John Stone was sitting next to Commander Peter Wilkins on a comfortable red leather couch in the Dawn Star’s observatory. They were looking out the enormous window, bewildered. Radiant white clouds stretched out in every direction, like an ever expanding storm.
“Some sort of nebula?”, asked John.
“It’s not like any I’ve seen before”, said Peter, “There doesn’t seem to be an end to it, the ship’s scanners show nothing ahead, except for an extraordinary amount of radiation”.
“Like a barrier?”.
“Yeah, something like that, what do you think?”.
John paused, walked up to the window and peered out.
“I don’t know what to make of it, it’s like we reached a dead end”, he paused again, “We should fly on it, just over it, there’s got to be an end somewhere, it may be we are witnessing a new kind of star, or black hole covered in dust”.
“Unlikely, we are not registering any gravitational pull out here”, Peter said.
Peter walked over to John and put his hands on the glass, admiring the vastness of their new discovered cloud.
“Smoke?”, asked John.
“Sure”, said Peter, “hand me one”.
John took a cigarette from behind his ear and gave it to Peter. A sense of wonder washed over him, “Let’s go Peter”, John said, “Let’s see how far this goes, you don’t want the feds taking credit for discovering it do you?”
Peter laughed, “We know nothing of this thing, we’re going home”.
“I knew you’d say that”, John said, giving Peter a pat on the back, “Ok fine, let’s go, this is ridiculously strange”
Peter Wilkins left the observatory, and walked into the elevator at the end of the hall.
John walked back to the couch and sat down, he looked down at his uniform and sighed. He was looking at a small pin on his chest, his father had given it to him before leaving. He had been awarded the pin after finding the outermost star known to mankind, beyond which only empty space had been detected.
John enjoyed watching the ship move through stretched space, so he waited, looking outside, wondering where they were, wondering what it was.
“Dawn Star, after reaching an unknown barrier, which most of you have already seen, we are returning home for instructions”, Peter’s voice resonated throughout the ship, “Be ready”.
The Dawn Star, an astronomy ship, had been given the mission to further expand the limit of the known universe, they plotted a course back home, back to Derion.
The Dawn Star arrived to Derion’s spaceport during the night in the city of Nadira, the world’s capital located in the equator. John Stone watched through the small window in his room on the ship, he remembered just how beautiful it was. It had been four years since he left.
Trees as high as skyscrapers crowded the city’s streets. Huge buildings of glass and metal rose from the ground as far as he could see. The city lights cast colored shadows of the people walking and prating. Nearby, an enormous theater shot bright colorful beams into the clouds, the pink and blue exterior reflecting on the ground below them. A group of people sang for peace outside the spaceport wearing bright reflective clothing. And in the center of it, the huge stone obelisk stood like a guardian protecting its people.
“Well, that was fast”, John said to Peter.
“Tell me about it, I barely had a ten minute nap, it makes you think that the whole trip was waste of time”, Peter paused, “Why don’t you go home for today John, we’ll meet tomorrow at the ACB. I’ll send you the details”.
“Thanks, I will”, said John, walking away into the crowded exterior.
John walked home through the streets of Nadira, streets that never sleep. Outside the Spaceport hundreds of people were walking to their jobs, to restaurants, to bars, VR centers, underground meetings and other places.
John thought of his father, how he wished he could have seen the never ending cloud, he would have loved it, he would have been excited.
“Do you want some Ferro, buddy?”, a disgusting bald man leaped out of the darkness behind a dumpster, gasping for air.
The man continued behind him, “I will follow you home and kill your family!”, he shouted, “I will shit in your porch!”
John turned around and shoved the bald man hard, “Get away from me!”.
The man fell back and his face turned to the ground, “Please man, I’m sorry, just give me money, this shit ain’t enough anymore”,he said holding a baggy with silver powder in it, “please man, just anything, anything!”.
A police man was already crossing to them, “Is there a problem here?”.
The junkie sprinted off into an open parking on the side of the building crouching and holding his hands to his head saying, “sorry! sorry!”.
“That guy was asking for money” John said, brushing his hand on his pants, “But I’m good”.
“Shut up. I wasn’t talking to you”, The police man walked back across the street.
John stood at the curb confused as to what had happened. He decided not to risk the streets and took a cab the rest of the way home. He lay on his unused bed, and counted 102 sheep to sleep.
John Stone sat next to Peter Wilkins at a round white table inside the ACB’s meeting room, where a committee of eight people had been called in to hear the news. The room was bright, and the people too well dressed.
“Thank you for coming in today”, said Peter, “I am Commander Peter Wilkins and this is Lieutenant Commander John Stone”. John nodded.
“We are here because during our mission on the Dawn Star, we encountered an interesting unknown phenomenon and we were unable to continue our path.”
“I have provided each of you a copy of the video and readings from the ship of this event, if you would please take a few minutes to revise them”.
John continued, “We sent our drones to inspect the size of this thing, but after some time we decided it was unfeasible for us to continue, it was simply too large”.
“Each drone traveled around 3 million light years and no end was detected, there also doesn’t seem to be anything solid behind this cloud, though according to readings there is a slight increase in pressure once inside it, as well as extraordinary amounts of radiation”.
The eight people in the committee revised the material handed to them. Occasionally making some comments to their peers. Two of them sending messages through their interlinks.
“What do you propose?”, asked Harold Neil, the committee’s head, a sturdy man in his sixties.
“We need Guy-Bhasin probes to shoot into the cloud and obtain a better understanding of the interior of it. We cannot risk going in there, most of all because our telescopes aren’t much good, the radiation is too much, and well, we just can’t see what’s out there”, explained Peter.
“How many?”, asked Harold.
Peter and John looked at each other.
“How many what sir?”, asked John.
“How many probes do you need Commander?”
“We are requesting three probes”
Harold took a hand to his chin, looked at at the other members of the committee and placed his hand back down.
“We’ll let you know in the morning about these probes Commander, in the meantime tell your people to pack their things. You are going back there, probes or no probes”.
John had been trying to call home with no success, trying to get a hold of his father to tell him of the strange clouds he had encountered. To tell him about tomorrow’s plan of going back to try to uncover the mystery.
John pressed the touch pad on the wall for the eighth time, it was 11:04 PM, and a message on the wall read “Calling Parents..”
He left the phone ringing, walked to his refrigerator and took a sandwich out. John began unwrapping it, then began removing the crust.
“Hello?”, John’s mother, Jalay, answered the phone.
John left the sandwich half worked and hurried to the screen.
“Mom, hello!”, he said, “How are you guys? I’ve been calling for hours, I’ve got some really interesting things to tell you and Dad”.
“There’s something I need to tell you John”.
John detected a hint of sadness in her eyes, and a quiver in her voice.
“What’s wrong?”, he asked.
Jalay’s eyes turned to the ground and they began shaking, then her mouth, then her voice, “I’m sorry John”, she let out a deep sigh.
“What? What happened?”.
“It’s your father John”, she paused a few seconds,”He’s left us”, she began sobbing and tears dropped around her face, “He had a heart attack and passed away during his morning jog”.
“What?”, John asked taking his hands to his head, “How?”, he said almost yelling, his voice also trembling, “Why didn’t you tell me?”.
“I was at the hospital John!”, she said, “What did you want me to do? I’m telling you now.. His body’s been cremated, they’ll deliver the ashes tonight”.
John stood still in front of the screen not knowing what else to say.
“I have to go John”, Jalay whispered, “Come and visit me OK?”.
“John, there’s an investigator waiting for me in the living room, call me back OK?”, she said, wiping tears off her cheeks.
“OK mom”, said John, and the screen turned dark.
John walked back to his sandwich and took a thoughtless bite, his tears soaked the bread. In a moment of frustration John threw the rest of the sandwich across the room and let out half a scream. He sat on the floor next to the refrigerator and cried.
He fell asleep in the kitchen’s floor thinking of his father, of the trip to the energetic clouds, and of his mother.
Outside, the busy people of Nadira continued on with their lives, they went to their jobs, to their restaurants, to their VR centers, and a junkie outside a parking lot was selling Ferro to the vermin of the night.
The Dawn Star stopped just when the clouds where visible again.
“We only got one John, so let’s use it wisely, are you ready?”, asked Peter through the radio.
“I’m ready. Avram, is everything set? Are we recording?”.
“We’re good sir, everything’s coming in loud and clear”, said Avram, sitting at the receiver station.
“OK, we are go for launch Peter”, said John, “Do it”.
The Guy-Bhasin probe erupted into life and began accelerating towards the white clouds, racing towards the unknown.
John took a small chair from a corner and sat next to Avram.
“Let’s hear it, show me what’s happening”, he said.
“Up here we have the video feed, which we are expecting to die off due to the radiation, from this speaker..” Avram pointed to a round black spot on the desk “..we’ll be listening for anything that makes noise out there. Here are the radiation measurements, and here’s the pressure. And lastly, we’ll be listening for radio signals here.”
John watched the screen. The probe was approaching the clouds at 1000 meters per second.
“What do you think is out there Avram?
“I don’t know, let’s find out”.
The probe went through the clouds. “It’s in”, said Avram. The video feed showed the expected white clouds. The radiation kept its level, but the pressure was slowly and steadily increasing.
After several hours of similar readings John decided to get some rest, “Hey, call me if anything happens OK? I’ll be in my room”, he told Avram.
“Sure thing, it’s just noise we are getting, I’ll let you know if anything interesting comes our way”, he replied, “oh, and sir, Peter told us about your father”.
John’s throat clenched, and he tightened his jaw.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry, you have my sympathies”.
“Thanks”, said John whispering, and walked away.
“What the hell happened Avram?”, Peter asked.
“I.. I don’t know sir, I must have dozed off a couple of minutes, I don’t know”, said Avram.
“Shit”, John said, “There goes our probe”.
“Yeah, I’m sorry.. It was just noise I was getting, on all receivers, I’m sorry”, said Avram.
“How long?”, asked John.
“Two minutes tops, I swear it just disappeared”.
“Play back the last five minutes on all channels”, ordered Peter.
With the press of a button the recording of video, sound, radiation levels, and pressure started. Radiation levels showed no increase or decrease, the video feed was no longer available, the pressure was at 34,000 atmospheres and climbing slowly, and the sound feed was playing white noise.
Four minutes had elapsed when the radiation levels jumped dramatically, the pressure rose to 800,000 atmospheres and the sound coming from the speakers began to sputter like a dying engine, shifting through different pitches. After 57 seconds of continuing increases in pressure and radiation, the recordings ended.
“What the..”, said John, “What the hell happened?”.
“I think it imploded”, said Peter, “The pressure was increasing too fast. How far into the cloud was it Avram?”.
“It was 33,431.4 km into the cloud, sir”.
“It couldn’t have imploded”, said John, “those things are designed to withstand a lot more pressure than that”.
“Perhaps it was faulty. Or maybe it crashed into something”.
“No sir, take a look at this”, Avram said pointing to a monitor, “During the last 40 seconds or so, the probe decelerated almost to a halt, from 1000 meters per second to a mere 1.8 meters per second”.
The last minute of transmission was puzzling, the three men stood silent for a moment staring a the readings on the screen.
“Get some sleep Avram”, said Peter, “When you’re up analyze the last part of the sound recording, let’s see if that turns up anything useful. Let us know when you’re done”.
Peter walked out of the room.
“Alright, well I guess this is it for tonight”, said John, “Good night, Avram”.
John went into his room and got undressed. He took his father’s pin from his jacket, and held it in his hand. He watched the details on it. He wished he could tell his father about the extraordinary events happening on the Dawn Star. His father would have enjoyed them. John’s consciousness faded as a lonely tear escaped his eye.
Peter lay on his bed, perplexed as to what happened to the probe during its last seconds, did something capture it? Why did it slow down? What made the sounds? He played with the questions in his head, with different answers, until his mind gave in to sleep.
Avram sat at a small desk in his room, sipping at a glass of whiskey. He thought of the probe, he thought of the sounds, the sputtering shifting sounds near the end. What if it was a message, what if it was the key to finding out what happened.
He took another drink from his glass, he felt tired, but didn’t want to sleep. He felt irresponsible for dozing off while the probe disappeared.
Avram finished his drink. He got up from the desk, and headed back to the receiver station. If there was anything in the sound recording from the Guy-Bhasin probe, he would find it.
It was 3:17 AM.
Everyone on the Dawn Star was asleep, except for Avram. He hurried into John Stone’s room.
“John”, said Avram, not wanting to whisper.
“John”, he moved John’s shoulder in his bed.
“What..”, John mumbled.
“John, it’s me Avram, you have to come and listen to this, I was able to clear up the recording from the probe”.
John sat up, “What did you find?”.
“Come and listen for yourself, I don’t know what to make of it”.
“Did you tell Peter?”
“No, I wanted to check with you first, come on”.
John put on a pair of running pants and walked to the receiver station with Avram. They went into the room and Avram sat down in front of the workstation.
“Listen to this”, said Avram, “It’s insane”.
He gave John a set of headphones and pressed a button.
Usē batānē kē li’ē jā rahā thā.. Non sapevo che cosa.. Just going home after work, I didn’t expect.. Estaba paseando a mi perro esa.. Mia fianĉo supozis renkonti min.. Wǒ cónglái méiyǒu xiǎngguò..
A mix of hundreds different voices in different languages spoke of seemingly unimportant, random subjects.
John listened and during the last eight seconds of the recording, a voice that John knew too well came into the foreground.
..son was going to tell me about the white clouds, but I couldn’t..
John took his headphones off and tears flooded his eyes.
“What is this Avram?”.
“I don’t know John”, he said and turned to him “Are you ok?”
“What is this?”, John repeated louder.
“I don’t know. These are the last sounds to be transmitted by the probe. It’s people talking, that’s why I called you here. I don’t know what it is, what’s wrong?”
“Did you listen to it?”.
“Yeah I did, that’s why I called..”
“Shut up”, interrupted John, “This isn’t a joke is it?”
“No sir, I’m sorry, what’s going on?”.
“OK, listen to the recording again, with me, put it on the speaker”.
Avram played the recording.
Just as the recording was about to end, “There! Did you hear that?”, said John.
“Yes, I already listened to it many times before calling you sir”, said Avram, confused.
“That was my father, Avram, that was his voice”.
Avram rushed through the silver halls of the Dawn Star to Peter Wilkin’s room.
“Sir!”, shouted Avram outside the door.
“Peter!”, Avram knocked on the door hard.
Peter opened the door, half dressed and half asleep.
“What is it?”, he asked, his heart thumping in his ribcage.
“John sir, he’s gone! He got into one of the evacuation shuttles and is headed for the cloud”.
“Are you serious?”, replied Peter with slight anger in his voice, “What the hell for?”.
One Way Trip
John was looking through the cockpit of the evacuation shuttle. And as he entered the white clouds he noticed they weren’t really clouds, they weren’t made of gas or dust, they were fields, a glowing energy, like white flames extending endless distances.
“John, what the hell are you doing?”, Peter’s voice came through the radio.
“Answer me John”, the radio spat.
The shuttle was traveling at 5000 meters per second, if he survived, he would be where the probe last communicated in roughly two hours.
“They’re not clouds Peter”, said John, “It’s like white fire, I don’t know what it is exactly”.
“John, forget that, get back here. Are you really willing to die for this?”.
“I’m not going to die Peter.” he looked outside for a second, “The probe wasn’t destroyed, the communication stopped, there was too much radiation”.
“How do you know that?”.
“Because these things aren’t built by fucking amateurs Peter!”, said John into the radio. “Did you even listen to the recording?”
“I listened to it, Avram told me you think you heard your father on it”.
“I don’t think I heard him, I heard him”, said John offended at the lack of Peter’s interest, “It’s my only chance Peter, if I don’t find out what’s happening now.. I won’t have another chance like this one, they won’t let me, I’m sorry”.
“Do you understand what this means? My father died four days ago, I hadn’t said anything to him about this”, he said, “He’s out there somewhere and I’m going to find him. I’ll talk to you when I’m close to the last known position”.
John turned off the radio receiver and sat back, trying to keep calm. He felt afraid, he could never be sure the probe wasn’t destroyed, but he had to know, he had to find the origin of the voices.
The wait was unbearable, John was fidgeting with his hands, tapping his feet, looking through the windows at the white fire, going through it like a fish swimming in the ocean. He thought of the probe, what if he did find something? What if there was nothing? And if his shuttle imploded under the pressure? What if that was the last trip of his life?
John put his head in his hands, and after what felt like seconds he began to hear a roar, like waves crashing into the shore of a distant beach. He got up, looked outside, and as the shuttle moved forward he began to realize the roar was the voices of multitudes of people talking.
John switched the radio on, “I’m here Peter. I can hear them”.
Peter and Avram sat at the receiver station on the Dawn Star.
“John, we hear you, what’s going on?”, Peter spoke into the radio.
“Peter”, shouted John, coming through with high interference, “My shuttle is getting a really bad case of turbulence.. Fuck!”.
A sound of thumping, and groaning.
“I think I’ve lost one of my engines, it crumpled under the pressure”.
Avram grabbed at his hair, “oh my god”, he said, almost inaudible.
“Get back John”, screamed Avram.
“The shuttle is not responding, I can’t.. Wait, I see something. I can hear them Peter, there’s people out here”
“The cloud is dissipating, I’m coming up to a..”, John paused.
“John, what do you see?”, said Peter to the radio, “John!”.
“Peter, there’s something here, I’m coming to a dead end, it’s like a …… colorful swirls and vortices”, John screamed into the radio.
Intense interference was coming through the radio signal, along with the murmuring of hundreds of different voices.
“John, we are getting serious readings on the pressure gauge on your shuttle!”.
“I can’t hear you Peter, the voices are too loud, I’m just going to keep telling you what I see, I hope you can hear me”.
“There’s streams of energy coming out of the barrier, I don’t know what they are, wait ….. second”.
John paused, silence on the radio set in for an ungodly number of seconds.
“Oh shit Peter! I’m getting really close to the barrier, it’s like a storm, it looks like a storm and I’m heading directly into the eye of it, I’ve lost all control Peter”.
Silence again. Avram looked at Peter. He gripped the edge of his seat, Peter turned and kicked a trash can near the receiver. “Come on!”.
Two minutes passed.