What's Eating You.
"Dr. Yu?" asked the man at the space dock, his eyes wide in surprise.
Lucille Yu nodded and smiled, used to the reaction she was receiving. As the daughter of the famous Chun Yu, the brightest physicist of his era, a man just about everyone in the physics
world knew by sight, they expected his daughter to look like someone from New Hanou. In other words short, dark haired, with black eyes in brown skin. Instead the man found himself looking up
at a statuesque blue eyed blond with fair skin. The only physical feature that could be attributed to her father were the slight epithilic folds on her eyes. That, and her first class brain.
"My mother was from Norje," she replied to the unasked question.
The man, who had the look of Brazilia about him, nodded. It was common knowledge that the people of Norje had genes that were dominant to most others, an artifact of the project that
separated the human race back into ethnic groups after the cause of a thousand years that had brought mankind to this region of space.
"Your bags are being put on the shuttle," said the man, who then held his hand out with an embarrassed flush. "Dr. Rafael Rodrigue," said the man. "I am chief of the door opening team on
Lucille shook the hand, thinking how nice the man looked. Then wondering how he might be in bed. Not the best thing to think about when meeting my boss for the first time.
"Your chariot awaits, Senorita," said the man, who was of a height with herself, unusual for his homeworld.
Lucille smiled and followed the man across the arrival lobby, taking a glance back through transparent alloy window at the ship that had brought her to this far outpost of the Empire. They
had spared no expense on bringing out new staff, using a Hyper VI liner with a destroyer escort to carry them the two hundred light years from Sector II base.
The shuttle surprised her, being nothing more than a standard Imperial Marine assault ship. It is a military project, after all, she thought, walking through the hatch and going to the seat that had
a green icon suspended above it. Or at least the military has a big stake in the project.
The shuttle pulled free of the military dock with no sense of motion, the grabber units pulling smoothly at the fabric of space and feeding all the inertia into the compensators. Lucille smiled
as she noticed some of the other passengers acting as if they didn't know that the ship had left the dock.
The holo in front of her seat came on, displaying a construct of indeterminate size floating above an ice planet. At first there was no sense of scale, until the viewpoint shifted back and the
space dock, all fifty million tons of structure, appeared.
"That's the black hole generator," said Dr. Rodrigue, pointing at the object. "Sixteen two hundred pentawatt lasers."
"And how often do you use it?" asked Lucille, estimating the entire construct at three hundred million tons. She knew the theory, and had in fact seen larger hole generators in some of the
core systems. The light pressure of the lasers compressed space itself, creating billion ton mass black holes, which had several industrial uses. But they're too hard to transport, she thought, recalling
that the largest freighters had a capacity of twenty-five million tons. So they built one here.
"We normally don't use it all that much. Once the two portal generators were constructed it was basically shut down, since we had all we needed. It's just completed its latest run."
"Why did it need a latest run?" asked Lucille, realizing that something wasn't right here.
"One of the portals collapsed, and we lost all twelve of the generating holes," said Rodrigue, his face scrunching up in emotional pain.
"You lost more than the holes, didn't you?" asked Lucille, her eyes wide as she imagined the worst, which the other scientist soon confirmed.
"We lost over three hundred people, sucked into whatever universe swallowed our holes," said Rodrigue, rubbing his hand over his forehead.
"Has that ever happened before?"
"Oh, we've lost exploration crews we sent through to universes that seemed amenable to our form of life. First impressions are not always correct. But nothing like this."
"So you're just rebuilding the portal, bringing in more people, and carrying on from there?" asked Lucille, wondering how mad these people were.
"This program is important," said Rodrigue, his eyes tightening as he gazed into hers. "You know how we came to this space, don't you?"
Of course. Aliens were going to destroy our race, so we ran as fast as our then primitive tech could carry us. She simply nodded her head.
"Then you know that we still have an enemy out there, somewhere. And we may need to run again. It would be nice if we could run into a hole and pull the hole in after us."
Lucille wanted to say something. Something about how they were now too powerful to fear such an enemy. Something about how the Donut project was scheduled to come online in the
next decade, using a huge black hole to generate wormholes that would make the Empire unbeatable. Instead she kept her mouth shut, knowing there was no such thing as unbeatable. People who
thought they were unbeatable soon found out differently.
Lucille decided to stop thinking about it, for the moment. She sat quietly in her seat and watched the holo, which had now zoomed onto the surface of the planet, out here far beyond the
habitable zone of this star. There were three hundred and fifty fusion plants on that surface, supplying the energy needed by the project. Entire valleys were surfaced with heat exchangers, using the
interstellar cold of the planet to take care of the thermal radiation. And two hundred thousand personnel to run the project, the robots, and all the infrastructure. Two hundred thousand people, including families, all
at risk whenever they open one of those rips between universes.
The docking bay on the planet was very spacious, but not enough so to handle a timely evacuation of everyone on the worldlet. Artificial gravity was normal, and the primary base contained
several large caverns turned into wildlife preserves, with lush foliage and small birds and mammals placed there for the enjoyment of the inhabitants. There were always some of those inhabitants
around, mostly human, but a smattering of nonhuman citizens of the Empire as well. Lucille found herself stepping around a huge hexacentauroid Phlistaran on the way to her quarters, and there
many small humanoid Manticorans in evidence, probably servants.
Her quarters were just as spacious as advertised, with sitting room, dinning room and large bed chamber. Space was not a problem with installations, either ships, stations or planetary bases.
It was more important to keep people happy and healthy so that they could do their jobs effectively.
"Remember what we talked about," said Rodrigue as he turned to leave. "What we do here is important."
"How many have you opened?" she asked before he could get out the door.
"How many? A couple of hundred. Maybe a few more. We open them about twice a week, and they remain open a week on the average. Or they had, when we had two portals."
"So two hundred, more or less. And how many have panned out? How many opened into a universe we could actually use?"
"None," said the other scientist with a shrug. "But that doesn't mean we won't find one, someday."
"Among infinite possibilities?"
"That's right. Among infinite possibilities. There has to be something out there that we can use." The scientist smiled, then walked through the door, which closed immediately behind him.
Lucille threw herself into the couch and called up the room holo, linking into the base computer system and sending through her password. She spent the next couple of hours learning all
she could about the Other Universe Project. At the end of those hours she felt even more hopeless than before, and wished that she had gotten that position on the Donut Project instead.
* * *
"Are we ready, people?" asked Dr. Rodrigue, looking out over the control room.
The crew sounded off, a hundred men and women at their stations. Lucille looked over the readouts from her own team, the one controlling the actual opening process. After the energy
feed crew finished their checkoff, hers went through theirs, while she checked their readouts one after the other. She checked them a second time through her link into the portal local computer,
then again through the main computer, her trained mind performing the equations through the system ten thousand times faster than her organic mind alone could accomplish. She found a couple of
minor discrepancies and shuttled the findings to those controllers responsible.
"Opening mechanism ready," she shouted, at the same time sending her release code into the system.
The last crew, the exploration and recording unit, started their checkoff, while Lucille looked around the large room. She could recognize the old timers that had been added to this portal
crew by the looks of fear on their faces. The newcomers, who had never opened a portal, looked nervous, but their faces lacked the expressions of stark terror on those of the veterans. And why are
they so afraid? thought Lucille, going over what she had learned in her own research on the project. There were some disturbing indications that not everything proceeded according to plan. Not all
the time. Maybe it's something you have to experience, she thought, wondering how she would be after this opening.
"Prepare to open," called out Rodrigue.
Lucille looked at her board, making sure the electromagnetic field was set to the programmed resonance. One of the black holes was a little off, which would result in a null opening. She
shifted it to the proper wavelength and signalled the portal director that all was well.
On the holo the twelve arms holding the micro black holes in their vibrating electromagnetic cups started to move. Each arm massed two hundred and fifty million tons of superhard alloys
and supermetals. Thick superconductor cables, massing several million additional tons, crawled over the arms. The cupped black holes began to move back toward the walls of the forty kilometer
wide chamber on the telescoping arms, going slowly from several meters apart to ten meters. The space the center of that ring started to ripple, much like that of a hyperdrive opening a hole to the
dimensions of hyperspace. But this was different, the space being accessed not one of the dimensions naturally intersecting the Universe that humanity knew. At fifteen meters separation the space
started to rip open, the hole accessing the other universe set by the wavelength of the electromagnetic resonance. Each incremental wavelength opened onto a particular Universe, the number being
There was a bright flash of light at twenty meters separation, and then there was something in the space that was not ours. The arms opened up wider, to a hundred meters, and Lucille
found herself looking into total blackness. Not the blackness of space as she knew it. There was nothing light producing in that space, though the feel of depth was such that she felt she was
looking into billions of light years.
"Looks like we have another null Universe," said one of the crew, a note of relief in her voice.
"Send in a probe," ordered Rodrigue, and a thirty meter long robot with heavy grabber units fore and aft came speeding out of the wall perpendicular to the hole. It flew into the portal, its
telemetry appearing in the holo, until it had totally entered the other universe. Then it just disappeared from all sensors.
"It's a null," said Rodrigue. "Exploration teams stand down."
Lucille looked into a side screen where a dozen personnel were suited up in modified battle armor such as used by Exploration Command. She could see the relief on them through their
body language as the order came through. They would not be risking their lives by working as guinea pigs in the ultimate foreign environment. There were biologicals within the probe, but
obviously they would not be reporting back to the control station.
"Five minutes, people," said Rodrigue, getting up from his seat and walking toward the holo tank. "Record everything you can, even if it amounts to nothing. Then we'll close this one up
and get a fresh start tomorrow."
At the end of the allotted time the black holes were moved back toward each other, and the portal to elsewhere closed. The crew started talking among themselves as they filed from the
room back to the tube car to the main base, pulling off helmets and gloves. They reminded Lucille of condemned prisoners offered a temporary reprieve. And tomorrow would offer another chance
* * *
Lucille wondered what kept these people performing a job that obviously terrified them. She asked one of the scientists one day after they had opened a portal to an antimatter universe that
had destroyed the probe in spectacular fashion. Fortunately the recon robot was millions of kilometers into the strange space, having catalogued that all the laws were not exactly the same as in our
Universe, but close enough where our form of life could exist. Until the probe touched down on a comet and obliterated itself while blasting the iceball apart. The human exploration team had been
called back post haste.
"It's the contract," said Dr. Joseph Jakarta, the leader of that last exploration team.
"You could break the contract, couldn't you?" asked Yu, having trouble remembering what her own contract had actually said. "It's a free society, after all, and they can't force you to work a
job you find disagreeable."
Some of the other members of the team laughed when she said that.
"Yeah, the pay's great," said Dr. Jakarta. "But they bank most of it for us, payable when our contractual period is over."
"Well, yes," said Lucille, remembering how that had seemed very attractive when she had signed on. She was paid six times what she would have expected from an academic job. Her room
and board was paid for, and she was given ten percent of her pay for personal expenses. The rest would make a tidy sum when she moved on. Now her face dropped as she heard the small print she
had ignored when she signed her contract.
"If you don't fulfill the terms they take away everything you have banked," said Jakarta. He looked around at the other nine members of his team, who all nodded vigorously, or cursed the
administration. "That's not all," continued Jakarta. "They can make sure that you have a hard time getting another position."
"How can they have that much power?" asked Yu, feeling horrified.
"This is a Priority Imperial Project," said Jakarta, emphasizing each word. "And the Imperial Science Council controls a lot of the funding the Universities and research tanks receive. Add
to that the influence of the military, and anyone who would hire someone who reneged on their contract risks losing all of their funding."
"That still shouldn't make it impossible to get a job," protested Lucille.
"Not impossible, if you're good enough," agreed Jakarta with grudging acceptance. "There are some willing to buck the system. But for most, why take the risk? Not when there are so
many other scientists and technicians out there who can fill the slot on a team."
"And you know what's funny?" asked one of the techs, her flat eyes staring straight ahead. "We still lose half our techs and scientists before their term is up."
"But, why? I know the work is dangerous. But so are a lot of other high paying jobs."
"You haven't been here all that long," said Jakarta after taking a swallow of his beer. "Sure, there are other jobs statistically as dangerous. But you don't have to look the wrongness of other
space in the face. That wears on any sentient being after a while."
"You'll see," said the woman who had talked before. "It will get inside your brain too, Dr. Yu. And then you will know one thing, that you don't want to be here."
* * *
"Open the portal," ordered Rodrigue.
Lucille did the last second check and sent her acknowledgement over the link. She glanced at her people, seeing the anxiety on their faces. Everyone was thinking about what had happened
to the other portal crew just a few days before.
That Universe had looked promising. The robotic probe had gone across and continued to operate within all parameters. Even the biologicals had seemed to handle the new space with no
problem. So the human exploration team had gone across, and things still looked good, for about fifteen minutes. That was when the humans had started acting, bizarre was the only word for it.
Word salad on the transmissions. The exploration vessel sent into nonsensical gyrations. And finally a murder. The ship had been recalled on autopilot, something the team seemed completely
unaware of. They were isolated, and molecular probes had shown that their actual central nervous system tissue had been changed. It was not known if they would recover, or if they would have to
go through complete neural restructuring by nanotech, which would basically make them different people.
So this exploration team has gone through mind upload, so their brains can be restructured if necessary, thought Lucille, shuddering at the thought of losing herself the way the members of that other team
Then she had no time for thoughts of past disasters, as the black holes moved apart and the space between them ripped open.
The first indication that something was wrong was the thick yellow gas that jetted from the hole. The second indication were the life forms that followed. They were like nothing that
anyone had ever seen. Scans immediately showed that they were not made up of any kind of biological matter ever encountered. Instead, they scanned as some kind of metallic construct, though
definitely not robots.
"We opened on a planet," said Rodrigue, staring into the holo.
"How often does that happen?" asked an alarmed Lucille, watching as animals the size of small dinosaurs flew around the chamber in their native atmosphere.
"This is the seventh time, which is well above what would be expected by random chance," said the other scientist. "Possibly something to do with the gravitational pull of large bodies."
Lucille shuddered at that thought, wondering when they would open a portal into a star, or a black hole. And knowing the result would be the end of this world the project was based on,
along with all the personnel and their families.
The weapons deployed in the huge chamber went into action, firing lasers and particle beams at the fast flying animals. Hits were scored. Many hits. All to no effect to the creatures, who
were soon tearing into equipment, ingesting it. Lasers simply hit them and were absorbed, while particle beams bounced away.
"Close the portal," yelled Rodrigue, a trace of panic in his voice as creatures smacked into the gateway arms.
"What good will that do?" asked one of the techs.
"Just do it," yelled the senior scientist.
The black holes came back together and the portal closed. One of the creatures flew into one of the black holes and disappeared in a flash, while hard radiation flooded the chamber. There
was no effect on the animals, but half the sensors in the chamber burned out.
"Set resonances to this frequency," yelled Rodrigue.
Lucille looked over the frequency, cross referencing it to a Universe that had already been explored in the preliminary sense. That should work, she thought, seeing that it was a null Universe,
a natural vacuum of the most empty sort.
“Open it,” yelled the chief scientist, and Lucille started the process of opening the portal, something normally not tried so soon after one had already been opened.
The huge arms that controlled the black holes creaked and stuttered as they moved apart from the over strain, and Yu was sure they would collapse, and drop the holes through the floor and
into the planet. They held, and the holes ripped open space again. This time the pull was from the other side, and the misty atmosphere was first sucked from the room, followed by the animals
that no longer had air to flap through. The creatures twisted and turned as they floated away from the opening, starting to become more insubstantial with each moment, until they were gone.
“Close it,” yelled Rodrigue, and the ring of black holes came back together, closing off the human Universe from the other.
“What happened to them?’ asked Lucille, trying to keep the scream that wanted to erupt from her mouth under control.
“Matter as we know it can’t exist there,” answered the other scientist. “We found that out when we sent a probe into it.”
Rodrigue stood up from his chair and looked around the control room. “Good job, people. Way to keep your heads. Everyone except the senior scientific staff can leave. We will try again
in two days, so everyone relax.”
“How the hell can we relax?” said one of the techs as he got up from his seat.
“I’m going to pray,” said another tech, a grimace on her face. “Don’t really see how it will help, or hurt.”
I wish I could just get a drink, thought Lucille, wishing she didn’t have to sit and discuss what had just happened. But there was no help for it. She was a trapped audience to this discussion of
* * *
The chapel was set up for a Christian service, of any and all of the denominations of that religion. There were other chapels on the base for the other major religious groups, Moslem,
Judaism, Hinduism, all the isms there were. Lucille had been raised Reformed Catholic, the dominant religion of the Empire. When she had turned to science she had not had time for the church,
and her faith had lapsed. Her father, the eminent scientist and Buddhist, didn’t really push her to stay with the church. It was her mother’s wish, the good Reformed Catholic from Norje, who made
sure her daughter was raised to observe the ceremonies and strictures of that denomination.
Are you really there, God? thought the physicist, kneeling in front of the altar and looking at the image of a man hanging from a cross. An image from a world that had been totally destroyed by
the aliens that had sent humankind fleeing across the Galaxy. And if you are, do you only exist in our reality? What about these other realities we are opening? What happens to us if we die in one of those realities?
Do we still find our way to you?
All disturbing questions, even to one who was more Agnostic than anything. Would death in another dimension mean obliteration of the soul, if there was such a thing? Were the natural
laws of the other dimensions such that a soul was not possible? Lucille shook her head at the last. Her rational mind told her there was no such thing as a soul, while her religious upbringing told
her there was. And what about the strictures against clones, who all tended to be psychopaths? Those with a religious bent said it was because they were unnatural creatures, not possessed of a
soul. Those who did not believe in the supernatural said it was because? Well, they really didn’t have much of an answer.
Whatever it is, I’m stuck here. At least until my contract is over. She had been on the project for two months, which gave her twenty two months to survive. Lucille was still shaking her head when
she got up from before the altar and walked away, her head still swirling with questions, but no definite answers.
* * *
The portal to Universe number five hundred fifteen opened easily. It opened on vacuum, it opened on space that seemed to obey the natural laws of the human Universe. Lucille counted it
off as her fifty-seventh portal. The probe went through, and seemed to function perfectly. The readings coming back from the biologicals indicated that they were functioning perfectly as well.
“Something’s wrong with this place,” said one of the techs, about the same time that Lucille started getting a feel for the place on her link into the instruments.
This place is old, she thought, looking at the star map the probe was beginning to develop. The opening was in a Galaxy that was being absorbed by another Galaxy, which itself was in the
process of colliding with yet another. What stars still existed were all of the red dwarf variety, and the sleet of radiation showed that this was a Universe of black holes and neutron stars, swallowing
up all the matter that came their way.
“It’s a Universe in its last days,” she said, looking back at Rodrigue. “In another billion years it will have shrunk to a point.”
“We don’t need a billion years, if it comes to that,” said the senior scientist. “If we need someplace to run, this may have to be it. Send in the exploration team.”
The team went through the portal with no problems. All readings came back normal, all communications rational. Everything checked out, and Lucille knew they would be looking at this
Universe for at least two weeks, maybe longer. The relief in the control chamber was palpable as everyone realized they would not be opening another gate during that time.
The Universe turned out to be one in the last stages of its life, as Lucille had surmised. The only living stars were red dwarfs. Trials showed that it had a hyperspace array similar to the
human Universe. The place could support human life for however many thousands of years it took to find another home. There was still no reason to think it would come to that. But humankind
had not gotten along in the Cosmos by being trusting. It had learned that paranoia was a healthy state in an unhealthy Universe.
* * *
Universe five hundred and forty-nine opened just as easily as most before it. But the blast of hard radiation that came through the opening and fried the portal room chamber sensors told
them from the start that something was different.
“Electromag field to maximum,” yelled Rodrigue. The field covered the wall of the portal chamber, and was always kept at half strength when the hole was opened, allowing all the
instruments to look through it with minimum interference. Now it was strengthened to its maximum power, stronger than that of an Imperial battleship. All charged particles were stopped by the
multilayered field, while the uncharged ones were absorbed by the liquid insulation layer built for that purpose.
“Residual radiation is at a minimum,” called out the tech who was monitoring those systems.
“Send through the probe,” ordered Rodrigue. “We might as well get a look at whatever hell we opened.”
The probe went through and started to transmit. It was immediately apparent that the robot was not going to function very long, not with the radiation sleeting through its destroyer class
electromag screen. But they did get some information back, enough to tell them what they were dealing with.
“It’s only a couple of thousand years since this Universe went through a Big Bang,” said Yu, looking over the data through the link that allowed her to get a comprehensive overview. “It will
be hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, before we can live in that space. Billions before there are planets we can claim for terraforming.”
“So it’s another dead end,” said Rodrigue, glaring at the holo as if it was a personal affront.
“The probe is dying,” said Lucille, looking back at her boss. “Should we close it?”
“This Universe is of great scientific significance,” said one of the other scientists. “We can gain a lot of knowledge about how our own Universe formed from this place, if nothing else.”
Rodrigue sat and thought for a moment, while the data from the chamber sensors faded over time from the radiation overload. “Send through another probe. We’ve got thirteen more. We’ll
keep sending them through one at a time until we’re out. Then we can requisition more from administration for the next opening.”
And so it went through the day, as they looked at a Universe that was still in its infancy. From all indications it would become one such as theirs. Some put forth the proposition that it
actually was theirs, just in a different time. That maybe the dying Universe was also theirs, at a later time.
That’s one of the problems here, thought Lucille as she was monitoring probe number thirteen, the next to the last. We really don’t know what we’re dealing with. We’re making it up as we go along.
At least it was a good day at the Other Universe Project, as no one was killed or injured, and new information was gathered at the cost of fourteen robotic probes.
* * *
Universe six hundred and one was an unmitigated disaster. The day started off ordinarily enough. The last twenty-five openings by this team had been uneventful, or as much as opening a
portal into another reality could be called such. Twenty-one of them had been Universes of nothing but academic interest, not capable of supporting their form of life. Four had the proper physical
laws to allow carbon based organics to survive. They just didn’t contain anything that could be properly called matter. One was an antimatter Universe, while one was made up, as far as could be
told, of negative matter. That would have been useful as the source of a scarce resource, if that Universe hadn’t been empty for millions of light years past the portal, and there seemed to be no
dimensions of hyperspace to use to get to the negative matter. Only the characteristic radiation of negative matter reactions gave an indication of what lay across those millions of light years.
“Are we ready?” asked Dr. Rodrigue, looking at the holo of the chamber that showed the black hole ring ready to go.
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” whispered Lucille under her breathe, wondering what might come out of this particular rabbit hole. I have a bad feeling about this one, she thought, trying to hold her
hands steady. She didn’t think she was precognitive, like some members of the Imperial family were said to be. She had never had a vision before. But last night she had suffered through a dream
that showed something dark was waiting for her. And her mind could think of no darker place than the holes they were opening up into other realities.
“Open her up,” yelled Rodrigue.
Lucille glanced back at the man, and could tell that he didn’t feel at ease either. Too many uneventful openings recently. So now he’s waiting for the other rock to fall. She looked around the room,
seeing tension everywhere. In the set of shoulders, the roaming of eyes. This can’t be real, can it? she thought. I’m a scientist. This is just a feeling. It’s not real.
Despite the rational thinking the disquiet grew. The holes moved away from each other, ripping the space apart. As the hole opened what was revealed was anticlimactic.
“It’s another null,” said one of the techs with a sigh.
Yu nodded her head, feeling the same relief. The hole was black, the complete absence of light. There should have been no radiation coming from that hole to a Universe that had no
matter. But when she looked at the readings she hissed in her breath. There was a lot of radiation coming out of that hole, more than had been coming out of any other but the new Universe they
had opened a half year ago.
“We’re getting unknown radiation,” called out the tech who was monitoring the chamber instrumentation.
“What do you mean, unknown?” called out Rodrigue, standing up and walking over to the tech’s console.
“There are fast moving particles,” said the tech, looking up with a frightened expression on her face. “But they don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen.”
“Electromag field to maximum,” called out the senior scientist, turning toward the scientist in charge of the defense team.
“It’s at full,” said the tech that Rodrigue was standing over. “But the particles are still coming through.”
“My God,” gasped Lucille, looking at the holo image that showed what shouldn’t have been possible. The darkness was moving out of the portal, like a liquid or gas made of pure black
absorbing, something. And she could feel something there, some intelligence that was intent on coming through the opening. An intelligence that was hungry, and sensed what it needed in their
“What the hell,” yelled out one of the techs as the blackness spread through the portal chamber.
“It’s alive,” said Lucille, feeling the evil of the thing through some kind of connection. “And it’s coming to eat our Universe.”