The Edge of Tomorrow 2 - 1992
An Overlooked Eventuality - Rick Tazzle
(page 11/13)

AN OVERLOOKED EVENTUALITY

Author's note:
The world described herein is unlike our own, and though I have used measurements familiar to the reader, they are not those used by the inhabitants of this world. Also, the inhabitants of this world do not resemble humans, but more spiders, using up to five of their viciously jagged claws as arms at any time. These creatures, known as Araccis, have a leg span of about three metres and - though of no specific consequence - use base eight as opposed to base ten when they count.

Merras was the longest surviving settlement in recorded history on the world of Stithon. Placed as it was al the centre of a large, and relatively stable vortex, it had existed for the better part of two and a half millennia without drifting beyond the bounds of the inhabitable zone. It had, over several generations, become a centre of learning and knowledge; a predominant centre of the entire world's civilization.

Jlardin settled himself comfortably in his office. After only twenty years - short considering their life expectancy of almost two hundred years - with the Merras Research Agency, he had been given free run of the facilities to undertake his own studies. It was one of the fastest rises that had been seen in the Agency for some time, but it was not something he thought about often.

Now, almost seven years later, his work was about to bear fruit. So far, almost everything had gone as planned.

When he had first detected the strange comet, he could not be sure if its trajectory was close enough to what he needed to catch it. At such a range, the information he had received was not accurate enough for the computer to predict whether its path would cross the wide asteroid belt that was Stithon; the data he received from the central observatory gave too great a degree of error once the calculations were complete. When he had seen the unanalysed images however, he had known instinctively that it would work; he had felt that it would work.

Such ability to determine the interaction of bodies was common to all Arracis; it was selective breeding at work. For, as they lived on an asteroid belt, jumping between rocks to get from place to place, the ability to tell what effect their movements would have on the rocks they used as stepping stones was paramount. Many had lost their lives - and many still did - when they did not guess correctly the effect their presence and movements would have on the surrounding bodies.

But Jlardin had his instincts honed to perfection; he did not need to think what would result from his actions, he could envisage the effect effortlessly. He was almost as fast as some smaller computers, and as often as not more precise, especially where longer range forecasts were concerned. He could determine the effect of dozens of objects on each other: he could foretell their paths with uncanny precision.

It was that ability which had been a foremost contributor to his meteoric rise through the MRA. It was that ability which had told him long before the computer could where the comet would in fact - despite its erratic behaviour - pass through the belt. Even with his standing and reputation to back him, it had taken some time for him to convince the Agency's patrons to front the money he would need to undertake the capture of this strangely warm body. It was the fact that all the figures he had presented were based on his intuition, without the rigorous calculations that were normally required that had delayed matters. But after several weeks of hard bargaining he had won them over, convincing them that it was a gamble well worth taking.

There had to be something at the centre of that comet, something that generated enough heat for it to be detected so far off...

And there had been something else, something he could not yet name...

Jlardin stroked the keys of his console with his claws, his eyes scanning the information as it flashed past on the four screens, reviewing every aspect of the project. As the comet had closed with Stithon, not far from the outskirts of Merras, Jlardin had had the entire area scaled off, with access granted only to the few others working with him and their crew of construction droids. Even the project's financiers were denied entrance in the later stages, despite their wild protests.

It had taken all of a year and a half to clear most of the area, leaving only a sparsely arranged, apparently chaotic mass of swirling asteroids that only a half hour before the comet's passage miraculously cleared, with the exception of a few choice rocks to slow the comet slightly. Also, there was the array of large rocks that had to be set in motion during the same time; a set-up which would, through gravitational interaction, catapult the unusual comet onto a path almost directly towards the sun which rested always on the horizon, only half visible over the plane of the asteroid belt.

Under Jlardin's direction, the entire operation to that point had gone smoothly, the catapulting rocks being slung wildly out into the wastes of space, beyond the inhabitable zone... beyond the plane of the belt. It was those rocks which had accounted for the bulk of the cost of the entire exercise: they had been prime pieces of real estate - life-sustaining asteroids and potential mines sacrificed for some rock of undetermined value and one Araccis's dream.

As the comet had passed through, a probe had been launched to attach itself to the rock for preliminary analysis, again under Jlardin's guidance. That too had gone as planned, and for a week thereafter, information had been streaming in about it. The MRA's computes were then put through a rigorous test, working with the data supplied. Calculating, hypothesizing...

Yet still the question remained unanswered: what was the undetermined factor, The elusive logic? What was it about this one comet that was so special? What was it that drew Jlardin to it?

It was a question that still did not have a definite answer, even after so long. The reason was simple yet served only to compound the mystery. A short while after the probe had attached itself to the comet, but not before it began relaying vital information back to the Agency, it suddenly went dead. So complete was the probe's destruction that it could not be traced. It had not simply ceased to transmit - such an occurrence could have been put down to a technical fault - but it had ceased to exist, at least in its previous form. The long range scanning devices had been unable to trace it.

Why...? Jlardin could not be sure, there were so many possibilities...

As his mind began to wander, he gently tapped one of the keys on his console and the stream of information was instantly suspended. Only in one small corner did data flicker incessantly; new, mostly trivial information continued to flash past his eyes. There had been so little for him to do while he waited for the rock to swing around the world's sun and return to Merras. He could not set his mind to anything else for any length of time and his family life too began to suffer, so preoccupied was he. All he could ever think about was the comet: his comet.

The rock had not been officially named as of yet and likely never would be. There were far too many more prominent comets in the sun's orbit; this one appeared to have a period of well over thirty-one hundred years - longer even than the system's outermost planet - and was not in any way spectacular. It could not match the dazzling brightness of Iompadt's or the mysterious treble-helix of Mattor's.

There were other reasons for not naming it. Firstly it was only a minor project, a personal study of Jlardin's. Secondly, once the project was over it would no longer be a comet...

It had however been catalogued, known officially as M3\74-A22.610.2, and to the certain laymen of the agency it was referred to as Jlardin's wobbler. (A reference, which though originally referring to the comet's erratic behaviour, soon became a reference to Jlardin's slipping grip on sanity.)

As these thoughts slipped through his mind yet again, he sighed. It was not a sigh as you, the reader, might expect. It was instead a faint but rapid pulsating of the phosphorescent glands below and slightly to the rear of his wide eyes. After all, in a world devoid of an atmosphere, the only form of communication available to the inhabitants is light.

Jlardin glanced quickly at the corner of the screen where the comet's status data was continually being updated. Everything was as it should be. Another fifteen days hence would see the slow-blast fusion boosters they had recently launched attach themselves to the comet and begin to slow it; Jlardin had insisted on the more expensive rockets despite the added cost. He did not want to risk the effect of a sudden - albeit shielded - explosion on the already erratic rock.

Slowly, he swivelled his chair and hauled himself out of it. So obsessed was he with his pet project that not only could he not concentrate on anything else but he would as often as not forgot to eat; and it was getting worse. He had tried taking some time off work, but that had not helped, he had inevitably found his way back to the MRA offices. Now he was feeling the effects of his lack of food, as he had increasingly over the last few months.

Very slowly, paying scant attention to where he was, he lurched out of his office and towards the Agency's executive lounge. He did not register as a few of his colleagues hurried past him, their greetings going unnoticed and unacknowledged. It was a situation those who knew him were getting used to.

The Nubile Estate was a simple chunk of rock and ice perhaps six hundred metres across in extra-planar orbit about Limpreth seven. It was far from the luxury Jlardin could have afforded given his standing in the Agency, but it was home; it had been home for the last twenty odd years, ever since he had decided to take a second wife. If he had chosen to, he could no doubt have taken another three wives since, but his work was far too important to him for such business.

For the first time since the comet had first crossed Stithon, Jlardin felt refreshed. He had spent the last two months at home, relaxing in the pleasant company of his daughter. Such was his almost fanatical dedication to his work that he had all but forgotten just how much he cared for the only child by his first wife.

Why, he asked himself, had he not found this same comfort in her presence the last few times he had tried to relax? He could not answer. He could not remember her being around those times, though it had not been all that long ago.

Having fully expected the news he had recently received, he was in no hurry to return to the Agency. The booster rockets had attached themselves to the comet as planned and since had begun to slow its erratic spin, steadying it before they manoeuvred it into the asteroid belt. Though the news had not been in itself enough to stir Jlardin from the first peace he had had in almost two years, he knew that it was fast approaching the time when he would indeed have to return to his work at the Agency. He could not escape the duties he had imposed upon himself when he had undertaken the project.

With a sigh of defeat, he looked out from his home on the Nabrille Estate, out at the much larger rock that was Limpreth Seven. Slowly his gaze drifted along the rest of the Limpreth arm, towards the centre of the vortex, the centre of Merras.

From the ever-changing vantage point of an asteroid in extra-planar orbit, the view of the vortex was an awe-inspiring sight. The endless bands of rock stretching out towards every horizon, a plane slicing through space, a wide ring around a star. And as one's gaze dropped from the distant reaches of flat, unperturbed regions to the nearby, the scene changed to the chaos it truly was: billions upon billions of small rocks floating aimlessly about...

Now is as good a time as any, Jlardin heard himself think. As a boulder little larger than himself whizzed by, he leapt.

He rode the asteroid half way to the Agency, zigzagging through the mess of settlements under the ever-so-gentle effects of gravity. Then, seeing that he could go no further aboard his present transportation, he leapt onto a much larger fragment of the star system's debris. From there he had to walk, repetitively leaping from one small rock to another, twisting and turning in a complex dance as he made his way slowly towards the denser region ahead.

When he finally arrived at the large, centrally located facilities that were the Merras Research Agency, he was met by a handful of those who had taken an interest in his project. "Anything interesting happening?" He asked the rhetorical question of no one in particular.

A cacophony of playfully sardonic remarks greeted him in reply.

"So what happens next?" asked one of those who had fallen in behind Jlardin as he headed for his office. He was a young student, barely - if even - out of school.

"There's a lot of work to be done, son," someone answered quickly - too quickly.

Jlardin stopped.

He turned slowly, staring at the speaker. "Is there?" he asked slowly. "Is there?"

The other simply stared at Jlardin, confused. Having only ever dreamt of being involved in something on this scale himself, he did not know what there really was to do. For a long moment the two stared at each other, waiting.

They would have continued had not someone interrupted them then. "She's coming into line now," the new arrival blurted to everyone, rekindling the buzz of activity that had been there only seconds before.

"Yes," Jlardin admitted in a soft whisper. "Now there is a lot of work to be done."

He did not stay long enough to see the other's puzzled expression but instead turned and made for his office. He would have to check everything that had happened over the last two months, since he had last been in to work. But then, the comet was now on its final approach, guided by the MRA's central computer and the slow-blast fusion boosters. There was nothing that could have gone seriously wrong without him having been informed. Still it was his obligation to review the data, a final precaution to make sure the computer had not overlooked some detail or other.

For the next thirteen days, that was just what he did. For thirteen days, he sat, staring at the numbers and figures, the graphs and diagrams. Everything was exactly as it should be - it was perfect.

Too perfect, Jlardin thought with muted sarcasm.

Just after the comet had first crossed the asteroid belt, something about it had destroyed the probe that had been attached. This time, whatever had struck out so finally at the first probe did not seem to take any notice of the selection of fusion boosters that were removing the huge rock from its elongated orbit.

With a shrug, he dismissed the worry from his mind. He knew that it was simply that nothing had gone wrong at the last moment that bothered him - a childish superstition that had remained through the years.

Thus he waited, anticipating the time when the comet would become an integral part of the asteroid belt, coming to rest - relatively - on the outskirts of Merras. He wailed for the moment when he was finally to lead a select team of scientists to study the strange rock that had for so long been hurtling through the outermost reaches of the stellar system. He waited for the answer to the riddle of this strange lump of rock; the knowledge of what in fact had drawn his attention to it. He waited for an explanation of the energy source within which had made it stand out - albeit only faintly - on the MRA's infrared sensors.

While he waited, he theorized, considering the possibilities. Yet no answers came to him; at least none that stood up to even the simplest scientific scrutiny.

The comet, some fifty kilometres long and twenty wide was admittedly large, but it did not come anywhere near being large enough to generate heat merely from internal pressure. And there was the question of its erratic spin...

Finally, to the great excitement and enthusiasm of everyone within the MRA, from the directors to the lowest messenger, and almost the entire population of Merras - a chunk of rock of such proportions can scarcely go unnoticed, even in an asteroid belt - that day arrived.

As it slowed, decelerated by the steady force of the fusion boosters, the huge rock that had once been a comet ploughed a wide path through a section of the asteroid belt, sending a shower of rock and ice fragments out before it. Very quickly, guards were in place around the rock, protecting its secrets from the tens of thousands who clambered from the chaotic vortex into which Merras was built to see it closely for themselves.

It was while almost half the population was gathered there, surging forwards rhythmically only to be pushed back sturdily by the guards that the truth was revealed.

Suddenly, without warning, a swarm of hundreds of small white objects burst forth from the elliptical rock, small flames propelling them as they surged towards the gathered crowd, lasers blasting at everyone and anyone they saw. From the body of the now defunct comet, more powerful, more destructive lasers scythed through much of Merras, bringing destruction to the oldest settlement on all of Stithon.

A few Araccis managed to strike back, but the losses taken by the invaders Jlardin had brought to the peaceful world were minimal. Before the full scale of the catastrophe could be realized, Merras was no more.

Only a few of the settlement's inhabitants survived to ever tell the tale of that destruction. They did however manage to take three of the while objects with them when they headed out to find themselves a new home. The objects were in fact, it was decided after much deliberation, a form of protection, a container to keep pressurized gas around the occupant's body. For inside each one was a small, six legged creature whose body tore apart of its own volition when exposed to pressureless space.

Once this conclusion had been reached, only one remained. Stithon's biologists however spent much time studying it, revelling in this new, radically different life form. There were similarities: the basic chemical structure of the creature's cells was almost identical to their own - the building blocks of life were the same. Their internal organs, their skin and flesh textures however, were radically different.

The question that had been in Jlardin's mind when he died, the one that had caused so much devastation, was never answered, at least not decisively. Many opinions were formulated concerning the gas within the comet, but no one could say for sure what it truly was... or how... or why...

Thus it came to pass that the Formits (the Araccis' equivalent of what we might name trolls or ogres, mythical creatures of ultimate evil) - the creatures that had evolved in the contained atmosphere of Jlardin's wobbler, M3\74-A22.610.2 - destroyed Merras. Very soon thereafter, under their own source of power, they left the asteroid belt for the deeper reaches of space, never to be seen again in the vicinity of Stithon.

Rick Tazzle