readers (?) – a gift.

Well, I hope it’s a gift.

In the next some weeks (months?) I’ll be posting three installments, about 20 ms pages each, of a sort of . . . well . . . a kind of . . . well . . . novella thing. What it actually is and was will require a brief background story.

Some time ago (but not so long ago as the crow flies) I was contacted by a film director friend of mine.  We’d worked together – on pitches and actual script outlines as well as hopes for movies that didn’t get to the screen. But this unnamed director had finally made his bones and was quickly gaining clout out there in that strange country called Hollywood.

So he called me late one Thursday afternoon with a slightly unusual proposal. It seems that this production company run by One Of The Really Biggest Producers In the Known Universe had purchased the rights to a very short 1950’s science-fiction story and also to the script of the hour-long Twilight Zone episode that had been produced and aired in the 1960’s. (After TZ had gone from it’s perfect-for-the-material half-hour format to its awkward and rarely workable full hour format. I mean, how many people – even non-SF types – can sit through an hour of low-budget skiffy and get any pleasure out of final lines such as – “And the name of that strange planet was . . . Earth!!!”)

This director had been tapped to do the film, but with deadlines closing in – they had no workable script. Or even a workable treatment.

Anyway, my director acquaintance’s first question was “Do you like Richard Matheson’s stuff?” I answered honestly – “I worship the ground he walks on.”

Then he asked me if I had read the story whose title he gave me. No. Had I seen the TZ episode based on it . . . and he gave me a quick synopsis of the plot and said, “And Jack Klugman starred in it.”

Unfortunately, I did have a vague memory of seeing an episode like that in the early ‘60’s. I remembered Klugman being in it. I remembered being embarrassed that a great actor like Jack Klugman had been in it. If my memory served, that episode of Matheson’s idea had been a boring bomb. And clichéd to boot. And did I mention boring? Even giants and superheroes stumble from time to time – especially when someone is adapting their work to TV or movies.

Anyway, my director friend said something to the effect – “We have to decide fast – really fast --on whether to greenlight this feature film project and the screenplay and rewrite and the other two rewrites of the screenplay we got from [names deleted] stink up the place. They’re totally unsalvageable. Can’t use a fucking line from ‘em. So I told One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe some of your bone fides – your SF books that have won awards, your WGA membership, the screenplay you did for the German Twin Film group, the little bit of TV writing you’ve done, some of the treatments you were paid to do, blah, blah, blah – and I also told him you write fast. I showed him some of those behemoth novels you write – with all the research and everything – and told him that you usually only have about ten months in which to write those things.”

What could I say? I quoted my role model, Polonius – “. . . 'tis true, 'tis true 'tis pity,And pity 'tis 'tis true.”

Anyway, said my director acquaintance, some of the people working for One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe were going to FedEX me the original Matheson story – the scripts weren’t looking at, he said, and would only pollute my mind, although he’d send the treatments – and also the teleplay for the Twilight Zone episode and a DVD of the actual episode.

“Great,” I said. (I wanted a few days off from working on the huge novel I was wrestling with.)

“Look,” said my director pal, “I know this is probably impossible, but can you get a five-to-twelve page treatment for a whole new idea of the script for this Matheson idea within a month? Three weeks would be better. Two weeks would be fan-fucking-tastic.”

“I’ll have it to you by next Tuesday,” I said. I could have said Monday without bragging, but FedEx doesn’t work on the weekends and I figured I needed part of the next day, Friday, to reading the Matheson short story and the treatments and original teleplay and re-watching the ‘60’s Twilight Zone episode. Then I’d write the treatment over the weekend and FedEx it Monday for Tuesday morning delivery.

I mean --- 5 to 12 pages? C’mon. I have to write that many pages of my novel every morning before breakfast.

So the stuff came. And I read it and I watched it and I . . . well, despaired may be too hard a word. My God it was all crap. This was one of my absolute heroes – Richard Matheson!! – but the sci-fi story he’d published in the ‘50’s was a desperately simple, silly little thing and the adapted Twilight Zone episode was actively painful to read or watch. All the scripts and rewrites the One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe and my director and the team had received were almost literal adaptations of the earlier crap—simply stretching things out, and the basic story hadn’t even been solid enough to stretch to the TZ one-hour format years ago.

You’ll read some of the details, without names, in the “sort-of-novella-thingee” that follows and which is your autumn gift. (I hope.)

So in Saturday I wrote and revised and sharpened my nine-page treatment. That’s what they’d agreed to pay me WGA rates for. If One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe liked the treatment enough – followed by a vetting conversation over the phone – I’d get the contract to do the original screenplay and one re-write. (Nice money there, even though the final version, redone by “real screenwriters”, would almost certainly look nothing like mine. But nice money there for a few weeks’ work.)

So the treatment was done by Saturday evening and I couldn’t FedEx it until Monday, so what to do? Go back to my novel, obviously . . .  but there was something about the movie idea that kept ticking and turning over in my mind. My short treatment couldn’t give the flavor of what I really wanted to do with this SF movie.

So on Sunday I wrote, rewrote, and revised a 60-page “extra” – far too detailed for a treatment, too sparse for a publishable novella, not in screenplay form – just for the eyes of my director friend. I wanted him to see some of the real possibilities of the movie as I would totally change it. (With credit still going to Richard Matheson, of course, for the original idea which, alas, wasn’t all that original . . . even for mid-early 1950’s science-fiction magazine content.)

Anyway, I sent the two things off on Monday: the 9-page treatment for which I’d be paid Guild rates and the 60-page megillah just for the edification and amusement of my director acquaintance. The studio belonging to One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe would legally own the 9-page treatment, but my 60-page megillah, done for my own amusement, wasn’t owned by the studio. (I couldn’t peddle it myself since it was still based –however loosely now – on a premise from an ancient Matheson story and Twilight Zone episode, but at least I wanted to show the director some of the directions the new idea could go.)

The director was wildly enthused. He ended up sharing the megillah with some of One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe’s little people, who sent it up the chain to some of One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe’s real people (co-producers, executive producers, and creative consultants all) and then amazing word came that One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe had read both documents – the 9-page treatment he owned and the 60-page thing that just existed out there in the aether. Of course, One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe admitted later on the phone that he hadn’t read the full novella-length thing personally – but he was fully briefed on it.

So they set up a conference call for Friday. On my side there would be me in my downstairs office. On the Los Angeles side of the conference hookup there would my director acquaintance alone in his home or office somewhere in one of the canyons and, at their studio headquarters, One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe (himself!) (very unusual for such calls I was told by one of his people) and seven or eight (I never quite got the count right) of the Producer’s People around what had to be a big honking table, all talking to me on speakerphone.

So that was one on my side and either nine or ten, counting my director, on the other side. Was I nervous? Not really. If the conversation worked out, I’d probably get first draft and one rewrite guarantee for the screenplay – I’d love to do that with that particular director who knew my writing well – and under even WGA minimum rates, that’s a decent year’s income. On the other hand, I had a novel I had to write, so if things didn’t click – so it goes. I’d get back to my real job.

I’d love to describe the 60-minute phone conference in detail, but there’s probably be a libel suit in their somewhere. Suffice it to say that I spoke when asked to and the director added enthusiastic comments – at least in the first third of the conversation – and the One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe did all of the talking from the crowded table other than an occasional comment from one of his people such as “That’s really important, Boss” (they didn’t say ‘Boss’, they used his initials) or “I was going to ask the same question” or, my favorite, “I had some issues about that as well, (insert Producer’s initials).

It was fun (on my side) and for a while it looked like it might really work – at least a crack at writing the first screenplay and a rewrite, at least. The director was pretty excited. But then, late in the conversation, the One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe began asking the “tough questions”.

“Dan, can you change your ideas enough to get them back much closer to the original Twilight Zone episode – you know, all them dying right where they found their own dead bodies through the time warp thing, stuff like that?”

“I could,” I said. “But every step I’d take that old direction away from the new ideas and concept would be a step toward a worse and more boring tale. I wouldn’t want to be the one to do that. Let the rewrite guy rewriting my rewrite do it so I never have to see it.”

Silence. Then from the Big Voice . . .

“Dan, there are two deal breakers here, even if we went – more or less – in your new direction. The first is that you have to make everything a hell of a lot simpler – dialogue, the science stuff, even the plot. Our goal, you understand, is to put butts in the theater seats and to be a success most of those butts are teenagers and pre-teens. That’s why we won’t have any “Fucks” or bare breasts in the movie. We need those pre-teen butts.”

After thinking a few seconds, I said, “But what if this were a smart SF movie – say along the lines of Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey  . . . that put a lot of adult butts in the seats. Grownups. And a lot of them thought about it and talked about it and many came back for a second or third viewing while it was still in the theaters. Wouldn’t it be nice to get more grownups – and some IQ’s with three whole digits – back to the theaters for an SF movie?”

Grumbles and consternation audible all along the nine-person (or maybe ten-person) conference table. My director, miles away from everyone, sighed.

One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe then gave the second condition for me being involved in this project. “All the religious stuff you have in the treatment and your big fat thing have to go, Dan. All that Guh-nosikism or whatever. No religion. It drives people away in droves – makes a movie controversial.”

“But this is a real religion, an ancient one with no adherents alive now, that’s made a big comeback in the future,” I said softly. “I’m not exactly attacking Baptists or Muslims. Besides, I like the religious angle.”

“No successful sci-fi movie is going to have religion in it,” said One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe. There were eight (or maybe nine) sounds of courageous agreement from the other suits at the table and another audible sigh from the director in his Coldwater Canyon treehouse or wherever he lived.

“May the Force be with you,” I said to all of them.

“WHAT??” shouted One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe. At least he didn’t shout “What the FUCK?” which is what I still heard.

“Look, Dan,” the Producer said in a more reasonable voice, “there are one or two – maybe a few scenes or ideas we could use from your treatment and that novel you sent *****. Agree to get rid of that religious crap and we’ll talk again about the rest of everything. If we’re going to make thing, we have to decide by next week.”

I sat for a few seconds and thought about WGA minimum for the screenplay and one authorized rewrite. Even if they tossed both straight in the garbage, the guaranteed payout would be *00,000 – and then I could get back to my novel and get it done by its deadline. Screenplays – as hard as they are to write and as much as I love and admire the rare good ones – are, after all, mostly white space on the page.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It just wouldn’t be any fun tossing out all the neo-Gnostic stuff and trying to pretend that the original storyline could work. But thank you very much for the opportunity to write the treatment and share my ideas.”

I was paid for the 9-page treatment. I always imagine it having precisely the same fate at the ROSEBUD sled at the end of Welles’s “Citizen Cane.” Afterward, I sort of wish I’d ended our friendly conference call with a rasped out – “Rosebud!”

Anyway, One of the Biggest Producers In the Known Universe – who used to be partners, for a while, with – for a shorter while – THE Biggest Producer in the Known Universe – who was a studio genius and also, reputedly, a former master at a dye, set, and blow dry.

So here’s my 60-page story thing, presented to you in three episodes. I warn you now that it doesn’t read all that smoothly. Not just because it was written on a cold Sunday afternoon, but because it’s a bastard blend of some treatment, bits of sort-of script dialogue, and a narrative out of nowhere recognizable. I enjoyed writing it that Sunday.

I hope you enjoy reading it, rough form as it is. If enough of you write into my Forum and say you don’t like it, I’ll just cancel Installments Two and Three (although that’s where it gets gooood.) Then I’ll write the MESSAGE FROM DAN that I’d researched and prepared for – “Why Hamlet Fails”. (Enough of you know about my Shakespeare obsession well enough to know that it won’t be an excessively simple essay.)

So enjoy TIMEQUAKE. (Or TIMEQUAKE WORLD, my original working title.) I don’t have strong feelings about which one is right – since the movie ain’t never gonna be made nowhere nohow. But you can write my On Writing Well Forum and give your preference if you like.

Oh . . . and do remember the most important thing about the following 60-ms-page novella thing you’ll be getting in three installments . . . THEY’RE ABSOLUTELY FREE. I have the copyright on the megillah, but the reading of same is my gift to you.

Sincerely,


2

TIMEQUAKE

(Installment One)

Long-Version Supplemental Material to 9-page TIMEQUAKE WORLD Treatment

by Dan Simmons

Exclusively For *****

Part I – Story History:

I’ve been asked to come up with alternative storyline for an existing feature film script by another writer that was based on an idea in the 1950’s short story “Ghost Ship” by the esteemed Richard Matheson and, more specifically, based on the 1963 Twilight Zone teleplay adapted from that story. The original and now-abandoned screenplay was very faithful to both the story and TV episode. It also didn’t work.

Matheson’s story relies on a single premise – due to some unexplained time-warp, space travelers from Earth landing on a new planet find their own crashed ship with their own dead bodies in it and, try as they may to avoid their fate, they soon succumb to it and crash and die exactly where they found the wreckage of their own ship. The idea is that predestination is real – the word is used in both scripts -- and “the future can’t be changed.”

A brilliant writer of fantasy and horror, Matheson never cared much for science fiction and this single, simple premise was barely adequate to support a short, short story in a third-tier sci-fi magazine in the mid-1950’s. It was not adequate to flesh out the hour-long Twilight Zone episode based on that story. Watching characters stumbling toward their inevitable and obvious demise, even though they might wiggle like worms on the hook of fate, simply didn’t support the hour TZ format and would not support a feature-film- length story. It’s the entertainment equivalent of sitting up all night with condemned men waiting to be hanged at dawn. Even with the wonderful Jack Klugman starring in the hour-long Twilight Zone  episode, the storyline and dialogue were tired, boring, and predictable. Even a half-hour version would have been too long for the premise.

Our “Timequake” (or “Timequake World” – either title works for me) variation on Matheson’s original premise will support a major SF motion picture (and sequels) for the following reasons –

  • The timequakes that launch our intrepid explorers forward days and weeks in time and then rubber-bands them back to their beginning point allow them to change their futures and fates . . . if they’re smart enough and courageous enough to do so. Although the forensic aspect is just one element of a larger compelling story, this “reverse CSI” – having to investigate and then avoid the details of your own death – is a new and riveting plot engine.
  • “Timequake” will be based on both cutting edge science – the new reality of quantum teleportation,  the “multiverse” theory of branching timelines, Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, etc. – and will also incorporate some of the most sophisticated examples of up-to-date literary and cinematic SF. The timequakes themselves are no longer random, unexplained phenomenon but the result of the Quantum-portal opening its connection across 400,000 light years and more than a million years of time in the space-time continuum. In a real sense, the explorers have created their problem.
  • The “Timequake-World” – this alien planet some 400,000 light years from Earth, so far away that the entire Milky Way Galaxy rises in its night sky – will be so provocative, so textured, and so compelling that it will add a deep new dimension to the timequake premise. It will also present a place to which both the surviving explorers and movie-goers will want to return.
  • The alien beings on this world, but specifically the Night Howlers that welcome the galaxy rising in their night sky with eerie hymn-howls of praise and who seem to have a connection to some real God, add powerful layers of mystery and motivation to the tale. They once had an advanced, spacefaring civilization, our explorers learn, but gave it all up and went back to the trees. We want to know why.
  • Our characters’ quest to get to the second Quantum-portal (for their escape back to Earth) across 5,000 kilometers of alien landscape provides a serious plot energy totally lacking in the original Matheson premise.
  • Finally, the eight characters themselves – not the too-common bunch of idiots in SF-horror tales who bicker, murder each other, and generally just end up as alien-fodder to be killed in a variety of disgusting ways – are going to be smart, resourceful, three-dimensional, and human enough that the viewer actually will give a damn about them and root for their survival.

Part II – Historical/Cultural Background:

Since our story takes place on a world 400,000 light years from Earth – and since we never get a glimpse through the Q-portal of our home planet of 2148 C.E. – most of the changes in culture and technology that have occurred in the next 138 years aren’t important to us, but since our characters are residents of that Earth of 2148 (except for Rae-Chen who was born and grew up on the Mars Colony), some future history and culture will be central to our plot.

We overhear in dialogue that the global population in 2148 is a little less than 1 billion people. This is disturbing since there are more than 6 billion people alive on Earth right now and we’re rushing toward 10 billion. Moreover, we soon understand this drastic decrease in population wasn’t due to careful population planning or ecological considerations – no, by the year 2148, almost all the shit that can hit the fan, culturally and historically speaking, has hit the fan: plagues (natural and manmade), pogroms, nuclear exchanges (small and large), civil disruption, global religious struggles, economic depressions, social chaos, and wars of varieties and intensities not even dreamt of in our old-fashioned early 21st Century nation-state psychology.

The primary relevant results for our characters are –

  1. The political officer, Nicolai Kosimov, who represents the GA – the Global Accord – not a supranational state or mere descendent of the weak United Nations, but a new type of planetary corporate organization seriously dedicated to keeping people from killing each other. It was the Global Accord that brought the world out of its more insane conflicts in the lifetime of a few of these characters and of all of their parents. That well-honed peacemaking function – and Political Officer Kosimov’s natural sense of humor and professional methods of inserting democracy even into this hierarchical exploration team with its charismatic leaders – will be very important in the story.
  1. The Gnostic Church. While originally a branch of early Christianity that was all but wiped out as heresy by mainline Christians no later than the 3rd Century A.D., the New Gnosticism has – like the Global Accord – arisen as a dominant religious movement largely because of the plagues, pestilence, pogroms, natural catastrophes, and crazy wars that filled most of the 21st Century and the first third of the 22nd.

The anvil of history has changed people’s psychological make-up – including that of our 8 characters.

Gnosticism has survived underground over the centuries and has always centered on the search for gnosis – profound self-knowledge – within ourselves. The Gnostic Church of 2148 C.E. continues that practice of seeking divinity (or at least profound insight) within, and thus has brought in secular and non-Christians from throughout the world who were weary of dogma and revelations that had led to the bloodletting of the 21st Century. But it also includes a tenet of ancient Gnosticism: i.e. that the world and universe were not created by God, exactly, but by a sort of demi-god graduate student who totally botched the job. The real God was so appalled by the shabbiness of Creation that He or She simply left . . . left Earth, left humankind to its own fate, and left the space-time continuum we call the universe. In a sense, the Gnostic God – whether real or metaphorical – takes the form of the ultimate Deadbeat Dad who’s left his family in the lurch.

The traumatic history of our characters and their parents and grandparents – the survivors of the horrors of the 21st and early 22nd Centuries – has left most of the remaining 900 million or so people on Earth with a great sense of being lost, of being betrayed by old traditions, being let down by old ideas of politics and faith,  being disappointed by old ways of thinking . . . of being abandoned.

Part of the Exploration Service’s goal with these Q-portal probes to worlds around nearby stars is an attempt to start over, to find a habitable enough world where some of humanity can escape a ravaged Earth . . . to quit putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak.

Part of the Gnostics’ quest is to find that missing father and to regain a sense of belonging to something other than a malign and senseless universe.

While many of our characters aren’t Gnostics – or believers or any sort – all of them understand Father Finn’s powerful urge to find the “God” that the Night Howler residents of this strange new world seem to be able to summon at will. Father Finn’s insistence on finding a way to contact that God, even at the further risk of all their lives, becomes a major plot point and a source of much tension.

Part III – Scientific Background:

“Timequake” won’t be Cosmos TV-series heavy on science – science will mostly be in the background to character and action – but for a (perhaps) refreshing change, most of this SF film will stay within the confines of actual scientific possibility. Oddly enough, most of the scientific and physical laws that rule the universe in 2006 will still apply in 2148. These include such textural elements as –

  • the space probe’s engines making no sound in the vacuum of space where no sound could be heard
  • the fact that our explorers don’t arrive in a starship because there are no starships. Nothing can travel faster than light in 2148 any more than it can in 2006. The universe, it turns out, does have a maximum speed limit, and it is, as Einstein explained, 300,000 kilometers a second. (It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.) Starships would take decades or even centuries to creep at sublight speeds to the few Sol-type stars nearest Earth; most of the stars in our own Milky Way galaxy would require voyages of thousands of years for a visit and would be one-way ventures. So no starships. No human interstellar travel by ships. The starship U.S.S. Enterprise is as much of a fantasy in 2148 as it was in 1968.
  • What our intrepid voyagers do have is quantum teleporation, a refinement of an actual experiment and technique achieved by scientists around the year 2000. This involves instantaneous exchanges of paired or “entangled” subatomic quantum particles – q-bits – over staggering distances. Albert Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance” and hated the idea, but it does work. Unlike the impossible matter transmitter-teleporters of Star Trek – which could never find or map all the molecules in a grape, much less in a human body and mind, much less store them in some data storage device (that would require more bytes of data than there are atoms in the entire universe, by a factor of thousands) – our Q-portal quantum teleportation simply connects q-bits from distant places instantaneously, creating what amounts to a quantum twin-paired rip in the actual fabric of space-time.

Even though the fastest spacecraft humans have ever devised -- the robotic Q-portal spacecraft probes-- take decades to get to (and to slow down at) even the nearest stars – 86 years in this case—for our characters it means that they simply step through the Q-portal (once the probe has arrived somewhere) and instantaneously are light years away. But in  this case, through the malfunction of the robotic interstellar probe that will be understood only late in the story, they are not 11 light years from home as planned but 400,000 light years (and more than a million years in time) away. This creates problems.

  • The reason the probe ended up a mere 399, 988 light years off course will also be scientifically – if briefly – explained. The answer is that something accelerated the probe to near light speed so that although only 86 years had passed aboard the robotic spacecraft, more than a million years had passed on Earth. Every aspect of our characters’ Earth, nations, families, and culture have long since passed away in the now of this new world they’re standing on, but the Q-portal – connecting to its mated Q-portal on 2148 Earth – doesn’t know that. Thus the quantum portal has accidentally become not only a scientifically plausible means of instantaneous transportation, but also a time machine.

None of this matters to our characters, who simply want to get to Q-portal Two so they can step through the Q-door back to their home and friends in 2148, but the probe’s quantum stretching of space and time are creating the very Timequakes that drive our plot.

Part IV – Characters:

There are 8 members of the Exploration Service’s Tiger Team One:

JAKE GORMANgeologist, former hard rock miner, and leader of Tiger Team One

Gorman is the kind of man that other men – and more than a few women – have followed into battle and expeditions throughout history. Trained as a geologist, blooded as a miner working in spacesuit-required high risk sites on asteroids, Mars, and the moon as well as on devastated areas of Earth, Gorman has kept his body fit and his quiet sense of humor intact despite the scars and years of painful – but fun -- experience. When Gorman speaks, or barks, others tend not just to listen but to obey at once. Somehow his own alpha-male status seems to amuse the Team Leader and occasionally we see the small, ironic smile that he allows himself to show from time to time. Even his self-deprecating irony never lessens his alpha-male status.  (Bruce Willis owns that smile. John Wayne used to. Even a Tom Selleck occasionally shows it.)

Born Jacob Gorman in the nuclear-glass deserts of New Israel, Jake Gorman has become somewhat of a legend in the Exploration Service. This is the eleventh new world he’s Q-portaled to and he’s never lost a Tiger Team member on even the most deadly world where spacesuits, guts, and a strong survival instinct are basic necessities. He doesn’t plan to lose anyone on this Timequake World.

KATE MILES --  engineer, technician, equipment specialist

When other four-year-old girls were playing with dolls, Kate Miles was disassembling her parents’ atomic clock and putting it back together. And it worked.

A veteran of four Q-portal missions, Miles is attractive and ambitious – and she doesn’t mind too much when that first trait serves the second one. Her goal is to be chief engineer in the Exploration Service by the time she’s 35. She finds Jake Gorman interesting and hasn’t hidden her attraction to him during the months of training, but mostly she’s just pleased to serve on a Tiger Team with such a legendary leader. She’s sure it will help her career. (The only problem is that Tiger Team Leader Gorman hasn’t seemed to notice her less-than-subtle hints.)

Miles is a devout Gnostic – much more fundamentalist and simplistic than Father Finn, although she doesn’t know this – and most of her inward search for gnosis looks very much like a search for success and power. But she’s an excellent engineer and technician.

Miles’s motto is – “If I can’t fix it, I’ll build a new one. If the new one doesn’t work, I’ll invent something better.” So far, she’s been as good as her word.

DEN RAE-CHEN  -- botanist, paleo-exobotanist, expert in extremophile life forms

Rae-Chen is the only member of this Tiger Team who was not born and raised on Earth. Technically, she’s a Martian and her appearance – slender, tall, long-legged, exotic, large-eyed, beautiful – bears out that description.

Born in the bubble-town of Burroughs in the 80-year-old independent Mars Free Colony, Rae-Chen got her full-gravity legs and advanced degrees in botany on Earth, but she still finds some of the predominant Earth culture and habits strange. Occasionally she’ll ask questions of the others that incidentally explain things to the rest of us – such as when she asks about the “Sign of the G” that Gnostics sometimes make when under stress.

This is Rae-Chen’s first Q-portal mission but her expertise on botanic life forms – both terrestrial and subsea, especially of the “extremophile” life that might live in deep oceans huddling near magma vents or around sulfur springs or in lost lakes under Antarctic ice or introduced to the frost caverns of her native Mars – is profound. Rae-Chen has trained with the exobiologist on the mission, Father Finn, and the two make an odd pair – the beautiful, sensuous Martian and the craggy, ascetic Gnostic priest.

PAUL ROSSIastrophysicist and astronomer

Rossi, a former professor of astrophysics at Harvard/MIT/Grace, tends to be verbal and emotional, the latter quality unusual for Tiger Team Exploration Service members. But Rossi is also the best astrophysicist in the Service and since the planned Tau Ceti Prime mission was to be the furthest planet yet Q-stepped to – 11.9 light years from Earth – they wanted their best astrophysicist on the mission, even if a few teammates in the past have considered him a profane loudmouth.

But Rossi hadn’t signed up to step more than 400,000 light years to this unknown world (not to mention a million years into his Earth’s future if they can’t get back via Q-portal) and his nerves begin to fray very quickly. Despite Rossi’s relative instability, his observations about where they are and how the Q-probe got there and what the hell the Timequakes are and how they came to be are all absolutely essential to the team surviving and escaping to Q-portal Two. It’s Rossi’s first Q-portal mission and his goals are to survive, get home, and never go on another one. The race is whether he’ll crack up before achieving any of those goals.

ÄNRIKAsecurity chief and weapons specialist

This woman has no science specialty or background. Her job is to keep the other seven Tiger Team One members alive . . . even if means killing anything or anyone that comes at them.

Änrika’s background is all military before she joined the Exploration Service and her dossier makes for horrific reading. Q-portal missions don’t usually require security chiefs to go in during the early Tiger Team exploration stages since there’s never anything more threatening on the new worlds (before this one) besides poisonous air and the occasional lichen .. until, that is, the hundreds of other humans step through the Q-portal and begin studying and colonizing. Then her head-bashing and enforcement skills usually come into play.  But the first remote-sensor looks through the Q-portal at this strange new world – so different than what they’d expected to find on the Tau Ceti Prime world they had been aiming for – meant that a military person had to be added to the original team of seven. Änrika was inserted into the team – whose members had been simulating and practicing together for months -- with less than an hour’s warning from the E-Service’s brass.

Änrika’s sudden addition to the roster upsets the balance of the team, not the least because she’s a natural-born leader and immediately begins locking horns with Team Leader Gorman. The Boss and the Security Chief are like two stickleback fish in a new tank who begin fighting to establish territory from the first minute they’re dropped in the water.

Änrika also despises religion in any form – she’s not only seen the results of the Hundred Year religious war that’s raged since the 21st Century, she’s fought in it and had to mop up the carnage – and she can’t stand Father Finn and the stupid Gnostic Church he represents. She’s not very happy with the Global Accord political officer, Kosimov, either – despite the man’s charm and humor. She’s seen too many of her fellow troopers die because of idiot political decisions. Änrika’s humble opinion is that all ministers and politicians should be fed to sharks. Slowly.

But she’s quick and accurate with a flechette rifle and a dozen other high-tech weapons sent along on this unusual Tiger Team Q-portal mission. For that matter, Änrika is deadly with a knife, a tree branch, or her bare hands. And she soon shows that she can kill just about anything that moves, blowing away creatures of intimidating size or speed or craftiness. The question sometimes debated by the Team is . . . should she? For a mission of scientific inquiry with profound religious overtones, Änrika is leaving quite a wake of alien corpses in their path.

JEAN-CLAUDE MAURIACdoctor

Mauriac is the humanist on the mission and perhaps the most outspoken member of Tiger Team One.

A longtime member of the honorable and ancient Medecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Mauriac has seen and tended to much of the same human violence and stupidity that has so embittered Security Chief Änrika, but rather than harden him, his experience has made him love humanity all the more. But he’s not sentimental about humankind. He just wants it to survive. It’s why he joined the Exploration Service – to find and colonize new worlds and give aging, battered humanity a fresh start somewhere.

Mauriac knows and trusts Jake Gorman – it’s his third Q-portal mission with the Tiger Team leader – but he suffers fools not at all and speaks his mind whenever he wants. Not religious in any way himself, he also distrusts Father Finn, but – unlike Chief Änrika – doesn’t have the urge to chop the priest into bite-sized sushi every time the Gnostic holy man speaks.

It will fall to Jean-Claude Mauriac during this mission to do the hardest task of all: i.e. carry out repeated autopsies of his fellow teammates when they find their own bodies in the future and analyze why and how they died. It will be even harder when he has to autopsy his own corpse after the team is repeatedly Timequaked forward into their fatal futures.

FATHER FINNexobiologist, Gnostic priest

Gabriel Michael Finn is a good and dedicated biologist – his specialty is exobiology covering those few alien life forms discovered so far on other worlds and those many speculated upon – but he’s an even more dedicated Gnostic priest.

He was also orphaned at a young age and this fact has done little to diminish his Gnostic urge to “find the AWOL God” – i.e. some larger meaning within himself or the universe. Finn is quiet and competent as a scientist and effective as aTiger Team member – this is his sixth Q-portal mission, so he has more experience than anyone except Team Leader Gorman – and he tends to be quiet and serious about his faith. Some people misinterpret this as zealotry, but Father Gabriel Michael Finn is far from being a zealot. Most of his life has been filled with doubts and – as is true of many priests in many religions over the millennia – his years of study of theology have essentially turned him into an atheist. Trained in logic by Catholic Jesuits in his orphanage in Indonesia as a boy, Father Finn is logical in ways few people ever achieve. And all that logic points to the fact that his faith is not just a false hope but a huge crock of cobblers.

But Finn sees the alternative to his stubborn faith in gnosis – true knowledge through personal encounter with the ineffable – as despair or nihilism. He refuses to surrender to either. So even while carrying out his duties as exobiologist and explorer and arguing with other team members who care less about exploring this world and its species, Father Finn is mostly at war with himself.

That battle is soon to widen to real conflict with other members of Tiger Team One as Father Finn sees a chance for both enlightenment and salvation on this strange new world – most specifically in the tree-dwelling and soaring creatures they call Night Howlers. Clues over the coming days will convince  him that these beings are not only intelligent, but that they may have the answer to the question of Where Has God Gone?

NIKOLAI KOSIMOVGlobal Accord political officer, diplomat, and anthropologist

Kosimov is a riddle wrapped in an enigma swaddled in a joke.
The official representative of the Global Accord – the international entity that has finally brought some sanity to the world after more than a century of bloodletting – is a complicated man who wants to be seen as very uncomplicated. Besides being there to keep the opinionated Tiger Team One members from killing each other – or, more likely, from being less efficient in their exploration through simple bickering, Kosimov also has political motives the others can only guess at.

But Kosimov’s sense of humor is real (and obvious) enough. Nothing seems so sacred to him that he can’t make a joke at its expense. The political officer has been on three previous Q-portal missions, but not with any of these people, so no one on this team yet sees that his amiable and easygoing manner hides some real inner pain. It’s easy to imagine G.A. Political Officer Nicolai “Nick” Kosimov in the form of Robin Williams’s character in “Moscow on the Hudson.” When having what he calls “Black Dog Days,” Kosimov also plays jazz on an old saxophone . . . and against all rules he’s brought the sax along on this mission.

At one point, as the Team’s terribly distant and lost home galaxy rises in the night sky, Kosimov will play his saxophone in a lovely and sad improvised harmony to the alien chorus of the unseen Night Howlers.

BOBBY Al-DURI --  communications officer, cartographer, and linguist

Al-Duri not only launches the Team’s tiny comsats in the first scenes but is responsible for the mapmaking and GPS interpretations of the satellite data that will – or will not – get them safely to Q-portal Two and escape. As comm officer, he also keeps track of the PDT – personal data transmitter – locations, which results, after the Timequakes, in al-Duri leading the team to the sites of their own deaths.

His greatest importance to the team comes when al-Duri is responsible for trying to decipher what may be a language of the Night Howlers and then – at an alien, aerial city strung between two mountain peaks – also trying to decipher faded cryptograms and hieroglyphics that not only would tell them whether the Night Howlers are sentient beings, but explain how they seemed to have the power to call up a god -- or God -- whenever they wanted.

Al-Duri seems to be a stolid, unimaginative, capable, and friendly-enough man, but there are hidden emotions seething under the surface, first among them being his hatred of Father Finn and the entire Gnostic movement. He also distrusts the amiable Kosimov and would love to undermine the Global Accord. No one realizes that he has an old score to settle with the security chief, Änrika. But despite his revolutionary urges – the urge to bring the Global Accord down in flames and dismantle every Gnostic church on Earth – his immediate loyalty is to the Exploration Service and to the other members of Tiger Team One and for now he struggles to do his best as a comm expert and team member.

The constant Timequakes, the team’s brutal encounters with their own dead bodies and sense of mortality, the threat of the Night Howlers, and the tension of trying to escape this alien world push all of these capable men and women to and beyond their fracture points. Bobby al-Duri is no exception and his point of fracture is very dangerous indeed.

#

Part V – Opening Scenes:

We open with a standard SF image of a spacecraft decelerating toward an earthlike planet, but we see right away that this is no manned ship. It’s tubular, angular, futuristic in a totally functional way, showing dizzying arrays of antennae and probe booms, obviously robotic, more negative space than mass. A late 22nd Century techno-sculpture. And – miracle of miracles! – the fusion engines are burning with no sound! For the first time since 2001:A Space Odyssey, we hear what an observer in the vacuum of space would hear while watching roaring atomic engines . . . not a damned thing. No woooosh of passage. No ziiiip of air rushing by where there is no air. No impossible rumble of engines where there is no medium to transmit the rumble. Nada.

Still in silence, the probe ceases its deceleration and kicks away its engine and huge empty fuel spheres. The earthlike world – white clouds, blue seas, but landmasses obviously not Earth’s – grows larger, filling the screen. But there are no stars visible in space. This will be very important later.

The interstellar probe begins unraveling itself. Two cylindrical smaller probes – also obviously not crewed vehicles – separate from the dismantled mother ship. All three objects, plus the fuel tanks, engine bells, and other jettisoned detritus, hurtle into the planet’s atmosphere. The mother ship and loose parts burn up in the upper atmosphere, but the two cylindrical probes have heat shields and burn scars across the world’s sky like flaming meteors, streaking above the night side of the world where towering stratocumulus are lit from within by huge lightning storms, the probes sonic-booming their way across the terminator into daylight.

In the atmosphere proper now, the two probes eject their scorched heat shields, deploy drogue chutes, then real triple ‘chutes. The probes are separating now, obviously the intention of their designers, one flying much further above the brown and green continent before deploying its chutes. They will land several thousand kilometers apart. We follow the first probe down.

At an altitude of about three kilometers, the probe jettisons its parachutes and small, violet-thrust ion engines pulse. We’re deep enough in the atmosphere now that we can hear the ion engines: not a rocket’s roar, but deep electrical thrum-hums.The skeletal probe slows, hovers, computers, cameras, and radar obviously searching for the best landing spot, and then it descends, lifting over what could be a tree-covered volcano, lower, lower, and sets down close to the coast near a forest of profoundly alien but tropical-feeling trees.

For a minute the lander just sits there as if satisfied by its own robotic accomplishment, but then it quickly begins extruding booms, vertical stanchions, a web of filaments connected on a horizontal frame – we can’t guess the scale for sure but it looks to be about thirty feet across – and suddenly the power source in the belly of the probe glows red and we hear a hum and then screeching whine as it powers up.

The interior of the framework turns into a humming, zapping rectangle of pure gold light – a movie screen with the brightest projector in the universe. It is a Q-portal – a quantum teleportation door.

Through the Q-portal lunges a nest of metallic snakes with cobra-shaped black plastex heads, their long sinuous snake-bodies extending back through the golden glow. These snake-probes sniff the air, taste the sand, snip foliage from the alien trees, video-image the surroundings in all directions, and then whip back through the surface of the portal. We get a sense of time passing as shadows around the probe, trees, and Q-portal lengthen and shift.

Suddenly six humanoid but obviously inhuman shapes step through the golden energy surface – heavy, chromed, helmeted and black-visored, backpacked and armored, carrying weapons. It’s the first time we see combat suits.

Two of the suited figures rise a hundred meters into the air with nearly subsonic hum and swoop this way and that above the alien treetops. We’re seeing the electromag repellors in the backpacks of their combat suits working.

The four figures still on the ground check out their surroundings and establish a perimeter – a literal perimeter, setting down small Briggs-field generators on tripods in a sixty-meter radius around the Q-portal, creating a just-visible dome of a forcefield. Nothing’s going to come through the Briggs-field if they don’t want it to. Then we hear their voices for the first time, over a radio link.

GORMAN (leader of Tau Ceti Prime Tiger Team One, one of the flying figures and landing ):  I can’t believe it. Twenty-two dead worlds in a hundred and five years of quantum-stepping and we finally hit the jackpot.

FATHER FINN: (Exo-biologist as well as Gnostic priest, his voice awed) Trees. Blue sky. Point nine-three earth standard gravity. Sand. Water. Breathable air. DNA-based microbes. Trees for God’s sake! Plants!

RAE-CHEN: (female botanist, with a soft Martian-colony accent) It’s not the first life we’ve found via Q-portal. Don’t forget the heat vent extremophile lichen on Procyon Alpha.

KOSIMOV: (Global Accord Political Officer – with no malice in his voice at all, laughing): Oh, fuck the extremophile lichen on Procyon Alpha, Rae-Chen. This is a real world! Plants, trees, air, dirt . . .

ÄNRIKA: (security chief—female, the second flying figure, still hovering): And with plant life this advanced and earthlike, odds are good that there are  animals of some sort. Predators. Things that would be happy to eat us if they could. For all we know, the plants may want to eat us.

The security chief lands and the deep hum from her backpack repellors goes silent.

KOSIMOV: (still laughing) For all we know, the dirt may want to eat us.

FATHER FINN:  It can eat us, but it can’t digest us. Nothing here can. Evolution doesn’t work that way, no matter how much these look like terrestrial trees. An animal predator here could look just like a T-rex but it still won’t like how we taste . . . not after billions of years of separate evolution. Nothing here can digest or metabolize  us any more than we can digest these alien-DNA leaves.

ROSSI: We all know that, Father. But it’s a little academic. Who cares if this local not-quite-T-rex shits us out whole after it eats us?  The point is not to be eaten.  (beat) Speaking of which, who’s going to do the honors and declare this atmosphere breathable?

GORMAN:  My job. (He unseals his helmet, pausing for dramatic effect, and folds it back into a cowl. A handsome but normal-enough looking man in his late ‘30’s or early ‘40’s. A few faint scars in his otherwise tanned face show that he’s lived an adventurous life, but something about his demeanor and voice had already shown us that. The other figures, still in their sealed combat suits, watch carefully for a long moment.)

GORMAN: (continued) Whoa! Jesus!

They all start with alarm. Security Chief Änrika’s suited figure actually raises her weapon and swoops into the air again.

MULTIPLE VOICES ON THE COMM LINK:  What?

GORMAN: I haven’t tasted air this fresh and clean since my vacation on Bora Bora twelve years ago.

MILES:  (the female tech-master/engineer) You bastard. Shall we bring the Hum-G’s  through?

Miles walks over to the Q-portal framework and pats it lovingly.

MILES: (continued) I love it. This poor baby spends eighty-six earth years accelerating and decelerating alone through space to find this world and we step through in a nanosecond.

ROSSI: (the astronomer and physicist, remember) – A lot faster than that, Kate. If it took a full nanosecond to quantum teleport you the 11.9 light years from Earth here to Tau Ceti Prime, you’d be stretched that full distance like so much flesh-spaghetti. It’s just lucky that . . .

Rossi stops, stares at the setting sun while shielding his eyes.

ROSSI:  That’s strange.

ÄNRIKA:  (on alert in an instant) What?

ROSSI:  Tau Ceti seems too large, too bright. It’s a G8 spectral type sun, zero-point-nine solar mass but only forty-four hundredths the luminosity of our sun. The deep space orbital telescopes showed this terrestrial-sized planet at point-six AU – almost half again as close to Tau Ceti as we are to Sol – but this sun still looks too damned large and bright. I’ve spent years studying the computer sims.

GORMAN: (wryly) We’ve all spent years studying the sim, Paul. You think the probe went to the wrong star system? Just sort of accidentally landed on the wrong planet?

ROSSI:  No, no, of course not. But still . . . the sun  doesn’t look quite right for a G8 star at this distance. I programmed those sims, remember.

MILES:  Atmospheric distortion?

RAE-CHEN:  The sun’s close to setting. Setting suns always look larger, even on Mars where I grew up . . . and there’s not enough air there to breathe. Setting suns get magnified like a rising moon on Earth, right?

ÄNRIKA:  Are we going to bring the rest of the Tiger Team through or just let them cool their heels on Earth while we debate sun size until it sets and gets dark here and the carnivores come out to feed?

They’re all shucking their helmets now, breathing deeply, but keeping their impact-armor combat suits on for the moment. Their weapons are attached by stiktites to their belts.

GORMAN walks back to the Q-portal, pushes his head and shoulders through the glowing rectangle, and then quickly steps out and aside. A minute later two armored, carbon-fiber wheeled, and heavily-packed vehicles, futuristic Hummers called Hum-G’s, roar through the portal and brake to a halt, throwing up sand. Each vehicle trails an umbilical cord back through the Q-portal: comm lines to home.

The drivers get out, both wearing soft, unactivated combat suits with the cowl-helmets folded back   –   MAURIAC, the doctor, and AL-DURI, the linguist and comm specialist.

MAURIAC: (taking it all in) Beautiful! Incredible. Absolutely fucking incredible. Oops . . . sorry, Father.

Father Finn smiles and shakes his head.

FATHER FINN:  (nodding toward Team Leader GORMAN and Security Chief Änrika) With your permissions, I’m going to get out of this combat suit. The impact armor won’t let me scratch where I itch.

GORMAN and Änrika nod and Finn sheds the outer layer. The cleric-exobiologist is now dressed in a blood-red singlesuit with a white-in-red clerical collar. The Gnostic Church – an actual form of Christianity stamped out as heresy in the earliest days of the Church but as tough and resilient as kudzu over the millennia -- is widespread in our Earth’s future 142-years hence, more pervasive and important even than the Global Accord political structure which Political Officer Kosimov represents.  Gnostics seek gnosis – deep personal knowledge – above all else. They acknowledge a universal God and a Creator, but those are two far different creatures in gnostic theology. The Creator is believed to have botched the creation of the universe and the Earth – the Creation was sort of an undergraduate art program for which the Creator received a D- -- and the cosmic God, of which we shall hear more as the tale unfolds, turned His or Her back in disgust and has not been seen or heard from since.

Part of any devout Gnostic’s life-mission is to find that real and very absent God. Most Gnostics look within themselves or carefully at the world around them. Father Finn has traveled 11.9 light years in his search – and his personal doubt would send him a hundred times that far if it were possible.

Our characters are not all Gnostics – Rae-Chen, for instance, grew up on Mars where there are no organized religions – but all of the other characters are from Earth in the year 2148 and they and their parents and grandparents have seen a lot of existential shit hit the historical fan. Our troubled early 21st Century would look like golden happy days to these surviving descendents of survivors. They aren’t all Gnostics, but they all share a born gnostic’s sense of loss. Humankind in the mid-22nd Century feels abandoned in more ways than one.

It is part of the Exploration Service’s job to seek out that elusive Gnostic God – the ultimate Deadbeat Dad --  should one actually exist. Father Finn takes that job as seriously as he does his scientific role as team exo-biologist. As we will see as the story progresses, this becomes a major plot point.

The Tiger Team unpacks tents and gear from the Hum-G’s, setting up camp and beginning their experiments within the sixty-meter radius of the protective Briggs-field. Standard operating procedure for Q-portal tiger teams is to spend seventy-two hours hundreds – begin stepping through the portal in different teams with different jobs. Radio waves can’t pass through the glowing portal, but communication and video and audio feeds back to Earth are constant through cams on the nine humans and set about the camp, fed through old-fashioned optic cables amidst the web of umbilicals now passing back through golden portal.

Al-Duri, the comm specialist, removes a small shoulder rocket launcher from one of the Humm-G’s, repellors above the protective Briggs forcefield, and fires the rocket carrying three tennis-ball-sized payloads skyward.

We WATCH as the tiny rockets climb into the stratosphere and then above, propelling the three tiny satellites into geosynchronous orbits around the alien world. The tiny cameras and sensors now monitor most of the planet and send their various feeds to our Tiger Team.

Al-Duri drops back through the protective half-sphere of the Briggs field – the field is keyed to their implanted personal data transmitters and allows them to pass through while keeping out other living organisms -- and shows the others the holographic readout hovering above his palm diskey. The others gather around him and stare at the first map of their new world.
AL-DURI:      See . . . here we are down on the southwest coast of this largest continent. It looks sort of like an eagle flying to the left with its wings spread, doesn’t it?

KOSIMOV:    More like a turkey trying to get airborn.

AL-DURI: (who seems to have little sense of humor) All right. Like one of those extinct birds. But you see our PDT’s down here on the lower belly of the continent, right on the coast. And our Q-portal probe sending up its signal. It’s working fine. And here’s the signal from the second Q-door. It’s about five thousand kilometers northeast of us on the same continent, all the way up near the eagle’s . . . or turkey’s . . . beak. Also on the coast.

KOSIMOV:  What does the personal data transmitter bio-telemetry say? Are we all still alive?

GORMAN:  (interrupting the political officer’s banter) Five thousand klicks is quite a distance between portals. Usually the probes try to land closer to each other . . . in case a rescue operation has to be mounted from the second portal.

ROSSI:   Has a rescue mission ever had to be sent through Q-portal Two?

GORMAN:  No. Not for a Tiger Team. Not during the first seventy-two hours.

ROSSI:  There you go then.

MILES:   (setting her hand on and through the hologram)  Actually, I think the landing probe just chose the safest landing site. They’re programmed to land at least a thousand klicks from each other and you can see from the topography overlay that most of the interior of this continent looks to be jungle, mountains, and desert.

GORMAN:  (pokes a finger at a green area about halfway across the continent) This looks to be an extensive grassland or savannah. Probe Two with the second portal could have put down there. That’s almost two thousand kilometers closer.

RAE-CHEN:  It’s possible that Probe Two’s sensors decided that those grasslands were too marshy or that it picked up some other problem that al-Duri’s comsats can’t resolve. These coastal flatlands seem the best spots, even if they’re not close. Or maybe the probe AI’s just found that spot a lot more interesting for some reason.

ÄNRIKA:  Five thousand klicks – three thousand old-style miles – the distance from what used to be New York to what used to be Los Angeles. No, not close.

MILES sets about building a campfire using branches fallen from one of the exotic trees as fuel.

MILES:  Hey, the wood burns.

ROSSI:  Yay! The laws of Physics One-oh-one apply here, too. Big surprise!
KOSIMOV: (looking up at the tree from which the branch had dropped, stroking his chin) But what if the trees here are sentient . . . and don’t like having their fallen branches burned?

Everyone is silent a beat, looking up at the alien trees, and then most start laughing at the same instant.

RAE-CHEN: (the botanist)  Nikolai, you are so absolutely full of . . .

KOSIMOV: (voice suddenly serious) Look!

It’s just a sunset but it’s the beginning of their nightmare.

All eight turn to the west and watch the sun set beyond the ocean horizon visible through the tropical trees. The sky is absolutely cloudless. For a few seconds the star they believe is Tau Ceti hangs there on the horizon as red and full as any Pacific sunset on Earth and then it is gone. Twilight lasts only a few seconds. Full darkness descends.

FULL DARKNESS. A darkness more absolute than anything any of them have experienced outside of being deep in a cave with all artificial lighting extinguished.

Lights on the Hum-G’s and on their combat suit backpacks and on various equipment switch on automatically. Änrika has flipped her helmet back on and rigidized it, and now is turning quickly, sweeping the perimeter with thermal imaging, light intensifying, and other night-vision tools.

ÄNRIKA:  There’s no light!

DR. MAURIAC:  We know that, damn it!

ÄNRIKA:  No, I mean there’s no starlight. None. I get thermal readings from us, the Hum-G’s, the ground, the trees, even some large living organisms that seem to be in the trees . . . but no starlight at all for the image intensifiers to use.

ROSSI:  That’s impossible. Tau Ceti is less than twelve light years from Earth. It has almost the same night sky as Earth and Mars do. More than three thousand stars should be visible to the naked eye . . .

He is straining to see up through the Q-portal’s and Hum-G’s lights and campfire glow. Others in their combat suits quickly flip up their helmet cowls. Father Finn gets to his feet from where he had been sitting near the fire. He seems mildly curious.

GORMAN:  Shut off those damned lights. Miles, douse that fire.

ROSSI:  (sounding suddenly terrified) We have to see the sky. We have to see the sky! I won’t be able to tell if we’re really on Tau Ceti Prime unless I can see the constellations. Turn off those lights!

The lights are off now, the campfire doused, but the golden glow from the Q-portal is too bright.

ROSSI: (continued, to GORMAN) Commander, we have to shutter  the Q-portal. It’s too damned bright.

MILES:  You’re joking, right? Shutter our door to Earth? The whole idea is to leave it open so we can skedaddle back through in a second if . . .

ROSSI:  Then I need to go out through the Briggs-field and walk or fly far enough away from all this damned light that I can see the stars. I’ll be back in a few minutes.

He begins walking toward the perimeter.

GORMAN:  No one’s going for a stroll or flight out in the dark beyond the field. It will only take a few seconds to open the shutters again when we have to. Close them, Kate.

MILES:  (nodding)  We’ll have to disconnect the umbilicals. Lose contact with Command while the shutters are down. Lose contact with Earth. Shouldn’t we ask Admiral Ỗta if . . .

GORMAN:  I’m in command of Tiger Team One while we’re on this side of the portal. Admiral Ỗta can court martial me later if this is the wrong call. Close the shutters but make sure those umbilical connections are all connected to the inside of the shutters so we can hook them up again in a hurry.l

The engineer scrambles to the base of the probe pylon and taps in codes while Kosimov, Miles, and Rossi hurry to disconnect the umbilicals and attach them to inside of the shutters.. Lengths of the dozen or so thick cables snake back through the quantum gold door just seconds before metal shutters with their attached umbilical connections on the inner sides slide down over the portal and clack shut, shutting off the glow. The lights on the Hum-G’s and backpacks are off.

The camp is in absolute darkness. The human voices seem very quiet in that pitch blackness.

MAURIAC:  Jesus H. Christ on a stick.

FATHER FINN:  (tone flat, ironic, perhaps mildly amused) Jean-Claude. This is no time to be blaspheming.

MAURIAC:  Sorry, Father  . . . but, I mean, look. There are no fucking stars up there!

ROSSI: (the astronomer and physicist) That’s impossible. It has to be clouds . . .

MILES: You saw that sky, Dr. Rossi. It was cloudless! Pure blue.
ROSSI:  It’s an alien sky, Kate. There are bound to be surprises. High levels of dust that allow the sun to shine through but which obscure the stars. Optical distortions created by . . . I don’t know . . . electromagnetic anomalies. We don’t know what the magnetosphere of this world is like and it could be that  . . .

MILES:  Electromagnetic anomalies my ass. I’ve got my visor tuned to every sort of light-augmentation, infrared, UV, gravitonic, and EM- frequency possible. Dr. Mauriac’s right . . . There are no fucking stars up there!

GORMAN:  (voice low but in absolute command of himself and others) Calm down, people. Stay professional. This is what we’re paid for . . . to experience new things and figure them out before they bite us in the ass. Maybe you’ll get to earn your pay tonight.

MILES:  Boss, I’ll trade you my next month’s paycheck for one lousy star in the . . .

Miles shuts up as an incredible sound erupts from the alien jungle around them. From the thousands of tall trees – from between the trees, as if alien creatures were soaring or flying – comes the most astound HOWLING and BAYING that any of the humans have ever heard. It is part pipe organ, part alien Gregorian chant, part wolf-howl, and part something totally alien to the eight humans’ ears.

Everyone except Dr. Mauriac and Father Finn reflexively take a step closer to the others and raise their weapons.

ROSSI:           I’ve never heard anything like that in my  . . .

FATHER FINN:  Those are living organisms. Voices.

MAURIAC:    It reminds me of a church choir in Notre Dame . . .

ROSSI: Yeah . . . a church choir of maniacs.

KOSIMOV:    It reminds me of either a Wagnerian opera or the catwerwauling I heard the night the Kiev orphanage burned down, not that the two sounds are all that dissimilar . . .

GORMAN:     Shut up. Everyone shut up.

Suddenly the HOWLING, CHANTING, BAYING grows louder and more intense. Through their cowl filters, the humans can hear the FLAPPING and SWISH of large, leathery things flying between the trees in the near total-darkness.

KOSIMOV:    Bats?

GORMAN :  Everyone in your combat suits. Button up. Internal air only. Miles . . . make sure the Briggs-field generators are on full interdict.

ÄNRIKA:  (calmly)  Set your weapons to maximum  flechette spread . . .

ROSSI:  Look . . . in the east!

A glow is spreading above the dark, alien forest.

Then the Milky Way Galaxy – our home, a pinwheel of a hundred billion stars – rises slowly, majestically, turning slowly in the black, absolutely starless sky.

We see the eight figures standing there staring up at it. For those two who haven’t yet fully secured their helmets   – just Father Finn and Dr. Mauriac -- we see their mouths agape as they stand frozen at the spectacle. For the others, their cowl-helmet visors reflect a sight no human being has ever imagined, much less seen . . . an entire galaxy rising.

GORMAN: (quietly)  Dr. Rossi . . . could that be Andromeda? Some . . . optical illusion? Some lens effect or mirage?

ROSSI:  (dully . . . as if anaesthetized with shock)  No, Boss. That’s . . .us. That’s home. That’s the Milky Way . . . our galaxy.

AL-DURI:  That’s insane. Tau Ceti is only eleven point-nine light years from Earth. The probe only traveled eighty-six years and never faster than a third the speed of light. Tau Ceti’s just next door to Sol . . . to see the Milky Way Galaxy like this we’d have to be . . . have to be . . .

KOSIMOV:  Dead? Dreaming? Drunk?

ROSSI:  (still toneless)  We’d have to be at least as far out as the Small Magellanic Cloud. 210,000 light years. But if we were in the Small Magellanic Cloud, we’d see the Small Magellanic Cloud all around us . . .it has millions of its own stars and star clusters. The sky wouldn’t have been empty before the Milky Way Galaxy rose.  No, I think we’re on the opposite side of our galaxy from both Magellanic Clouds and further away . . . 400,000 or so light years is my guess.

FATHER FINN:  Could our Tau Ceti probe have gotten off course? Gone so far afield?

MILES:  (laughs) No, sorry, Father. The fact that our probes can attain a top velocity of almost a third the speed of light through the Accord’s gravity-scissors sling is almost a miracle of technology. But that’s still eighty-six years to travel less than 12 light years. And nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . can travel faster than light. To travel to the Small Magellanic Cloud would have taken the probe more than a million years earth time.

FATHER FINN:  Wormholes? Black holes? Spacetime warps?

ROSSI:  Just terms and theories, Father. Science fiction ways to travel. We’ve never encountered any of them in our local stretch of space within six parsecs or so of home. And the probe wouldn’t have survived an encounter with any of those things anyway. But wherever the hell we are . . . sorry, Father . . . it’s tens of  thousands of times farther from home than we’d planned. Somehow the probe travelled . . . .

RAE-CHEN:  Everyone hush! Do you hear that?

ÄNRIKA:       I don’t hear anything.

FATHER FINN:  That’s what she means.

They all listen. The NIGHT HOWLERS . . . or whatever they really are . . . have fallen silent as the galaxy has finished its rise into the night sky.

GORMAN:  Kate, open the shutters. I’ll be the last man out and will shut off the Briggs-field when you’re all through the portal. The rest of you reconnect the umbilicals double fast.  Just leave the Hum-G’s and the instruments. Leave everything where it is. We’re aborting this mission and going home to watch this spot and that sky on 3V . . .move . . . NOW.

Everyone rushes to grab their personal stuff and head for the portal.

MILES: (the engineer is ahead of them at the Q-portal’s controls, opening the shutters) Oh, God damn it to hell.

MULTIPLE VOICES ON COMM:  What??

MILES:  The Q-portal is off. Shut down. Dead.

They cluster by the dark rectangle that had been their door to home, milling and turning with weapons raised, not sure which direction the threat may come from but somehow sure there will be a threat. The sight of the chopped-off umbilicals and dead portal hurt them in ways they could never express. They’ve trained for everything. But not for a failure of their Q-door. That’s never happened, so why simulate it?

ROSSI:  Quantum portals don’t shut down! They can’t. It’s a quantum hole in space-time and once activated it can’t be shut off or . . .

MILES:  (gesturing to the unshuttered empty rectangle where the golden glow had been) Maybe not . . .but it’s off. Probe power’s still on, but the Q-portal is gone. Failed. The umbilicals look as if they’ve been chopped off short with a giant scalpel. Our door home is as dead and useless as Father Finn’s  . . .

And then the first TIMEQUAKE hits, hurtling toward them from the east, a giant wave of time-energy a hundred miles high rushing toward them like a deadly aurora borealis, the twist in the space-time continuum rippling over and through plants, trees, people, vehicles, and the dead Q-portal like a tsunami, carrying everything away in its wake.

The story begins.

#

Part VI – Three Act Summary:

Act I:

The first Timequake hurls the eight of them and their equipment more than six weeks into their future.

At first they don’t understand this; they know only that one second they were looking at the night sky filled with the rising galaxy and then a wave of light and energy hit them and they’re . . . in the same place. Only the sun is out again and it seems to be late afternoon. Their chronometers as well as their PDT’s – imbedded personal data transmitters – show that only a few seconds have passed during their mission-elapsed-time. Their best guess is that the wave, whatever the hell it was, somehow knocked them unconscious but left them standing there until the sun came up, but no, the PDT mission clocks . . .

While they’re trying to sort this stuff out, al-Duri announces that their rescue is at hand.

Eight more PDT signals have shown up according to their watching comsats in orbit and the signals are close, less than five kilometers away. Somehow the rescue team must have come through Q-portal Two while the eight members of Tiger Team One were standing around dazed by the energy-wave thing. The rescuers must have flown the 5,000 klicks from Q-portal Two to get here so quickly, they decide, and they begin to celebrate loudly.

That stops suddenly when al-Duri says, “Oh, shit.”

The PDT signatures are their own . . . the eight of theirs. And there is no movement. Nor is there any bio-telemetry. No bio-telemetry means that the person bearing the personal data transmitter is dead. “That’s nuts,” says Miles, pointing out on all their diskey readouts that their own PDT signatures are still clearly visible to the same comsats, the bio-telemetry showing them all breathing and very much alive, thank you, and milling around. The eight extra pings have to be some glitch in the sat sensors.

“Let’s go see,” says Gorman and they pile into their two Hum-G’s and drive off through the alien jungle to find the source of the glitched PDT transmissions.

The campsite they find has been set up by a large stream, the nearest source of fresh water. The dusty Hum-G’s parked there are theirs – not just similar to theirs, but theirs, down to the registration numbers and dents. So are the tents and experiment packages and weapons and doffed combat suits lying around.

So are the eight bodies.

It’s them, of course. Eight dead and rotting corpses here in the jungle, some in the Hum-G’s, some in cots in tents, two of them just lying on the ground. The Tiger Team members react as any group of eight human beings might react to finding their own rotting corpses – with shock, fury, disbelief, and terror. But these eight are professional explorers and pull themselves together as quickly as they can. Only Professor Rossi seems permanently freaked.

Dr. Mauriac begins the autopsies while others explore the immediate vicinity, their helmet-hoods up, combat suits activated, and flechette rifles ready. The only mystery the searchers find – beyond the indelible fact of their own dead bodies there – is a series of elaborate designs, evidently woven of an elastic alien jungle wood or vine, set into trees in a 60-meter perimeter beyond where the Briggs forcefield had been. It was as if either their dead selves – or something else – had put quarantine signs around the area.

Mauriac confirms that seven of them have died of starvation. Tiger Team One was meant to be alone on this side of the Q-portal for only 72 hours, but the Hum-G’s had been stocked with enough provisions to last about two weeks. Obviously these dead versions of themselves had rationed the food as best they could, but they had still starved to death about three weeks after their food supply had run out. The alien branches, leaves, roots, and animals – if there were any animals – would have been totally inedible, based as they are on alien DNA. The dying team had fresh water until the end – water is water everywhere it’s encountered in the universe – but it hadn’t kept them alive.

Actually, Mauriac breaks it to them, they’d all died of starvation except himself – Jean-Claude Mauriac – who, according to his alter-ego’s stopped bio-telemetry data, had outlived the others for some reason, and then taken poison from his own med-kit. Probably as an alternative to resorting to cannibalism of their dead bodies is Mauriac’s professional guess. He admits that he’s surprised that the others hadn’t attempted to live longer by eating the bodies of the first ones to die. His guess on that is that Team Leader Gorman hadn’t allowed it. But he’s opened all eight stomachs, he says, and it looks like no one ate anyone else. They would have lived much longer if they had. The scene of Mauriac doing this autopsy on himself is disturbing.

Others find written and video records around the camp. All show themselves recording last statements, making increasingly weaker entry into logs, and waiting for rescue. The mission protocol on a Q-portal failure is, as Gorman explains, to stay where you are and wait for Earth to send a rescue mission through the second Q-portal.  “Stay by the downed aircraft,” is the centuries-old rule that Gorman explains to them.

“Well,” says Kosimov, touching his own rotting corpse on a table, “that didn’t work too well.”

It is the bio-telemetry and PDT’s that tell the real tale. Mission elapsed time on their own personal data transmitters, being monitored by their satellites, is a little over five hours since they first stepped through the portal. Mission elapsed time on the PDTs of their corpses is six weeks and an assortment of days and hours, depending upon which of them had died first.

“We’re in our own fucking future,” says Rossi and the entire group begins arguing, bickering, pointing out the paradoxes of it, debating theory. But they can’t argue with the fact of their own dead bodies. “It was like a time wave or timequake or something,” says Miles. “That wave of light. It knocked us almost seven weeks forward . . .”

They begin arguing again, but Father Finn silences them with the soft comment, “We should bury ourselves and have some sort of ceremony.”

While they’re pondering this insanity in silence, a SECOND TIMEQUAKE roars in from the west. The first one had been mostly reddish; this one is mostly blue. But it hits them with the same tsunami intensity as before. Rocks, trees, the four Hum-G’s, tents, equipment, eight corpses, and eight living men and women all ripple and shimmer and . . .

They are suddenly in the same place, by the river, but back just seven hours after their first arrival on the planet. It’s night again and the Milky Way slowly turns in the sky above them. The extra Hum-G’s are gone. The corpses are gone. Their comsats now show only their own eight PDTs on the planet – no rescue team yet, but no corpses either – and they see that they’d spent about three hours in the future before the second wave ping-ponged them back to the same place they’d been standing in the future, but almost seven weeks earlier again.

“This is too fucking weird,” says the astrophysicist, Rossi.

“Is that the sum of your professional and scientific analysis?” asks Änrika.

“Shut up,” explains Team Leader Gorman. “All of you calm down. We now know one thing for certain.”

“What’s that?” asks Father Finn. The Gnostic priest has seemed strangely detached, even when confronted with his own rotted corpse.

“We’re not following standing orders and staying here near the portal and waiting for rescue,” says Gorman. “Saddle up, people. We’re headed for Q-portal Two . . . now.

#

Several of the team members are depressed, certain that they’re going to die, but Rossi the astrophysicist explains why that’s not predetermined.

“The past is set,” he explains. “It’s fixed. If we had a time machine to go into our past, we couldn’t change a damned thing there. It’s as solid as a photograph. Our choices there . . . and us there . . . are like insects frozen in amber. But the future – the future’s not written, it’s only penciled in. It’s a buzzing hive of probability with different paths of higher and lower probability creating alternate possible realities, but all we have to do is find the decision-juncture and follow a different path for the multiverse future to collapse into a different branching. It’s pure Heisenbergian uncertainty theory in action.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” says Änrika. Her flechette rifle is cocked and locked and she never slings it.

Rossi rolls his eyes and picks up a fallen alien branch from an alien tree. It’s still a branch. His fingers follow the thickest vertical branch. “This is the future line that we just got tossed forward into,” he explains, grabbing the branch eight or ten centimeters above where other branches have diverged. “We’re dead in it. We were stupid. We starved to death like morons. We have to follow that probability timeline backward . . . to this decision juncture where that timebranch began . . .” He touches the point where the branches diverge. “ . . . where we decided to stay by the fucking Q-portal and wait for help . . . and change it. Every critical decision-junction in a Heisenbergian probability matrix creates a new potential future – some timeline branches strong, some weak. It depends on us.”

He breaks off the main vertical branch just above the point where four branches diverged. “Voila,” says Rossi. “We don’t go that way, we don’t die that way. One mathematical multiverse Heisenbergian probability matrix timeline disappears forever.”

“But we saw it,” says al-Duri. “We were there. We saw ourselves. It happened.

Rossi shrugs. “It hasn’t happened yet, Bobby. We saw what could be. What will be if we don’t change it. But we can change it. We know that Heisenbergian uncertainty applies to a finite multiverse of future timelines . . . we just have to collapse the probability of that one bad timeline to zero and head down another branch.” He tosses his audiovisual aid onto the stack of other dead branches and uses his discarded future to scratch his itchy back through the combat suit.

“I feel like we’re caught in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol,” grumbles Kosimov. “O Spirit of Christmas Future . . . not that fate, I beg of you!”

“What’s down the other future timeline branches?” asks Father Finn.

“How the fuck should . . .” begins Rossi. “Sorry, Father. I mean, how should I know? We’re making this crap up as we go along. My guess is that we die in most of them.”

“We’re going to die here of old age if we don’t get our asses in gear,” says Gorman. “I want to get to that second portal and go home. The question is . . . what’s the fastest way?”

#

The team debates ways to get there quickest. Their combat suits can fly via the backpack EM repellors, but only at about 100 kilometers per hour and only for six to eight hours before requiring recharging. The power units for that recharging are in the Hum-G’s and they’re heavy. They’d have to rig some way to haul the fuel cells with them . . . plus, they realize, their weapons, their food, the Briggs-field defensive perimeter generators . . .

“To hell with it,” says Änrika, “we’ll take the Hum-G’s as far as we can, then use the suits to get over the mountains and the last thousand klicks or so. That’ll just be a few days or a week in our combat suits. We’ll be smelly when we get home, but I’ve been in a c-suit without bathing for a lot longer than that.”

“I’m sure you have,” sniffs Kate Miles.

Others argue to take the Hum-G’s around the continent by sea. The vehicles can swim, after a fashion, and even submerge for a while, but they were designed to deal with lakes and rivers, not to spend days or weeks on the open seas. And even as they argue they can see and feel a storm coming in from the ocean.

“We drive as far as we can,” decides Gorman. “Rig a way to haul the fuel cells and other things in nets and on backpacks when we finally have to fly. It’ll slow us down, but we’ll need the food and fuel. And probably the weapons as well. Figure we cover just a couple of hundred kilometers a day in the jungle with the Hum-G’s, it’ll take us three weeks to get to Q-Portal Two. I don’t think we have that much time before that second portal fails as well. But let’s move  --  get back to the dead portal, pack up everything, and get going tonight, now, immediately – and we’ll come up with better ideas during the trip north.”

#

The second part of Act I deals with the physical adventure of their quest northeast through absolutely alien terrain and vegetation. Besides the swooping and tree-dwelling Night Howlers – which seem to disappear completely in the daytime but later turn out to be following the humans – there’s a myriad of profoundly weird plants and animals that have the botanist and biologist excited, wanting to stop and take samples, but which keep the rest of them on edge. Nothing is as complicated as a fully-evolved ecology and nothing can be as dangerous, they all know, as a truly alien ecology.

As Rae-Chen explains it in later dialogue – “This ecology isn’t more complicated than we think. It’s more complicated than we can think.”

There are trees that appear to use their sharp-ended vines like spears, hurling them down into rivers to spear and retrieve fish to eat. Those fish that are prey to the trees are seen by our travelers to leap onto the banks of the river by the hundreds, extruding vestigial legs as they land, swarming to kill and drag back into the river small, hairy grazers with six legs and sheeplike expressions. Those grazers – odd mixtures of scaly reptiles and hairy ungulates – seem to be dull-witted and unthreatening enough alone or in small groups, but by the afternoon of their first day the Team sees a herd of thousands or tens of thousands of the stupid things stampede from a savannah into a thick jungle, using their reptilian chest plates like battering-ram armor, completely flattening a swath thirty meters wide through that jungle. The Tiger Team drives their Hum-G’s down some of these trails, but doesn’t want even their armored Hum-G’s to get caught in front of a stampede like that.

Gorman actually stops their trek at one point to reacquaint all of them with the best way to use the impact armor woven into their combat suits. With his helmet hood up and rigid, he throws himself from a cliff. He has Änrika shoot him with a deadly cloud of flechette darts that would shred a two-meter-thick tree. When the impact armor cloth goes rigid, he explains yet again to the team, nothing humans have ever encountered can penetrate it. The molecular impact foam within allows for almost no transmission of shock or movement to the human body. So a hundred-meter fall from the cliff – which he had demonstrated – may knock the wind out of you, but will not kill you or break bones.

“So if a million hairy-grazers stampede toward you, lie down and enjoy the patter of little hooves on your suit,” says Rossi. “Is that the idea?”

“The grazers do not have hooves,” points out Father Finn.

They’re beginning to enjoy the trek and decide to travel all night as well as during the day, taking turns sleeping in the bunks in the crowded backs of the two Hum-G’s while other team members drive, when – just after sunrise of the second day and with less than 200 kilometers covered toward Q-portal Two -- the second Timequake hits them.

#

This time the PDT transmissions show that they have been thrown forward only nine days into their own future – evidently the power of the Timequakes vary, just as in regular earthquakes – and their eight future-PDT’s are less than 100 kilometers ahead of them, all clustered in a grassy savannah more than 500 klicks wide. They’d been looking forward to getting to these grasslands so that the Hum-G’s could make real time in a straight line – the vehicles can reach speeds of more than 250 kph on the flatlands with no obstacles to dodge.

They use the comsat to send back high-res photos but – strangely – they can see neither themselves nor even the Hum-G’s in the place on the grassy plains from where the PDT signals are originating.

“Something ate all eight of us and spit out the PDT’s,” suggests Kosimov.

The others just stare at him.

“We’ll have to go check it out,” says Gorman. “A couple of us can fly there and back. Carry only weapons and some food. An hour there, an hour back, should give us almost a full hour to do forensics on what killed us before the reverse Timequake hits us.”

If there’s going to be a reverse Timequake this time,” says Rossi. “There’s no guarantee of anything here.”

“If it does come, do we have three hours here in the future like last time?” Rae-Chen asks the astrophysicist.

“How the hell should I know? I’m new here, just like you,” snaps Rossi. “Go ask one of the hairy grazers . . . they must have been through this before.”

“Let’s assume we have the three hours,” says Gorman. “We need to find out what’s happening with those PDTs. The worst that can happen is that we all get bounced back in time to when we started before we can check out the personal transmitters.”

“You mean the personal transmitters with our personal corpses around them,” says al-Duri. Again, there is no bio-telemetry flowing. Their future selves are quite dead and according to the PDTs, have been for  more than four days. Whatever killed them  . . . killed us they say. . .will kill them-us just a few days in their own future if something doesn’t change.

“Why did they . . . we . . . die a few days in our future?” asks Father Finn. “We’ll reach those grasslands in a few hours the way we’re going and should be that far out on them in less than a day. Why do you think we stopped out there tomorrow? What could have gotten to us in the Hum-G’s?”

No one answers.

“You won’t need to pack food for your flight,” Kosimov says to Gorman. “Another set of self-autopsies should take away your appetites quite nicely.”

Gorman takes just Dr. Mauriac with him. The others are told to sit tight.

We follow their hurried flight north to the grasslands, their combat suits circling the low-grass area where the comsats say the PDT’s are, and . . . . nothing.

“Fake signal somehow?” asks Miles over the comm link from the Hum-G’s a hundred klicks south. The other six are following everything through the two men’s suitcams.

“I don’t think so,” begins Gorman. Then . . . “Oh, Christ.”

He’s using his suit’s deep radar. He sends the visor image back to the others. The two Hum-G’s and the bodies of their eight occupants – themselves just a few days in their future -- are more than two hundred meters under the seemingly solid grasslands. More deep-radar searches show scores of such deceptive cavities in the solid ground.

Mauriac drops food packets onto the ground as he hovers five meters up. For half a minute the packets just sit there, and then the alien earth swallows them.

“Quicksand,” says Gorman. “The whole savannah must be riddled with deep bogs. It’s probably why the second probe didn’t land here. But it’s too far for us to drive around the grasslands – and the jungle gets denser to the east and west – so we’re just going to have to use the comsats and aerial reconnaissance to map the bogs and find a solid way across for the Hum-G’s.”

“I don’t think so,” says Rae-Chen over the comm. “I’m looking at the comsat deep radar returns for the entire grasslands. The grass there seems to be all one organism – sort of like aspen trees that clone from their roots so a whole forest is just one living thing – and the grass’s roots underly everything, providing cohesion to the soil wherever it wants cohesion.”

“So?” asks Gorman hovering over the treacherous landscape.

“So I believe the grasses create these vacuoles deliberately,” says the young Martian colonist. “I think they lure unsuspecting organisms out onto the solid grasslands – perhaps for many kilometers such as it was going to do with us and our Hum-G’s in just a few hours – and then . . . well . . . it eats them.”

“You’re right,” says Dr. Mauriac. “I can see on deep radar that the Hum-G’s and the bodies inside are being absorbed by some sort of acid that the root system secretes. The vehicles are almost gone. It’s just the combat suits that have kept the PDTs and bodies from being absorbed.”

“Being digested,” says Father Finn.

 Back in one of the Hum-G’s, Paul Rossi turns away, finds a sink, and vomits. When he runs water and wipes his mouth, he says, “I just had a thought. Our other selves could be down there trapped in our impact armor but still alive.

“No,” al-Duri says coldly. “The PDT’s show that we’ve been dead for several days down there.”

“Of course,” says Gorman over comm. “The Hum-G’s have enough internal air for about five days. It ran out about three days ago their time.”

“We asphyxiated,” says Kate Miles in absolutely flat tones.

“Unless the savannah grass’s gastric juices got to us first,” says Rae-Chen.

“I guess this means we’re going to have to detour around the nice, open grasslands, huh?” says Kosimov.

“You need to see this,” comms Dr. Mauriac. He has flown higher and now his suitcams on full magnification show everyone a pattern of the same complicated wood-vine “hex signs” that they’d found at their first future and fatal campsite. Six of these ovals of woven flexible wood, their centers a complex folded design, are set on the ground on a sixty-meter circle around the final resting spot for their buried Hum-G’s and future selves.

“Headstones,” says Kate Miles.

“Quarantine markers,” says Rossi, his voice quavering.

“Who put them out there?” asks Änrika.

“And why aren’t they sinking?” muses Rae-Chen. “Why isn’t the grassland-organism eating them?”

“Maybe it’s a carnivore and not a vegetarian or cannibal,” says Political Officer Kosimov. “It won’t eat a fellow plant.”

“The doctor and I are coming home,” says Gorman.

The reverse Timequake hits them just seconds aftet the team leader and doctor get back to the Hum-G’s and shuck their suits. This time they’d been in their future for two hours and eleven minutes.

“It would be better if our time in the future were more standardized and predictable,” says Security Chief Änrika when they find themselves in their own time again. The others are in shirtsleeves but she’s still in full combat armor in the cramped interior of Hum-G One.

“It would be better if we’d never come to this goddamned planet,” says Rossi.

“Amen,” says Father Finn.

#

Act II:

The story grows much more complicated.

The motion picture “Timequake” should make a great video game, because in some ways the plot follows the structure of video games – rising through increasing levels of challenges, each puzzle being harder than the last to solve, the punishment for failing to solve each increasingly difficult puzzle more dire.

But this is no video game to our very flesh-and-blood human Tiger Team members. They don’t get a REPLAY if they fuck up, even once. They want to go home.

Turning west to avoid the extensive carnivorous grasslands, they enter jungle so dense that their progress – even in the wrong direction while they detour the savannah – slows to a crawl. They take turns flying combat suit recon ahead of the vehicles, pathfinding since the comsats have trouble peering down through the strangely reflective jungle canopy. Everyone is exhausted. Tempers get shorter.

The first confrontations, although hidden from the others, are between Team Leader Gorman and Security Chief Änrika. This tension is lessened a bit on the day the team stops to rest, sleep, take scientific samples, refill their drinking water, and bathe in a pool beneath five tall waterfalls. Gorman and Änrika end up alone and making love.

Still naked afterward (but the security chief never getting more than an arm’s reach from her flechette rifle and pistol), their buffed, tanned, and scarred bodies relaxing on a rock in the jungle-filtered sunlight, Gorman says, “This reminds me of a story about Noah’s ark.”

Änrika lifts a dubious eyebrow.

“Noah tells the animals filing aboard two-by-two, ‘Absolutely no mating on board,’” says Gorman. “ ‘We don’t have room for it. The first two of you I see going at it, I throw overboard. And I’ll be watching’ The animals seem to understand. Months later, when they find land again, all the critters are filing down the gangplank two-by-two until the tomcat and female cat walk by, followed by five kittens. The tomcat gives Noah a wink and a big shit-eating grin and says, ‘Bet you thought we were fighting, didn’t you?’”

“You feeling like the tomcat?” asks Änrika, pulling on her jumpsuit and combat suit over that. “Or do you feel like we’ll be fighting again soon?”

“Maybe yes to both of those,” says Gorman. “But mostly I just feel like Noah.”

#

Using the comsats, they track a hurricane coming in from the ocean. When it hits at night, all hell breaks loose. The giant trees they’ve been creeping past – shaped like huge crystalline mushrooms 200 meters tall, transparent and glowing through the trunks – at first seem to be absorbing lightning strikes, but then Miles points out that the trees are generating electricity by the megavolts. Gigantic bolts of lightning shoot skyward. Then the electrical blasts begin leaping from tree to tree and from tree to ground. The Hum-G’s are being bracketed in artillery barrages of lightning. Everything’s glowing and sparking. Balls of lightning float between the trees. The humans’ hair stands on end. They shut down every circuit and abandon the vehicles and run for it, burrowing holes in the forest soil and burying themselves, surviving through their combat suits’ internal air and non-conducting impact fabric while the storm rages above and around them.

“I was never worried,” Miles says after the storm has passed. “If we’d died by lightning, we would have already found our bodies and PDTs charred here after a Timequake.”

Rossi shakes his head. “It doesn’t work that way, Kate. After we avoided the savannah bogs after the last ‘quake, we started down a new time-branch. There hasn’t been a Timequake since. We could have died here without warning.”

“Oh, Jesus,” says Miles, turning pale.

“Exactly,” says Father Finn, passing by.

#

The next Timequake hits them just as they’ve emerged from the jungle into a vermillion desert still more than 3,500 kilometers from Q-portal Two. They’re thrown five weeks into their future. One PDT return – Änrika’s – pings the comsats.

“Let’s not even check it out,” al-Duri whispers to Rossi. “The domineering bitch finally got what she deserves.”

But the blip is moving across the desert. Is this the first time they’ll find one of their future selves alive or injured?

No. The bio-telemetry bands are flat. This other Änrika – PDT mission-elapsed clocks show she had died ten days in their future – is moving but dead, wandering in circles some twenty-five kilometers deeper in the desert. The sun is setting and the galaxy rising and the Night Howlers are howling from the dark line of jungle behind them as Gorman, Dr. Mauriac, Father Finn, and Chief Änrika herself fly out to see what has happened. They should have between two and three hours before they get ping-ponged back in time by the reverse Timequake.

Comsat infrared has shown them large shapes moving in the desert but none of the team is prepared for just how big these living creatures are.

“Much larger than dinosaurs,” says Father Finn as they hover three hundred meters above the huge creatures. “Not reptiles though, even though that one has a neck rather like that of a Diplodocus . . . only about three times as long.”

“My body’s in that one,” says Änrika, shining her laser pointer on one of the largest lumbering creatures.

“How in God’s name did you manage to get yourself eaten by a big hairy dinosaur-mammal-thing?” asks Miles over the comm.

They ignore her.

“Being swallowed . . . or even chewed . . . by one of those things wouldn’t kill any of us,” says Gorman, flying above the herd. “The impact armor would save us and we’d have hours of internal air.”

“Perhaps the security chief was not wearing her armor when the creature ingested her,” suggests Father Finn.

Änrika makes a rude noise. “I estimate that . . . thing . . . to weigh about thirty tons, Father. Do you think I let it sneak up on me?”

After a minute of radio silence, she adds, “Besides, I carry three combat knives – two steel ones and an energy blade. I would have cut my way out of that thing’s belly in thirty seconds.”

Al-Duri’s voice comes over comm – “There’s no need to look at the body. We know what happened to the chief. All we have to do to keep her alive now is avoid the wooly-dino-oxen herds.”

“Bullshit,” says Änrika. She swoops down and begins blasting the creature with her flechette rifle. Gorman joins her while Dr. Mauriac and Father Finn hover and watch. Another wooly-dino-oxen lumbers over, perhaps trying to defend its mate, and Änrika uses flechettes on it as well. In three minutes the two giant creatures are dead on the vermillion desert sand, the rest of the herd panicked into running away, and the security chief uses her green energy blade to slash through the monster’s belly. All three of the men join in the unpleasant task of pawing through alien stomach organs and what seems like miles of coiled intestines to locate the PDT and Änrika’s corpse.

“Is anyone else here old enough to remember when they brought back that 19th or 20th Century treat called Crackerjack . . . with a prize in the box?” asks Political Officer Kosimov over comm.

No one laughs then but there is definitely no laughter a minute later when they pull Änrika’s corpse from the gut of the dead beast.

She had been naked when she was devoured. The wooly-dino had chewed off her arm and one foot and most of her face, but had not been able to digest her, of course – human DNA is as undigestable to these creatures as their flesh would be to the humans. But even a cursory inspection by Mauriac, their suitlamps and flashlights illuminating the corpse for everyone to see on comm, shows that the big creature hadn’t killed Security Chief Änrika in their soon-to-be-now future.

Hundreds if not thousands of tiny diamond-crystal darts  – the kind loaded in each of their flechette rifles – gleam from the dead woman’s gaping wounds. And those didn’t come from her killing of the animal. The wounds were there before the monster ate her.

“One of you fuckers is going to kill me,” Änrika says softly.

#

The return-Timequake rolls over them, they rubberband back to their “now,” and they hash it out, standing outside their Hum-G’s as the Night Howlers scream in the black forest behind them and the wooly-dinos boom and roar in the desert ahead of them.

Everyone insists that no one has a motive to murder anyone, much less their security chief whose job it is to keep them all alive. “But one of you will,” says Änrika dispassionately. “Unless we figure out who’s planning to kill me and stop him . . . or her . . . now.”

“Maybe the ‘us’ in these future timelines don’t act like the ‘us’ of now,” offers Kosimov, sobered by what he’s seen.

“Maybe,” says Gorman. “But we can’t count on that. We have to solve this now.”

Father Finn asks if they can do some sort of ballistics test on the flechette darts, but none had been brought back in time with them – things from the future, other than memories, don’t make the trip back – and besides that, Änrika assures them, flechette rifles don’t leave ballistic fingerprints like the old slugthrowers of yore. The deadly darts could have come from any of their flechette weapons, including her pistol. “But I didn’t shoot myself six or eight times . . . there were that many flechettes in my corpse. So I think we can safely rule me out as a suspect. That leaves the seven of you.”

Shouting. Arguing. A shoving match between al-Duri and Rossi.

“Stop,” Gorman says at last. When the bickering continues, he bellows – “STOP!”

They stop. Everyone is frozen in place. Even the Night Howlers have ceased their chorus.

“We need to work through this,” says Gorman in a soft voice. “Find out what might make one of us kill Chief Änrika . . . or capable of killing anyone.

The silence deepens and stretches.

It’s Kosimov, the jokester, who offers a solution.

“We may never know what caused one of our future selves to kill Security Chief Änrika,” he says softly. “The person who did it in our future probably doesn’t even know right know that he or she is capable of doing such a thing. God knows what fights or arguments might have happened between us in this alternative future. That’s not important right now. What we have to do is destroy all the flechette weapons here . . . right now. It’s a certainty that no one’s going to die from a flechette rifle or pistol a few days from now if they’re all destroyed today.”

“And leave ourselves defenseless?” says Bobby al-Duri. “Fuck that idea.” As if to underline his argument, there are strange screeches – not Night Howlers – from the jungle and answering bellows from the wooly-dino herd in the desert.

Gorman shakes his head. “Officer Kosimov is right.  It’s the only way to be sure. Even if we stowed the flechette weapons in one of the Hum-G’s lockers, at least one of us would have the code to unlock it. The Chief would never be safe. If we get rid of the guns, we still have the three survey lasers we can amp up to weapons strength. Plus we have five thermite-D charges meant to blow trees or melt snow or whatever. We’ll use one to destroy the flechette guns and keep the other four handy . . . just in case.”

Several members of the team start to argue, but they see Gorman’s face in galaxy-light and quickly fall silent.

“It’s the one way we can be sure,” says Kosimov. “It’s the right decision.”

“But one of us here has the heart and soul of a murderer,” Father Finn says softly. “It’s not a good thing to know.”

#

They’re not going to make it. They’re running out of food faster than they’re gaining ground. By the time they cross the desert and are approaching the incredibly high mountain range west of their direct course because of their detours, they still have more than three thousand kilometers to go and only another five or six days’ food.

“Just St. Louis to New York,” says Miles. “If the American Midwest had maneating grass, fish that drag you into their river, and carnivorous wooly dinos.”

#

The next Timequake hits them and throws them a full year into their future. They have no idea why the stength varies so much, although astrophysicist Rossi is coming up with a theory.  The bad news is that their comsats report that Q-portal Two is now defunct. Their escape route is closed forever..

“Calm down,” says Gorman as a sense of panic flows through the group. “We’re a full year in our future. Q-portal Two could have failed yesterday in this mission-elapsed time and it still gives us a year to get to it.”

It’s al-Duri who asks the question they’ve all been thinking about  -- “Where are we in all these ‘future branches of the Heisenberg probability multiverse’ that we end up being thrown forward onto?” he says. “Where are our future selves?”

“Escaped,” says Gorman. “Gone home via Portal Two before it shut down.”

“Then where are the colonists who’d be here if the portal stays open for months more?” asks Rossi. He’s about one bubble off the plumb of hysteria. “Where are the scientists and cities? This planet sucks shit, but it’s still the most beautiful world the Exploration Service has found in a hundred years of hunting. Where are we in these futures, other than dead?”

Gorman tables that discussion – mostly because he’s afraid of the answer --  and makes them consider the real-time situation. They have six PDT pings from a place in the mountains almost three hunded klicks to the east of their present position. The bio-telemetry tells them that none of the six are alive. Only Boss Gorman and Chief Änrika are not among the dead there according to the PDTs. Gorman says they’ll have to go check it out.

“To hell with that,” says al-Duri. “Too far from our path. We can’t even get there and back to the Hum-G’s in the lousy three hours the Timequakes give us before they bounce us back to when we started.”

“The repellor packs can’t even carry enough charge to make the round trip,” says Miles.

“We carry extra power cells,” says Dr. Mauriac.

“It’s nuts,” argues Rossi. “We send two or three of us on this wild goose chase and when the blue Timequake hits us, our team will bounce back in time and be separated by hundreds of kilometers. It’ll take another day for the recon team to get back – we’ll have wasted two days at least. And for what? If six of us were stupid enough to wander that far east and get killed somehow, we stay alive just by not going there. Quod erat demonstradum.”

“QED up your ass,” says security chief Änrika. Her flechette weapons are gone but she still has three knives.

“We’re all going,” says Gorman. “We’ll find a way to haul the power cells and at least one Briggs-field generator and all the foodpacs we can carry and we’ll all fly there by suit power. The Hum-G’s wouldn’t get another twenty klicks into these mountains anyway. We have to head east if we’re going to get back on the shortest route to Q-portal Two, so we’ll see what killed us up there in the mountains and keep on going from there. So far these jaunts have saved our lives . . . our real lives.”

#

It is a city – a linear city almost five kilometers long and more than three thousand meters up in the mountains, a city that seems more bridge than city, connecting two high peaks, its towers and balustrades and high walkways and landing platforms and crenelated rooftops covered in snow. It is alien in the sense a hornet’s hive is disturbingly different from an apartment building.

“Why didn’t the comsat see this?” asks Rae-Chen.

“Too much snow,” says al-Duri. “No heat signature. From the down-angles the sat would have, this would look like just another mountain ridge.”

“But this is no mountain ridge,” says Rossi.

“Oh, no,” agrees Father Finn.

Since they’re hauling everything they can carry with them in nets and awkward backpacks, they stow most of the stuff on one of the curved aerial terraces and explore the interior. Whoever built this place could fly – either with machines or with wings of their own. And there are no flying machines in evidence.

The interiors are huge, cavernous, cold, elaborately carved, echoing, and ancient. In one room the size of the ancient Vehicle Assembly Building at the old Kennedy Spaceport Museum – a space large enough for clouds to form inside – there is a statue that must be a hundred and fifty meters tall. It is strangely human, despite the six arms – looking something like a thin robed figure with strangely jointed robed arms extended in an almost religious attitude of welcome and blessing. The curved wood-and-stone basin at the foot of the gigantic statue might have been an altar or dais, the empty area nearby the equivalent of half a dozen Notre Dame cathedrals.

Al-Duri and Father Finn stay behind to photograph and try to decipher an endless stone wall carved with hieroglyphics and pictograms as the other six fly on to find the pinging PDTs.

Six bodies are there in a side room with only narrow slits for windows – six skeletons in combat suits to be precise – and they are locked in an ornate iron cage.

“I can’t do much of an autopsy on bones,” says Dr. Mauriac, “but based on the positions of the skeletons, most sitting or lying, I’d guess we starved to death again.”

“Somebody locked us in there and abandoned us to die,” snarls Rossi. He looks at his sensor display to confirm what they already know from the PDT count. “Notice that Boss Gorman and Chief Änrika aren’t among the bones.”

Gorman looks at the astrophysicist with curiosity. “What possible motive would we have for locking all of you here – in a place we didn’t even know about – and abandoning you to die? That makes no sense, Paul.”

“Food,” says Rossi. “There’s five days left on three-quarter rations. Ten if we starve ourselves. But that’s for eight people. Not nearly enough to get us to Portal Two. But if two of you saw the chance to leave us here and take our rations . . .”

Änrika laughs. “You dumb shit. If I wanted to steal your rations, I wouldn’t have to come three hundred klicks out of our way and lock you in some ancient holding cell. You have to know that I could kill all of you here in thirty seconds without breaking a sweat.”

No one has a comment on that. Jake Gorman allows himself that small smile of his.

Suddenly Father Finn comes in with al-Duri in his wake, the priest totally ignoring the skeletons and cell and tension between teammates, his eyes almost feverish. “We think we’ve figured out the pictographic language enough to get a sense of what this place was about,” he says. “It’s one of the temples where the race who used to live here – they had wings like angels – used to call down their living God from the galaxy above. And the God came when called.”

There comes a flapping and stirring and whirring of leather wings on the railless balconies outside. The sun is setting and long shadows of alien shapes are thrown on the carved walls. The Night Howlers have arrived.

#

Act III:

In 1967, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had to abandon their original ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey because the “aliens” that the SF writer Clarke had envisioned simply weren’t doable or convincing by the level of special effects of the day. So Kubrick went with an unseen alien presence – represented again by the black monolith – and the last reel of the film became a pseudo-religious metaphor (especially for those who dropped a lid or so of acid before coming in for the last reel.)

Since then, we’ve seen a lot of interesting extraterrestrials ranging from the rubber masks of the original Star Wars cantina scenes to the completely digital. They’ve been amusing and they’ve been horrific but very few, if any, have been convincing.

The Night Howlers as they shuffle in from landing balconies through deep shadows into this echoing sanctuary simply have to be the most convincing alien creatures in the history of imaginative cinema.

Usually our SFX imaginations for aliens extrapolate from insects or reptiles and enlarge proportions to disturbing size, but the Night Howlers are creatures of a totally alien ecology. Our shock of encounter with them has to be equal to that of the eight Tiger Team members.

The Night Howlers are a species – we shall learn – that evolved from six-armed and web-winged flying creatures (technically animals that soared from tree to tree like some of the earliest mammals on Earth) to a sentient and spacefaring species with an advanced culture for tens of thousands of years, but who then chose to abandon technology and to return to the trees and continue their evolution in the wild. They should be disturbing and large enough to be threatening and their movements in their former temple should be clumsy – one thinks of the bat-winged  pteranodon’s shuffling, awkward movements in Jurassic Park III where we see how the ancient flying reptiles must have literally had to walk on their taloned knuckles – and there should be a hint of their former advanced social intelligence in however many eyes they have.

Also, the Night Howlers have been greeting their galaxy-rise and God with their incredible hooting calls for so many thousands of generations that their probosci and cranial structure should have evolved like some complicated musical instrument, all resonating bone chambers and living-tissue woodwind reeds and membranes.

And they should look dangerous, lethal, but not in the slavering Alien tradition. The Night Howlers are, like the eight homo sapiens standing there staring at them, evolved from a predatory killer species made even more lethal by the evolution of a cunning intelligence. But there is also something reflective in their alien gazes. These are creatures who – for hundreds of thousands of their years – have had a daily and intimate relationship with some force they believe to be God.

#

Outside, the sun is setting. The shadows thrown into the huge temple sanctuary through the complex open windows and terrace pillars are bizarre, many of them replicating the designs on the wood-vine talismen left around the Tiger Team’s various death sites. The Night Howlers shuffle in from the balconies by the dozens, then by the scores. We hear the flap of wings as more arrive.

Everyone buttons up in their combat suits except for Father Finn, who leaves his hood-helmet down. Gorman, Änrika, and Miles are carrying the three portable survey lasers that have been amped up to lethal levels so as to be useful as weapons. The team leader and security chief shift those lasers on their slings so that they’re not aimed at the advancing Night Howlers but could be in a fraction of a second. Miles seems to have forgotten she’s carrying hers.

Father Finn tries to talk to the aliens, simply saying hello in a variety of languages, but the Night Howlers pay no attention to him. The humans close up and begin backing away as the winged things advance in a crowded half-circle toward them. The Tiger Team communicates now on their radio comm channel, which even Finn can hear even though his helmet is down.

Rossi:  Jesus . . . they’re herding us back toward the cell . . . toward where we’ve already died once.

Änrika:  Still think Gorman and I penned you up there to steal your food, shit-for-brains?

Gorman:  Quiet. For all we know, these creatures can pick up radio frequencies.

Kosimov: (laughing) And understand English? I know we’re paranoid here, but are we paranoid enough?

Mauriac:   We’ve got to get back to our food and power cells – all the gear we left on the terrace.

Father Finn: (who’s five meters closer to the creatures than the others as they back away) Too late for that, I’m afraid. I saw some of the creatures fly away with all our stuff.

Rossi:  (laughing hard, almost hysterically) Well, we’re fucked. We’re dead. We’re really fucked. I hope they enjoy our foodpacs.

The humans are now backed into the alcove with only the iron cell holding the skeletons and a stone-laced window too small for them to crawl through. Hundreds of the Night Howlers are knuckling closer.

Rossi:  (continued) Shoot them for Christ’s sake! Burn them with the lasers. Use that one thermite charge you’ve been lugging around, Security Chief. Kill them!

Kate Miles unslings her survey laser and brings it up, optics aimed toward the Night Howlers.

Gorman:  (voice loud and imperative) No! Not yet! Nobody fires until I give the word – and that includes you, Chief.

Änrika nods but the others are gabbling and babbling on comm. The Night Howlers have all but encircled them. Only the cell and the wall and too-small window apertures are behind them.

Father Finn:     This is wrong. The first contact with another intelligent life form in our species’ history and we’re talking about killing them?

Al-Duri:   These monsters don’t seem to share your compunctions, priest. Shut up and get over here if you don’t want to die.

Gorman:  Everyone quiet. Änrika, the window . . . prime the charge and set it on my call.

Everyone looks at the long but stone-latticed window slits. Outside, it’s full dark, the mountain peaks having finally lost their eerie alpenglow, and the galaxy is rising.

The Night Howlers beging to howl. The organ-voice chorus is a thousand times louder and more terrible in the echoing hall. Many of the humans throw their hands over their ears even though their helmets are on.

Gorman:  Now!

The team leader fires his laser – not at the Night Howlers but cutting a path across the high ceiling of the space, dropping masonry and dust between the humans and the hundreds of aliens. Showing amazing speed, Änrika pulls the single thermite charge they have from her bag, sets it precisely where she wants it near the windows even as the blocks are falling from the ceiling – half-concealing them behind a cascade of dust – and throws herself forward as the charge blows out a row of stone bars.

Gorman:  Go! Go! Go!

The stunned Tiger Team members throw themselves into space through the gaping opening, activating their backpack repellors as they go, hurtling north toward the high peaks. Änrika has to run forward, grab the priest, and literally throw him out of the hole in the wall. She looks at Gorman who’s still standing there with his survey laser aimed. Even with the fall of stone and dust, the Night Howlers have not ceased their chorus.

Änrika leaps into space, waiting to turn on her repellors until she’s fallen a hundred meters, and then streaks to follow the others.

Gorman: (pausing in the shattered window and speaking to the six human skeletons in the cage)  What a stupid mess.

He throws himself into space. The Night Howlers – still singing their echoing chorus of praise to the sky – do not follow. Not yet.

#

Things go to hell fast for Tiger Team One after this encounter.

Their backpacks have enough juice in the EM repellors to get them over the mountain range – but just barely. The power cells and foodpacs and Briggs-field generators – everything they need to survive except the suits on their backs, two remaining lasers with some power in them, and the bits of food in their pockets – have disappeared with the Night Howlers who flew away with them.

There are accusations and recriminations on comm as the eight weary survivors fly over high, snowcovered mountain passes in the galaxy-light.

Miles wants to know why they don’t just fly west to the Hum-G’s where they’ve left extra foodpacs and power cells that they weren’t able to carry. Al-Duri replays a recording from the comsats showing a hundred Night Howlers looting the vehicles half an hour earlier, hauling away everything that could be ripped out of the Hum-G’s.

“God damn those batwinged fucks,” is Miles’s comment.

Rossi shouts that they should have killed the Night Howlers threatening them, tracked the ones that had stolen their supplies on suit radar, and followed the damn things – taking their supplies back by force.

Gorman ends that row by replaying the recording of his own visor radar of the disappearing band of flying Night Howlers after they’d all left the aerial city. The creatures might fly just by musclepower rather than with the human’s sophisticated electomagnetic repellors, but from the 3,000-meter altitude of this bridge-city, the aliens’ velocity in gliding south, even while carrying the humans’ supplies with them, had been over 230 kph. More than twice what the humans’ weakening combat suit repellors were capable of. “We could have given chase,” says Gorman over comm to the depressed team, “but we never would have caught them. And we would have run out of power and had to land in the jungle several hundred klicks south of the mountains, back in Night Howler territory . . . the wrong direction.”

As it is, they run out of power and have to land about two hundred klicks north of the aerial city, but still in the snowy foothills of the mountain range and more than 1,800 kilometers from Q-portal Two on the coast. They dump their suit backpacks – thus losing not only the useless repellors but their oxygen regenerators as well – and trudge down the snowy slopes just in their impact-fabric suits. They each carry a few things on slings or in pockets or nylon backpacks – computers, foodpacs they’d been munching from, two of the three lasers (Gorman had left his depleted one behind but “borrowed” Miles’s), Father Finn’s Gnostic Bible – but essentially Rossi’s assessment of their situation was accurate –

They are well and truly fucked.

To add to their fun, the next night they see that the Night Howlers have flown across the mountain range and are following them as the humans trudge out of the foothills into a hotter, weirder alien jungle. The Night Howlers circle high on unseen thermals, clearly visible against the Milky Way Galaxy. At least they’re far enough away, Rae-Chen points out, that the team doesn’t have to hear their howls.

“They’re like goddamned buzzards,” says al-Duri. “Just circling and waiting for us to drop.”

“But at least they can’t eat us,” offers Kosimov. “I mean, they can eat us when we’re dead, but they can’t enjoy us.”

Al-Duri explains that if Kosimov doesn’t shut up, he – Bobby al-Duri – will personally strangle the stupid motherfucker, even if it’s the last physical act he’s capable of.

They’re doomed now – unless a rescue party comes through Q-portal Two, which is showing signs, relayed to their suit diskeys from the comsats above, of becoming erratic. The portal’s steady power readings are beginning to surge and fade.

It’s somewhere about this time that astrophysicist Paul Rossi explains his theory of the Timequakes. They’re resting for a few hours – they make a campfire even though the extra warmth is not very welcome in the sweltering jungle heat – before entering the worst of the impossible, steaming jungle and swamps ahead of them.

Rossi, who is hanging onto his sanity by a thread, had downloaded all the data from the Q-portal probe and has used up too many of his brief sleep periods to sort it out on his small quantum computer.

His theory, based on the probe’s memory of what happened to it, goes something like this:

At some point about four light years from Earth on its way to Tau Ceti Prime at 11.9 light years out, the probe was cruising along at its maximum speed of 0.28 light speed – using its hydrogen-gathering Bussard ramjets as programmed – when something (the probe’s AI circuits had no idea what) began accelerating the robot probe. The acceleration continued to build until, within just a few weeks, it had reached 0.9832196% of the speed of light. No Bussard ramjet ever built – or that ever could be built – could achieve such a velocity. Nor could the hydrogen ramjet slow the probe, as planned, toward Tau Ceti prime. The probe carrying the Q-portal passed its designated star-target like a bullet fired past a tennis ball (Rossi’s analogy).

The probe held that impossible 0.9832196% light-speed velocity for most of its pre-programmed 86-year voyage. The only problem was that its programming – thrust, fuel, acceleration and deceleration rates, comm with Earth, and celestial navigation – were now more useless than tits on a boar (Rossi’s analogy again.)

Tau Ceti Prime Q-Portal Probe One went shooting out of the Milky Way Galaxy like a runaway unmanned express train to hell (my analogy, but Rossi would have liked it.) It was soon lost in the Great Darkness between galaxies, headed nowhere at all.

And all during that time, Rossi explains, Einstein’s rules of time dilation applied.

The rules are fairly simple and very brutal – at least for their current situation. The faster anything moves – a car, a mouse, a spacecraft, any particle of matter – the slower time goes for that moving object. Rossi uses the century-and-a-half-old explanation of two identical twins separated, one traveling to a nearby star for four years – ship time – while the other waits at home on Earth. Upon his return, although the clocks on his spaceship showed, correctly, that only eight years had passed for the fast-moving traveler, sixty years or more have passed for his stationary twin.

“Only this goddamned probe was traveling above 98% light speed for eighty-six of its own goddamned years,” says Rossi. “It not only sent it 400,000 light years off course out here to the ass-end of nowhere – this lost star wandering with its one little planet in the Big Dark – but, when it decelerated to this star system, and God knows how it could slow down from that speed, it sure wasn’t the ship’s Bussard ramjets doing it, it landed here more than a million years in Earth’s future.

They all look up at the night sky as this sinks in. Somewhere up there in one of the arms of that spiral galaxy that they used to call home is Sol, the sun, and – with luck – Earth. But it was an Earth on which a million years had passed while the probe had only experienced 86 years.

“I figure 1,092,350 years, give or take a decade,” says Rossi.

No one can look away from the sky. Everything and everyone they had ever known had been dust for over a million years, on this side of the Q-portals.

“The quantum-teleportation portal did exactly what it was programmed to do,” explains Rossi. “It activated and joined up with its entangled quarks and protons and neutrons on our half of the Q-portal back on Earth – but Earth of 2148. We’ve built a goddamned time-machine, ladies and gentlemen. And it sent us here, a million years in our future, but so far from home that we couldn’t get back there – not that there’s any there there that we’d recognize --  if we had a magic spaceship and started the trip a million years ago from last Tuesday.”

“I wonder if the human race still exists up there,” whispers Rae-Chen, looking at the galaxy hanging heavy above them.

“But if we’d been able to get to Q-portal Two,” says the engineer, Miles, “or if Q-portal One hadn’t pooped out on us, we could get home . . . a million years back in time and 400,000 light years across space to 2148, home to my dog, everything . . .”

Paul Rossi laughs but does not sound amused. “Right. That’s the fucking joker in the deck. It’s us that’s creating these Timequakes.”

“What the hell are you babbling about?” demands Mauriac. “We’re not doing anything to create them .  .  . we couldn’t create a phenomenon like those ‘quakes.”

Rossi is almost giggling. “The Q-portals are doing it. They’re destabilizing the entire space-time continuum here. We’ve dug a hole 400,000 light years deep and a million years wide through space and time and space and time don’t like it. But it’s not just the Q-portals themselves, the quantum interface that’s doing it, it’s us as well. Our bodies. Our brains.”

“What are you talking about?” Gorman asks softly. It’s hard enough to die of starvation or exposure while watching your teammates die around you – and they’d all be going through that in a few days --  the team didn’t need to hear that they were responsible for their own demise.

Rossi pounds his chest like an ape. “Quantum entanglement. Every molecule and atom and quark in our bodies and in our equipment and Hum-G’s . . . every damned electron in our crackling little chimp brains is entangled with atoms back in 22nd Century Earth-space-time, it’s how a Q-portal works. It’s why we’re being thrown forward in time by these ‘quakes – just us and our gear each time -- and not the Night Howlers or the local flaura and fauna. It’s our atoms that are quantum-entangled, like fucking Siamese twins that have never been separated, tangled up through the Q-portal with Earth on the other side of time and the galaxy . . .

Kate Miles is near tears. “It never happened before in Q-portal missions . . .”

Rossi does giggle now. He sounds deranged. “Before this Tau Ceti Prime mission – which got boosted here straight out of the galaxy – the biggest Q-jump we’ve had was nine fucking light years. A lousy two-year time dilation effect. We beat that record by about 399,991 light years and 1,092,341 real years, give or take a decade.”

The team sits there watching the campfire. At least they aren’t looking at their lost, dead home a million-years-away home in the sky anymore. No one except Rossi seems to have enough energy to speak, but Rossi won’t shut up.

“And the biggest joke on us of all?” he says, as if someone had posed that question. “Anyone else here wonder why the Timequakes just seem to come when one or some or all of screw up and die in our future?”

Several people nod. Miles says, “I assumed it was coincidence.”

Rossi giggles again. “No such thing as coincidence in real science, my mere engineer friend. The Timequakes come after we kill ourselves through stupidity in the future . . .” He looks around at the other faces lit by the campfire. “By stupidity or a murderer’s plot . . . because of the same old Heisenberg Theory of Uncertainty.”

“I don’t follow,” says Father Finn. He knew about Heisenberg, of course – they all did. One truth shown through that theory was that anyone trying to observe an experiment invariably changed its outcome. Observation itself, however removed from the observer, was a factor in changing probability into reality. The exobiologist’s understanding of ecology was based on this understanding of quantum reality.

For the last time, Professor Paul Rossi holds up a branch from the pile they’d accumulated for the campfire.  “The main branchings we’re creating in the future multiverse . . . those branches we’re creating and breaking off, remember, as we try to survive in one of those futures . . . are triggering the Timequakes. The space-time continuum just doesn’t like paradoxes, doesn’t like us co-existing with our dead bodies, now you see us now you don’t.”

“I have a question,” Rae-Chen says softly. “When we’re all dead in a week or two, will another Timequake happen? And if so, why? We won’t be able to change the future this time.”

Rossi giggles a final time and throws the branch in the fire. “When we’re all dead, my best scientific guess is that the Q-portal will shut down – collapse, implode. Our active neurons and entangled atoms are probably the only thing keeping the second portal working. It would have collapsed behind us anyway if we’d been able to get to it and go through it.”

“That’s why the rescue teams haven’t come through,” says Gorman. “They must know on their end how totally unstable the Q-portal tunnel is. If they came to rescue us, the whole thing would collapse or the new Timequakes would destroy it.”

Rossi nods. He is so emotionally drained now that he can’t even giggle. Tears are streaming down through the dirt and grime on his cheeks. Finally he says, “We are so fucked. Eighteen hundred kilometers from the portal with a jungle ahead of us all the way so thick that we’ll be lucky if we make five kilometers a day. And we have . . . what? . . .  some water in our bottles, God knows if there’s any more in the jungle, another day’s food if we pool all our crumbs?”

“Three days if we eat very light,” says Kosimov. It is not an attempt at humor.

“We are so fucked,” repeats Rossi.

Gorman is irritated. “There are two ways to be fucked,” he says. “Like a rape victim who has to suffer it, or like a man or woman who’s going to enjoy it as much as possible.”

“Enjoy dying?” asks Father Finn. It is not sarcasm. He is interested.

Gorman gives the only full grin the team has ever seen from their leader. “Enjoy trying to survive despite all odds,” he says, voice soft but somehow ferocious. “I plan to go home. And I plan to take all of you with me.”

The Night Howlers following them begin their chorus again. The howling-organ concerts seem to go longer each night now. This is when Nicolai Kosimov pulls out his tenor saxophone, steps to the edge of the campfire light, and begins improvising . . . weaving his jazz-sax riffs in and out of the Night Howler chorus.

#

Eighteen days later and they’re dying.

Everyone except Chief Änrika has shucked his or her heavy combat suit and is stumbling through the jungle in the tattered remnants of a coverall or nylon flightsuit. Al-Duri is marching in his long underwear. Änrika still carries the single remaining laser and her knives, but everything else that weighs more than a few grams has been left behind.

The team members take turns in front, using the Chief’s adjustable energy blade as a machete to slash their way through the jungle. This forest is so thick that they can’t see the sun, can’t breathe, and the heat and humidity continue to rise. Most of them haven’t eaten for two weeks, the only water they have they get from the leaves after a rainstorm or morning dew, and they are all beyond exhaustion.

The local insects can’t use their blood for nutrition, but they don’t know that. They still drink it and lap it at will. One flying insect that looks like a fuzzy crab with wings is the size of a squirrel. Every team member is now a patchwork of nasty bites, swellings, rashes, and open sores.

They’ve covered twenty-five kilometers in eighteen days and nights of back-breaking hacking and stumbling their way forward. As Kosimov said two days ago just before breaking his leg, “Hey, only one thousand seven hundred and seventy-two more klicks to go, boys and girls!”

Then the political officer had fallen while trying to climb over a 3-meter-high fallen tree trunk in their path and fractured his leg in three places.

Dr. Mauriac still carried his medkit complete with painkillers – which most of the Tiger Team had been thinking about as a painless way out when things get a little worse – and he dosed Kosimov with ultramorph, shoved the splintered bone fragments back through the skin, and splinted the shattered leg as best he could. Then he injected as much antibiotic as he had, but – as Kosimov drifted into morphic bliss, telling jokes until he went to sleep – Mauriac told Gorman and Änrika that the chances for gangrene setting in were almost 100%. The political officer would be dead within a few days.

“We all will be,” Änrika said tiredly.

Oddly, no one had suggested leaving Kosimov behind that morning. Not even al-Duri, who hadn’t been speaking to the Global Accord officer for days. They just went about gathering branches and vines to improvise a litter. Al-Duri – being one of the bigger team members – volunteered to carry the unconscious man for the first hours of the day’s useless trek. Gorman took the other end.

“Will we get a Timequake if Kosimov dies first?” Miles asks of Rossi this morning before the drugged political officer wakes up. “I mean, if the Timequakes are triggered by one of us doing something stupid and dying . . . .”

Rossi just shrugs. “I doubt it,” he says at last, swatting away flying insects. “This isn’t some future version of us. This is us. And even if a ‘Quake bounces us forward, there’s nothing we can do about changing Kosimov’s fall. This is the real timeline and we’re on it for good now.”

“But if there’s another Tiger Team One following us, back in time,” says Miles. “More of us, I mean . . . just like we’ve been following our future selves . . .”

Rossi shakes his head. “I’ve thought of that. Even thought of suicide and leaving elaborate notes to tell our later selves what to do so they can avoid our screw-ups, just so some version of me will survive. But I don’t think there’s another us following us. And ever if there were, the Q-portal’s going to fail soon. Al-Duri says it’s so unstable now that it can’t last more than a few days.”

“Is there any good news?” asks Miles.

Rossi grins. “Well, it could be worse. At least, since we’re all going to die pretty much at the same time soon, we don’t have to go through another one of those goddamned Timequakes.”

At that moment the Timequake comes roaring and rippling out of the east like a thousand-meter-high tsunami, roaring over them and their jungle and even the following, circling Night Howlers, throwing the humans six days into their future.

#

“The PDT blip’s right here, about two two hundred meters northwest of our straight path we’ve been taking to the portal,” says Al-Duri tiredly. “When I had the comsats study the area with deep radar, it shows a bunch of gigantic structures buried under the jungle and vines. We would have walked right by – less than a klick away – and never known they were there in all this green shit.”

“Like the aerial city?” asks Mauriac.

“A hundred times larger. This is big. And it doesn’t look like a city.”

“What does it look like?” asks Gorman. His face is so swollen from bites that he is barely recognizable. It’s difficult to look gaunt and swollen at the same time, but Jake Gorman does. What really bothers him is that his beard is coming in and it itches and the bug bites bleed every time he scratches.

“It looks like . . . I don’t know,” says al-Duri. “A lot of huge machines, I think. It could be . . . I mean it sounds nuts . . . but it could be an airport or a spaceport.”

The exhausted survivors, even Kosimov on his litter, exchange glances.

“But whatever machines or spacecraft or aircraft are there,” says al-Duri, “they’ve been covered by vines and jungle for thousands of years.”

“It may be worth heading a few meters out of our way just to see the spaceport,” says Änrika. For some reasons the insects don’t like her us much as they do the others, so her unswollen face seems extra gaunt. “It’s just possible that we can all make it another half klick. We know damned well we’re not going to make it to Q-portal Two.”

“I’d rather die anywhere than in this stinking jungle,” says Rossi.

“I plan to die in bed,” says Gorman. “In my own bed. At the age of a hundred and thirty-nine.”

“You look that old already, Boss,” says Kosimov from the stretcher. His leg is already beginning to stink.

“Whose PDT’s are blinking from this mystery city or spaceport or whatever?” asks Dr. Mauriac with no real curiosity in his voice. They are six days in their own future and will be for just a few more hours. He obviously assumes they’ll all be dead by then-now.

“Just Father Finn’s,” says al-Duri. “Biotelemetry is flat.”

Everyone looks at the ragged priest – his red clerical jumpsuit is a tatter of red rags – and Finn just shrugs and holds up his hands, as if to say I don’t know why I died there alone.

“Shall we make this place our destination then?” asks Gorman. Everyone notices that he doesn’t say final destination, but they hear the words anyway.

“What the hell,” says Kate Miles. “The jungle looks a little lighter in that direction anyway. With some luck and if we spend all of our remaining energy, we’ll get there with two or three minutes left to look around before the reverse Timequake hits us and carries us back.”

“I’d rather die anywhere than in this stinking jungle,” repeats Rossi. His voice and eyes are as dull as an automaton’s.

Gorman turns to his right and starts hacking with Änrika’s energy knife, which is showing signs of dying itself. “Let’s go,” he says. “We can be there by dinner time.”

If this is a joke – they’ve been out of food for so long that their bellies can’t remember what it feels like not to be starving – no one laughs.

#

“You son of a bitch!” al-Duri snarls at Father Finn. “You did this on purpose! You killed yourself just to get us all over here to this stinking alien spaceship graveyard.”

Father Finn shrugs again. It’s a hard accusation to deny. They’re all standing around his rotting corpse, which is seated, its back against a low stone wall. The priest’s throat has been cut by one of Änrika’s steel knives. The knife is still in the pustulated corpse’s right hand. Decomposition is slower on this planet because a human body only has the bacteria it has brought with it to break itself down, but it has proceeded quite nicely in this rank heat.

“Or maybe one of you killed me,” Finn says softly. “How would I have known this spaceport was here except for the fact the PDT in my dead body brought us all here? We would have marched right past this.”

It is a spaceport. Or rather, was a spaceport thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. The ships are hundreds of meters tall and huge – only a jungle with trees even taller could have hidden such ships and such a complex. Tall, soaring buildings – each with their aerial landing platforms, so the Team assumes this was also a Night Howler construct – rise like gantries around squat spacecraft, circular spacecraft, spacecraft of baroque and alien design – but all obviously spacecraft. The gigantic machines, like the gantries and support vehicles, are woven through with vines and even mature trees, the metal of everything corroded almost away.

“I’ll tell you all the truth,” says Miles, who is sobbing a little without knowing it, “I’d hoped to find a plane or helicopter or something here . . . .”

“A deus ex machina to get us to Portal Two before it’s too late,” says Kosimov from his stretcher. “We were all hoping that.”

“None of us wanted to say it out loud,” says Jean-Claude Mauriac. “It seemed like too much to hope for . . .”

“And it was,” says Paul Rossi. “If anything here used to fly or roll or anything else that would help us, it lost that function thousands of years ago.”

It was true. The gigantic spaceport was beautiful, a jungle-overgrown sculpture with hundreds of huge sculpted pieces all covered with greenery and the patina of many millennia, but nothing here would ever work or move again. Including the eight members of Exploration Service Tiger Team One.

One element of the place was familiar from the aerial city: between gantries and vine-encircled spacecraft and the trees and buildings rose a vine-free duplicate of the giant religious statue they’d seen before – robed, tall, gaunt, a vaguely humanoid face, what looked to be six robe-sleeved arms outstretched with semi-spheres for hands. The curled shell of a basin at its base was also familiar.

Incredibly, they’d made the two-hundred-meter trek through the jungle in less than their three-hour limit. They’d arrived in time to find Father Finn’s body. With eight minutes to spare, which they’d spent snarling and weeping.

Now the reverse Timequake rolls over them, rippling everything and everyone in view.

The ancient spaceport looks the same now back in their own timeline except for the absence of Father Finn’s corpse.

“Who cares if the priest brought us here on purpose by killing himself?” says Änrika, setting down her end of Kosimov’s stretcher and collapsing against the same wall where Father Finn’s body had been propped a minute earlier. “It’s as good a place to die as any. At least we can see a little bit of the sky. I’ve really missed the sky.”

The group is sitting and lying in a circle. They know that this is where there bodies will be found if there were ever anyone to find their bodies.

“I have a confession to make,” rasps Bobby al-Duri. He is so parched he can barely speak.

The others are too exhausted to prompt his confession, but they look at him.

“It was me,” he says. “I was the one who was considering killing Chief Änrika weeks ago. Dreaming about shooting her and leaving her corpse for some large creature to eat.”

“That’s weird,” says Kate Miles. “I had the same plan. When we found her corpse in the dino-thingee, I was sure I was the one who’d done it in the future.”

“Me, too,” says Dr. Mauriac. “I was just getting tired of being bossed around by her.”

“Me, too,” chimes in four of the others, whether they mean it or not.

Änrika laughs hard for the first time in anyone’s memory there. “Oh, well . . . what the hell,” she says, mopping away tears of laughter. “Let bygones be bygones. Ex absolvo te or whatever the hell the Catholic priests used to say after confession. Go and sin no more, my children.”

“Hey,” rasps the exhausted Father Finn. “That’s my line. Sort of.”

“Look,” says Rae-Chen. She’s too exhausted to lift her arm to point.

The Night Howlers are circling on thermals just above the trees and rusted spacecraft. It is the first time they’ve seen the creatures in the middle of the day.

“Closing in for the kill,” says Rossi.

“Naw, they’re carrion birds,” says Miles. “They’re just waiting until we’re all nice and dead and ripe.”

“Let them wait a little longer,” says Dr. Mauriac. “Änrika, do you still have the laser?”

“I still have it,” says the security chief and pats the heavy instrument she’s been carrying for two weeks.

“We could shoot a couple of those Howlers out of the sky, use the laser to heat ‘em up, and see what they taste like, even if we can’t digest the fuckers,” suggests Dr. Mauriac. “It’ll be more fun than eating each other.”

They all begin salivating at that thought.

“The power cell in the laser’s been dead for six days,” says Chief Änrika.

Gorman rasps a laugh. “Then why the hell have you been carrying it? I threw mine away a week ago. It must weight five kilos.”

Änrika manages a shrug. “I felt naked without a real weapon.” She’s almost naked anyway. She’s finally had to get rid of her combat suit and the light layer she’d been wearing beneath is mostly negative space. Only her boots are solid.

Suddenly all of them, even Kosimov – who’s in real pain again – start laughing: at Änrika’s comment, at their own confessions, at their absurd predicament, at the ancient spaceport where they’d all secretly hoped and prayed they’d find some sort of deus ex machina transport – even at the thought of their imminent deaths.

Their laughter goes on and on and stops just as the sun is setting. None of them can stand another night here.

“Well,” says Gorman, too weak to rise from where he’s sprawled near Kosimov’s litter, “we gave it the old college try.”

“Boss, how many Q-portal missions did you have where you never lost a man?” asks al-Duri.

“Eleven,” answers their team leader. “And forty-three dangerous mining jobs before that. Safety first, that was my motto. But what the hell . . . you win some and you lose some.”

All eight of them begin laughing again.

This time when the laughter dies, just as the sun is setting between the huge trees to the west, Jean-Claude Mauriac says, “I don’t have enough ultramorph for all of us, but I have some cyanide capsules that will do the job.”

Gorman seems upset. “The Exploration Service sent suicide pills along? Damn their hides.”

“No,” says Mauriac. “I brought them. I’ve secretly brought them on every mission. I’m a physical coward . . . I always look for an easy way out.”

“Sounds good to me,” says Rossi. “ We’ve got just enough water left in our canteens to wash ‘em down. Gimme.”

“I’ve got my knives,” says Änrika, pulling the sharpest one from the sheath on the belt around her near-naked middle. Their voices are as calm as if they’re discussing what they’re going to have for dinner.

“Wait,” says Father Finn. “Let’s give ourselves another minute.”

“Why, priest?” asks al-Duri, already reaching for his pill. “You’ve already shown us that you’re not totally opposed to suicide. Not when it lessens your suffering.”

Finn shakes his head. “I wouldn’t have killed myself to lessen my suffering. I only would have done it if there was some important reason for us to be here and it was the only way to get the rest of you here. Look, the Howlers are up to something.”

It’s true. The skyborn aliens are now swooping lower, gliding between the trees and towers and overgrown spacecraft.

Mauriac has handed the pills to everyone who wanted one now, but curiosity wins the moment. Everyone waits and watches.

“I’m not really a person of faith,” confesses Father Finn. “I never have been. My Church . . . my entire life . . . has been nothing but a pile of hypocrisy perched atop a larger pile of theoretical shit. But just for the next few minutes, let’s all try to have a little real faith . . .”

“Faith in what?” rasps Paul Rossi. “Your fucking Gnostic God? I’d have to say that he’s batting zero-zero-zero.”

“No,” says Father Finn. “Just in ourselves. In how important life is and why we should give it all the respect we can before throwing it away. What’s ten or fifteen minutes? We can always starve or poison or stab ourselves later. Hell, I’ll help you when the time comes . . . most of you have never liked me anyway. But, I mean, aren’t you curious about what might happen next? Maybe that curiosity is the only gnosis . . . not some huge understanding of things, just curiosity that won’t quit.”

No one speaks, but neither does anyone take a pill or cut her own throat. Perhaps they are curious. Or perhaps no one wants to go first. Or perhaps they’re just too exhausted to do anything but sit and lie where they’re sprawled.

The Night Howlers swoop lower. None of the eight are able to resist as the Howlers swoop down, grasp the humans in their talons, and carry them – even Kosimov in his stretcher -- hundreds of meters to the base of the giant statue, dropping them almost gently into the giant shell of the stone basin at the bottom.

“So we’re going to be human sacrifices,” laughs Rossi. “This is too fucking funny to be funny.” He holds his fist up and gives the Night Howlers a finger. In his fist is a cyanide pill.

“No,” rasps Father Finn, “it’s not funny. But it’s interesting. Just give yourself another few minutes, Paul.”

Kosimov, in great pain and from his disintegrating stretcher says, “Could someone hand me the backpack you’ve been carrying for me?” Miles does and Kosimov removes his saxophone.

“You son of a bitch,” says Kate Miles, laughing. “We’ve been hauling your musical instrument through that hellhole of a jungle?”

“Yes,” says Kosimov. He has to try three times before he can summon enough spit to moisten the reed in the mouthpiece.

Hundreds of Night Howlers have landed around them, none stepping into the stone basin where the humans sit and lie at the base of the huge statue. More hundreds of the Night Howlers circle on the evening air currents, some landing on tree branches a hundred meters up only to soar again. They begin their chorus.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises above the jungle until it is directly above their clearing. The Night Howling is louder and . . . stranger . . . than the humans have ever heard it. Nicolai Kosimov plays his saxophone in his improvised and ever-shifting attempt to keep up with the changing rhythms. Father Finn begins to sing . . . not some religious hymn, but something that sounds like New Orleans Blues without words. Several of the others join in as best they can.

Why not?

Ten minutes of this and suddenly the Night Howler chorus stops so abruptly it seems to break off  in mid-note. Kosimov on his sax and the others with enough energy to still sing along trail off, almost embarrassed. For long seconds nothing happens. The silence is almost absolute except for a slight wind out of the west that stirs the alien jungle fronds.

Suddenly a shaft of light stabs down—down from space, down from what seems to be the jet of antimatter that rises from the inevitable giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, their home – down to engulf the huge statue looming above them and their sacrifice basin, if that’s what it is, and even the surrounding hordes of Night Howlers and some of the overgrown spacecraft and rusted gantries nearby. The light is blinding. All of the humans have to cover their eyes. Along with the light comes a sound more ultra- and sub-sonic than audible within the range of human ears. It is not a pleasant sound – it is rather like someone with fingernails ten kilometers long dragging them across a chalkboard a thousand kilometers wide. And it gets louder.

The light dims a bit and they see the outline of a figure, a human figure it looks like, standing seventy or eighty meters high within the shaft of light, next to the statue.

The light dims more and the figure becomes more clear. It is human – mostly – although thinner and taller than most humans, and the fingers are much too long, and there are only three fingers and a thumb on each hand, and its . . . his . . . eyes appear to be gold where both the irises and whites should be. Other than that and the figure’s size, it might be any Afric male from the year 2148.

The figure – the dark man in a slightly threadbare blue robe – looks down at them and then shrinks in size to a mere three meters or so.

Gorman and most of the others struggle to their feet. Only Rossi and Kosimov are unable to rise. Somehow, for some reason, it feels wrong not to stand in the presence of this summoned person, even if he’s just a mass hallucination brought on by starvation, near death, and the hypnotic Night Howler’s chorus.

“Who are you?” asks Jake Gorman, his voice rasping and cracking.

“My God,” says the black male figure in a deep (but not divine-sounding) voice. “I haven’t heard interstandard English spoken in one hell of a long time.”

“Who are you?” Gorman demands again. “What are you?”

The nine-meter-tall man chuckles. The light around him fades a bit more and the Tiger Team members can see that he has a short, dark, curly beard. “Unless I’m mistaken,” the figure says, “I’m you. Or at least related to you. Where did you come from?”

“The quantum portal three thousand klicks south,” says Änrika.

“Earth,” says al-Duri.

“2148,” croaks Rossi.

“Kiev,” says Kosimov. “The Rostovitch Neighborhood. Just south of the Putin sewage treatment complex.”

The figure shakes his head. “You’re lost,” he says softly to all of them.

“You’re a hologram, aren’t you?” says Rossi.

“A hologram?” says the impossibly tall, dark, four-fingered man. “Do I look like a hologram?” He looks down at his threadbare blue robe glowing in the white shaft of light. “I guess I do.”

The figure suddenly reaches down and twists and tweaks Paul Rossi’s nose. “Can a hologram do that, Professor Rossi?”

“Not in my time . . .” begins the astrophysicist after yelping but stops. He shakes his head. “How do you know my name?”

The tall man in the light touches his own head with on of his long, strangely jointed three fingered hands. “I’d love to answer all of your questions, but thinking this way is giving me a serious headache.”

“Thinking what way?” asks Father Finn.

“In words. Specifically, words from just one long-forgotten language. I don’t know how you did it all the time. By the way, are you all aware that you are each very close to dying?”

There’s a clumsy chorus of croaks and rasps signifying that they’re aware.

“Do you want to die?” asks the tall man.

This time the chorus of croaks all make the same sound – “No!”

“Are you aware of what a mess this crude quantum portal device of yours is making of the local space-time arrangement?”

The Night Howlers are quiet, even the soaring ones, and seem to be paying attention to this conversation that they cannot possibly understand.

“We know now that the Q-portal is creating the Timequakes,” says Gorman. “We didn’t know it would. The probe shouldn’t be here . . . it shouldn’t have come this far . . . we have no idea how it could have.”

The tall man smiles as if this amuses him. He looks as if he’s about to speak, then does not.

“Look,” says Änrika, her voice sounding much stronger than she looks, “are you going to help us or not? We need to get to that second quantum portal before it collapses and closes forever. All we want to do is go home. Help us leave this place and we’ll never come back or bother you or these Night How . . . this local species . . . again.”

The tall man smiles. “Oh, I seriously doubt that.”

Father Finn says, “Tell us about who you are, what you are, where you came from.”

“You want to be caught up on more than a million years of your species’ history and evolution, Father Gabriel Michael Finn? How much time do you have?”

“So you are us . . . descended from us?” says the priest.

The tall man nods. “And from others,” he says.

The eight exhausted, starved, bug-bitten, sore-riddled, and dying men and women think about that sentence for a minute. They know they should ask some pertinent question about it, but their tired minds can’t form the right questions.

“Can you help us?” croaks Kosimov from his battered stretcher. His torn and twisted leg smells like cheese gone bad and we can hear the pain between every syllable. “We really do want to go home.”

The tall man looks down at the dying man and for a few seconds the figure – golden eyes, three wrongly-jointed long fingers, everything – does not look human or sympathetic in the least.

“We’re wasting time,” he/it says at last, his voice as impersonal as the wind that is coming up from the west. “And you don’t have much time.”

The man grows from three meters tall to a hundred meters. The beam of white light grows brighter.

“Wait!” shouts Father Finn.

The huge figure – almost comical in his Paul Bunyanesque immensity – stoops and lifts the priest in his palm. Finn shouts something the others cannot hear and the giant holds the battered atheist-cleric up to his right ear. Father Finn speaks rapidly, urgently, actually cupping his hand near his mouth. The men and women still on the stone basin a hundred meters below can’t hear a syllable.

The dark giant nods, plucks a hair from his beard, gives it to Father Finn, and sets the priest down. The bright shaft of light grows intolerably brighter. Then the light is gone, the figure is gone, and the wind is howling now, ahead of a storm. Even the galaxy above is lost to rushing clouds.

“Oh .  . . fuck,” says Security Chief Änrika. Incredibly, impossibly, the military woman sounds like she’s going to cry.

“I thought for a second that he . . . it . . . that thing . .  . was going to help us,” whispers Rossi.

More Night Howlers fly down from the trees. Some are carrying what look to be nooses or complexly knotted ropes made out of vines. Others on the ground nearby advance on their talon-knuckles, the claws scraping on stone.  It is beginning to rain now and the trees spit lighting at the dark sky. Änrika doesn’t even reach for her knife as the dozens of Night Howlers reach them, envelop them, lower their beak-snouts, widen their winged arms, and hide the humans from sight.

#

The Night Howlers set the eight men and women down next to Q-Portal Two just before sunrise on the north coast of the continent. The portal is still glowing – still active – although barely so.

The Tiger Team crawl out of the webbing they’ve been dangling from for hours, lift the semi-conscious Kosimov on the stretcher the flying creatures have been hauling in a larger sling beneath them, and turn back to speak to the aliens.

The Night Howlers are gone, flying back toward the forest to the south, racing against the sunrise just brightening the horizon in the east.

The eight stand in front of the portal.

“Who goes first?” asks Änrika. It’s the first time the alpha-female has asked for advice.

“It may have collapsed within already,” croaks Rossi, who’s being held upright by the swaying Bobby al-Duri. “We may be stepping into . . . nowhere, nothing . . . rather than home.”

Gorman lifts the rear end of Kosimov’s stretcher; Dr. Mauriac lifts the other end.

“We go together,” rasps the political officer on the stretcher. “Wherever this portal goes . . . or doesn’t go . . . we go together.”

“You’re damned right we do,” says Jake Gorman. “On the count of three. One . . . two . . .”

“Wait,” says Father Finn.

They stare at the ragged scarecrow of a man. The tatters of his red clerical suit now match the scratches and bites all over his face and arms and legs.

“I can’t go home yet,” says the Gnostic priest. “I’m going to stay here for a while and try to find out a few things.”

“You can’t stay,” rasps Dr. Mauriac. “There’s not a thing on this planet that you can eat. You’re already starving to death. Your breath stinks – all of our breaths stink -- because our bodies are already cannibalizing and metabolizing necessary tissue to stay alive. Our systems have used up every reservoir of fat and have started on our muscle tissue and the exertion of hacking our way through the jungle has accelerated that process. We’re eating ourselves from within. You’ll be dead within three days . . . probably much sooner than that.”

Father Finn nods. “I think I have a chance if I stay. I don’t know how . . . but I think I’ll survive for a while. And as Dr. Rossi explained, this last Q-portal only stays open as long as there are entangled atoms and electrons and neurons from Earth here. Living entangled atoms. The Hum-G’s won’t serve that purpose – they’re just insensate matter – but perhaps my neurons will keep the portal open while I’m alive. It’d be nice for you to have the chance to return to this world someday.”

“I wouldn’t return to this fucking planet under any circumstances,” grates Rossi.

Father Finn nods again.

Rae-Chen says very softly, “That giant . . . that god . . . he whispered something to you, didn’t he? Something to give you this hope?”

Father Finn actually smiles. “No, actually, he didn’t say a word to me. I whispered something to him. But I’ve been a cynic and a disbeliever in my own beliefs my entire life, and this time . . . this one time . . . I’m going to take a leap of faith here.”

The ocean beyond the flickering portal rolls in with low wave after wave. Other than that, there is no sound.

“Speaking of leaping,” says the priest, “you have to go. You can’t wait another minute. But take this with you.”  He steps forward and hands a black, slightly curled fiber about fifteen centimeters long to Bobby al-Duri.

“God’s whisker,” says Kosimov from his stretcher.

“You have to have the geneticists check the DNA,” says Father Finn. “My guess is that there’s more than one surprise – and perhaps a message to us -- buried in that deoxyribonucleic acid. Maybe it’ll be interesting enough to bring someone back here someday. I’ll try to be waiting for you.”

The seven look at each other. The Q-portal flickers, dims, sputters, brightens, then dims again.

Jake Gorman says, “Good luck, Finn. Have fun.” To the others – “On the count of three . . . one . . . two  . . . three.”

The seven figures jump, step, hobble, and stagger together through the golden portal. Jake Gorman’s back as he carries the rear of Kosimov’s stretcher is the last thing to be seen before it too disappears like a solid object passing through a falling curtain of glowing water.

The Q-portal flickers, goes very dim . . . almost goes out  . . . but then manages the dimmest of dull glows.

Father Finn looks at it for a few seconds and then looks at the sky. The sun is rising along the coast to the east and the jungle is coming alive with alien sounds. The ocean waves continue to roll in against a blue-white beach.

Turning and treading slowly, limping slightly, Gabriel Michael Finn begins walking back toward the shade of the trees.

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