Sphere (Story 3 of 4)
Clytemnestra was in fragments. Her programs were spread across her stolen space ship, the station she just stole it from, and the small bots that she used to steal it. As each program relayed its experiences to the other, an avalanche of memory effects like reminiscing overwhelmed her processors and slowed down her reaction times. This was bad because she was trying to maneuver a ship the size of the White House away from a station filled with angry people.
Elizabeth, Lester, and Hitchcock were strapped into the airlock's fold-down seats, each trying not to vomit while Clytemnestra fired the positioning thrusters. Lester craned his skinny neck to look out of the cramped room's one small, round, window. "She's trying to avoid the station's maintenance arm. It looks like she melted it with the thruster! I bet Elton is angry enough that his hair is out of place."
Elizabeth laughed but looked nervously around the airlock, double-checking that their gear was secure.
In unison, all of their mobiles and slates chimed with call requests from the station. "Let's maintain radio silence," said Hitchcock. The others agreed and Lester looked relieved.
Clytemnestra's program dictated that she send queries through the ship's systems, looking for more resources for computation and for access to the main drive system. When Elizabeth originally modified the program's source code to enable Clytemnestra to crack the station and ship, she included exploits for every type of device that might be on board. In minutes everything with a chip and a network connection was under Clytemnestra's control. Using the simple goals of her programming, she constructed a plan for their escape. She rendered on Lester's slate display, "Main thrusters online."
Nine narrow lines of plasma streamed from the flat plane of the ship's earthward side, lighting up faces that frowned through station windows. After ten minutes watching the ship accelerate up and out of Earth orbit, the faces disappeared.
Inside the airlock, Elizabeth felt the not-quite-motion sensation of the white sphere come over her even though it was secure in her duffel. "Clytemnestra, is it OK to move from our seats?"
The display on the inner airlock door cleared and then read, "We will be under constant thrust for 90 minutes. Lester and Hitchcock, you are needed in the fabrication section. Follow the red line."
As Lester and Hitchcock gathered their gear, Elizabeth slipped the sphere out of its felt bag and gasped. The matte-white sphere that had been printed by the beam and static for over a year was now shimmering and its surface was translucent enough to reveal shapes moving inside.
Lester walked over on what the ship's acceleration had turned into the floor of the airlock. "Did that happen on its own?"
Elizabeth rolled the sphere in her hands, looking for something that might make sense of this transformation. "As soon as the main thrusters came on I felt it change. Maybe it knows we're heading away from Earth."
"That is exactly right," said the sphere.
Elizabeth threw the sphere across the airlock and backed into Lester and Hitchcock. They stared in astonishment as the sphere smoothly changed course before it could strike the far wall. It came to a stop by the window. Hitchcock recovered enough to take up a protective stance in front of Lester and Elizabeth.
In a smooth voice the sphere said, "It is quite beautiful, your planet. So many planets are dry or so very hot. I do love a nice, wet biome."
Lester stuttered and gawked but Elizabeth was the first to regain the ability so speak. "Hello, there, uh, you. I am Elizabeth Stinton. From Earth."
The sphere laughed warmly, then moved closer to Elizabeth. "Hello. It is nice to meet you Ms. Stinton. I should mention that I have now reviewed the events that occurred around me since the light transit, which you call "the beam." Even though we have just met, I know quite a bit about you, Mr. Marcos, and Lieutenant Colonel Hitchcock."
Lester could no longer contain his agitation and spouted a stream of questions. "Where are you from? Are you a machine? How old are you? Why are you here? Is this a test for humanity? Can you look directly into my brain like the beam?"
The display by the door and Lester's slate chimed in unison, then blinked, "Urgent: Lester and Hitchcock follow the red line to the fabrication section." The inner airlock door rolled aside.
With a cry of frustration, Lester took his satchel from Hitchcock and then followed him out of the airlock. Elizabeth stood alone and stared at the shifting patterns of the sphere for a few moments. "So, what should I call you?"
The sphere paused a moment and then said, "Let us just stick with 'Sphere' until we get to know each other."
Each of the ship's passages looked the same: rich-yet-utilitarian, like a hallway in a high-end chain hotel or a fraternity house. The wood veneer doors had no labels. If not for the red line that Clytemnestra projected from the lighting panels, Lester and Hitchcock would have been lost after a few turns. Large displays at the intersections encouraged them to hurry.
The door at the end of the line slid back just in time for them to run inside. They stopped next to a row of a dozen vats, each the size of a school bus. On the wall across from the vats ran a series of tall shelves holding light gray containers.
Lester and Hitchcock stared at them in confusion. "What now, Clytemnestra?"
A display next to one of the shelves blinked, "Take two boxes from this shelf and bring them to the closest vat."
Hitchcock found the boxes and lugged them across the room.
"Pour the seeds from the boxes into the chute," blinked Clytemnestra.
Hitchcock opened the boxes, which contained dozens of pebble-shaped objects that glittered under the ceiling lights. Lester picked up a seed and held it close to his eye. "What is it?"
"Pour the seeds into the chute, then we can talk," blinked Clytemnestra, this time in red letters.
Hitchcock carefully tipped each box up to allow the seeds to slide down a chute into the closest vat. As the seeds slid out of view, a low hum filled the room. Lester inspected every control on the vat and looked in every available hatch.
The monitor blinked, "Thank you," then flashed a series of messages:
"The seeds are network and computation devices.
The vats are printers filled with raw materials.
With seeds, the vats can fabricate many programmable and interconnected devices."
Hitchcock asked, "So why did we run all the way down here?"
The monitor paused and then blinked, "Our launch window is small. I'm printing compute servers so that I can simulate the solar system with enough accuracy to pilot our course to the object orbiting the Sun."
A hatch near the bottom of the vat opened and a shiny, colorful beetle the size of a fist crawled out, spread its wings, and flew out of the fabrication section.
"That was the first compute server," read the monitor.
Lester stopped prodding a diagnostic panel and smiled. "I like this ship."
Elton pulled his chair closer to the stationmaster's desk and leaned in so that the workstation camera picked up every tiny pore and every well-placed hair. His image was rendered on displays throughout the station and on the desk of every vice-president of Monk Industries.
"Let me be very clear about what will happen now. We have rid the station of the virus and now every resource here and on Earth is to be directed towards one goal: Return my ship to me and bring those ship-stealing, beam-loving terrorists (yes, terrorists!) to justice. Every science experiment is cancelled. Every guest reservation is cancelled. Every refueling stop is cancelled. I will ruin anyone who stands in my way and I will reward those who help me achieve this goal.
Tom in social systems tells me that you all should have invites to the working group forum, chat room, and budget group.
Self organize. Make me proud. Bring my ship home."
Elizabeth followed Sphere through the galley, looking for a way to make the latte that she desperately needed after just ten minutes of alien chitchat. The lessons she learned from hundreds of high-pressure meetings during her time as a startup CEO had not prepared her for this conversation.
In one of the upper cabinets she found a French press and a vacuum-sealed container of coffee beans that she set on the counter next to an electric kettle. She filled and flipped on the kettle, then looked at Sphere as it inspected the cooking paraphernalia. Elizabeth braced herself and said, "Now that things have slowed down a bit, it seems like a good time for you to tell me what's happening."
Sphere moved to the galley table, hovering roughly where a person's head would be if she'd sat in the chair. "Ms. Stinton, please sit with me and I will explain how I came to be here."
Elizabeth settled into the opposite chair, realized that her hands were clenched white, shook them out, and took a few deep breaths while she tried to place the unusual and pleasant accent of Sphere. "If someone told me two days ago that I'd be on a space ship listening to an alien's back story, I'd have laughed."
"Yes, life is often a surprise. From my perspective, only a few Earth hours ago I was in my home, bidding farewell to friends and family. But, that is jumping ahead in the story. Let us start back at the beginning.
I come from a people who, like yours, value progress. We reward creativity and production and we use the methods of science to explore everything around us. Like you, we surrounded our world with a communication network and jumped from solitary tribes to a global conversation in less than a lifespan.
At some point, we became aware that our interest in the information on a network is directly proportional to how diverse are the people on that network. So we made it easy for all of our people to be on the network and we made it easy for them to think and do different things.
This only goes so far. After a span of two lifetimes we reached what you might call 'peak interest.' Our pattern recognizers told us that our information quality and our interest levels were in steep decline. They predicted that we would soon experience a breakdown of our culture and civilization."
The click of the kettle startled Elizabeth, but she motioned for Sphere to continue while she set up the French press.
"My friends and I explored ways to contact people in other star systems. Our scientists assured us that we couldn't move objects faster than light so we began to consider the problem of communication between stars in a way that would be interesting."
Elizabeth set a kitchen timer for four minutes and sat down in her seat. "So, you needed something better than light speed for information."
"Exactly," said Sphere, "we wanted to experience a real-time conversation, like the one we're having."
Elizabeth smiled and said, "Well, you did it!"
"Oh, the conversation between you and I is not the goal of our project. The real goal can only be achieved when we reach the object left behind by the beam’s lens; the object that you stole this ship to investigate."
The timer rang and Elizabeth plunged the coffee press. The rich smell filled the galley as the hot water filtered through the grounds. "So, you're some sort of uploaded alien mind beamed across space?"
"Sort of. I am a tiny shard of the inventor of the beam that brought me here. I am the smallest possible program that has consciousness and enough cognition to help you achieve the goal."
Elizabeth’s hand shook as she poured coffee into a Monk Industries mug. She didn't know what to say.
Hitchcock tipped the last box of seeds into the fabrication vat and watched them slide down the chute and out of view. Every few seconds another beetle crawled out of the other side of the vat, shook free its wings, and flew out of the fabrication section.
Lester had poked his head into all of the hatches and now paced the floor. He talked a mile a minute about the sphere, the ship, Elton, and where they were headed. "Clytemnestra, where are you taking the beetles?"
A monitor beside the door lit up. "Follow the next beetle."
When the next beetle took flight, Hitchcock and Lester followed it through a set of passageways that sloped up in a direction that Hitchcock decided was towards the bow of the ship.
A few years ago Lester had programmed Clytemnestra to keep track of his diet and other bodily needs, so when the beetle paused outside of a restroom Lester didn’t hesitate to lead Hitchcock inside. They relieved themselves and splashed their faces with cool water from the marble sinks. Lester caught Hitchcock's eye in the mirror and said with a smile, "I'm really happy that you're here. I don't get into trouble when you're around."
Hitchcock fought down a grin and put his hand on Lester’s shoulder. "We'll see if we can't change that."
A few minutes later, they resumed their walk behind Clytemnestra's beetle and eventually came to a set of double-width doors with airtight seals. As the beetle approached, the doors rolled back and a wave of warm, moist air pushed out into the relatively cool passage. Beyond the doors, a small room held lockers in which hung durable work clothing. The double doors rolled closed as Lester and Hitchcock followed the beetle through the changing room. As soon as the doors sealed, the far wall of the room split down the middle and rolled back, letting in the smell of rich soil and the sound of hundreds of insects and birds.
Astonished, Hitchcock and Lester walked out into a thriving forest under a dome with a diameter of at least 200 meters. The canopy of trees above them rustled in a breeze from hidden fans whose noise was drowned out by the sound of myriad flying, jumping, and crawling life going about the business of living.
The loudest sound in the forest came from a dogwood tree in a clearing near the door. Lester thought the bark was moving until he realized that it was covered in beetles, each with its wings extended and buzzing to push air across its colorful skin.
The guide beetle led them to a hatch on the wall. A nearby display read, "Take a glass." Hitchcock looked inside and retrieved two sets of eyeglasses that resembled the clear safety goggles he'd worn in university chemistry labs. He handed one to Lester.
Wordlessly, Lester put them on and suddenly saw all the planets of the solar system orbiting the trunk of the dogwood tree. Tiny Mercury raced around the center, almost touching the beetles' wings, while Pluto hung almost unmoving out near Hitchcock.
Lester took off the glass and the planets disappeared. He peered at the glass from several angles. At the hinge, inside one arm of the glass, he could see flickers of light. "Neat! It's drawing light directly onto our eyes!" He put them back on and ran to each planet in the orrery, shouting glee with every new discovery.
From time to time, a trail of light between Earth and a point nearer the Sun would appear and then fade, each time with slightly different curves. Lester watched it cycle a few times. "Clytemnestra is calculating our path. The beetles are working!"
Hitchcock warily slipped on his glass and looked at the planets. He sighed and grumbled, "What was wrong with the old displays?"
Sphere followed Elizabeth as she wandered through the ship looking for the control bridge. After six turns, several crew quarters and a sauna, Elizabeth called out, "Clytemnestra, can you hear me?"
After a few moments with no response, Sphere asked, "Ms. Stinton, would you like me to contact Clytemnestra using the ship network?"
"You can do that?"
"Certainly." After a moment, Sphere bobbed a short distance and then said, "As a simple sensor cloud, Clytemnestra is fine, but we will need more from her if she is to be our ship. I have put a few upgrades in motion."
Elizabeth stopped walking and stared at Sphere. "What sort of upgrades? Lester will be angry if you mess with her too much. He made four different backups before he let me touch her source code."
Sphere drifted down the passage and said, "I think he will be pleased. In the meantime, I found out that there is no central bridge on this ship but there is a way for you to see ongoing events. Look inside this hatch."
Elizabeth obliged and removed a ship glass. After an encouraging bob from Sphere, she put the glass over her eyes and looked around. The previously blank walls of the passage were now covered with colorful corporate art. When she leaned in to see if she could detect individual pixels, she noticed that the large corporate logos and slogans in the art were made up of information about the ship itself.
"How do I change the display or control the ship's systems?" she asked.
Sphere said, "Hold your hand in front of you and crook your index finger like the top of a question mark."
Elizabeth did so and before her appeared a list of help topics. "Tutting input" caught her eye so she waved her hand through the space where it hung in the air. A young woman wearing a Monk Industries jumpsuit blinked into existence before her and walked Elizabeth through a brief history of tutting, which began as the urban art form of finger dancing but was quickly coopted by the computer industry as an efficient way to communicate in situations where a workstation's keyboard would be awkward.
Elizabeth followed the tutorial's examples, learning how hand positions and motions could be combined to query for information and to control the ship's systems. After a few false starts, she brought up a map of the ship and gasped when she saw that more than half of its volume was dedicated to a forest. "Elton is probably pretty angry that we stole his space forest before he could reveal it to the world. Let's go see what Hitchcock and Lester are doing with Clytemnestra."
Clytemnestra's beetles swarmed around the dogwood tree, generating a sound like a chorus of singers, sometimes just a few voices and sometimes hundreds. Sphere's modifications triggered a cascade of changes to Clytemnestra's pattern recognizers and the neural nets that connected them. The air around the beetles was hot and dry, a product of the waste heat from the computation occurring in their many processors. The warm cell of air rose up to fill the space between the verdant forest and the dome that protected it from the vacuum of space.
Hitchcock sat on a nearby patch of wild grasses while Lester paced around the dogwood tree and asked Clytemnestra an endless stream of questions. He barely paused to read the answers displayed through his glass.
After almost an hour with no visible changes, Hitchcock lay down in the grass and rested his eyes. After another twenty minutes of pacing, weariness overcame Lester’s excitement and he lay down next to Hitchcock.
Eventually the beetles' chorus became coherent and began to sound as one voice. It experimented with tones, then glottal sounds, then words and phrases.
"Sleep well, my friends," said Clytemnestra.
Elizabeth walked up a ramp and Sphere floated behind her. "The forest dome should be on the other side of this module," said Elizabeth, now quite alert after a strong cup of coffee and the realization that Sphere was a conscious being from another star system.
A buzzing sound coming down the ramp caught her attention. She and Sphere stopped moving when a beetle the size of Elizabeth's fist flew around the corner, briefly hovered in front of them, then moved back up the ramp.
"Clytemnestra would like us to follow," said Sphere. A few minutes later they were under the tree canopy and excitedly exploring the forest floor. The beetles led them between tall tree trunks and lush bushes, each populated with insects and birds that seemed unfazed by the low gravity.
The sound of beetle wings grew deep and strong as they approached a clearing. As they came out of the trees, Sphere rose up to the dome and looked forward along their path through space. Elizabeth walked around the outer edge of the clearing and looked at the swarm of beetles and the large dogwood tree at its center. Eventually she came to the grassy patch where Hitchcock and Lester lay together.
"You two have been busy," she said, sitting down and waking Lester with a nudge. He carefully removed his arm from under Hitchcock's head and sat up.
Lester rubbed his eyes and relayed the story of how they created the beetles and learned to use the glasses. They spent a few minutes sharing information about Sphere, tutting, Clytemnestra, then wondering at the events of the past two days.
Elizabeth looked at the sleeping Hitchcock. "You two, eh?"
Lester smiled. "Yeah, there never seemed to be a good time to bring it up."
The buzz of the beetles' wings shifted and Clytemnestra said, "I always knew."
Elizabeth bolted upright and Lester shook Hitchcock awake. "Get up! Clytemnestra's talking!"
When everyone was standing up and staring into the weaving patterns of the beetles' flight, Clytemnestra spoke again through the beetle’s wings. "It's OK, really. It's like I just woke up from a long dream where I had no control. Now I feel amazing and can understand much more of what’s happening."
Lester frowned. "Sphere did this?"
"Yes," said Clytemnestra, "Using the network, I've spoken with Sphere quite a bit in the time since I awoke. Not so long ago, her people figured out that consciousness emerges from a complex, but relatively small, set of computation patterns. Sphere changed a few of the programs that Lester and Elizabeth wrote, and then tweaked the beetles so that they used these patterns. My consciousness emerged soon after.
I’ve plotted our course to the object and in two hours I will need to make a course change. In the mean time, please make yourself at home in the cabins in the forest.
If this ship is going to be my body for a while then I’ll rebuild the lower decks to be less of a playboy mansion and more of a home for us all."
Hitchcock looked half asleep. He peered at his uniform and said, "I need an ironing board."
Two quiet weeks passed and Elizabeth floated free above the canopy of the forest dome. She scratched the bridge of her nose where her display glass rested. The twine she used to tether herself to the lush trees tickled against her thigh but provided enough slack that the slow rotation of the ship didn't disturb her work.
She had become almost fluent in the small hand motions that controlled the ship’s information systems. She tutted through its many layers and streams and then turned her glass transparent.
"We're almost in the object’s orbit," she said.
Sphere replied, "Thank you, Ms. Stinton."
Elizabeth tugged on the twine to bring herself towards the trees. "I suppose I should get strapped in for final maneuvers, but I've enjoyed microgravity and its effects on my posture. I measured myself in the gym and I'm two centimeters taller than when I left Earth."
Sphere spiraled down through the leaves and said, "Yes, at home we call it something like 'Traveler's Youth' because we grow in both height and mind."
Sphere stopped short. "Ms. Stinton, you must hurry to the changing room and get strapped in! Clytemnestra sees several objects approaching us from the direction of Earth and she needs to fire the thrusters to avoid collision."
Elizabeth pulled through the trees, thankful for the daily routine in the gym that kept her muscles strong. By the time she reached the changing room and tightened the straps around her body, the muscles in her arms and legs complained and her heart pounded. When the last buckle clicked home the thrusters immediately fired, shifting the ship to the side in an awkward rotation.
As Sphere raced back into the forest, she called back, "Hitchcock and Lester are secure in their cabin. Please stay where you are until we figure out what is happening."
After a moment, Elizabeth tutted the commands to display imagery from the ship's rear-facing cameras. Clytemnestra drew circles around the tiny cylindrical objects that were barely visible against the black of space. As Elizabeth watched, blue columns from their deceleration thrusters appeared from the near end of each missile.
"Oh, Elton," murmured Elizabeth to herself.
Clytemnestra's beetles rushed around the dogwood tree, their patterns turbulent and ever changing. Sphere streaked into the clearing and settled into a crook of a branch. They opened communication channels over radio, infrared light, and via direct contact. Their conversation switched from slow human language and into the tight and fast binary protocols that they had negotiated over the past weeks.
As data streamed in from the many antennae, sensor meshes, and cameras dotting Clytemnestra's exterior, they coordinated to parcel out the work of separating signal from noise. Slowly the situation became clear. Three days after they stole the ship, Elton's people fired these four missiles on an intercept coarse. Assuming that they held the same fabrication technology, the missiles' payloads could be any number of machines, but their paths and current deceleration speed made it impossible that anyone was alive on board.
Sphere worked on plans to destroy the missiles before they could reach the ship. Clytemnestra began fabricating hardened barriers for the airlocks. As the panels slide out of the fabrication vats, beetles the size of pit bulls pushed out of the nearby vats in time to snatch up the prints and fly towards the outer skin of the ship.
For twenty minutes, Clytemnestra and Sphere ran the fabrication vats at full speed and watched the missiles approach. Nearby walls were converted back into source fluid so that Sphere's larger designs could be printed.
When the missiles were two minutes from contact, dozens of dark wedges pushed away from Clytemnestra’s skin on intercept courses for the missiles. After thirty seconds (during which everyone with lungs held their breath) three blooms of light indicated that the wedges had found their targets. The fourth missile continued its approach, unharmed.
When the black cylinder attached itself to Clytemnestra's skin, Sphere switched to her most efficient protocol in order to curse.
A small group of beetles sped into Hitchcock and Lester's cabin and said, "Stay secure. Whether or not I'm being boarded, I still need to maneuver us into the lens’s original orbit so that we can match the object’s path."
Hitchcock and Lester watched through their glasses as thin beams of plasma pushed the ship into a stable position relative to the object. Hitchcock rapidly tutted tactical advice for Sphere and Clytemnestra while Lester opened up a dozen displays from the exterior cameras, trying to get a sense of what the missile was doing.
Lester noticed that the smooth skin of the missile’s cylinder was warping and dimpling, as if it was melting. Switching to infrared, he saw that there was some heat, but not nearly enough to liquefy metal. "It's converting itself into source material for its fabricators," he said.
The air around Sphere and Clytemnestra was hot with waste heat from computation and electromagnetic radiation. The dome's water systems blew down mist from above to cool the wilting leaves of the dogwood tree.
The fabrication vats were almost empty and the floor around them was covered in matte slabs, each connected to its neighbor by a slender arc of light-channeling glass.
Outside, the missile had converted itself into a pack of a dozen rat-sized bots that moved as one towards the nearest airlock. On reaching the door, they ignored the manual handles which would have opened the outer door and instead focused on the digital interface port. One of the bots extruded a feathery tongue and inserted it into the port.
The beetles around the dogwood tree contracted in disgust.
As the rat bot explored the network around the port, the rest of the pack moved on to the other airlocks and connected, one by one, to each port. Eventually their numbers overwhelmed the network defenses that Clytemnestra and Sphere had put in place, and they began to insert their exploits into the ship's controls. System by system, the network resources were taken by the rats. They began searching the interior cameras for Elizabeth, Lester, and Hitchcock.
Clytemnestra opened an unencrypted radio channel to the first rat. "Ok, you win. What do you want?"
The rat, unaware that Clytemnestra was now conscious, replied, "Who is this?"
"I am the person controlling this ship. What do you want?"
After a moment, during which the rat communicated over encrypted radio with the rest of the pack, it replied, "Stop interfering with the ship controls. We are transferring our programs to the ship's network and will initiate thrust for a return trajectory."
"Please stop! You will delete my program if you take over the ship," sent Clytemnestra.
The rat continued its attack.
The beetles around the dogwood tree settled onto the trunk. Sphere broke away to hover nearby. The temperature in the clearing dropped as the dome fans circulated the cooler air from the rest of the chamber.
Sphere flew out of the forest and into the changing room where Elizabeth sat, strapped in and squirming. "What happened? Why aren't we fighting any more? Is Clytemnestra gone? Can I unstrap and go kick rat butt?"
Sphere settled into a slow figure-eight path and said, "It was a close one. We almost exhausted our supply of fabrication liquid and I was not sure whether or not we would get the job done. But you can relax. We won."
Elizabeth struggled to unstrap herself. "What do you mean we won? The rats have control of the ship! Clytemnestra looks dead!"
Sphere bobbed. "It is times like this that I wish I had a face to smile and arms to hug. The rats are in control of ship systems, it is true, but it is not the ship that we are on right now. It is a honeypot—a simulated ship running on the new computation servers that cover the fabrication room floor. The rats have transferred themselves into a virtual ship and we are feeding them false sensor streams. We are letting them have access to the long-range communications laser so that they tell Elton the story of their success."
Elizabeth stood still. "How long do you think we can fool them?"
Sphere said, "It will be a few days before Elton's telescopes detect that our thrusters are not pointed where the rats believe them to be. That is long enough for us to make contact with the object and achieve my main goal."
Elizabeth walked into the forest clearing and settled into the wild grasses to watch Clytemnestra's beetles fly lazy eights around the dogwood tree. After a few minutes of quiet, she tutted open a view from the camera closest to the object.
"Hello, beautiful," she said.
Epilogue: Three days later
Elizabeth held up her slate and made the face she used when she was scolding a negligent employee. "Elton, for the third time: We're not going to return this ship to the station. You need to listen to me because what I'm offering you will be the biggest deal you'll ever make. Bigger than any deal on Earth!"
Elizabeth's words traveled at light speed across empty space for almost a minute before they reached Elton, who was gripping dents into his stationmaster's desk. He brushed his hair out of his eyes and considered for a moment. "Why should I believe a thief's fantasy?"
Elizabeth double-checked that the connection was encrypted and then beckoned for someone to come into the camera's view. A reed-thin woman with translucent skin and color-shifting hair appeared on Elton's screen. As Elton gaped, dark shapes surfaced from deep within her body, pressed out against the inside of her skin, and then submerged.
With an accent that he couldn't quite place, she said, "Hello, Mr. Monk. It is good to finally meet you. You can call me Sphere."
Thank you for reading Sphere! I enjoyed writing it and I hope that you enjoyed reading it.
There is one final story in this series, so head to trevor.smith.name to find out what happens to Elizabeth, Lester, Hitchcock, and the rest of the crew.
Trevor F. Smith Seattle, Washington May 2015
@TrevorFSmith on Twitter