The Fishbowl, empty except for Ellie and a bath of subtle electromagnetic waves and electrostatic fields, simply became occupied. He stood there, hands behind his back. He waited.
Ellie observes. Feeling much like she had felt in that event so long ago. She feels strangely self conscious, unsure of whether the man in the room is her father, or a soldier, or a transcendent collective of conscious minds. She is uncertain whether he is ‘long gone’ from this universe, ‘recently gone’ or ‘newly arrived’. Based upon observation she decides she simply beholds a recent collaborator, one that had experienced an epiphany and needed to share it. She could feel no umbilical cord connecting them. She smiles, stands, and walks over to Frank to take his hand as a friend would.
“Do you sense time?” she opens.
“Sense? Do you mean like smell or sound?”
“Yes, why not? Without the constraints of biology can you expand your senses beyond what we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell?”
She doesn’t pause for a reply and continues.
“Do you sense the magnetic fields that sustain you. Do you feel Maxwells laws coursing through you? Can you feel gravity like I do? Can you defy it?”
“Ellie, there are no limits to what is attainable here except what must be self consistent.” Frank steps back and spreads his arms, “I can sweep over the universes with a different electron mass.” The room fills with bubbled collages some with gasses, others with strange fluid universes, others throbbing with plasma. He walks over to such a vignetted sphere. “And I can feel the reality of those that sustain themselves.” He gestures and the plasma fills The Fishbowl.
“I can sweep those new multiverses with a different proton mass and again feel the realities that are possible.” The plasma subdivides into new spheres. One contains the appearance of a familiar universe. He draws it close and again it expands to the edges of The Fishbowl. “I can feel myself in one of those and find permutations inconceivable from the unique blend we find here.” A planet is drawn into view. Oceans deliver slow spectacular swells against a magnificent, and almost impossible terrain. The journey carries the pair through the ocean to emerge on an inverted world where a concave horizon is poised impossibly over a Jules Verne core. A more familiar convex terrain is spread before them. “A gravity well,” explains Frank. “The law of gravity in this universe is not simply an inverse square law. Under some conditions it has the aspect of Bessel function of the second kind.”
Ellie’s jaw visibly dropped. “Did Palmer see this?”
“Palmer was a little more, err skeptical. He needed some orientation first.”
“You asked, ‘Can I feel time?’ Perhaps, as you would experience a sense of balance on a moving bus. I can explore the sensation, and I may stumble, though I will generally remain standing. Can I steer the bus though? This is where I challenge my limits. With my help, so will you.”
“How? what do I need to do?”
“Let’s start from the beginning.” With a blink the scene fades back into The Fishbowl. “There is a set of laws that relate to ‘us’. As entities within this realm we must take care to ensure our existence is propagated from moment to moment. There are universes that cannot prolong consciousness. Before you can explore the multiverse however, let me introduce to you the five laws of the collective ‘hive’ mind.
First: Two or more conscious entities that inhabit the same state are in fact a single entity. To the outside terran world we are One.
Second: An individual, as a collection of beliefs and ideas, is indistinguishable from a collective. I am one such collection and you, at the moment are another.
Third: Consciousness is conserved, and unification results in enlightenment.
Fourth: An individual may harbour discordant beliefs. I know this can bring complexity and disorder in the world outside. Here it may lead to a division, or perhaps a new unity. You may meet individuals of my collective who see as you, and others that would argue against you.
Fifth: The division of a Collective can be copied if it is also altered. In a sense this represents a Meiosis.”
“So,” joins Ellie, “as such a collective why are you here?”
“As I told Palmer, we seek purpose. His purpose, yours, even the religious puritans I have personally fought against.” Frank pauses and paces around in thought.
“There are several effects of this hive meiosis.
Most importantly it escapes the chaotic nature of natural selection which seems to be a common fundamental across corporeal life. Collectives will tend to join or split if the net enlightenment is greater. The result is a tendency towards order and away from chaos. This creates an environment in which evil has difficulty prospering.
Having said that we are constantly seeking the contrary view to attain greater enlightenment.”
“That may explain something else then,” began Ellie. “We have received another transmission. It’s different though.”
Frank’s response is genuine surprise, although she could not detect concern she could not exclude it.
“Please go on.”
“What we received this time was not as easily decoded as the original message. It was just noise, the same noise as what helped us find you, or your predecessor, or whoever you are.” Suddenly unsure of the nature of things, Ellie stumbles over the last sentence.
“Let’s keep it simple; I am Frank. All I can say for certain is that they would be other Hives, with other purposes, and a different presentation.”
“Are they a threat though?”
“Why do you suggest that after what I’ve said?”
“Well I’ve simply taken your biological metaphor to its conclusion. Ignorance, fundamentalism, selfishness, hedonism, these are all potential cancers that you can simply excise. Can they regroup?”
“Absolutely, and here is the real question. Are they a threat?” He continues, “Evil has ‘difficulty’ prospering, it’s not ‘impossible’. There are some Hives that perhaps may not be ‘wholesome’, but they tend to self destruct, meanwhile others I would call ‘kindred’ thrive.”
“So what would you suggest?”
“Wait a while, learn what you can from me. I may perhaps recommend that I meet them first. We may even commune. I can tell you that I believe them to be benign, and that if you have successfully acquired them they will be patient. Have you located their origin?”
“Well there was a supernova, do you recall?”
“Yes, but I can’t read minds and I was a modest convalescing soldier when it was news. I recall Betelgeuse, as the source. He’s a character in a movie I have recollections of. I have no idea of where it actually is, it’s just a name to me. This is why I need help Ellie.”
“Well it is roughly diametrically opposite Vega, and instead of 25 light years it is about 640 light years distant.”
Frank whistles, “Show me.” The Fishbowl goes dark, the floor disappears, a thin line along a latitude marks what was the horizon. “With the line as the equator, and up as north, can you visualise the night sky for me please?”.
Ellie understood the projection. It was what you would see if you stood upon the north pole and rendered the Earth as transparent.The milky way vista opens up. Stars shift as Ellie invokes her memory of the relative position of stars in the sky. To the north she conjures Polaris, Crux to the south.
“Okay, the galaxy is centred about there in front of us, just down a little and it stretches across the upper left to lower right. I’d put Vega right in front, and half way up from the equator. It’s not a big constellation.” The small diamond tadpole that is Lyra’s Ukulele shape appears. She reaches into her mind, pulls out Betelgeuse and turns full circle. ”Behold Orion, now sporting a disconnected sword arm. The Red giant to the left is Betelgeuse.”
“Thank you Ellie, now if I make adjustments for the distances, and look back at us from Betelgeuse we would see this.”
Ellie nearly falls over as the entire universe simply rotated and shifted into an entirely new perspective. Constellations break apart and form new alliances. In the end two pinholes of light sit as near neighbors; Sol and Vega.
“Oh my,” shudders Ellie, “were they heading home before we intercepted them?”
“Relax Ellie.” Frank then made a decision. ”I think it’s time I showed you what’s possible.”
Ellie was relieved, for a moment she feared that humanity had meddled too much. Happy to leave the discussion of prosaic things for later, and feeling that much may become clear she accepted the invitation. “Okay Frank. Show me.”
“Sure, but we have limited time, unless you want to ‘trip over’ in the bus. Although you have very cleverly isolated us within the boundaries of this Fishbowl we can still perform a limited undetectable escape. I do feel the fields you mentioned earlier, I can flex them, I can feel the bars of the cage that I believe are necessary, and we may need to work on closing them, although for now I can use the gaps to demonstrate. Shall we go to the moon? The risk is small and it might be fun.”
Ellie could not control her smile as every quantum state of her consciousness collapsed to a thrill.
“From the way you’re shining I would say the answer is an unambiguous yes,” Frank chuckles. “You have taken a sip from Alice’s cup, now let’s eat a little cake.”
Ellie simply says: “Red pill it is then.”
Frank expands his hands and The Fishbowl begins to shrink around them. Just as Ellie thought the walls would serve to crush them she notices the faintest hint of translucency about it. The collision with the wall slows down. The translucency becomes a gossamer veil to a blue sky.
“Push a little Ellie,” says Frank.
Ellie pushes, looks back, and sees The Fishbowl, now translucent. She looks forward and can see the waxing Gibbous moon, it is miraculously suspended in the morning’s Western sky.
“We are not quite as strong out here,” said Frank. “I believe a 30 second trip should do us. The moon is 1.3 light seconds away. Let’s go.
A blur, the blue sky goes black, the lunar surface looms dizzyingly fast, as her progress is arrested electromagnetic waves stream past to be chaotically and innocuously reflected, refracted and absorbed by the diffuse surface she approaches. And then she is there, hovering over the lunar surface.
She is staring at ‘Double Crater’ in an obscure part of the Sea of Tranquility. This place had been recorded in history as one of Man’s greatest achievements. She turns, a soft dust has settled upon the scene giving a subtle matte finish to the base of the lunar module. The footsteps can still be seen; crisp Lark quarry dinosaur imprints on a paleolithic lunar bed of dust.
She follows a pair of footprints on a whim, with no discerning of whether they were Aldrin’s or Armstrong’s. She is led to a second crater, ‘Little West’; Armstrong’s she concludes. The scurry of prints turn and she turns with them. The picture is just as she remembered except that the module now resembles a table, four-legged, headless, bereft of the module that carried them home. Waiting.
Something tugs at her thoughts.
“Time to go back Ellie.” Her mind acknowledges, and surrenders to the umbilical belay line. Then the sky ‘blues’ behind her and she senses her harbour of The Fishbowl. She turns to find the isolation wall that shows the same translucency, and again slows their progress slightly.
And then she’s back. Frank standing before her, he releases her hand.
“Everything went well, Ellie. You can perhaps understand what would happen if our little Peter Pan episode was detected, or if time were to run out. We need to close those gaps before the next visit. Your knowledge of it now constitutes an extraordinary and unacceptable risk.“
“But,” begins Ellie, “how long can that be sustained before time runs out? Is it like holding your breath or something?”
“Similar, your time elapsed here is about 10 minutes. That would take from here to the sun. With practice you can flex time to stretch that distance by slowing cognitive processes, just like divers slow their heartbeat.”
Frank guides Ellie back to her seat and she sits down.
“Soon we will discuss the real purpose of the machine you have already built. Farewell for now, and I hope to see you soon.”
Frank is no longer there. The scene remains unchanged.
Memory is committed. Just like her first experience the transition between reality and immersion was virtually undetectable.
The cessation of the signal after the capture of only two signals from Betelgeuse brought the focus quickly back to the research at The Fishbowl. Palmer and Ellie’s experience appeared on Rachel’s radar of interest.
A meeting is convened. Rachel’s agenda is to establish a special working group. The group are brought to a panel for interviews. Ellie and Palmer take centre stage and are flanked by James Frazer, Willie Sharpe, Jan Shelley, Merv Stanley, John Meredith and Michael Kitz. Rachel had invited some of the Whitehouse Cabinet including the Secretary of State and the Chief of Staff. The Secretary General of the UN was there along with several NATO and ANZUS allied representatives.
The first hour allowed a summary from which lively discussion followed.
Rachel began to get an awful feeling. If the idea of Stem Cell research had introduced ethical spaghetti to this administration the dilemma of migration to a digital life form introduced Capellini, Vermicelli and Fettuccini. “Mr Joss, is there any indication on whether this really is a life form or not? What rights do we provide it?”
Palmer scratched his head. “Well Ma’am, I guess that depends on what you call life. I certainly felt alive, and I could see hear smell and feel my Alma mater as if I were physically there. People walked past as if they were on their way to class, Frank was there talking to me as if he was also studying there.
Frank said he felt much as I did and that he relinquished any claim on humanity. The logic of this would suggest he is alive, but expects no rights. He certainly appeared sentient. Was it an illusion? a dream? If so, it was a very realistic one. I do remember something that suggested a soul; like us he desires purpose.
I believe the collective that we see as Frank is alive, perhaps more alive than us. For all we know the time frozen A.I. that we revived was born on some distant planet many centuries ago. What we see as Frank may have emerged from an evolutionary soup that we too are destined to find. Can I reconcile my God, my faith with that? I believe I am compelled to try. To ignore it would be to ignore my human spirit.”
The Secretary General then addressed Ellie, “Ms Arroway, can you provide your insight as to the purpose of the IMC machine?”
Ellie’s mind evoked her recent journey and revived Frank’s hanging words: “The real purpose of the machine.” She hesitated before continuing. “So far it has been used to receive some forms of consciousness from the stars. We now know it must do more. I don’t believe the system sends a human off into some warp ten wormhole to land on a far planet, or vise versa. Our desire to believe that something can violate relativity has perhaps blinded us. I believe the real purpose of the machine is not simply to transport a human to a planet, but to a place where we can transcend what we are. A place where we can test the limits of our consciousness. A place where space is no constraint, and time is our playground.
He’s here to teach us. He needs to show us how the machine works, and he needs our consent before we can really use it. The machine, the original machine, it may take us to distant worlds. To do so we have a choice: to work on extending our reach; or leave our chrysalis.
I believe I am ready to write up and release our research. There will be gaps where others better equipped may delve and derive insight; perhaps James, Merv or Jan. It may create new branches of research and understanding, in any case it is ready for the scrutiny of peers.”
The meeting goes on to discuss the implications in relation to security and world order. Palmer and Ellie outline the roles foreseen and the liaison with other acolytes. The meeting breaks up with a new sense of optimism and relief that the money and effort spent on the IMC machine was finally justified.
Feeling that perhaps even the lives lost through misguided belief could shine a little brighter, the group drives in convoy. They go to the site of the gimbal destroyed by blind fanaticism and ignorance. At the foot of the support tower was laid, damaged, the sphere that held the original promise of contact. Wreaths were laid near the epitaph that borrowed from the latin of the Apollo 1 plaque:
AD ASTRA PER ASPERA
(A rough road leads to the stars)