Melody of The Yellow Bard

The short story:

 

Melody of the Yellow Bard

 

By: Hans Olsson

 

 

The man approached me when I was on my way home from the university. There was something clearly different about him. He had a strange look in his eyes, a certain calmness, like he knew some big secret. He appeared young, not much older than me, but he had a confident, powerful way of walking. That, and the fact that he almost toppled me, caught my attention.

 

“Rasmus? Are you Rasmus Ekblad?”

 

“Yes?” I said. He was now standing disturbingly close to me. I could see that, along with his bright smile, he wore a tailored suit with a blue tie. His eyes were even more unsettling this close, almost like he could see something within me that I tried to hide.

 

“My name is Clayton and I’m a representative for a big company that is very interested in new scientific discoveries and ideas. We came across your thesis about controllable wormholes and found it fascinating, especially the design you made of a model of a machine that could support such activities. Where did you get the idea?”

 

Some people I’ve met call me obnoxious or ignorant. The truth is they may be right, but at the same time they are equally wrong. I’m not ignorant, I just don’t understand what they are saying. Fashion, for example. I cannot comprehend why I have to wear this year’s model of a jacket when it’s just another autumn. The one I had last year is just as warm. Does not compute.

 

I think that’s why I came up with my idea in the first place, because I’m usually not hindered by conventional thinking. Because I don’t understand it. All my idea needed was a component lacking in other theories: the sound component. I thought that sound waves could alter a theoretical wormhole, given the assumption that vibrating strings rule microcosmos. It also made technical sense, at least to me. It took me a moment to recall that paper. The night before I got the idea I had a few beers with friends. Probably two or three too many. Anyway, ever since I took the class for quantum physics, those thoughts must have been circling around in my head. The idea of a controllable wormhole was born somewhere between the beers, when I thought about how the mind processes changes from clear, to cloudy, to deep-mist-murky, and back to clear again. It could stay at a clear peak for a brief moment, and it was a delicate balance to keep it there, but it was possible. Granted you balanced beer intake with other factors. Somewhere around there reality snuck into my thoughts and I started to apply these terms to the idea of a wormhole.

 

“It just came to me,” I shrugged.

 

Clayton smiled. “If you say so. Well, Shervi, the multinational company I work for would like to meet you for an interview. It’s a great chance for you to get a foot into the business grind of the real world. I also understand that you have a talent for engineering and machines?”

 

I thought about that for a second. His choice of words intrigued me. The grind; it sounded like something I could imagine. To be grinded, hardened, against the cogwheels of competent people. This could give me a huge boost in preparation for the job market. I also vaguely recognized the name of the company as one of the inventive ones. Maybe I’d read about it somewhere. And he wasn’t wrong about the mechanical part. I’ve always had a talent for engineering. Perhaps that’s why I drew such a detailed prototype of a machine capable of altering the fabric of space. It was all theoretical of course, a joke at best. Why would this Clayton character be interested in that?

 

“That’s right. I know a few things about engines and stuff,” I said. “When is the interview?”

 

“Our facilities are located on a small island in the Baltic Sea. I will give you a ticket to a boat transport, which will depart tomorrow at 11 am. We require you to stay for two days for interviews, some basic tests and evaluation. We realize that you will miss two days of study time, but we will compensate you economically. How does that sound?”

 

I didn’t need to think about that, but I pretended for the sake of it.

 

“Sounds good. How much compensation are we talking about?”

 

“1100 euros,” he said without hesitation. "That's about 10000 Swedish kronor," he added.

 

Just the right amount to get me hooked. Had he offered me more, I probably would have dismissed him.

 

“Great.”

 

“Good. Don’t miss the boat. Here’s directions of how to get there, and here’s your ticket.”

 

He reached into a pocket in his suit and took out two pieces of paper. The first one was indeed some sort of directions. I could see a time table for the bus and a map of what looked like a harbor. The other paper was blank.

 

“This is your ticket which, if you use the transports suggested, will take you all the way. All expenses are included. Just show this to the bus driver and he will know who you are.”

 

I stared at the blank paper, and began to think that all this might be a fraud, but I was absorbed by the situation and knew I would give it a chance. The blank paper also had a certain touch to it, with a crude surface that felt ... real; real in a way that gave credibility to his mysterious offer.

 

“Thank you very much for your time, Rasmus. I promise you that we are interested and impressed by your thesis. You will not be disappointed with what we can offer you. I’ll meet you on the boat tomorrow.”

 

Then he turned and walked away, leaving me with a puzzled grin on my face. He knew he had me.

 

 

 

The next day I had packed a few things and went on my way to the bus station. The description stated “Line 727” which I didn’t recognize, but when I arrived at the station there was a bus waiting for me. A big blue one. The driver insisted on seeing my blank piece of paper, and when I showed it to him he scanned it with some device. I was the only passenger, and we took off immediately.

 

A video monitor in the centre of the bus caught my attention. There was no sound, but the images were clear enough that I could make out the content without too much effort. There was a bearded man, with big bushy hair, who looked nothing like the scientist he, in his white coat, was supposed to be. But he had steel in his eyes; steel, fire and determination. I saw an island with lots of small buildings scattered about. A lab was then shown containing numerous strange devices I had never seen before. Some looked like modified microscopes; others like big ovens; and yet more like bizarre engines, stacked in various locations of the room. The details held my attention for the whole fifteen minutes of the film, before it started over again. I watched it three times and each time I discovered more surprising things, like the oily fluid flowing not through the pipes of the engines, but sort of around it. Or the faint glow that pulsated like a vicious radioactive heart in the background. Outside the bus the landscape had changed from pine trees to a rocky coastline.

 

The bus stopped and as I stepped out I could smell sea water. The boat was there, but there was no harbor. We had just stopped at a seemingly random location along a cemented dock. The directions in my pocket seemed pointless. It was a small vessel, more like a military scouting vehicle than anything else. Clayton was on it and he raised his hand and smiled.

 

“Good to see you again,” he said as I approached and got onboard. “We’re moving out immediately and will be there in thirty minutes. You might want to wear these,” he added with a grin and handed me a pair of what looked like swimming goggles.

 

“It’s fast?”

 

“Yes. Built with the very latest technology. So new, in fact, it’s not officially on the market yet, and so advanced that it probably never will be. Intrigued?" He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Please, have a seat here,” he gestured at some small seats in the front of the boat. “I like to sit outside as long as it’s not too cold. And the weather today is alright. Inside or outside?”

 

I didn’t want to look weak in front of him, so outside it was.

 

It was a bloody fast boat. Once the engine started I could feel the power from it through the hull, like a hungry beast roaring. The advanced vessel then detached from the dock and began to rapidly accelerate. I’m not sure if we flew or sailed, but I loved the goggles. The wind was so furious that it was hard to breathe, but I had no problems seeing. Clayton did thumbs-up and I tried to smile, but it was a challenge to even manage that. The thirty minutes literally flew past before the boat slowed down and took aim toward an island off ahead. Gray cliffs rose from the sea, and there was a small lighthouse. When we got closer I could see barbed wire surrounding the entire island, and guards patrolling. Was it military?

 

We arrived beneath the lighthouse and Clayton jumped ashore just as the boat stopped. I followed, slightly unsteady after the ride. A yellow SUV waited for us and Clayton motioned me to take a seat.

 

“Welcome to Nebu Island,” he said when the driver started. “I bet you have questions stockpiling up, but please wait with them. You will understand our need for discretion shortly. Meanwhile, allow me to tell you a little bit more about the company I work for. It’s not your ordinary multinational organization.”

 

“Oo...kay.” I started to feel a bit unsure of what was going on as the SUV drove us past several gray buildings, bringing us toward a vast hangar complex ahead.

 

“The company is called Shervi, which is a subsidiary of another bigger company in the cooperative. We headhunt people from all over the world, who could support our organization in one way or another. We mainly perform research, but also engage in extensive field testing. The problem is, the ‘fields’ we have here can’t really support nor justify our testing needs. So we have developed other methods to ... let’s say simulate, certain circumstances that would otherwise be impossible.”

 

“Mhm. Impossible on this island?”

 

“Not exactly.”

 

“Where then? What kind of simulation are you talking about?”

 

“You’ll see shortly,” Clayton said with another smile. He went silent for a moment. “I wasn’t totally honest with you.”

 

“Really?” I said, almost with a snarl. I was starting to dislike the whole situation more and more.

 

“There will be few questions, none actually, regarding your potential employment here. You can almost consider yourself hired right away. There is just one small thing I want you to look at first and give me your opinion on. Isn’t that good news?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

Clayton’s demeanour turned serious. “Very few people will ever get the chance to experience what you are about to. I want you to keep that in mind.”

 

“So what is this place? Do you work for the military?” The whole thought of the military running some secret operations on this island almost made me laugh in disbelief. What secrets could they possibly have that would be interesting to me, and make me interesting to them?

 

“As soon as you put up fences around a place there are people bound to challenge them. It works to keep the majority out, but some people will try. Hence, we are not military per se, but we do need protection. Both from outside sources and inside ... events.”

 

“What?”

 

“Just keep in mind that you are privileged, Mr. Ekblad.” Clayton ended the conversation and I was left more puzzled than ever.

 

The SUV drove around the big complex and stopped outside a gray steel door. Two armed guards stood outside, nodded over at Clayton as he jumped out of the car and gave me a quick, uninterested glance. They resumed their staring into nothingness. Two silent statues guarding ... what?

 

“Come now,” said Clayton and opened the door. The interior of the hangar was expansive; almost empty. Over in a corner on the other side I noticed three outdated looking helicopters. Clayton went left and stopped by the wall after some twenty meters.

 

“Here we are,” he said, smiling again.

 

“Yeah ...”

 

“I can see that you are unimpressed, but please keep an open mind.”

 

Clayton reached for the wall and pressed some tiles that looked dirty and oily. Suddenly a rumble emerged across the hangar, like giant chains being dragged over boulders. A part of the floor beside us sank, revealing a staircase down to another door. We descended and Clayton entered a code on a small electrical panel. I counted twelve digits.

 

“Point of no return,” he said jokingly, and he pushed the door open and dragged me in before I could say otherwise. “Welcome to Alpha Harbor.”

 

Inside were a large group of people in an office-looking area. Not exactly what I’d been expecting to see. Clayton smirked in response to my confused look. Some of the people raised their heads as we entered, but most just hurried along, busy with whatever they were doing. He took me through a white corridor. On the walls were paintings with abstract motives and mosaic post-it art of action heroes or villains from video games. I recognized Richter Belmont, with his whip in hand in one picture. That made me smile. Computes.

 

I caught a few words from a conversation and heard two women talk about electromagnetism and quarks. The people here had a certain grace about them; their posture, gestures and the way they looked at each other. I recognized it from the university, among the professors. They were discussing important things, no doubt, but at another level than I was used to. The whole atmosphere had a remarkable touch of respect and knowledge.

 

We walked down a set of stairs, into another corridor with rooms off to the sides, almost like a hospital. Soon I was lost due to all the turns, but Clayton led me on. Eventually he gestured me into a room, from which an electric humming emanated.

 

We stepped in and stood in some sort of control room, with panels and computer screens set beneath a big glass window. In a corner I could see pipes disappearing through the wall into another room just behind it.

 

“Look here,” Clayton said, pointing through the glass. “Tell me what you see, please. What can you tell me about this apparatus?”

 

I stepped forward and, peering closely through the window, saw some weird machine, with metallic strings on the hull, and small parabolic antennas, similar to sea shells, attached all over. At first they seemed random, but the more I looked the more sense they made.

 

“It’s ... I think it’s wrong.” I couldn’t explain it. I just knew it wasn’t right.

 

“What makes you say that?” Clayton wanted to know, genuinely interested.

 

“I ... It’s like some of the components have been distorted, shifted slightly out of place. Like someone has dented it. Machinal internal bleeding,” I tried to explain.

 

“That’s exactly what has happened here. I am impressed and this is why I wanted your opinion. You can consider yourself hired. Let me introduce you to someone else who will explain what this machine does, and many more things.”

 

With that we left the room and continued to navigate the corridors. After many turns we entered a smaller room with a man behind a big marble desk. I recognized him from the video on the bus. He had a white trimmed beard, thick glasses and big hands that looked like they could crush stones, should he want to. He was writing something in a journal, but paused when he saw us.

 

“Ah, good to see you, Clayton. This is Rasmus, I suppose?”

 

“Yes,” I said hesitantly.

 

“Did you show him the machine?” the man asked.

 

“Yes,” Clayton said and nodded. “He immediately saw it was ‘dented’ or suffered from ‘machinal internal bleeding’. I offered him employment on the spot.”

 

The man laughed. “Perfect. I’m Erling Stumferd and I’m the senior CEO.”

 

“Oh,” I responded, still processing this was the man from the video.

 

“Do you want employment, Rasmus?"

 

“Maybe,” I said vaguely.

 

“I’m sure you will when I’ve shown you some interesting things. Did Clayton tell you anything about what we do here?”

 

“Not really, no. Simulations?”

 

“In a way, yes. But that’s all very good. I wouldn’t want to have your surprise spoiled. Anyway, you have to see to believe. Do you like science fiction movies, Rasmus?”

 

“Sure, I watch them ...”

 

“What if I told you that all the movies you know are bogus and out of date. What if I told you that we have discovered technology far superior to anything known to the outside world. What if I told you that you are about to witness the future, not here on Earth, but other planets. Would you believe me?”

 

I laughed. What a nut.

 

“I was promised some money,” I said instead, trying to divert his attention to real matters. But he just gave me a soft smile that I didn’t like one bit. It was like when you carefully explain to a child that Santa isn’t real, and when the child protests you give them that kind of smile: You will understand in due time. Oh yes, in due time.

 

“The ticket Clayton gave you, have you considered how the bus driver knew that you were the right passenger?"

 

“Not really.” I hesitated. The movie on the bus had distracted me so much I had completely forgotten about that.

 

“I see,” Erling said softly. “It’s encrypted with quantum technology. Had you brought a similar paper instead of the ticket, the scanning device would’ve shown nothing and you would still be in school, playing with the other kids. This, my friend, is the new order of things. Come, let me show you.”

 

We left the room and headed further into the corridor maze. Shortly we stopped outside a big vault door with a handle that Erling turned. The door opened and for the first time that day I was utterly and completely speechless. Inside was a machine park of some kind, but not with machines I’d ever seen. I tried to look for familiar shapes and found something that looked like an airplane, but only because it had wings. One pair of translucent, fly-like wings, shimmering in the light from computer screens spread across the room. The rest of the plane was spherical, with something that looked like rails attached in a semicircle around the upper part of the sphere.

 

Another vehicle looked like a small train, but in the weirdest shade of green-orange that made it hard to distinguish any features, making it unpleasant to look at.

 

Yet another looked organic, with shell-like armor plates around a circular window, and with hundreds of small legs. But it couldn’t be organic, could it? I wasn’t laughing anymore.

 

People were walking about, taking notes and touching things while measuring with strange devices. I could also see armed men looking nervously around the edge of the room. They all glanced to a corridor to the right, further ahead into the hall.

 

Was this some elaborate prank set up by someone? Things made in papier mâché to drive me insane? Whatever it was they had near succeeded. I was baffled. Erling saw it and laughed.

 

“I know the feeling. All you see here is real. We have brought home technology so vastly different to our own that it’s no longer science fiction. It’s the future, and so far in it that the rest of mankind could be cavemen. This, young man, is what you can and will learn more about.

 

Our branch of the cooperative is one of the most front-of-the-line companies in the world, period. Some people are ahead of their time. Einstein was decades ahead of his time. Leonardo Da Vinci as well. Have you seen his classic helicopter blueprint? Shervi specializes in finding people that are ahead of their time and have been doing so for the last fifty-three years. We have an impressive setup of people capable of thinking outside the box, around the box and even in terms of completely new boxes, shaped like grapes.”

 

Erling let out a rumbling laugh that made the air shiver around him. “In the early 70’s we already had technology up to par with today’s computers. Of course we cannot make these kinds of things public, because the public would not understand what they see. But in our field we have come to accept just how small we are in the universe, and we have profited from this fact. Where others are stopped by ridiculous laws and prohibitions, we can grow and benefit from what can be thought out and implemented. We don’t work with morals and ethics. We work with limitless science.

 

Of course we needed a breakthrough, and it came in the early 80’s when a man called Jarmund Spearman cracked an important piece of the quantum mechanical field. Are you familiar with quantum tunneling? Jarmund refined the whole concept. The scientists out there are still years behind. Decades even. Anyway,” Erling added nonchalantly, like he was discussing yesterday’s lunch, “he discovered, and managed to control, a tear in the fabric of space. Or perhaps what you would call a wormhole.”

 

A big piece of the puzzle fell into place. It sounded like ... nonsense. Wormholes were still a theoretical mystery. But I had seen the machines which I couldn’t explain within my frame of reference. I had to evaluate and rewrite that frame. The thought of that made me feel nauseated.

 

“Awesome,” I said, trying to sound relaxed. It did not compute well.

 

“Indeed. And this is where you come in, Rasmus. We tried your sound theory and had some extraordinary, albeit short-term results. I will tell you more about this in a few minutes. The machine Clayton showed you, that’s your sound machine, or a prototype of it. We use one to transmit efficient sound signals to the wormhole area, where we can control the destination coordinates. There’s more to it of course, but in short your idea helped us think in new ways. Progress was fine, at first, for several weeks. We improved our landing accuracy by 327 percent and can now walk through the wormholes like this.” He swiped his arms down along his body. “At the beginning we had some ... tougher times. Entering other places from five meters in the air. Got a broken foot, some cracked ribs. Small accidents like that. But upon implementing your ideas we managed to make rapid progress. Most impressive. We adjusted your original schematics of course. In its current state it was inefficient. We call it a ‘Sonar Enhancement and Locator Device’, or in short; S.E.L.D.”

 

“Okay,” I said, feeling numb.

 

“I see that I’m going too fast, but no matter. It’s important that you hear this and understand what kind of help we need from you. That and the fact that you could immediately tell that something was wrong with the S.E.L.D is most valuable to us.

 

Let me try an example. Imagine that you are holding a water hose, spraying water against a wall. The closer you hold your hands to the nozzle, the more accurately you can steer the water, correct?”

 

“Yes, that sounds reasonable.”

 

“S.E.L.D allowed us to get closer to the nozzle, and thus fine-tune our landing parameters dramatically. Before that we could fairly accurately aim for, let’s say an uninhabited planet, but we could never be entirely sure where we got off at. It made it harder to construct advancement bases and slowed progress. One day we could land on the southern hemisphere of the planet, and the next day the northern. Most inefficient. We needed coordinates to know where we should aim the ‘water hose’, and getting accurate coordinates is so much easier the closer you are to the destination. Hence we build advancement bases where it’s suitable, to be able to measure feasible coordinates.

 

Imagine that you had a Hubble telescope in the Andromeda galaxy instead of here. What would you see if peering through the telescope, when over there? You would see other planets more clearly, and you would be able to calculate their positions more accurately. This helped us drastically speed up the process, until one day when some unknown force reached into our tunnel and gave the S.E.L.D a dent. Or machinal internal bleeding, as you called it.”

 

“Some what? Some alien?”

 

Erling went silent and when Rasmus met his eyes he could see a grave, serious look on his face.

 

“We don’t know. Yet. Before this incident we had access to sixteen different, well functioning advancement bases. Now we can only reach one.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“It means that earlier we could feed coordinates into a computer and decide where the wormhole should take us. Now it takes us to a place we can’t locate. We have no known reference points. The place is uninhabited, yet is similar to our own planet in many regards. And in some it’s very different. There’s oxygen, but we haven’t found much else of remarkable interest. We’re constantly collecting data, of course. But well ...” He went silent.

 

There was something deeply troubling about that statement. Erling had such a casual way of describing it that it felt real; so very real. To be honest I wanted to believe him because if it were true that meant Clayton was right; I was privileged. I also realized that there was something else to this whole strange situation.

 

“So what do you want me to do?” I asked, both dreading and wanting the answer. I wanted it badly.

 

“First of all, I want you to take a look at the S.E.L.D, see if you can find out what went wrong with it. Second of all we’re putting you in a crash course on wormhole traveling. Yes,” he added when he saw my jaw drop, ”you are going to another planet to see if our equipment on that side is functional. We’ve had some malfunctions lately and we want a ‘natural born engineer’s’ opinion of what might cause the failures. And you can relax, you are not the star here. You will go as a theoretical engineer supporting experienced staff and soldiers. So far we have not encountered any hostile aliens, but well, we have encountered some interesting species. As I said, the planet you are going to is deserted. As far as we know,” he added and laughed. “We have all done the traveling and it’s perfectly safe, oh except when you end up some distance in the air, of course. Or in deep space, ha, ha. But other than that, safe.”

 

“What if I don’t want to?” I tried. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go. Already I longed for it. How many could say they had been on another planet? Not many. But I wasn’t really sure I liked that they just assumed I would tag along. Erling knew, of course.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You can’t resist it. No one here has resisted. And we’re very happy to have the S.E.L.D inventor on board. Perhaps we should’ve brought you in earlier, but we didn’t have issues until just recently. Welcome aboard, Rasmus.”

 

Defeated. Employed. And I didn’t mind. “Thanks,” I said.

 

 

 

My first task was to get to know the Alpha Harbor. Erling showed me the dining room, the sleeping quarters, the machine halls containing strange alien technology mixed with our own and doors to the bio-organic section, where experiments of all kinds where taking place on a regular basis. He told me they discovered a flower on a planet, that thrived on sulfurous gases, and emitted small, but clearly visible, balls of energy into the air. There wasn’t that much energy in it, but enough to fuel a light bulb for a few seconds at the time given a certain rate of harvesting. Very interesting. Erling also showed me the doors to the wormhole section, but I wasn’t permitted to enter at this point.

 

“In a week,” he said. “You must do the basic training, which considering the circumstances is a joke. None the less the training is mandatory. It’s more of a mind adjustment than a physical one. Being warped through time and space for the first time can be ... overwhelming. Not to mention the sight of completely unknown sceneries. Mankind can think up many things, but some environments we just can’t comprehend before we stand in them.”

 

During the week that passed I came to love the Alpha Harbor. The people were really what Erling had said they would be. They thought outside the box and they had a positive attitude towards everything. The days flew by. The training course consisted of watching movies of what I thought was Rorschach spots, mixed with scenes from various known landscapes, and some unfamiliar ones. I saw pictures from a jungle, some white desert, snow filled mountains and green lakes. The weirdest thing was a purple vertical wall that seemed to bubble.

 

“Imagine you are there,” Martin, the tutor, kept repeating. So I did. And the week passed.

 

Erling was right, in the end. The basic training was a joke, but everyone kept insisting that it was necessary and knowing that I watched non-terrestrial environments filled me with excitement.

 

I also got to look more at the S.E.L.D, but all I could tell was that something wasn’t right with it. It was something with the frequency of the rotors inside it. They sort of skipped a beat every now and then. Like a heart skipping a beat randomly. Some rumors in the kitchen talked about the ‘wormhole anomaly’. Apparently it had a weird, sick, look nowadays, which explained the nervous soldiers, half expecting to be sucked into it. Erling, and several others, assured that it couldn’t happen though. They had made sure to build in safety mechanisms to prevent just that.

 

And so the day came when the team was ready to traverse into the unknown. Among them were Beata Nox, an older woman with gray hair and green eyes, professor Henning Untermann, the team leader, and then a whole bunch of engineers who I didn’t know too well.

 

We also had an escort of three soldiers, easy going fellas, nothing like I’d imagine a soldier. They laughed, complained about the weight of their packs and cursed like everyone else. The leader’s name was Ortega. The others were Dan and Marko.

 

 

 

Erling picked me up that morning, a bit earlier than appointed.

 

“Good morning,” he said in his usual happy mood, though I noticed something was slightly different. I could hear he was concerned about something. “I hope you slept well,” he said. “Today you are going on a fantastic journey. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours for you guys to examine and fix the machinery on the other side. When you are done you come back and report to me. Very simple. Do you have any questions at this point?”

 

“Not really,” I said, trying to figure out which questions swarming around my head were the most important ones.

 

“Very good. I’m here a bit earlier so I can show you the actual wormhole. It can be intimidating the first time.”

 

“I’m sure I can handle it.”

 

Erling gave me a quick smile. “Of course.”

 

He led me down the corridors to the section where I knew that the wormholes were, but where I hadn’t been before. He took me down several floors. I counted seven levels of descent before we finally broke off into a narrow corridor. Erling saw my puzzled look.

 

“When we first got our hands on the technology to fabricate wormholes we worried we would create a black hole instead, swallowing everything. Superstitious nonsense in the end, but well, to eliminate some of the risks we built the chamber far below the surface to accommodate for any unforeseen events. Everything worked according to plan in the end. Very nice.”

 

“Why don’t you guys use wormholes in space instead? Shouldn’t that eliminate the risk?”

 

“Ha, ha,” Erling laughed. “I guess we could somehow install a wormhole device on a space ship, but why should we? We skipped that part in the tech evolutionary chain. In fact I’m not sure mankind’s current technology could support it, nor ours ... Besides, if we were to launch massive space ships there would be questions. This is better on all levels.”

 

He led me on through a series of corridors until finally stopping in front of another vault door. It had a copper sign on it, with words in silver:

 

 

 

Inside lies the beyond. Mankind no longer leap, we fly.

 

 

 

“Famous words of Jarmund Spearman. He thought about ‘warp’ instead of ‘fly’, but settled for that word. I like it. Simple. Neat. Fitting.”

 

I could only nod. We fly.

 

Erling gently pulled the valve and shoved the door open. Inside was a large room and I could immediately see another S.E.L.D at the side of the wall. It stood against an oval metal frame attached to the floor, two and a half meters high and half the size across. Inside the frame was a gray fluid mirror, or a very thin slimy membrane, that seemed to vibrate slowly, stretching out and retracting. Almost like breathing. It didn’t reflect light and it was depressingly colorless. There it was, the wormhole. There was a deepness in it, like it was hiding shadows somewhere just out of sight. I felt a coldness in my heart when looking into that pulsating gray void. There was something utterly sick with it. All the rumors could not make it justified. I didn’t know how it had looked earlier, but it wasn’t supposed to be like this, it really was an anomaly. Quicksilver come alive. A liquid maw. And I would enter.

 

“Yes,” Erling agreed. “It’s not pleasant to look at, and it has gone paler since we started, even with the new S.E.L.D and refined technology. Don’t worry though. It’s perfectly safe. We had a test party go through this morning. Everything looked normal.

 

The place you are going to is not like anything you could prepare for. It’s not so different from Earth, but at the same time it’s very unlike our environment. You have to be there to understand. Did I mention that the tunnel was pulled there? We wouldn’t have found it otherwise because this planet is hidden deep within a large planetary system, housing fourteen seemingly dead planets. Except this one that has unique environments. You’ll see for yourself.”

 

The team started to arrive shortly. In total we were eleven people, including the three soldiers. They tried to look casual, but I could see them glancing nervously towards the wormhole, the portal to another world. It was still so bizarre to think about.

 

Everyone had backpacks containing their equipment and we lined up in front of the portal.

 

“All right,” Erling said. “Ortega is head of security for this trip and professor Henning will take care of and coordinate the operation. You should be able to return in four to five hours with new data and hopefully find a more permanent fix for our equipment on the other side. And this time,” he added, “bring back some valid samples from the sea. Take care of Rasmus here, as it’s his first trip. Good luck.”

 

They murmured in approval.

 

“Are you nervous?” Beata asked. She smiled and nudged me in the side. I was so nervous I almost couldn’t move, but tried not to show it.

 

“Not at all,” I said, shivering. The thought of going into that thing would make anyone nervous. The presence of soldiers didn’t help either. They loaded their rifles and held them in front of them, ready for use.

 

“It’s a simple mission,” Beata said. “Some piece of shit equipment keeps breaking down and we need to try to gather more coordinates for other jump locations. We’ve done dozens of missions like this. Don’t worry.”

 

“Yeah. Okay.”

 

“Me and Henning go first,” Ortega said. “The rest of you follow in five second intervals. The tunnel is stable right now, but you know what happens if it starts to fluctuate.”

 

Everyone laughed. “Let’s not have that again. I had diarrhea for a week last time,” a bearded engineer said, with a snort. More laughter.

 

And then we were off.

 

Ortega took a deep breath and walked through that gray, unnatural veil. It was like seeing someone disappear in mist, only more distinct. The membrane didn’t even flinch. It just swallowed him out of existence. Then Henning went in, followed by the others, one by one. The line started shrinking. There was never any time to reconsider. I just followed suit, and when I stood before the gate I was drawn to it. I stepped forward. There was an ever so slight resistance, like touching a soap bubble, a moment of black silence, then I stumbled into a sickly yellow light and heard the sound of something crackling behind me. I fell to my knees and someone quickly dragged me up.

 

“You don’t want to stay there. You’ll get the next man on top of you.”

 

I coughed, looked down on yellow soil, before managing to raise my head. The air was the most immediate difference I noticed, it was oily and tasted like static electricity. Something like being close to the mediterranean climate, but with the crispness of being trapped inside a tesla coil. It wasn’t hard to breathe, but definitely different and not comfortable.

 

“You’ll get used to it,” Ortega said. “Just imagine that you are at home. It’s perfectly safe, almost the same components as our atmosphere.”

 

I nodded, trying to acclimate. At first everything was a yellow blur, then I realized that it was the sun and the environment.

 

Behind me was a black cliff, and on its surface the wormhole exit, like a gray swirling outgrowth. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but it looked healthier here than it had on Earth. And then it struck me, we were not on Earth anymore. I spun around, quickly scanning the surroundings, and when I did my jaw dropped.

 

The sky was not blue, but purple. Clouds with strains of yellow in them floated around like majestic creatures. Despite having daylight I could see at least two planetary bodies up there, like big coins in the sky. We were in a desert of sorts, with black rocks sticking up here and there in the yellow sand. In the distance I could see an endless flat, yellow surface.

 

“Dammit,” Ortega muttered. “Do you guys realize this is the exact same position as all the previous times?”

 

“Yes, our technology is improving,” Henning said.

 

“No it isn’t,” the bearded guy objected. “Ortega is right. This is the only place where we always end up exactly here. There are always some deviations otherwise,” he added and looked at me. “This planet probably has strong magnetic fields which we haven’t really been able to measure yet. Nothing strange about it.”

 

“It’s strange,” muttered Ortega and shook his head.

 

“Where are we?” I asked.

 

“We call this planet ‘Yellow Bard’, because of the unique air composition. When the wind increases you can hear all sorts of exciting noises.”

 

I tilted my head and tried to listen to the wind. There was something very different with it, and after a few moments I heard it more clearly. In the background there was a constant whirring and purring, like many small mechanical toys emitting sounds somewhere around us. That combined with the static electricity made it almost sound like someone was playing some strange instrument.

 

“What’s that, over there?” I asked, pointing at that flat surface at the horizon. It was a kilometer ahead, Beata told me. The terrain, covered in black rocks, made it easy to misjudge the distance.

 

“That’s the Yellow Sea. As far as we know it covers almost eighty percent of the planet.”

 

“How can you tell?”

 

“Oh, lots of factors. Wave size, the curving of the planet, things like that. Aren’t you supposed to be smart?” Beata smiled and pinched my cheek. “I’m just kidding. This planet has some really cool things,” she added. “The sea is some sort of acid. It’s extremely potent and could be used to make big money for us in the industry. Provided we could gather it,” she giggled. “This time we have some new test containers. We’ll see if they hold together.”

 

“Let’s move out,” Ortega said. “We have a short walk to the main base.”

 

We started walking, parallel to the distant shoreline to our right and the black cliffs to our left. After a few minutes I could see the base. It consisted of some big tents, almost like barracks, anchored in the hard soil by wires to keep them from blowing away in the wind. As we approached a glimmering from the sea caught my attention. I stopped and held up my hand against the dull light. There was definitely something there.

 

“What’s that?” I asked. The line came to an abrupt halt. Ortega and the two soldiers joined up shortly after. We all looked at the sea and the thing out there.

 

“What is it?” I asked again.

 

Silence.

 

“Is it ours?” I tried.

 

“No,” someone answered.

 

Finally Ortega produced binoculars from his pack. He looked through them a long time before lowering them.

 

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve seen it. It could be ...” He looked again before passing them on to the other soldiers. “It could be some sort of ship,” he said, voice low.

 

“What do you mean? Some alien ship?” I was excited and scared at the same time. The expression on Ortega’s face was excitement rather than worry. A real alien lifeform. Intelligent, since it could make ships.

 

“If that piece of metal is floating out there,” Beata said, “we definitely need a sample. Our containers just melt.”

 

Some nervous laughter followed.

 

“We have to investigate,” Ortega said. “You two come with me. The rest of you proceed to the base and start working on our equipment.”

 

Uncomfortable silence, before Henning cleared his throat. ”All right. Let’s proceed, everyone.”

 

And so we split up. The soldiers backtracked and took off towards the ocean while we headed to the camp.

 

There were three big tents in place, flapping in the electric tasting wind. Beata took me to the center one, where she showed me an engine that had malfunctioned.

 

“Can you tell me what’s wrong with it?” she asked.

 

It was obvious, at least I thought so. You could hear it as soon as you entered the tent.

 

“Probably that thing,” I said, pointing at a dented pipe. “I guess pressure is building up within, causing circuits to overload. It’s common with advanced and fragile technology. But that’s not the only thing. Do you hear the sound it’s making, that screeching? I think a rubber seal has broken down, you know like a flat tire on a bicycle. You can fill the tire with air and it could work for hours, but eventually it will be flat again. I think the dented pipe is a symptom of the rubber seal.”

 

“Impressive!” Beata clapped me on the shoulder. “I’ll have Bernt in here to fix it up. What background did you say you had again?”

 

I shrugged. Machines had been a part of me since childhood, when my father worked in the garage, repairing cars. It simply computes. Bernt came and started working. He had a replacement pipe, as well as new polymorphid plastic to replace the rubber seal.

 

“How long will it take?” I asked.

 

“Not too long, fifteen minutes maybe. Then we need to collect the data the machinery has gathered. See if we have been able to spot any reference points in this universe. Stuff like that.”

 

While he worked Beata stood beside him pointing and instructing, I stepped outside. I was on an alien planet, after all. Strange, how quickly you adapt to things if someone tells you it’s normal. I stood outside, indecisive. The rest of the team were busy inside the tents.

 

Suddenly there was a small, but very visible change to the light, like a shroud had been dragged in front of the sun. The world turned pale. It clearly radiated from the ocean, because there was a grayish spot on the horizon, far away. There was also a change to the background noise. The wind carried some new, crackling sound, and in the backwater of it there was a boom of silence, as if that non-light canceled all sounds. Much like thunder coming after a flash, only this thunder carried silence. It made my skin crawl. The event lasted for a minute before abruptly ending and the light resumed its usual yellow-purple color. I held my breath the whole time.

 

“Did you guys see that?” I asked before realizing I was alone. The others did not seem to have heard that strange absence of sound. It must be the tents, shielding the air inside.

 

The phenomena was close to the metallic thing. The ship. Curiosity gripped me and I was on my way. I had about fifteen minutes before they would notice I was missing. The ocean was closer here, compared to our landing site. Five hundred meters, perhaps. I started jogging, crisscrossing between the few black rocks, sticking up like teeth through the bleak, yellow soil. Soon I came upon small pools of liquid. It was a green-yellow mess, almost fluorescent, but without any distinct smell. The sight of them made me shiver and remembering Beata’s words about a most potent acid I kept a safe distance. The closer to the ocean I got, the more frequently I saw the pools. Did this ocean have tidal waves? I pushed the thoughts aside and kept going. I was, after all, on an alien planet. Not taking the chance for some miniscule exploring was stupid, and I really wanted to know what that light was.

 

As I approached the ocean the metallic reflection from the thing out there got stronger and soon I could see sharp lines. It was definitely metal, smoothly shaped. I went closer still, eyes fixated on the thing. It wasn’t a ship, not really. More like an island, far out into the ocean. Maybe it rotated as well ... I was close to the shoreline and could clearly hear the waves. That sound was different too. It didn’t sooth as our waves do. This crackled, as if the water, or fluid, was made of razor blades and stones, grinding frantically. I stopped and watched, feeling a sense of dread creeping upon me.

 

There were several things not right here, and that was beside the fact that I was very far from home. The land was barren. Nothing seemed to live here. I wasn’t sure I wanted to encounter any alien species, not even something the size of a bug. The fact that everything was desolate nagged at me. And that metallic island out there... Now I was sure, it did rotate, slowly counterclockwise, and it had moved further to the right, in the direction from which we came.

 

Suddenly I could hear something very familiar from the camp. There were screams. High pitched terrified screams that were cut off. I started running toward the camp, thinking I should’ve never left. In the distance, well three hundred meters away, I could see four people running in my direction, and something huge, metallic towering behind them that I hadn’t noticed earlier. The metallic thing looked like a plain wall, raised in the middle of the camp. Then it moved, sank down and revealed a body with several arms, flailing wildly, picking up tents and objects like they were made of paper and tossing them around. I could see this, despite the distance, because of its size. I froze mid-step, stumbled to the ground where my shoulder hit a rock, sending a spike of pain through my body. I lay there, covering behind the black stone, peeking around it.

 

Whatever it was it tore the camp to shreds, turned around and started moving towards the people running in an angle away from the camp. Its movements looked like a bizarre mechanical wolf, hunting its prey. It didn’t take long before it caught up with whoever was running parallel with the ocean. It raised its long arms and impaled the runners, one at the time. Short screams, then silence.

 

The four people coming toward me were closer now, maybe fifty meters away. Beata was among them, and Bernt who had worked with the machine inside the tent. I couldn’t remember the name of the others.

 

The mechanical beast turned and immediately took course for the runners. Beata stumbled and fell. One of the others stopped as well and crawled up behind a rock, covering his head under his arms. Bernt and the fourth man kept running, panic in their eyes. I could feel the earth tremble as the mechanical monster rushed towards them. It was well over eight meters high, with ten individual legs attached to a cylindrical-shaped body. There were more arms on its back, moving with no apparent function. From some of them dangled the bodies of team members. Now it looked like a gargantuan spider, or a centipede with extra pairs of legs on its back, like it could roll over and keep running just fine. It was almost comical, had it not been for its head. At least I think it was the head, because I could see two rectangles, slightly more yellow than the rest of its body. Sensors maybe. Eyes. They radiated something very familiar; hate. The mere sight of them struck me with fear and I was happy to sink behind the rock again.

 

It caught up with the two runners some twenty meters away from the rock where I was hiding. I heard a thump, and a short scream of surprise. The other runner passed my hiding place, but the beast was over him in seconds. It stretched down, grabbed him with a mechanical claw, raised him in the air and with a motion that almost seemed serene he twitched the man’s head off with another claw. Then it turned for Beata and the other man. Two quick thumps, before it strolled past me towards the ocean, bodies impaled on its legs, one headless in its grasp. It walked to the shoreline, and from my point of view it looked like it tossed the bodies into that yellow mess. I quickly went behind the other side of the rock, curling to a ball, hoping it hadn’t seen me.

 

It wasn’t just a machine. I knew it instinctively. The moment that thing had passed me I could hear the sound from it. Where there should have been some sort of rotor sound, or familiar fans or cogwheels spinning, there was a very faint humming. Like a mechanical heart beating. It was alive.

 

When it was finished with the task of dumping the corpses of my former colleagues it disappeared along the shore. In the direction of where Ortega and the others had gone. Somehow I must warn them. My mind was clogged with a single thought; to get to the wormhole and go home, away from this nightmare.

 

I waited a long time before daring to move. When I thought it could no longer see me I got up and started running towards the wormhole. Soon my heart thumped like crazy and my lungs burned like fire. It was definitely not Earthen atmosphere. Something with this dry static electricity made it horrible to run and I had to slow down.

 

Paralyzing fear gripped me as I realized I had no idea where the wormhole was. I was desperately lost, but refused to acknowledge the fact. Instead I kept going, one staggering step at a time. Suddenly I heard gun shots, and in the next second I could see two of the soldiers, maybe hundred meters ahead of me. They ran with a good distance between them and I immediately understood why. From the mountains the mechanical monster appeared, climbing over the cliffs. It took aim for the man at the back, who was desperately firing at it. It was upon him in seconds, grabbed him and lifted him into the air. He must’ve been terrified, because he never let go of the trigger. His rifle sprayed bullets everywhere. One hit a rock close to me. Another stray bullet accidently hit the other man in the back and he stumbled and fell behind a rock. Then there was silence again as the machine carried its load to the Yellow Sea, before disappearing towards the mountains.

 

When it was gone I took a deep breath and hurried to the man who was shot. It was Ortega. He tried to raise his weapon when I got to him, but he was bleeding badly, hands shaking, face ashen. When he saw it was me he relaxed.

 

“Marko must’ve shot me,” he said. “We saw that ... thing and tried to outsmart it. I guess it got the better of us.”

 

I nodded.

 

“You ... must shut it down,” he whispered.

 

“I can’t. It was so big. So fast.”

 

Ortega shook his head and his eyes became glass. He probably had a punctured lung. I could do nothing.

 

“Shut it down,” he forced himself to raise his voice. “We found ... a building. Of sorts. With data in it. It makes sense now. We should’ve made it, I think, but Dan had an accident ...” Ortega coughed blood. He didn’t make much sense. “I went out and saw it. The absence of light. Did you see it?”

 

I nodded, feeling as bad as Ortega looked. He reached for something at his side, grimacing with pain.

 

“It’s them. They consumed ... They must never find our coordinates. You must shut it ...”

 

His eyes faded out, like someone had turned a light off. I was alone. I noticed that he had reached for a grenade, hanging from his belt. Could I blow that titanic robot up? Maybe, but not likely. I took it anyway and put it in my pocket. I tried to take his rifle, holding it in front of me like a shield. It was too heavy and I doubt I could harm that machine with it, so I threw it to the ground. Having never seen a dead man before I felt as if I should be more ... affected. But my mind turned off, went pragmatic. I just wanted to go home, without ever encountering that machine again. Ortega had moved in a straight line. If I followed that line I should reach the wormhole.

 

I started jogging, legs still shaking, but not so much that I couldn’t go on. After a short while I slowed down. Something with the scenery ahead of me wasn’t right. There were the black cliffs that we had emerged from. I couldn’t recognize it. I wished I had looked back more carefully when we went for the camp. And I had to take into consideration I had moved a long way along the shore to get away from the camp. Simple triangulation told me it should be nearby. Then I saw, and immediately threw myself to the ground. There were reflections, like a massive mirror bathing in sunlight, just past a cliff that stood out from the black wall. The machine was there, waiting. Hiding. It guarded the wormhole. Was it that intelligent? Panic rushed through me like acid. Maybe I could make it if I ran. One big problem was that I wasn’t sure exactly where the wormhole was. Another was that I’d seen that machine move. It was fast and grim. My hope withered away. It was more than a machine. It was a clever lifeform. A piece of the puzzle suddenly fell into place. Erling had told me that some unknown force had reached into our tunnel and dented the S.E.L.D. The machine must’ve done that to get us here. That was probably why the wormhole on Earth had looked sick. It was infected, by that machine.

 

I turned around, crawled as long as I could and then got up when my sore knees bled through my pants and left red streaks in the yellow soil. I had to get to that building Ortega had mentioned. There was nowhere else to go.

 

I found Ortega’s body ten minutes later. I looked around, the Yellow Sea at my left, ship still out there. Black mountains to my right, and some valley straight ahead from which I assumed Ortega and the other soldier had come from.

 

I started walking, alone in this weird landscape. Sometimes I heard crackling and popping sounds carried by the wind that could be small animals skittering around the stones and soil. Or remnants of some alien tunes, played in the distance. I never saw anything. After a while I came to a slope, which led down to a cauldron shaped valley with strange rock formations, looking like black mushrooms or fingers, pointing up from the ground. I went down, searching for tracks after Ortega and the others. They were difficult to see in hard ground, but they were definitely there, giving me something to follow.

 

The tracks went around the formations in a circular pattern, and ended at a rock wall. There was an opening, a cave or bunker ... When I got closer still I could see a rectangular opening, definitely not natural. Inside was a crudely cut tunnel that led downwards into the darkness. There was some light source ahead, far into the dark distance. I kept going, thankful the tunnel was too small for the mechanical guardian to enter. At several points I stopped, thinking I heard noises in the dark. I never saw anything and there was no other option than to push ahead. Eventually I could see the light clearer, some dim, white light coming from the walls in a room.

 

I entered a big rectangular room with round pillars reaching for the roof high above me. The pillars almost formed small rooms in the big hall and made me think of a banquet hall. But they were also utterly different. Some were round, others had sharp corners. Most of them were shapeless, and had small holes, like honeycombs, from which the dim light came. It wasn’t a light bulb exactly, more like microscopic sensors that were emitting the strange light. I slowly moved ahead. The hall seemed endless.

 

“Stop. Who’s there?”

 

I froze when I heard the voice. There, leaning against a pillar was the last soldier, Dan. He looked as healthy as a ghost. He aimed his rifle at me.

 

“Oh, it’s you.”

 

“I’m Rasmus,” I said. “The new guy.”

 

“The new guy,” he repeated and lowered his rifle. “Good day to see other worlds for the first time.”

 

I nodded.

 

“Did you see Ortega?”

 

“Yes. He ... Marko accidently shot Ortega ... He died right in front of me.”

 

“Damn,” Dan muttered. “I told them to leave me behind so they could get back and shut the wormhole down. We argued about it, but I’m dying. They knew it and finally agreed to leave me here. I would’ve only slowed them down.”

 

“I’m sure you’re not dying,” I tried but then saw the blood on his stomach, the equipment and on the floor. “What happened here?”

 

The man coughed and grimaced with pain.

 

“There’s no point hiding it now, is there? We found this place some months ago, during our first trips here. It’s not the first remnants of an alien society we’ve encountered, but this was different. Technology still working, far superior to anything we’d ever seen. Military things. Weapons that gave us new ideas. Most of the things were too complicated to understand or to move, so we set up a small research facility here as well. Most of the other guys don’t know about this,” he added. “Then the anomaly with the wormhole happened and we were afraid that the aliens had somehow found out what we were doing. But the situation here was all the same. Until today. Today something was very different with the wormhole. You don’t know it, but it was. Perhaps the ship had something to do with it, but it was too far out, we couldn't get a good look at it. So we came here instead. About two weeks ago we found a data block, like a CD, if you’d like, and we started working on decoding it. Today it was done and that was when everything started to go bad. It was almost like the data block helped our computer to decode itself. The more I think of it the more I think that is what happened.”

 

“What was it?”

 

“You’ll have to look for yourself. There’s a video over there,” he said and pointed. “There seems to be a machine race inhabiting this planet. Maybe the whole solar system. We didn’t see them on our scanners because we were looking for smaller, organic species. Stupid. Another thing I’ve been thinking about. We had it as an idea back home, but it was too immature to try out. When we ran our data analysis software on the data cube we found, we definitely got help. Why would an alien machine race have the same sort of images we do? They wouldn't, that’s the answer. They have ID, I’m sure of it.”

 

“ID?”

 

“Intelligent data.”

 

“Like AI?”

 

“No. While we ran our software on their piece of data, the piece also analyzed us and produced something that we could interpret. They wanted us to see that particular video clip.”

 

“The machine race?”

 

“Yes. When we had watched the video Ortega went outside for some fresh air and me and Marko resumed our other duties. That’s when the accident happened. I have a quantum scanning device for data collection. I tried to scan the pillars in search for hidden data and technology, when it suddenly exploded. The blast cut my stomach open ... And here I am now. So stupid ... I think it was ID inside those sensors, you see. They didn’t want to be scanned, so somehow they caused my scanning device to explode.”

 

I nodded weakly.

 

“I don’t know what Ortega saw when he was outside, but when he got back in he had changed. He said that we must shut the wormhole down so that nothing can get back here. Or ‘find our coordinates if it wasn’t too late already’. He tried to explain but there was little time for it because of this.” He gestured at his wound. “What did Ortega see when he was outside? Why is it crucial to close the wormhole?”

 

I froze. I knew what Ortega had seen. Absence of light. I had seen it too, but only the reflections of it. Ortega must’ve seen in much closer. He knew what it really was.

 

“Where is that video?” I asked, heart pounding.

 

“Over there, thirty meters ahead,” he said, face twisted with pain. I was no doctor, but that didn’t look good at all. I left him there, dying. A strange unsettling feeling of despair had started to prickle my skin. That absence of light, it was a key event. But of what?

 

Further ahead in the strange hall the laptop was placed on a small table the soldiers had brought with them and the video clip was still on screen. I pressed play.

 

The picture was in a weird grayscale color and had static interference, probably due to the decoding, which made it feel ancient. There was a landscape with small trees and bushes that looked alien, like palm trees would in Sweden. The image changed to a room of some sort where a robot, like the guardian I’d encountered, walked around. At first it was hard to make out the scale, but considering the mechanical beast the room must be gigantic. There were several of them. Waking up by the looks of it, slowly rising from all over the room. There were other machines as well. I could spot smaller units underneath the bigger ones. They reminded me of crabs, but with more legs and claws. And there were even bigger machines, which made the guardians look like ants in comparison. Enormous things with legs or arms, cylinder shaped and with pipes sticking out at random places that could be some sort of weapons, or organs. Mechanical behemoths. One of them showed something that looked like a big computer screen that contained some figures. I couldn’t make much out of it, but it seemed they were coordinates. Coordinates to where? There were hundreds of different lines of numbers. Thousands.

 

The image changed again and showed the Yellow Sea. The machines were everywhere. They walked along the shore and in the acidic water. Suddenly one of the really big ones fired a projectile in front of it. A green-ish screen appeared out of thin air and the machine walked through it and disappeared.

 

The image changed yet again, to another environment with mountains and some sort of conical building in the distance. The green screen appeared and the machine came out of it. Where was it? Another planet in this solar system probably. I imagined that I recognized Henning’s description about this planet being locked up within the ellipses of other planets, but there was no way of knowing. The thing I knew for sure was that the images of them creating wormholes at will and warping to other places made my skin crawl.

 

The video ended. I couldn’t tell much from it, but I understood enough. The soldiers must’ve grasped that much too. There was something about it that made it so terribly clear. The machine race sometimes woke up and controlled their home planets. They possessed warping technology and they were intelligent. The one thing I couldn’t understand was why Ortega wanted to close the wormhole so badly. Had he found signs of hostility that I hadn’t seen? Even though I didn’t like it I could imagine how the guardian must see us. Some sort of intruder that should be eradicated. It wasn’t much different from accidently stepping into a cave with a bear cub. If the mother were there she would protect her cub and herself. She wasn’t evil for doing so.

 

“How long was Ortega out there?” I asked.

 

No answer. I walked back to the soldier and found him dead. Eyes fixated on a point in eternity. I took another grenade and left the rest with him. I had to find out what Ortega had seen. The absence of light was the answer. And it had come from the ship.

 

I left the bunker and went back out into the foreign world outside. I followed the tracks back to a point from where I could pinpoint in which direction the ocean was and then I started walking. Soon enough I could see the Yellow Sea and out there the reflections from the ship. Ten minutes later I realized that I had very little water and hardly any food. I wished I’d taken some with me, but I hoped I didn’t have to stay long. While walking there was another of the silent booms. It made me sink to my knees, feeling terribly small and vulnerable. It came from ahead of me. From the Yellow Sea. I covered my head with my arms and waited. After another four minutes it ended and I could go on, legs shaking.

 

Eventually I was at the shoreline. The ship lay in place, dormant. I sat down and waited. The light phenomena seemed to come in cycles. I had seen it twice already and perhaps it had happened while I was in the bunker.

 

My mind started wandering, thinking about school, the company and the series of chance moments that had brought me to this place. I missed Earth and I became determined to go home.

 

The soundless boom hit me like a slap in the face just after the absence of light appeared. It indeed came from the ship. I couldn’t understand what I saw. There was a big gray rectangle in the sky, projecting like a giant beam of non-light. It produced a flat surface, a veil, hundred meters up in the air. Then it began to inhale. The lack of sounds once again brought me to my knees with terror. But this time I clearly saw and understood what the non-light was. A rain fell from the sky. A constant absurd stream of things, sucked from an unknown world. I could see strange three-legged creatures flailing wildly in the air. I could see them screaming, but I could not hear it. I saw vegetation and strange vehicles, twisting and bending from some invisible force. Dirt, stones and what looked like parts of buildings. Everything shredded and trashed while it tumbled down to the Yellow Sea. The stream was endless. The creatures were numerous. All dying in this bubble of silence. It ended, just as swiftly as it had begun. The veil disappeared and the light and sounds came back. I could suddenly hear the thunderous sound when all the materials crashed down into the waves, bouncing off the ship hull. I heard guttural, unnatural screams. At the end I could see some cloth or fabric slowly falling, like snowflakes toward a surface coming to rest. Because the Yellow Sea was rapidly calming down, absorbing new content.

 

I finally got what Ortega had understood some time before me and the realization made me cold. This machine race opened portals to other worlds. Any planet targeted by these wormholes would be completely defenseless, the entire planet could be sucked dead. Of everything. Erling’s safety mechanism wouldn’t stop that.

 

They weren’t controlling their planets during their wake periods. They consumed. They fed off everything. Flesh, technology, materials. Everything melted in the sea of acid. Ortega’s words rang in my ears. “They must never find our coordinates.”

 

That was what the video meant. The machine race found coordinates to other planets somehow. Perhaps when a race achieved wormhole technology. Then it was an easy task for them to pinpoint the location of a tear in the spatial space, and then alter the destination of the wormhole for the unsuspecting travelers. They would inhale Earth, leaving it a dusty, dead shell.

 

The ship rotated slowly out there, ominously. It took me some time to get on my feet, but I knew what I must do. Whatever the cost I must try what Ortega had failed to do. I must make it back and close the wormhole and warn Erling. With some luck the machines had not yet recorded Earths coordinates.

 

I got up and started walking towards the wormhole. Sooner than I really wanted I was nearing the cliffs where the wormhole should be. In the distance I could see the guardian. Maybe it tried to hide, but given its size it didn’t do a good job. An idea had formed in my head, one that made me terrified. I had to distract it, that was the only way. I covered behind one of the black stones, took out one of the grenades and weighed it in my hand. I pulled the pin, took a deep breath and tossed it as far as I could behind me. Then I ran, covering behind stones and hoping the guardian wouldn’t see me.

 

The grenade went off in a thunderous blast that nearly scared me to a halt. It also woke the guardian and it came running, a massive force of deadly metal. It passed the stone where I was hiding, one giant mechanical leg smashing the ground right beside me, making the very earth tremble. I started running towards the wormhole. I was nearly exhausted, but fear and adrenaline gave me strength. In my right hand I held the other grenade. My idea was simple. Try to get back to Earth, and if I couldn’t; get as close as possible so I could toss the grenade into the wormhole so that it would blow up the S.E.L.D on the other side, closing it forever.

 

I tossed a quick glance over my shoulder. The mechanical monster was at the spot where the grenade had blown up. It had turned around, its yellow eyes staring directly at me. It knew.

 

I screamed and tried to run faster, but my foot hit a rock and sent me sprawling through the air. I landed face down, heard a crack from somewhere within me, got up and kept running. Nameless fear flowed through my veins. I could feel the thing move, sending shivers up my legs each time I touched ground. I ran even faster, cliffs getting closer. I couldn’t see the wormhole. My heart sank, but I ran to the right, following the black, crude cliff wall. The guardian was close now. I could feel its eyes on me. Fifty meters ahead I could suddenly see a grayish square against the black. It had to be the wormhole. Had to! Now I was close, twenty meters away. I managed to pull the pin on the grenade and held it tight in my clutched hand. What if the wormhole rejected me?

 

I never got to know. I was two meters away when I felt something grab my leg and I was abruptly and brutally stopped by a force pulling me back. I fell forward, crashing to the ground. I had a second to think and with all my remaining energy I tossed the grenade into the wormhole. It vanished. After a few seconds, as I was lifted high up in the air by the mechanical arm, I could see the wormhole quiver, and then it seized to exist. Left was just the black cliffs. It was closed. The guardian broke my leg with sheer power and the pain almost made me pass out.

 

As the machine carried me toward the Yellow Sea several things ran through my head. Did the machines already have the coordinates to Earth and were we just waiting for our inevitable doom? Would Erling and the people on Earth understand what the grenade meant? They were, after all, working with limitless science without morals and ethics. I could only wish that they never reactivated the wormhole. Because if they did, sooner or later the machines would inhale Earth, nullifying it of life.

 

As the machine brutally carried me, leaving me hanging like a rag doll from its steel grip, I could see the air above me. It shifted between non-light and purple. High above I could see the surface of two other planets, like twin coins. Behind them was a pale sun shimmering, laughing at me. Then the guardian swung his arm and released me into thin air. I crashed down into the Yellow Sea, immediately sinking.

 

I understood what the Yellow Sea actually was. It wasn’t acid, but something similar. The fluid dissolved everything, made it energy. The water was cold efficiency. I could feel it creeping on my skin. Under it. In the background I could hear music from the water. Raw, crackling tunes seeping into my body and rocking me gently to sleep. It was a song of tranquility and death. The world around me fell silent to the melody of the Yellow Bard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright ©Hans Olsson