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The Circles Trilogy

SAUCERS

By

Gerald St Clare



ISBN: 978-1975635732

Published by the Silvershpere Media

(A wholly owned subsidiary of The Sovereign Media Group)

© 2018 All rights reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.

The characters and events portrayed in this work are fictional. Any reference to, or representation of a celebrity or otherwise known or recognisable person, either living or dead, is a wholly fictional representation and not intended to be interpreted as an accurate portrayal of any such persons. Any actual resemblance to any known persons is purely coincidental.



Forward

I feel guilty that only one name appears on the front cover of this book. “Saucers” and the whole “Circles” universe is the combined work of many people who have been important to me. I will not name my Muses, as the characters in this book reflect only part of their spirits - not one is a representation of the real person. For those who are still around, I hope you recognise the little pieces of magic you have leant me.

But during the actual preparation of the manuscript and finished work, there a few people who I would like to name and thank for their valuable help and advice.

To Letitia McQuade; my partner in life and editor, who guided me with patience (mostly) and understanding while shouldering a huge part of the workload. To Gordana Bacic, David Rapsey, Lisa Ensign and Catherine McQuade who steered the ship with their edits and honest feedback and advice. To Fiona Goldsmith and Harold Sequiera, who helped me make the part of the novel which was most emotionally challenging for me into something that I believe is both hopeful and sympathetic.

But I’d also like to thank you, the Reader. “Saucers” deliberately takes a tangled path, some of which is difficult and some of which appears to be smooth and easy. Anyone who completes the journey deserves my respect. I believe the reward is that you will get as much from your second reading as the first.

I send all these people my deepest thanks and hope they enjoy reading this finished version as much as I enjoyed writing it. And special thanks to George Alps and Glenys Jackson who set me on this journey so many years ago.

[G St. Clare, Melbourne, Australia 2018]



***





The Circles Trilogy

Saucers: Beyond the Roswell Conspiracy

Chapter 1. Warrior on the edge

Chapter 2. Children of the sun

Chapter 3. Time we left this world today

Chapter 4. Sonic attack

Chapter 5. You shouldn’t do that

Chapter 6. Silver machine

Chapter 7. You know you’re only dreaming

Chapter 8. Doremi Fasol Latido

Chapter 9. Mirror of illusion

Chapter 10. Quark, strangeness and charm

Chapter 11. Earth calling

Chapter 12. Hurry on sundown



The Circles Trilogy

Saucers: Beyond the Roswell Conspiracy

The inner circle is the saucer.

The saucer represents artifice. Our constructions of hand and mind; the creations that should enable us but so often deceive us; the ideas we see that are not there and the tools we make that do not benefit us.

We give our misconceptions lives of their own, sending them out into the world only to come back and lead us astray.



***

Warrior On The Edge


The Château Jumeau stood in the narrow gap where the tributary of the distant Rhône flows through the Chariolet escarpment. This confection of rose and ivory was designed to entice. A classic example of French fourteenth century architecture, its towers and turrets merged harmoniously with the eleventh century castle that formed its foundation. In its glory days it had called to the traders using the pass: “Stay here and trade rather than complete that long journey to your destination”. Given the punishing tax imposed on those who continued down the riverside road that it defended, most traders preferred to take advantage of the market and hospitality provided within its walls.

The road leading to Jumeau showed the power of the barons more subtly: in their day not a single building had stood within three miles of the château on either the north-west or south-east roads. The few small houses along the way were all less than twenty years old, so the barons had administered a monopoly over every sou spent here for nearly seven hundred years. Stan smiled to himself, what would the folks back home think of a “new” tax office that is over five hundred years old?

But Jumeau was built on the premise “speak softly and carry a big stick”. The walls towered eighty feet high. With the additional centuries of building technology behind them they were both steeper and stronger than the long forgotten castle they superceded. A circular tower bulged out from the northern corner of the wall and just out of sight behind it was the second of the pair guarding the gated entrance. Constricted by the rock face the river narrowed, squeezing the road between its banks and the château, where travellers walked like ants under the barons’ magnifying glass as they neared the gates. The walls circled back, encompassing additional smaller towers of the same design. Each tower was topped with a slate-tiled conical witch’s hat roof, spiked with a lightning conductor.

Stan guessed the Germans were also making a demonstration of their power and control here. There was little point in installing a 400mm gun (Stan’s crew called her “Eva” after that dreadful blonde) at the top of one of the gate towers, particularly now the war was all but over. Such a gun could only fire to the north-west due to the obstruction of the surrounding hills and there was nothing out there worth bombarding with giant slugs. The gun couldn’t even guard the road as it fell almost entirely within her “kill shadow” - just too close and low to aim at. Stan’s guess at Eva’s field of fire was scrawled on the map in front of him, a flattened exclamation mark generally in line with the road. The château was its point and half a mile or so farther away it spread out over the forest in which he was hidden.

The small commando unit that Stan led had orders to keep Eva occupied for the next four days through a campaign of harassment. No support was available but the British would be sending in a Mosquito strike at the end of the week to take out the tower. This had been the pattern of their missions for the last few months: harass and contain until the US forces can take control. Make sure that there is no reason for the British ground forces to get involved. All the targets had been so “soft” that Stan might have suspected (if he had such a distrustful mind) that there were commercial interests at play here rather than military.

But this was no soft target. A gun big enough to take out any large battleships cruising down the little stream and a good size garrison of Germans. Hmm... four days is an awfully long time for eight men to keep over a hundred busy.

“Recce’ Team 1 reporting Sir !”

The stance was of a proud soldier saluting a General in the parade ground, the vision was a filth-covered Negro recently arrived via ditches and drains.

“We only have one team, Chas.”

Stan pulled something both stringy and slimy from his colleague’s earlobe and handed him a slightly less filthy cloth.

“That makes us Team 1 then, Stanley” Chas grinned back at him, wiping his mouth and nose.

The war had educated Stan in many ways, but none more than in his attitude to these extraordinary men that made up his team. Growing up in small-town New Mexico there were only Americans, Poles and Others and the Poles were indistinguishable from the Americans except for being called “sister” or “cousin” or “uncle”. Stan’s family were as Polish as his neighbours were English, descended from some of the earliest religious refugees who founded the States. (His neighbours’ cultural pride did not run to being called “English-American”). Of those Others, the most maligned or plain disregarded were the Negroes – the guys always winced when he used that word, preferring to be called Africans. Maybe once people realised how Africans made up so much of our fighting force, willingly and patriotically putting their lives at stake, they might start calling them African-Americans or even (we can dream) just “Americans”? He wondered if the numbers were reversed: seven Anglos and one Negro, would the black guy be as wholeheartedly included as he had been? And you wouldn’t even ask what the chances would be of the odd-one-out being in charge...

So one Polack and seven Americans had been given a mission that was clearly not preoccupied with any of them surviving - not so much a suicide mission as a rabbit-shoot with the rabbits popping up one by one to “keep Eva occupied”. Maybe that’s what the Brass expected, but they haven’t given me exact orders so rabbit pie is off the menu this week.

“What did you find?” Stan took back the grimy rag.

Chas and Junior had set out three hours before dawn to reconnoitre the château and its close surroundings. Rather than take the heavily sentried road, they had followed the steep twisting track up the north-west slope. The track had been narrowed by the encroaching woodland, which had made it more perilous to climb as every zig was overlooked by the next zag. The steep sides only supported scrubby trees giving little cover.

The Germans had only one guard post on the track: six soldiers were positioned at a left-hand hairpin about two-thirds of the way up. From the marks in the mud, they were fairly certain that if you went straight on at that hairpin you would find one of the anti-aircraft emplacements. Clearly a turning-round point and it was unlikely that anything heavier than a motorcycle ever used the track above.

The scouts had decided to back down a short way and climb the rocky face to the next level rather than risk passing so close to the guards. They assessed that the guard post could be taken out with a couple of well placed grenades, but any plan based on silently neutralising it would be very risky. If there was an anti-aircraft station behind the guard post, there would certainly be more Germans ready to raise the alarm.

The climb had taken all of the remaining darkness and showed that the only way up, particularly if you carried any useful equipment, was by the track. Back on the track and up to where the slope started to round off, the scouts had found four separate trip wires: none of them were attached to anything and only the lowest one was actually clear of the ground. The higher ones were embedded in the roadway as though they had been driven over.

At the top of the hill, now under early morning light, they had a better view of the château. The hill top vantage gave them more Intelligence, but there was little the scouts could do without giving themselves away. There was a camp comprising a few German tents in a clearing at the summit but as they were unable to assess its size or deployment they decided to leave Junior, with all the equipment, encamped under a nearby clump of thorny trees while Chas returned with the information they had so far gleaned. Junior would return after dark unless he got other orders; but under radio silence the orders would be a little like scrimmage calls: small arms followed by grenades means “come down and help”, grenades first means “mortar the Château”, a flare would mean “attack the upper camp”.

So it looked like the Germans were covering an attack from the hill above but were relying on the intensive patrols down in the valley to discover any enemy force rather than over-fortifying the approach or hilltop. An alarm from any of the patrols would result in immediate reinforcements from the château.

A network of deep ditches provided the best cover across the flats. As Chas made his way back through them, the nearness of a patrol always seemed to coincide with a muddy pool. His unsanitary condition was the result of several face-first salamander-squirms to move silently out of their sight.

“And your assessment?” Although not a democracy, this small force valued the opinion of each member with every piece of information a potential advantage over the enemy.

“No gun.”

Stan was surprised at such a short and uncompromising summary. “Go on...”

“Eva ain’t just hidden, she’s not there. The far tower’s the same as all the others, no external lifting gear and the roof’s got a seventy degree slope. Unless they built a Palomar style window and sawed the end off of her barrel, Eva don’t exist.”

Stan had already relayed his opinion on this matter back to HQ. There was little evidence that there was a big gun in the château. His counter evidence had received the response “Continue with mission as ordered”.

“Thanks, Chas, go and clean yourself up for the party.” Stan cuffed Chas on the shoulder who returned another of his stunning grins and moved off towards the ramshackle farmhouse.

The pragmatist in Stan was not overly concerned with cover stories, even if they were being fed to him. There was a bigger picture and he didn’t need to know it. If they could prevent the Germans deploying an imaginary gun for four days and stay alive, all was good. Maybe it was time to see if Moses had extracted any information out of Hans Stuck.

The German officer had appeared suddenly on the north road the previous night driving his staff car at a speed that would have impressed Doktor Porsche. He had successfully navigated the sharp right bend fast enough to make Stan’s “fallen log” just beyond it a guaranteed insurance claim; but had somehow avoided that too with an impossible full-lock and swerve that actually over-cut the bend. One of the Americans swore that the driver accelerated when he saw the obstruction rather than braking, but Stan suspected that was an exaggeration. But where the bend and the tree had failed to stop the Krazy Kraut, Chas’s deep and muddy friend was lurking and the car slid into that ditch pointing back the way it had come.

The German was rather an enigma: with no driver (although recent events proved he really didn’t need one), no papers and driving away from territory controlled by the Allies, they suspected that he was one of their own – or maybe a British spy. They had stripped the Mercedes overnight and found nothing hidden there.

Stan stooped as he entered the shed behind the farmhouse. The space was bare except for a single chair by the back wall and two men in stark contrast to each other. Hans was sitting, tied to the chair with maybe three or four hairs out of place, his beautifully tailored German uniform suggesting two days without a pressing with an arrogant elegance. The man could have just walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards, pausing to berate Cary Grant on his dress sense. Stan could only wonder what Italian officers looked like! Moses appearance suggested an exhausted man who had lived in a bag in a field for two weeks; he was hunched over holding a tin mug from which Hans was drinking. They both looked up as Stan appeared, their expressions comically identical.

“Anything?” Stan asked.

Moses shook his head. “My German just isn’t good enough.” He handed Stan half a dozen sheets of paper. “But I think I know how to do that power slide now.”

The notes were sketchy - a series of impressions and opinions rather than a translated statement. Hans had been very talkative, expounding the superiority of the Aryan and the certain defeat of the degenerate races. The British were not degenerate, although he was deeply offended at accusations of being one and apparently all Americans were either Jews or monkeys. He had refused to give his name or rank, so he would remain Hans to them. The guy had delivered a standard Nazi rant without giving away anything tactical. Moses conclusion was that Hans had been racing to the château with details of the Allied plans, possibly including their own mission. Whether he was a German officer or a double agent was irrelevant, he was a danger to their mission. But Stan could already see a way of using Hans to their advantage, such an obvious solution!

“OK, James/Hans/whatever - you carry on playing the Nazi, we can help each other.” Stan made a scissor snip motion to Moses. “Bring him to the farmhouse, we go at eight and we need him at the briefing.”



***



Stan had explained to the team: Chas would lead the main force of five men up the hillside track picking off sentries then hitting the guard post with grenades (Junior’s code “come and help”). They should not waste any time trying to clear the AA post but proceed to the summit and get the attention of the German forces there before dispersing into the woodland along the top of the ridge. Those upper woods should give them enough cover to disappear or retaliate with guerrilla tactics if the Germans decided to follow. If all went well, everyone should meet in Vrecy on Friday.

So with the diversionary attack already in progress, Stan sat at the wheel of the Mercedes wearing his own uniform and the German’s hat. Hans was alongside in the passenger seat. Their task would be to drive right to the gates of the château where Stan would park and cut the bonds round the German’s feet. There could be no guarantee that Hans would play his part, but he seemed agreeable to running into the château with Stan following. Stan had given no indication of what exactly he would do once inside, but nobody really needed that information to complete their individual tasks.

Stan looked over at Hans who seemed satisfied that these stupid Americans had no idea. Why even bother with a diversion when they are not making a main attack? And did the Jew really think that the gate guards will not notice and stop him? And had they never heard of cover of dark?

Stan waited for the sound of the second phase as the commandos reached the top of the hillside track before pulling out onto the road and gunning it towards the target.

The guard on the North tower was the first to spot the approaching staff car. It was much later than expected but the extensive damage to all the panels along the offside as well as the obvious suspension damage at the rear (the car was wallowing like a sea lion) gave something of an explanation. Maybe the forces trying to get a position on them from the hill had attacked or even intercepted it. He shouted down that the car had arrived but that it looked suspicious.

It was clear that the driver knew that he was under scrutiny because he drove past the gate and parked between the wall and the roadside guard hut instead of attempting entry. The passenger jumped out followed by the driver (the driver’s side was hard up against the wall of the château) and both sprinted towards the gate. But someone was not as patient as the North tower guard - a sniper shot snapped and echoed in the narrow defile and the driver lurched and then started hobbling, he changed direction to limp away from the gate for ten metres or so before the second shot stopped him dead. Only as he fell did the North tower guard notice the American uniform. By this time the passenger had reached the gate where four of the château guards surrounded him with rifles.

The guard nodded and smiled out at the scene – “a hopeless attack”, he aimed at the American corpse just as the thirty second main fuse timed out and the two hundred pounds of high explosive stuffed into every cavity of the staff car sequentially detonated.



***



Major Smythe, British Army, was seething. “You had explicit orders and you deliberately chose to take an easy way out instead of following them.” He waved a sheet of Orders in front of the soldier. “‘Keep occupied for four days’... ‘Campaign of harassment’... That seems quite clear to me. I don’t see ‘Blow the shit out of it and run away’ anywhere. I am seriously considering a recommendation to your superiors for a Court Martial for your behaviour.”

“With your permission, Sir.” the American soldier requested.

“Go ahead.”

“Our initial attrition assessment only allowed for a two day campaign based on losing four team members per day and the second of those days would be ineffective in gaining the attention of the target. Based on the limited term opportunity offered by the captured vehicle we were forced to immediately instigate a scenario that would allow us to harass the reconstruction team for the period ordered. The unexpected damage to the second tower and administrative building meant that the enemy had no viable alternative platform and allowed us to withdraw.”

“That’s a heap of bullshit, Sergeant Kolaj, and you know it. You follow orders – full stop. If you can’t do that, you should not be in the army.”

Stan knew he should not wander from his carefully practised speech but he couldn’t let it pass. “With respect, Sir. The role of an officer is to think and give orders that achieve the desired outcome.”

“And if your man in the river had ignored the orders you gave, by say, shooting the spy once rather than shooting the tree twice? It doesn’t add up, Kolaj. You just follow orders.” He threw the papers on his desk. “Get out.”

Stan stayed at attention. “With your permission, Sir?”

“Again? Maybe a firing squad instead of a Court Martial...” Smythe fumed but nodded for Stan to continue.

“My Engineer informs me that both towers must have already been undermined as there was insufficient explosive to bring even one of them down. Also because of their distance from the explosives, the secondary fires and destruction of the large location at the rear of the château were suspicious. We suggest that the Germans orchestrated the destruction of all three locations in order to prevent their contents falling into Allied hands. The demolition must have been set up long before we arrived.”

Smythe just stared at him. Maybe the loud bangs really do damage their brains. The Nazis colluded on destroying an Admin centre and it’s records?

Stan saluted, about-faced and left.

Major Smythe glared at the back of the departing soldier but his face softened as the door closed behind him. How different the reality is from our romantic view of war:

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns’ he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!’

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldiers knew

Some one had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

[Alfred Lord Tennyson]

And what sort of man will run alone into the enemy nest just because he thinks it is the right thing to do - not for glory or in a red haze, but coldly and rationally to play his part?

***

Children Of The Sun



If chemistry were literature, carbon would be the printing press.

Carbon is so prolific in the different ways it interacts with the other 89 less imaginative elements that its products comprise half of the science called “chemistry”. Only carbon provides the diversity to produce the huge structures necessary for the self-replicating molecules that make life possible – in fact this carbon-based chemistry was called “organic chemistry” because Victorians believed that organic matter was too complex to be synthesised and therefore not worthy of study. Once that was disproved, carbon became the main area of study for most of the Earth’s chemists, but the name remains. Organic (carbon) chemistry continues to leap forward with applications including super strong, ultralight composites and exotic configurations for nano-machines and hyper-efficient electronics.

The fourth most common element in the universe, carbon uses the first and third most plentiful elements as its major partners in the creation of life. (Helium, the Noble absentee from the quartet, takes a Groucho Marx attitude and refuses invitations from any club willing to take him).

So, with three of the four elements that make up 99.97% of the atoms of the observable universe as the main constituents of life (and one of those being the key to life itself) is it likely that only a single planet of a single star, in one galaxy out of a hundred billion galaxies with tens of billions of stars each would have any form of life? Those superstitions whose sole foundation is based on that very assertion really shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

The nature of superstitious people is to defend their assertions by selectively interpreting anything in a way that supports the dogma. The universe is “perfectly tuned” for life, the planet on which we live orbits in a “Goldilocks zone” where life is possible and the air, seas, land, plants and animals are deliberately designed for theists to have their wicked way with.

So what happens when gods are absent?

Epsilon Eridani is nearly the right type of star but a little small and cool to be considered ideal. It is also only a sixth the age of Sol, so the ecologies of its planets would need to have made a serious hurry-on to get anywhere near Terran diversity by now.

Like all stellar systems, Epsilon Eridani’s system demonstrates the universal rule of Conservation of Angular Momentum in its general shape. Diverse movements have cancelled each other out over the millennia, leaving a flat plane of junk in orbit with the two large rocky planets sweeping tidal gaps through the 60 billion smaller rocks in the area - much like a sparse version of our own Saturn’s rings. But like an orderly Swiss swimming pool, one drunken outsider (let’s call her “Hejmen”) keeps dive-bombing the more considerate swimmers. With a comet-like orbit tilted at sixty degrees to the ecliptic she spends a thousand earth years or so far above the planetary plane, hurtling in for a few dozen years well inside the orbit of the closer large planet.

This eccentric orbit gives Hejmen exaggerated seasons, suffering short periods of heat that would be barely tolerable to a Saharan cockroach followed by extended periods where the air itself slows, sinks into nitrogen lakes and then freezes into ice rinks nearly two hundred degrees colder than an Antarctic winter.

But there is still porridge there for Goldilocks. Hejmen is made up of the same stuff as almost every other rock in the universe. During hundreds of thousands of journeys round the system the carbon on Hejmen did what carbon does: dancing a multitude of different steps with abundant other carbon, oxygen and hydrogen partners, guided by chemical choreographers – the catalysts. The two drivers of crystallisation and catalysis worked inexorably to build an increasingly diverse ecology comprising structures of barely feasible complexity. Most of those structures appeared and disappeared, leaving their corpses as the raw materials for new flights of fancy - the spawn of earlier reactions became the catalysts or material for new experiments. And on it went, trillions of times per second for million upon million of years. The roulette wheels of Macau and Monaco show how a small house advantage can make a pauper of a millionaire in just a few days; the greedier Las Vegas casinos can do the same in a few hours with only double the home advantage. Imagine the effect of the increasingly large chemical “house advantage” for every one of those multitude of interactions for that interminable time. What emerged was Nature itself, an anthropomorphic view of the world as something striving towards an end.

And then after aeons of “wasted” experimentation Nature discovered a trick that changed everything – teamwork. Depending upon the simple chemical rule “be like me if you want to be near me”, different types of compounds had already been churning out their own types of by-products. But now those reactions which were fed by the output of other reactions started to gain advantage, with those processes that benefited from the success of their own beneficiaries running well ahead of the field. Self-replication was only a short step away but cooperative replication was already rampant.

In all this time, the material left on the open surface when Hejmen was near to her sun received the most energy and opportunity to change but also the least chance to survive unchanged. Material swept into the protected hollows, fissures and caves was more likely to remain unmolested but the price for safety was inertia.

So eventually proteins appeared that could truly demand copies of themselves from the raw materials around them. The separation of the mayfly sunlit areas and the stalagmite protected area remained for aeons until the now highly complex carbon-based molecules existed in sufficient quantities that they were regularly being transferred between open areas and protected areas.

It is an open question as to when the complexity of a self-replicating system can be called “life” or when it is just complex chemicals. Neither a crystal the size of a bus nor a recent human corpse are alive, despite their complexity, but a microscopic single-cell organism or even one of the cells of that same corpse could certainly be described as alive. The current Hejmeni are definitely alive even during their thousand year hibernations-but we are getting ahead of ourselves...

The slow and continual process of almost identical replication combined with events and environments that interfered with that replication manifested itself on Hejmen exactly the same way as on Earth and a hundred trillion other planets – Natural Selection. And just like on Earth there are only two outcomes from Natural Selection: extinction (for almost every species that ever existed) or a short period of survival (for those families better able to deal with the particular crisis).

On Earth the selective forces were wide and varied but on Hejmen the overwhelming sledgehammer of extreme and arrhythmic seasonal variation initially produced only one successful survival strategy: live fast and die leaving indestructible seed.

Earth is blessed with the soft yellow light from a star which is always just eight minutes away. She is stabilised with a heavy counterweight (the moon Luna) orbiting only 60 radii away, preventing large seasonal variation. She also has a molten interior which allows iron to aggregate as a massive magnetic source, which in turn shields her surface from hostile rays. That molten heart and thin crust also allows tectonic activity, bringing deep nutrients to the surface and burying huge quantities of excess material out of harm’s way. With liquid water covering well over half her surface and frozen water reflecting sunlight, further damping forces are applied to possible extremes of temperature and atmospheric change.

In contrast, a solid ball of wobbling rock, Hejmen has an extreme summer that lasts a Terran year or so, sandwiched between spring and autumn of a few years to a few centuries each and opposed by a winter barely discernible from empty space which can last more than a thousand years.

The type of life form capable of succeeding in the Hejmeni summer is clearly quite different from that capable of surviving the frigid period. The only way nature found to produce complex lifeforms that could pass on their seed was to die in the autumn after leaving seedpods completely unlike their summer forms.

But one of the magical repercussions of Natural Selection is evolution, so species slowly appeared as different from the pod-droppers as animals are from plants on Earth. These Hejmeni animals had the advantage of locomotion. They could browse on the pod-droppers during the summer nights, hide in caves and burrows during the summer days and hibernate in those same dens during the interminable winters. But a thousand year hibernation cannot be sustained by a good autumn binge followed by a slowing of life processes. In fact the “chicken and egg” question is demonstrated in its full glory here: are the summer animals just short-lived spores of the almost immortal cave pods, which reabsorb them the next winter? Or are the pods just seeds laid by the animals who die in the final act of hermaphroditic copulation?

Of all the Hejmeni forms (“species” has little meaning in a biology where all animals and plants are born of the same mother), one has an opinion on the subject. They call themselves “Nin” and are one of the summer forms from the pods which they call “Hejmo”. Each hejmo lived permanently anchored in a deep cave (and more recently in nin-made vaults). In summer a loose leathery bag full of DNA and Hejmeni soup and in winter a hard frozen sphere. Humans might loosely compare the Nin life cycle to that of Terran moths, although the metamorphosis of pupa to moth is a very small-scale version of the hejmo’s spring birthing plume – a giant pupa bearing all the various offspring of a mythical wooden barge.

A few Nin biologists hypothesise that in primordial times different animals wintering together had huddled to conserve heat and the hejmo arose as “huddling” evolved into a true merging. Most of the Nin evolutionary biology community disagree with that view, arguing that merging was a prerequisite for the evolution of all lifeforms on Hejmen: without it there is no mixing of DNA and therefore no evolutionary mechanism. The crèche tenders (nin who enter the winter freeze un-merged in order to be nursemaid and teacher for the next generation) are given as an example for how quickly un-merged organisms die out. The “Erge to Murge” (as the popular song has it) is overwhelming in all Hejmeni animal forms, including the Nin.

Either way, there is no evolutionary advantage for each animal to retain its identity after death so the late autumn softening of the hejmo skin is both the means by which animals pass on their seed and through which the hejmo receive their pre-hibernation meals.

As the long autumn cools to winter all Hejmeni animals gravitate to their chosen hejmo, and for nearly a million autumns nin have celebrated the merging as the ultimate social occasion. Friends bring food and feast together and attempt to sate the ravenous appetites of all the other animals that come to the party. As revellers and animals succumb to the soporific fumes of the hejmo and the effects of the food, they join in a final hug before the end. A nin would completely understand the true meaning of Christmas.

As winter draws in the hejmo contracts, its outer skin tightening and hardening as the first stage metamorphosis begins. By the time the temperature has fallen to sub-Arctic levels only the hejmo brain remains recognisable through the translucent skin - like the nucleus of a giant cell. But soon even this organ merges into the solid mass. The nucleus only becomes active again when the temperature falls to single figures above Absolute zero.

What thoughts might pass through an immortal superconducting mind that spends nearly all its life just alone in its head? Nin have tried to find out since they first identified themselves as Nin, but the hejmo appear to have no interest in joining the conversation. The more pessimistic amongst the Nin suggest that the hejmo nucleus is no brain at all, it just looks that way.

Spring warms up as slowly as autumn cools and during the thaw all the hejmo release spores of increasing complexity. The “birthing plume” is actually just the last stage of this event where the doors of the ark are opened and small - but fully formed - nin, zumbers, lunths, herioclaths and magnasilths are born. Different hejmo have different preferences for which mix they will produce (assuming they actually make a choice in the matter). Nin will often choose to merge with hejmo that have a predilection for producing, say, nivitts (who can resist a nivitt jumping onto your lap and curling into a purring ball). The hejmo accept all.



***



Time We Left This World Today


The traveller was exceptional. Re-birthing was a Great Death of friends and family, close and distant, who chose to pass at the hejmo. But this nin would die alone - more alone than anynin in all the days of Hejmen.

Great Death was supposed to be shared with relatives from the tiniest bacteria, walking cousins of fur and hair and nin themselves; so Little Death, when not accidental, was considered psychotic (even Tenders were not considered entirely sane, but their importance for the next generation allowed them some consideration).

But the traveller’s willingness to see her rationality through to its final and alarming conclusion caused her to be lauded a Keeper of Knowledge throughout Hejmen. This was deeply embarrassing to the traveller as Ninkind did not recognise personal achievement with medals or titles: to aspire to such was certainly psychotic. But how can one not recognise this landmark in Hejmeni history (possibly Galactic history) that pivoted on a single person?

“Phoebe” is our nearest approximation to the sound of her nin name, albeit so accurately reproduced by our own bird of the same name.

***

For more than two whole revolutions of the galaxy the Nin had searched, but from passing wisps of gas to eternal masses of solid diamond they found nobody. Nearly every star in the galaxy ushered a family of planets, examples from every type of world hosted some form of life (or at least the signature that there had been life). Life was everywhere! But in five hundred million Terran years of searching, not one gave any evidence of technological life, either now or in the past. Assuming that life eventually led to intelligence and then on to technological life, where was everyone?

In the early years the consensus was that intelligent life forms might take steps to hide themselves from their neighbours once they aspired to space travel. It was unlikely that fear of the outside was a unanimous trait in the Galaxy, but all other theories failed for far more basic reasons. The trap was the few hundred years from when a civilisation was advanced enough to accidentally signal to the Universe through pollution (air, electromagnetic or nuclear) but not advanced enough to implement their paranoia. But as the aeons grew into millions of years, that story became weaker. The one sample they had (the Nin themselves) had been broadcasting their presence to the Universe for half of the lifetime of their own summer sun. To assume that Nin conversation had scared the entire galaxy into silence was an arrogance the Nin did not possess; besides, it was practically a statistical impossibility. And in a half billion year window, to imagine that only one ecosystem out of billions had passed through a technological stage would be nonsense.

Unless they were missing something.

So the Nin continued to search and hypothesise, but the Universe still stared back at them with a cold, blank silence.

Until it happened. And it happened in a way that seemed less likely than any of the failed theories.



***



Phoebe was working with the summer team searching for external life. Her role could best be described as a “Xenobehaviourist”.

The Hejmeni winter is the best time for stargazing. The natural cryogenics of the season makes the automated equipment far more efficient and the dark skies are transparent through lack of any atmosphere. Off-planet drones cruised in the cold regions (even during the on-planet summer) providing a one hundred percent time coverage, but the more powerful ground-based tools only gathered data in the winter. The winter team, just like all Nin, were active from late spring to early autumn; their job was to analyse the huge quantity of stored winter data. This was the realm of statisticians and other mathematicians, who were also the nin most confronted by the difference between what should, according to all sensible predictions, be and what was (or rather was not).

The summer team tended to be nin who were less suited to analytical work and more “creative”. In order to explore new ways to look at the problem, odd places to look or different ways to look at those places, these nin imagined the unimaginable. How would an alien think? What were their motivations and fears? Under what circumstances would they advertise their location? These were questions in the domain of a Xenobehaviourist like Phoebe.

When the rumours started bubbling around the two teams, everyone assumed it was an anomaly or an artefact of the calculations or equipment. Nonin would expect it to happen today when nothing had happened for half a billion years. And the details cast even more suspicion on the conclusion: if you look through a telescope at the other side of the galaxy, a flea within arms reach is likely to be a smear on the lens, not an unnoticed neighbour.

But despite days of mutterings of “it can’t be true” and the like, the ground-shaking meeting was called in the main lecture hall and everynin was there. On the main projection screen was a section of sky map showing the cross of stars from the tail on The Zumber constellation at the bottom, the whole of The Smile above and in the middle a red cross under which lay the yellow dwarf star, Gary, the Zumber Turd. One of their closest neighbour and bright enough to see on summer nights, Gary was so well known in the general population that it even had a name! So after searching the entire galaxy, their quarry was hiding right under their chair!

Phoebe, like many in the audience, could only think “This is a hoax. Whoever did this even selected The Smile and The Turd to show how they are laughing at us.” A good Xenobehaviourist is first of all a psychologist so Phoebe was in little doubt that the hoaxer would be here in the room and come out at the end to celebrate the wheeze of their generation.

But nin after nin presented data with more detail than a hoaxer with a blocked cloaca would ever make up. It seemed conclusive.

In the middle of that spring, just before the more resilient vertebrates had started emerging, one of their chromatometers had picked up an anomalous reading from Gary. The chemical composition of the atmosphere on one of his non-gaseous double planets had changed with a sharp lurch since the previous inspection a few thousand days earlier that spring. The systems had cut in to point a more powerful ground-based sensor at Gary3/4 and the readings matched exactly. With nonin active yet, the protocol demanded off-planet confirmation and again the anomaly was confirmed. Now, a quarter of a season on, a further change was clearly visible in the normalised data.

First impressions were that the atmospheric changes were due to seismic explosions bringing up deep subsurface gases, as had been observed on many planets - including Gary3/4 itself - just a few tens of millions of years ago. The recent hubbub had been due to the specific compounds that were increasing so rapidly and their proportions. These compounds did not match the composition of the previous events but were the type of by-products associated with extracting huge quantities of natural resources and dumping the waste. Overlaid on that was a steep rise in organic waste products that could only be explained as the beginning of a mass extinction event. The planet was dying.

The analysts had gone over the figures again and again but it could not be denied, an extraordinary pillaging of the planet was taking place right now on Gary3/4. The bigger conclusion was terrifying for the whole galaxy, explaining everything they had been asking themselves since the search had begun:

1. Intelligent life did exist and it was predatory

2. It had both faster-than-light travel and the ability to export resources from planet to planet (although not necessarily also at FTL speeds)

3. It had recently invaded Gary3/4 and was currently processing its resources for removal to a home planet or portal

4. There probably was technological life all over the galaxy, just like the statistics and common sense predicted but only the Nin were stupid enough to give away their location

5. Hejmen was probably the next stop for The Pillagers and based on the estimates for Gary3/4’s available resources, they may have just one more winter to wait

6. A Pillager visit would be the end for life on Hejmen

A second scenario did not assume FTL travel but a nomadic species who pillaged whole planets as they moved from star to star, but the risk for Hejmen was the same, just an extra winter or two away.

The presentation ended and 452 very capable brains considered the implications, except for a smartnin who thought she already knew everything. Under a raised hand towards the back of the stalls. “Your conclusions are wrong”.

The last presenter on the stage whistled the roof microphone to the know-it-all. “Your hypothesis?”

“Have you seen a track? Are there other affected planets that show where your ‘Pillagers’ have been?”

“We are working on that, but their mode of travel may be non-linear as well as FTL.”

Smartnin jeered “We have mapped the entire galaxy and there was no such data last winter. You are suggesting that they travelled non-linear from another galaxy to our neighbourhood with a ‘pop’ and they land in a bowl of Thorium? There is no place for that type of luck in my stat’s.”

“The physicists tell us that FTL travel must always be non-linear. Appearing with a pop in a random location may be the only way it happens.”

Smartnin sneered and the audience rustled with agreement that physicists usually only messed up the mathematics.

Phoebe raised her hand and whistled for the mic’, not bothering to wait for Convener’s Privilege. It swung towards the front of the auditorium and refocussed for her position. “We have the data. You need to put this in the hands of my Xeno team now. I will propose a strategy within three days.”



***



Over the millennia, generations of nin Xeno teams had explored possibilities from the mundane “Can’t be bothered” through the paranoid “Hiding from invaders” and the ominous “Creeping up on us” hypotheses. Despite the ubiquity of alien life, the only real data they had was the absence of any technological traces out there. The only physical examples of intelligent life were the two big brain types that exist on their home planet..

The best known of those two big brains belongs to the nin themselves. The natural approach is to project your own behaviour on others. “What would a nin do?” was the easiest question – but it failed to give insight when none of those (statistically) millions of technological species was behaving like a nin.

With no history of colonisation and associated aboriginal genocides, no conflicts to even rival the Inter-Hejmo Summer Olympiad (a nin version of the Nobel Prize) and no drive to prosyletize to the unwilling; the nin were culturally parched for ideas about destructive invasions. While perfectly able to understand why the intelligent universe might be hiding from some real or imagined threat, what form that threat might take was almost impossible for the nin to predict.

The Xeno team hold a conceit that technological life can only arise from curiosity and intelligence; they leave it to the physicists, chemists, mathematicians and others to examine other options based on their particular specialities. Nin science fiction tends towards intelligent aliens with an insatiable curiosity and a drive to gossip with anyone who shares (or contradicts) their interests - just like the nin themselves. Their scariest invaders are blue-skinned Whistlesphere celebrities.

The other big brain for which nin have direct experience is their own mother, the hejmo. And from the hejmo the only hypotheses that arise are “not interested” or “go and play with your sister”. In all history, no hejmo has made any effort to communicate with a nin, nor has one responded at any intellectual level to questioning.



***



Nin have no sense of authority so their methodologies reflect a more fluid approach to team leading and organisational structure. “Summer SEL” was simply a team of nin who had an interest in aliens and, as anyone can imagine, that included a very diverse range of individuals. There was a place in the community for everything from colander wearing scaredies, through dream-drivers and fantasy fans to the most donnish of academics – and each was valued for her unique view on the problem. Why would one assume that anything about an alien was ninlike?

The Pillager scenario was certainly one that generations of Summer SEL had considered, in a thousand different permutations, but anynin could recognise that the nerds of Winter SEL had arrived at the nasty technomonsters scenario largely out of fear.

But Phoebe was also skilled in risk assessment. She knew that the disastrous outcome of an invasion meant they simply had to act as if the Pillagers were out there, even if they weren’t. Phoebe had already decided what was required when she offered to provide a strategy, she just needed the three days to calm her peaking anxiety before she presented to the team.

Heroes are not the people who run into danger with no thought of how they may be hurt. Heroes know exactly how bad it will be, are rightfully scared but walk with their fear and do what has to be done.



***



The second meeting was moved to the much larger General Hall with nearly five thousand seats and room for everyone on site. At 80% full, the convenor estimated that everyone who could be there was there. The offline audience was unknown but traffic on the Whistlesphere was “out of the cave” so unless they were all downloading nivitt videos, the world was at attention.

This meeting was short.

Phoebe stood alone at the lectern. She had conferred with her team and they had unanimously agreed that her conclusion was sound with nothing to add. They all chose to sit in the audience just for the theatre of the occasion.

“Summer SEL have assessed that the Pillager threat has non-zero probability and would certainly be catastrophic. So our first objective must be to find out if it is real. Our second to gather data for any response or indemnification open to us. Our third to put that plan into action or prepare for the Final Winter.”

There was no dissent, so Phoebe continued into the silence. “All but three of my team have transferred to work exclusively on Gary3/4, two will remain in Summer SEL to support any work that is critical for non-Gary locations including looking for the Pillager home star.” she paused.

Still silence from the audience.

“And one will go to investigate.”

There are no Generals in ninkind. If you have to fight your own battles you will generally resolve your differences without conflict. From the outside one might see nin constantly bickering, but that was just the nature of finding the true solution (which usually differs from both opinions). When nin agree, they do so wholeheartedly.

Everynin in the room knew that Phoebe was offering to take an unprecedented journey to certain Full Death. One nin (it may have been yesterday’s smartnin, who knows?) rose, walked down to the stage, then climbed up and hugged Phoebe. Before she even reached the lectern, the flow had started until the stage was a solid ring of ninhug. Mathematicians and engineers who knew the strength parameters of the stage stayed down in the auditorium, creating another ring. But on-stage, off-stage and off-site, there was just one hug – with Phoebe in the middle.



***



While humans might spend vast sums on red tipped, flag covered rockets to launch themselves into space, the nin don’t have the resources for such folly, they do it all with mirrors.

In the days when the most advanced technology on Earth was ears and hair, the Nin had already learned how to generate a spatial resonance field (SRF). Twentieth century humans might have called it a standing gravity wave, space warp, force field or planar wormhole, but all those (only vaguely accurate) terms reveal their infatuation with Big and Powerful. Despite the popular view of curved space as an immensely powerful galaxy-sucker or a means to hop around the universe, in reality it is always a way to use extraordinary amounts of energy to produce an almost imperceptible effect.

Our own Herr Einstein realised that space itself can be stretched and even vibrate but the Nin pre-empted his General Theory of Relativity by a few hundred million years, showing that all you have to do is look closely enough at space and it puckers itself. And the more closely you look, the more it twists – until you get close enough to the distance they call the “Spatial Limit” where it turns inside-out and all sorts of useless garbage spews out.

The Nin mirrors in question are just gently curved space generated at unbelievably precise positions: two concentric spherical fields indistinguishable from soap bubbles are held close to a Planck length apart until the space between them naturally resonates, falling over the cliff to form a “standing gravity wave” which acts as an impenetrable mirror-like sphere. The maximum spatial curvature that can be reached depends solely on the distance between the fields, so the on-off switch is operated by just reducing the diameter of the inner bubble by a fraction of a millimetre. A second parabolic mirror is then generated, intersecting the bubble on one side to vent the build-up of exotic particles created so that the whole contraption doesn’t go Bang! when switched off. This safety valve also acts as the motive force (like a puny rocket).

So Phoebe set out on her journey with nothing much except for a humidity suit and briefcase-sized contraption. The SR field generator created those two extremely thin shells of resonating space: one spherical to protect the traveller and her few knick-knacks and the second parabolic to create the Planck tear and direct its output as a rocket with about the thrust of a gassy goat.

Even getting from the surface of Hejmen into space was a leisurely affair: no 25-gee acceleration on pillars of fire, just switch on the bubble, let the air inside freeze as Phoebe is artificially induced into a hibernation state then increase the bubble diameter and float up slowly. The flatulent ruminant can then provide a constant 0.03g of acceleration for just under five years for a total journey time of 80 Earth years to cover the eleven and a half light years from home to Gary. As the craft generated more power than it used and the traveller can comfortably hibernate for a few thousand years, even this basic solution was hugely over-engineered for the job.

But close up work was more difficult: even with Burping Billy working at full power it was just too weak to use as a “retro rocket” once inside the Gary system. The whole five years of deceleration was monitored and adjusted by the automated controls to make sure the craft would arrive at precisely the right speed and direction to make a “bulls-eye” degrading orbit on arrival.



***



Landing itself was nothing, we touched upon a shelf of rock selected by the Automind and left a galaxy of dreams behind. [Michael Moorcock]



***











Sonic Attack


The orbs slowed their rapid descent, forming into grids of complex geometric patterns high above the mountain pass where we stood. Previously an even haze covering the entire sky; they now started to clump and flow from horizon to horizon like a daytime Milky Way. Our first clue to their purpose was written across the heavens everywhere we looked. A perfect upside-down map of the area was drawn in the sky, descending like a crocheted blanket. There was Carson City straight ahead and to the left a larger mass mimicked Reno which was hidden from our direct sight. Only four craft descended just behind us over Lake Tahoe but a swarm as thick as soup farther back suggested Sacramento or maybe the Bay cities. The message was clear: they knew exactly where we all were and they were coming to visit.

To start with, even my mountaineering eyes were unable to guess how big the individual craft were or how far away, I simply had nothing in my experience to compare the scene with. But suddenly the cloud in the East flattened and the individual orbs changed to cigar shapes, so I knew we were now seeing them edge-on, that’s 10,000 feet above sea level maybe six thousand feet above the city. Each craft was enormous – certainly bigger than the three story bank building back home on Williamtown Road.

The four Tahoe flying saucers had already disappeared behind the rocks when the Carson City swarm slowed and stopped below our vantage point, still hovering a few thousand feet above the desert.

It was only when I first heard that low hum (or was I feeling it through my body?) that I realised that everything so far had happened in complete silence. There was no tearing air as they moved nor any roar of jets or rockets as they hovered. They moved like fish in the sea, maybe they had fins or twisted their bodies but I could see nothing like that. As the saucers behind us played their terrible tune, those over the desert started to dance with colour; switching through reds and purples, waves of fuchsia rippled through the swarm for a minute or so before that same sound reached us from those more distant saucers.

Suddenly the colour changes stopped. Every craft displayed the identical hue of indigo, connected to their neighbours with thick bars of the same light. This held for only a second or two before the colour bars were cast down on the city below. All three of us applauded this magnificent display, privileged to be here for such an artistic “hello” from our distant neighbours.

“We need to get down to Heavenly”. Lindsay was the one to say it, but we all knew that the next part of the show would be face-to-face. Even on snowshoes we were a good three hours from the nearest settlement down the mountain so we moved as one, abandoning our camp to the whims of the weather. “It’s going to be a party to remember”.


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