In which we get ready to strut our stuff on the dance floor and travel faster than light.
Continued from part one.
In the Security Department of the Intelligent Design industrial complex on Caelestis, one of the large offices had been converted to an incident room for the insurance investigators, Dugdale and Van Fumé. The pair had been promised access to all security footage, and also been given the use of a shuttle and pilot for the duration of their stay.
The office was equipped with two desks, each with a computer terminal and large monitor, a coffee table, four comfortable swivel chairs and a fanza machine.
Stacked in the corner of the room were two crates, containing surveillance equipment and marked, “Fragile! Handle with respect!”
Durle, Dugdale and Van Fumé sat in the swivel chairs, drinking fanza.
“Salvador is our head of security here on Caelestis,” said Major Durle. “Top chap! Anything you need, just give him a yell. His office is just across the corridor. Any computer problems, my wife Afra is head of I.T, just round the corner and up the corridor.”
“Thank you, Major,” said Van Fumé. “Tomorrow, we plan to examine the methane swamp, so we’ll need some overalls and breathing equipment. We’ll probably need to interview some of the staff too. Will that be OK?”
“Of course,” replied Durle, rising from his chair. “I’ll send Salvador round. He’ll sort out whatever you need.”
Dugdale and Van Fumé rose and exchanged pawshakes with the Major. “Thank you, Major.” Durle turned on his heel and left.
Dugdale looked at his watch. “Time for a sauna, I think.”
Tedford and his team were sat around the table in the simulation suite, drinking fanza.
“OK, team,” said Tedford. “It’s Frosday evening and let’s try to finish the week on a high note. Surprisingly, I have some good news. We have hit our eighty percent predicted population figures for Caelestis, so apart from Admiral Bootlink’s beastie, we are all set. Does anyone have anything they would like to present before we start?”
“Yes please,” said Hudley, plugging in his data stick. “You requested some invertebrates. Take a look at this.” Over the table appeared a small, grey and green object, about two centimetres in length. “Zoom,” said Hudley, and the object swelled to cover the table. It was a fairly typical looking slug, grey and slimy with two pairs of sensory tentacles waving to and fro on its head. It was adorned with a vibrant, emerald green stripe that ran down its back from head to tail. Tedford and Chippo looked at Pingree, then back to the slug, and then started chuckling. Pingree frowned and glowered at Hudley.
“I call it the verdant slug,” said Hudley. “It’s a pest, but apparently quite popular amongst less discerning females of the species.”
Tedford sat up straight in his chair. “Hudley, you’ve given me an idea. I think we could all do with cheering up, don’t you agree?” Three furry heads nodded in agreement. “We are going to have a competition, with the winner announced next Metday evening. I want you each to design a creature. Whichever one makes me laugh the hardest will win a prize.”
“Any size limitations?” asked Chippo.
“No limitations,” Tedford replied, “it’s just for fun. Go crazy with it.”
“What about my slug?” asked Hudley.
“Print it,” said Tedford, ignoring the filthy looks Pingree was giving Hudley. “Right, gents; down to business. Where are we on the Admiral’s new beastie?”
“I’m working on the overall structure,” said Hudley. “Pingree’s been running environmental impact simulations and Chippo’s going to be designing the tentacles, mandibles and pincers.” Hudley tapped a few keys and the slug was replaced by a long, crab-like creature, widest at the front and tapering into a tail at the back. It had a hard, pale orange carapace and seven pairs of long, segmented legs, five pairs near the middle of its main body and two pairs nearer the front for stability. It had no mandibles, pincers or tentacles. On its back were sharp ridges of shell, to protect it from being attacked from above. It scuttled across the table top, each of its eyes moving independently on short stalks.
“We’ve named it the crablink,” explained Hudley. “Obviously, it’s going to look much better with all the trimmings.”
Tedford was pleased. “It’s coming on nicely. Pingree, how large can we make this?”
“The environmental simulation shows we can go the full two metres plus tail. We’ve also lengthened the legs to make it a bit wider, so it should look pretty intimidating when it’s finished.”
“Excellent. When can we see some tentacles, Chippo?”
“Amiday, probably. Metday at the latest.”
“Brilliant. OK then, knock off early for the weekend. See you all Moonday morning.” The three juniors picked up their data sticks and note pads and headed for the door.
“Care to join us at Club Frizzle tonight, boss?” asked Chippo, pausing in the doorway. “Marci might be there,” he added with a wry smile.
Tedford gave him a withering look. “I don’t think so.”
“Suit yourself, boss. See you Moonday.”
In a salon at the Caelestis Island spa, Afra Durle and her daughter Nalina sat clad in towel robes, wearing mud packs on their faces and enjoying a pawdicure.
“Are you still seeing that young clerk from accounts?” asked Afra.
“Ebner? No, not for ages.” Nalina grimaced. “He still lives with his mother.”
“Is that so bad?”
“They share a bedroom, Mummy!”
Afra pulled a face. “Oh dear! Is there anyone else?”
“No. I’m too busy trying to get my software business off the ground. Have you managed to convince Daddy to lend me some money?”
“I’m sorry dear, but he’s determined that you should do it yourself. I’ll keep trying, but you know how stubborn he is.” She looked over at Nalina. “You’ll get it off the ground. I know how resourceful you are.”
Afra tutted. “Don’t harrumph, dear. You sound just like your father.”
“Will you be joining your father and me for supper tonight?”
“Yes please. What time?”
“About eight-ish, at the Capricorn Hotel dining room. Don’t be late; you know how your father gets.”
It had been a quiet Frosday afternoon. Pingree and Chippo had played cards, and Hudley had gone for a walk to the north coast of the island. He spent an hour paddling in the sea and looking in rock pools, before returning to his room for a shower, then meeting Pingree and Chippo in the canteen for some dinner.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join us at Frizzle?” asked Chippo for the umpteenth time.
“No thanks, I’m looking forward to movie night with the Greys,” replied Hudley for the umpteenth time.
“Suit yourself,” shrugged Chippo.
And so, at seven p.m, Hudley sat nervously in the hotel lobby, his overnight bag on his lap, waiting for Sid to come and collect him for his trip to the Colony. Hudley had been surprised to learn that he was the first Fulfa in living memory to be invited to stay at this Colony, so these were uncharted waters. He stood up and walked over to the fountain in the lobby. He watched the ripples cascading outwards, jumping with surprise when Sid shouted to him from the doorway.
“Hey Hudley! Are you ready?”
They headed out of the lobby and into the hotel courtyard where the shuttle sat waiting. This was no ordinary shuttle; it was sleek, black and much lower than Hudley was used to. He stood towards the back of the shuttle, waiting for Sid to open the hatch.
“It’s just us, Hudley, you’re up front,” Sid shouted, opening the cockpit door and beckoning him over. Hudley excitedly climbed up and into the co-pilot’s seat. He closed the door and examined the control panel in front of him. Hudley had never been in a shuttle’s cockpit before, and this one seemed very advanced, full of screens, dials, faders and lights. In the centre was a large red button, protected by a Perspex cover. It looked very important.
Sid was strapping himself in, so Hudley followed suit.
“How far is the colony?” asked Hudley.
“About six and a half billion kilometres from here, at the edge of this solar system. About a forty minute drive.”
Hudley thought about this for a while, while Sid looked for his keys and adjusted his seat and mirrors.
“That’s about ten times the speed of light.”
“Yep. We’re using a phased particle drive. Phast-drive for short.”
Hudley laughed, “Seriously? Phast-drive.”
“That’s right. They’re not as fast as the old fission drives, but they’re much safer and cleaner. ”
“How does it work?”
“Well,” said Sid, “all particles vibrate, and they vibrate so fast that essentially they occupy two places at once, but very close together. The phased particle drive works on the theory that if all the particles in an object are resonating in harmony, the whole object will in effect occupy two positions at once. By utilising this effect and repeating it many times, the whole object will change positions.”
“Why is that safer?” asked Hudley, “What if we hit something?”
“We can’t hit something,” replied Sid, “We’re not actually moving, just selecting one of the two positions we already occupy, and repeating the process a very great number of times in rapid succession. Although it is true that one particle can be in two places at once, only one object can occupy any one space at any one time. We won’t be able to move into a position already occupied by something else; we would have to go around it. That’s what makes it so safe.”
Sid turned the key in the ignition and there was a soft hum as the instrument panels lit up one by one. He set the navigation computer to Ufrikaans and selected a voice.
“Simon has programmed this thing to use celebrity voices. This week it’s Gerbert Grunella, the Ufric newsreader.”
“Good evening,” said the navigation computer, “and welcome to the shuttle. I’m Gerbert Grunella. Tonight, a talking Groth and how to boil your sister, but first; local news.”
Sid and Hudley chuckled. “Where would you like to go?” asked Gerbert.
“Home please, Gerbert,” said Sid.
“Coming up next on tonight’s programme; home,” Gerbert replied.
Sid released the handbrake, checked his mirrors and the shuttle rose up into the night sky, the lights of the courtyard reflecting from its sleek, black hull. Rotating clockwise, they rose to a height of a hundred metres, and Hudley gazed out the passenger window at the thick jungle canopy below. To the east was the Aurora, sparking and glowing green in the upper atmosphere. Hudley stared at it in awe.
“It’s beautiful,” said Hudley, “much more so when it’s purple.”
“Do you want to do a quick flyover of the island?” asked Sid.
“We’ll be safe to fly over the swampland while there’s no methane.”
Sid took the shuttle up to two hundred metres. They were facing south, and over to the west, they could see the Aurora’s green flashes reflected in the ocean. The beach was flanked by flickering lanterns, brought down to replace the fire-toads, which has been relocated to a neighbouring island. The beach had been incredible with the toads’ soft green glow and green flames that flickered here and there by the shoreline, but Durle had ordered them extinct, and it was only through Tedford’s insistence that the fire-toads had been granted a reprieve.
From the west beach, the terrain sloped upwards for two kilometres, sand giving way to rocky scrubland, then to dense forest. Further from the coast, the trees were broader and taller, in some places as high as one hundred metres. The landscaping had been carefully planned to allow for several landing strips and also to allow a large clearing for the hotel and leisure complex, but still with enough canopy cover to provide privacy from overhead shuttle traffic.
Sid swung the shuttle right and they headed away from the hotel, towards the methane swamp and west beach. The night was still and clear, and from this height they could see three coasts of the island, with the Aurora’s reflection in the sea on each side. Sid turned on the shuttle’s spotlights as they swept over the tree canopy, the reflection of many pairs of eyes squinting up at them from the branches. There were also colourful glows and flashes all around from thousands of fireflies, fire-beetles and other assorted bioluminescent insects, most of which had been designed by Chippo. Chippo was obsessed with bioluminescence, having written a thesis on it at the academy. Pingree and Hudley were convinced that Chippo would have made himself glow in the dark, had he been allowed to.
The shuttle circled over the methane swamp but, without the plumes of methane and the Aurora Methalis, Hudley felt that it lacked its usual mystique.
“There’s someone down there,” said Sid. Hudley turned and looked out of the window, but saw no one.
“You won’t see them now. They’ve just headed into the undergrowth over there.”
“Who was it?”
Hudley turned back to face Sid. “Can we follow the southern shoreline round, please?” he asked.
“No problem,” said Sid, putting the shuttle into gear and engaging the clutch. They passed over the west beach, turning left to follow the coast around until they were heading east. The south coast of Caelestis was less accessible than the north and its beaches were pebbly rather than sandy, but its waters were bursting with vibrant fish and crustaceans. Aquatic creatures had always fascinated Hudley; he hoped to specialise in the subject. He looked south, over the ocean and marvelled at the blackness of the night sky, unpolluted by city lights. Some nights, if there were no Aurora, while Pingree and Chippo were out dancing, he would walk to the west beach and lay on the sand, staring at the stars for hours. He wished he could stay on Caelestis forever, but the project was nearing its end, and he would have to move on.
“Time to go,” said Sid, and the shuttle started to climb. Hudley watched Caelestis shrink beneath them.
Sid engaged the Phast-drive, and Genesis instantly disappeared from view.
“Phast drive engaged,” said Gerbert, “and now it’s over to Tilda for the weather.”
Hudley watched the stars for a few minutes, then pointed to the large red button on the shuttle’s panel. “What’s this button?”
“That,” said Sid proudly, “is a new S-five drive.” Seeing Hudley’s blank expression, he elaborated. “Fifth generation spiral drive. We’d be there instantly if we used that.”
“So why not use it?”
“You wouldn’t tolerate it; you’d vomit for several hours afterwards. Anything over twenty thousand gigametres would kill you outright.”
“I seem to be alright on the shuttle to and from Amica.”
“That’s a helix drive. This is a spiral drive.” Sid turned to the navigation computer. “Isn’t that right, Gerbert?”
“It certainly is a scorcher out there,” Gerbert replied, “and now it’s back to the studio.”
Chippo was sat in front of Pingree’s mirror, combing his auburn chest fur. “I’m worried about that Fulfa. Hanging out with the Greys instead of coming out with us? Weird!”
Pingree stopped polishing his shoes and checked his reflection in them. “Don’t be hard on him. He’s just not the party type. Anyway, we’ll have more fun tonight if we don’t have to worry about him slinking off on his own.”
Chippo nodded. “We need to find him a nice Fulfette; someone not too choosy, and with poor eyesight.”
Pingree laughed and put his shoes down. He leaned in over Chippo’s shoulder and ran a paw through the green fur of his scalp.
“Keep it green to keep ‘em keen.”
“Keep a Zorillo next to your pillow,” added Chippo, “and if they don’t mind ugly, introduce them to Hudley.”
Sid and Hudley were nearing the edge of the solar system, about twenty minutes away from the planet Nebungri, where the Colony was located.
“Why do you live all the way out here?” asked Hudley.
“How do you survive the cold?”
“I heard that Greys can survive extremes of cold, even down to minus sixty.”
“That’s true,” confirmed Sid. “Of course, out here it’s minus two hundred and thirty. Nothing survives that. Tell me, Hudley; do you like working for Devine Interventions?”
“The pay’s good and the holiday allowance is generous.”
“That’s not what I meant. Do you enjoy what you do at Intelligent Design?”
Hudley’s face lit up. “I love it! Designing creatures is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I love animals, especially fish. I love the way they look, the way they move through the water….”
“The way they taste?”
“I wouldn’t know about that. But most of all, I love bringing things to life; being able to take inanimate DNA and chemicals and make them breathe and move and feel. It’s wonderful!”
Sid nodded. “It is truly amazing that you can do those things, but don’t you ever stop to consider whether you are worthy of wielding such power?”
“Every day. I think about it all the time. One of the reasons I work for Devine Interventions is that they have Professor Eikopf as their Head of Research. When I was a student, I attended his lectures on ethical use of technology and research ethics. They were amazing, fascinating.”
“You said that it’s all you ever wanted to do,” said Sid, checking the rear view mirror. “Why is that?”
Hudley thought carefully. “When I was a Fluffling, I can’t remember how old, my parents bought me a book about Earth animals. It was a big book, full of colourful pictures. I used to read it for hours, looking at the pictures, imagining what it would be like to go to Earth and see them for myself. Especially the fish. I still have that book; I can name every animal in it.” He turned to Sid. “I envy you, being able to visit Earth, and I know I never can, but now I don’t have to. With DNA templating, I can bring those animals here. Most of my aquatic creature designs are based on Earth fish, and now the seas of Genesis are full of them. I’ve seen things that I could only dream of as a child.” Hudley grinned broadly. “That’s why I design creatures. I’m bringing my dreams to life.”
“I’m happy for you, Hudley.”
“How about Greys? How do you decide who’s going to be a pilot and who’s going to be a cook?”
“Aptitude tests and careers counselling,” said Sid. “For example, I have no sense of danger, but good reflexes, so I’m a pilot.”
“Thanks, Sid; that’s very reassuring.”
Outside was blackness, punctuated by millions of tiny points of light. Hudley had flown in passenger shuttles many times, but the panoramic view of the cockpit was breath-taking; nothing like peering out through a tiny porthole.
“Look.” Sid pointed out the window to a rapidly approaching white planet. “That’s Hercule, next planet before Nebungri.”
Hudley watched fascinated as Hercule grew larger in front of them. Directly in front of them!
“Are you sure….?” Hudley stopped mid-sentence. Hercule had disappeared. He looked in the side mirror and saw it shrinking rapidly into the distance behind them.
“Almost there now,” announced Sid cheerily. “Only another thousand gigametres. Status report please, Gerbert?”
“Later tonight, we meet the Ufro with a two metre beard. But first; sport!” Sid giggled and checked the control panel, punching a few buttons. He pointed to a screen. “That dot there is us, and that one is Nebungri. We’ll be there in five minutes. Our Colony is surrounded by a phased particle field to protect us from meteor impact. Anything over one hundred metres wide can be shot down, but the smaller ones often get through, but because the meteor and the field cannot occupy the same space at any one time, the meteors are deflected to a safe distance. The field covers five hundred square kilometres. We can pass through it only because our resonant frequency matches that of the field. Otherwise, we would end up ten kilometres away.”
A small, pale dot appeared in front of them.
“That’s Nebungri,” said Sid. Within a second the dot had swollen to fill their entire field of vision.
“Sid…..” started Hudley, but they were already there.