Beam (Story 1 of 4)
Elizabeth Stinton was frustrated. Her simulations for turbulence in her theoretical air sinter were a mess and if she didn't have something to show at the next board meeting she was pretty certain that they'd sell her startup for parts.
Standing up from her workstation to stretch her tired back and shoulders, she wondered for the third time in as many hours whether leaving academia and accepting venture capital for her big idea was a smart move. Who was she to believe that she could print objects from thin air?
A broke fool, she thought, if the damn venting system keeps blowing the prints out of the laser focus. As she turned back to pick over the latest simulation results, her mobile rang for the hundredth time, echoing off of the concrete floor and exposed beams of her converted warehouse office space.
Picking up her mobile, she said "What the hell? It's 3 am and if you want us to launch in Q3 then I need to think!"
"Is this Dr. Stinton?" said an unfamiliar and gruff voice that sounded powerful enough to be heard in a thunderstorm.
"Who is this?"
"This is Lt. Colonel William Hitchcock of the United States Air Force, ma'am, and we're sending a car to your location. We are activating the expert witness clause of your NIS funding."
"What?" Elizabeth grunted, sitting up for the first time.
"Pack a bag, ma'am, and bring something cool to wear."
The desert wind pulled all of the moisture out of Elizabeth's scalp, right through her cropped hair and Yankees cap. The military sunscreen that LC Hitchcock gave her in the helicopter smelled like coconuts and was thicker than Brie cheese. It turns out that "bring something cool" to an Air Force officer means "prepare for the Mojave desert." Hitchcock had a perfectly good pair of sunglasses in his neatly pressed shirt pocket, but he left them there and squinted out of the helicopter window at the landscape far below them.
Dr. Stinton spent the entire ride in the helicopter trying to control her temper while talking on her mobile to her NIS grant writer about what exactly gave the Air Force the right to pull her out of her lab in the middle of the night, drive her to the nearest military base and then jump jet her to the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake in order to catch a helicopter to the middle of the Mojave. So it wasn't until they landed and she stepped from aircraft onto the hard-packed playa that she saw the huge column of strange light coming from the sky.
"It must be more than two square kilometers," she gasped.
"It's just over three, ma'am," agreed Hitchcock, checking and double-checking his equipment.
Elizabeth turned to him, looked him in the eyes and said, "Why am I here, LC?"
Picking up his pack and heading toward the nearest olive-drab trailer he said, "You should meet our egghead. He can explain it better."
The trailer they entered was identical to the other trailers in size and color except that the corrugated metal siding that faced the light beam was covered in antennae, cameras, and sensors of types that Elizabeth only vaguely recognized. On entering, the smell of microwave curry and feet hit her in the face, along with drafts of almost dripping air pumping out of a nearby humidifier. Pushing through a plastic curtain, she interrupted a skinny sprite of a man pacing a rut into the industrial gray carpet while shouting into a headset.
"No, I need it yesterday! I'm only getting 20% spectral coverage and I'm 15 hours from running out of data storage so you have to have it to NAWS by 8 pm! I'll buy you a new van and pay you double the usual rate. Get on the damn road, Phyllis, because this is a big one!"
Pulling the headset off, the man twirled around and quickly hugged Elizabeth while saying, "Oh, thank the flying spaghetti monster you're here. You're Dr. Stinton. Come over here and look at this stream. I can't believe it took them this long to get you here. Hitchcock, you're slipping."
Elizabeth shrugged out of the hug and stepped back, saying "Wait, wait, wait. Who are you and what the hell is going on?"
"Oh," said the man, pulling his fingers through his short, unkempt dreadlocks. "Yes, yes, yes, you weren't cleared until now. OK, I'm Lester Marcos and you're here because I read your paper about mirror systems for air sintering. A great paper but it turns out you were wrong about the motion-to-mass ratios, or I think so, anyway, but that's why you're here."
Elizabeth took a deep breath and asked, "So I'm here because you have a problem with mirrors?"
"No, you're here because you're the only person on the planet who might know what's happening with that Godray you see outside."
Handing Elizabeth the peppermint tea she had asked for, Lester said, "Three days ago I was knee deep in coeds... Wait, that doesn't sound right. Ah, orientation at the Air Force engineering school was earlier this month and I was pointing everyone towards their new advisors. That's when Clytemnestra, my sensor cloud, texted me that one of her satellites went zero signal and the others were reporting nonsense. I poked around, thinking that someone in North Korea was playing with lasers again or that one of my new grad students was trying to show off by owning one of my ground stations, but it wasn't anything like that."
"Skip to the huge beam of light, please." said Elizabeth, trying to keep the nervously pacing man from knocking over the tray holding the stale cookies that he had brought for her tea.
Sitting down and bouncing on a large red yoga ball that looked out of place in the olive-drab trailer, Lester continued "OK, OK, so long story short and ignoring how I fused all of the satellite data streams in a heroic act of glue code, Clytemnestra's satellites picked up wide spectral anomalies originating from a strange lensing effect near the Sun and ending in the middle of the Mojave. One day later, I'm standing where we are today trying not to turn my skin Nairobi dark and as of 2:15 am the surrounding 75 square kilometers are a military controlled no-fly zone."
"As for why you're here..." Lester moved a stack of paper coffee cups and picked up two pieces of paper. Holding them up next to each other, he asked, "Do you recognize these?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said hesitantly, "the first one is a diagram of planar mirror systems from my air sintering paper and the second one looks like a similar pattern. But it's different... Actually, it looks like an improvement. Did you do that?"
Grinning with a tiny giggle, Lester turned to one of the computer workstations and brought up a photo of the desert that looked like it was taken from a kilometer in the air. The image framed the area lit by the light ray and there, writ large, was the second pattern. The energy beam was somehow changing the landscape and it looked like her air sinter, but immense.
"Oh, my God," said Elizabeth.
"Hells yeah," said Lester.
"Ma'am, sir, I think you need to take a look at this,” said Lt. C. Hitchcock.
Turning away from the workstation where they had spent the last three hours going over the aerial photography, Elizabeth and Lester looked at the lieutenant colonel, who, despite hours of travel in cramped aircraft, still had neatly pressed creases in his trousers and an energetic stance like he had just woken up from a refreshing nap. Hitchcock pointed out of the trailer window towards the column of light that was bearing down across the desert sand.
Lester scrambled to the window and pressed his nose against the glass, muttering, "What, is it snowing? What is that?"
Elizabeth walked over to the window and gasped when she saw the almost-black sheets of falling flakes. Inside the cloud of flakes, light from the beam was being modulated and combined in patterns more complex than Elizabeth's eye could follow. Walking outside, she reached towards the beam to catch some of the material and almost had them when Lester sprinted over and pulled her back.
"We don't know what that would do to you in the long term," said Lester. "It doesn't appear to be anything except annoying to the birds that have flown through it, but it changes intensity and some of the areas are getting quite hot." Handing her a long-handled shovel that was leaning against the trailer, he said, "Use this."
As Elizabeth moved the head of the shovel into the beam, it began to turn black as the flakes fell onto it. Over the next five minutes, a light dusting of the material accumulated. Finally she pulled it back and knocked most of it into a sample jar to take back to the trailer.
As she walked next to Lester and Hitchcock, Elizabeth said, "I'll bet the last of the coffee ice cream that it's almost pure carbon." A few minutes in the spectral analyzer confirmed what she already believed. Here, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, was an air sinter covering three square kilometers of superheated landscape and it was printing carbon flakes out of thin air.
"Right now it has only the roughest of printing capability," said Elizabeth once they were back at the workstation. "The pattern that was originally burnt into the land, the reason you brought me here, provided reflective surfaces and cavities that the moiré and lazing effects needed to knock the oxygen off of the CO2 molecules in the air. There's no airflow control, so it can't print anything complex.
"I wonder why it's printing all of these flakes."
The Lt. C. looked thoughtful for a moment, rested his left hand on his sidearm, and then said, "Maybe someone just wanted to show us that air printing is possible?"
Lester said, "Let's hold off on talking about someones and their motives just yet. We don't know the first thing about why or how this is happening."
While the men continued to talk, Elizabeth started writing notes on index cards and arranging them across one of the cots that were tucked into the back of the trailer. Writing on something physical and using her hands to move them around helped her think more creatively about what all of this meant. While Lester was saying phrases like, "Drake equation," and, "Fermi paradox," and the LC was looking uncomfortable, Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and put all of her cards but one into a pile. She walked over to the corkboard over the workstation, pulled down all of the photographs of the beam, and pinned the card right in the center.
"I have it," said Elizabeth.
"Cascading Complexity," read the card.
Clytemnestra's tiny quadcopter sailed high on the desert winds, sharing the sky with the occasional Western Grebe. The high-pitched whine of the drone's four little motors was lost in the winds a kilometer above the sands, but their nearly invisible rotors kept the air platform stable enough for Clytemnestra to send back crisp video of the changes occurring to the landscape below. The flakes were slowly accumulating in straight lines running from the outer edge of the beam towards the center. Already the lift of the superheated air was pulling the cooler air on the ground through the ruts created by the flakes. Tiny avalanches of flakes were leaving behind rails of carbon that had melted under the beam's glare.
"It's creating wind channels!" exclaimed Elizabeth as she looked at the video stream coming from the drone. "This isn't all it's going to do! It's using the simple printing capabilities to lay down passageways through which it can control the air, and if it can do that then soon it's going to be able to print much more than flakes."
The LC looked worried and began to thumb type on his com pad.
Lester started searching the net for aerodynamic simulation software that could be tweaked to work for this kind of situation. His foot never stopped tapping while he worked the keyboard with quick waves of key presses.
Elizabeth downed a microwaved coffee and then laid down on the cot for a twenty-minute caffeine nap. She woke to Lester shaking her shoulder and saying, "We just lost our way out. The beam widened and surrounded us."
Looking at the monitor, Elizabeth saw that, indeed, the beam was now hammering down in a concentric circle that encompassed both the black carbon circle of the original beam and their trailer, with a half of a kilometer between the ring edges.
They were trapped.
Lester rattled off a few commands on the workstation and said, "We still have data over the satellite link to the rest of Clytemnestra and our solar panels are happily converting the lensed light into electricity, but our food and water supply was just cut and the backup team that was en route has been ordered back to base until we can figure out whether it's safe to traverse the outer ring.
"Oh, and the winds are picking up out there."
Lieutenant Colonel William Hitchcock leaned into the gale as he pulled a thick black power cable from the trailer over to the tertiary solar panels. The black carbon flakes coming out of the massive air printer whirled in eddies around his facemask. 'I'd have lungs worse than a coal miner's without this thing,' he thought. It took a while to clear out the control panels, but after a bit of work he pushed the cable terminator home into the panels' socket and electricity flowed into trailer, then trickled into the batteries under the floorboards. Eventually that electricity would power the many sensors, cameras, and dishes pointed at the beam, as well as the microwave oven, which was their only method for heating food.
Entering the trailer, he said "It's hot enough out there that we could set up a nice bar-b-que just by placing a pig under the beam."
"I don't eat meat," said Lester without taking his eyes off of the workstation and without missing a beat of his rapid typing, "but in a few days when our supplies run out I might take you up on that offer."
Elizabeth poked her head out from the back of the trailer and said, "I'll take beam bacon any time. I just finished analyzing the spectrum and intensity data from the past three hours and it wouldn't be any more dangerous than the laser bacon that I made after hours in grad school. The lensing near the Sun is fascinating, with some parts of the beam made up of coherent light and other parts just intensified sunshine. I'd love to know how they're causing it. Even ignoring what it takes to work that close to the Sun, nothing I've seen comes close to being that stable or that precise when running that much energy."
"Yeah, I was working on that part," said Lester. "I pointed a couple of Clytemnestra's gravity sats at the lens and I noticed that there's a strange intensity running from one edge of the Sun to where the lensing begins. So, then I wondered whether this is what it would look like if someone sent coherent gravity waves that changed the density of the Sun's plasma. That might cause the intensity shifts we're seeing, but I have no idea what it's using to make parts of the beam coherent like laser light."
At that moment, Elizabeth gasped and pointed at the monitor showing the video stream from a quadcopter hovering high and just outside of the beam. "It's starting to print wind valves on top of the wind channels," she exclaimed, pointing at tubular shapes appearing out of eddies created by the wind channels. "Valves that size will let it move from the simple flakes to printed features the size of..." She trailed off and started writing equations on an index card that she pulled out of her back pocket.
A few minutes later, she smiled and said, "I think we'd better be ready for it to get very interesting very soon. When these valves are working they'll be able to print features about a meter in size, and if they keep increasing the feature complexity at this rate, then by tomorrow morning we'll be next to the highest-resolution printer on the planet."
As the news spread about the massive light beam striking the desert, the net lit up with one question: Are you going to see The Beam? Church busses loaded with flocks of old ladies hit the road, headed toward the big event. Smug poly heathens piled into their Burning Man art cars and pointed them toward the desert to show everyone else how to put together an instant city. Spooks of every flavor blended into the growing crowd around the beam, listening carefully for any talk of who might have caused this or how it might destabilize their respective organizations. Rich young CEOs from Silicon Valley threw mobile hackathons on the way to the scene, with prizes for anyone who could tease out a pattern from the constantly shifting light.
The military quickly realized that they didn't have the resources to control the 75 square kilometers that it had declared a no-fly zone, but with regular patrols and beanbag guns they held the crowds back to a half-kilometer from the outer edge of the beam. Responding to pressure from Congress and to fight the misinformation coming from speculating bloggers, they allowed Clytemnestra to share low-resolution video and sensor feeds, being careful to conceal the growing number of resources that were being placed under her control.
At 3 am the trailer was still full of activity. Images from Clytemnestra's quadcopters streamed into the trailer faster than Lester could interpret them, so Elizabeth wrote a program to weed out the steady state images and provide time-stamped clips when there were major changes. Outside, the beam's printer created increasingly complex and refined shapes, but it wasn't clear what, if anything, they were for. Elizabeth laid her head down for just a moment to consider how to crack a particularly annoying interpolation algorithm and the next thing she knew she was on a cot and it was dawn.
Hoisting herself to her sore feet, she wondered exactly how much she would pay for a coffee made with an expensive machine by a talented-but-aloof barista. Their coffee had run out the day before, and to avoid caffeine withdrawal she drank the black tea that Hitchcock found in one of the lockers. He carefully pretended not to notice when she stirred in four tablespoons of artificial sweetener.
Lester noticed that she was moving again and bounced over to hand her a printout from a growing stack next to the workstation. After rubbing sand from her eyes, she looked at the image for several minutes before it sank in.
"Yeah, I can't really believe it, either," said Lester, bouncing on his toes.
Elizabeth groaned, "Is this a joke?" Then, pulling the thin cord to lift the trailer's window shades she said, "No. That's definitely not a joke."
During the five hours that Elizabeth slept, the landscape in the center of the beam had grown into a stark, black structure that resembled the brutalist architecture of the '60s. The rectilinear forms enclosed a space big enough to hold four of their trailers, but with all of the carbon floating in the air, the cameras couldn't resolve any more details.
The strangest aspect of the changes took the form of a flat strip of woven carbon running from the center structure directly toward the trailer.
"It can't know we're here, can it?" asked Elizabeth.
Hitchcock looked grim and shrugged.
"It would be a huge coincidence on its own," said Lester while he tossed a popcorn bag into the microwave and resumed pacing, "but the directionality is clear and I'm thinking that actively bouncing radar and LIDAR off of the printed structures might have had this effect."
At that moment, Lester's workstation chirped for attention. After a few minutes of typing, making "hmmmm" sounds, and then typing again, he looked up and said, "Holy cow."
Elizabeth looked at the updated sensor logs of light intensity and saw that the path from the trailer to the center of the beam was now receiving normal sunlight. In 15 minutes would be cool enough to walk on.
"It's a path. For us," said Lester.
"An invitation," said Elizabeth.
"Harrumph," said Hitchcock.
"It's not like we can stay here much longer. Our water runs out in 20 hours, so something has to happen," said Lester.
Elizabeth looked at Lester as he talked through their options. The circle of deadly light surrounding their trailer showed no sign of letting up. The best minds outside had come up with no way to get supplies to them or to get them out. Their favorite idea, the "autonomous car with a mirror on top," seemed likely to result in a pile of melted robot.
Meanwhile, the path to the center of the beam was a safe temperature and the structure hadn't visibly changed in several hours.
"It’s encouraging us to go into the center, so let's do what it wants," said Elizabeth. "That sounds better to me than sitting here waiting to dehydrate."
At that moment, the outer circle began to move inward toward the trailers, as if to encourage this line of thinking.
"I still have sunscreen," said Hitchcock.
Stepping onto the black carbon of the path felt to Elizabeth like walking out onto a high dive. It was solid enough to hold her weight, but it gave a little with each step. The beam was narrowing visibly and the desert sunlight heated the dark material as it would a blacktop highway, so they took up a brisk pace towards the center.
"What if it's a big holographic image of Hitler, like in Contact?" said Lester.
"Or maybe a portal to another world, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," joked Elizabeth.
"Maybe it's a game, like in The Last Starfighter," said Hitchcock. Seeing Lester and Elizabeth's surprised looks, he said, "What? Lieutenant Colonels watch movies, too, you know."
The wind tunnels of the outer beam gave way to large valves that were changing shape to shift the major currents among the increasingly complex components of the inner beam. Sculpted in refined curves and relationships, colored in various shades of dark carbon blacks, the machinery was of an obviously non-human design.
Lester mused, "This reminds me of the types of designs I've seen come out of evolutionary programming, like the Air Force’s radio antenna designs which were forged over thousands of simulated generations and look like nothing a person would ever create."
Elizabeth looked up from taking pictures of a particularly intricate nodule that was funneling the air across a tight membrane while humming and dripping water. "That makes sense, because it looks like a lot of these mechanisms would only work in an atmosphere exactly like ours, so the designs aren't one-size-fits-all across any planet. If this was planned from far away, it would need to dynamically change itself when it arrived."
As they crossed over a low mound that surrounded a thousand square meters at the center of the beam, the light gap above the path closed and the intensity of the outer beam increased.
"So, that's us trapped, then," said Elizabeth, looking back towards the trailer. "And it looks like it's finished printing." The machinery of the outer beam began to sag under the heat.
"Endgame," said Lester.
With a smooth and silent motion, the structure in the center unfolded itself like a great bird opening its wings to dry in the sunshine.
"I see three seats," said Hitchcock.
Standing in the cool air of the structure, looking at the three seats that were positioned around the center of the beam, each member of the team looked for comfort in the eyes of the others.
"They're pretty complex underneath," said Lester as he started inspecting the base of each seat, "there's no telling what they do."
Elizabeth said, "I'll sit first and you two keep an eye out for anything dangerous," but before she could make a move for the seat Hitchcock hurried to the seat closest to him and sat down.
"I'm the spare body here," he said, wincing in anticipation.
Ten minutes passed as Elizabeth and Lester walked around the seats, asking Hitchcock whether he felt anything, then looking at the rest of the structure for signs of activity. The only sounds were the sloughing and crackling of the machinery outside as it slowly melted into a flat plain of carbon under the glare of the increasingly hot beam.
"I think it must need all of us before it begins," said Elizabeth.
"OK, I've sent recordings of the entire structure to Clytemnestra so there's nothing to it but to do it," said Lester as he hopped into the seat closest to him.
Elizabeth stood her camera on a portable tripod and pointed it at the group, then, with a nervous look outside, thinking of her life before she'd heard of the beam, she walked over and sat in the third seat.
As Elizabeth's feet left the platform and put weight on the seat's footrest, the outer structure reversed its previous motion and silently closed its wings, leaving the team in darkness.
Their eyes slowly adjusted, and they perceived glowing lines moving slowly across the interior of the structure.
"Are those real?" asked Elizabeth. As her voice echoed off of the walls, the lines grew more complex. They returned to their slow motion when she stopped speaking.
"Test, test, test." said Lester, watching the lines move along with his voice.
"We're cut off from com traffic," Hitchcock said to himself, holding his device at various angles.
At that moment Elizabeth heard a whisper in her ear, saying, "Can you hear this?" Back stiff, Elizabeth asked Hitchcock "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" said Hitchcock, looking around.
This time in Elizabeth's other ear, "How about this? Can you hear this? Do you feel OK?"
"I can! I can hear that!" said Elizabeth as she peered under the seat to find the source of the voice. She was careful not to lift her weight from the seat in case the voice would disappear.
Lester and Hitchcock now looked like they could hear voices, too, and were answering that they were comfortable.
"Can you hear me?" Elizabeth asked the voice.
The voice said, "Oh, good. Yes, I hear you." It had a slight accent that Elizabeth couldn't quite place, like someone who had grown up in a far away land but had taken many lessons in spoken English. "Please sit still, the question is coming."
"OK. Three, two, one, here it goes," said the voice of the beam.
The cool darkness was replaced by a uniform, directionless white light, and she no longer sensed Lester and Hitchcock sitting near her. After a moment of panic, she realized that she didn't feel like she had a body, but everything seemed somehow fine. She relaxed and waited.
After a few moments of calm, a question began forming in her mind as if it were an old memory that was now very important.
"What's good about being human?"
In a blur, many thoughts ran through her head. To be 16 and lying in bed with her first lover. To stand on a balcony above a large city drinking rich wine. To pick blueberries with her young niece, eating more than she saved.
But the thought that stayed was of the first time she worked through the night on a hard computer program. It was a problem she could solve in minutes now, but that first night, as she first learned the languages of the computer, she felt like she had tapped into something deeper in the universe, the code that ran the complex world around her.
"Thank you, that was wonderful," said the voice. The light faded and feeling returned to Elizabeth's body. She looked around, seeing again the lines of the structure slowly moving in the quiet space.
A few minutes passed and Lester shifted in his seat.
"Did it ask you a question?" queried Elizabeth.
"Yes," said a sheepish-looking Lester. "It asked me what's good about being human."
"Me, too. What did you answer?"
"Well, I thought of a lot of things...but for some reason I settled on karaoke in San Francisco's Japantown and then it was too late, I couldn't take back the thought. Do you think I blew it?"
Elizabeth shrugged, and then turned to look at Hitchcock who was sitting very still. "I wonder what he'll answer. I wonder why this question."
A few minutes passed and then Hitchcock pulled in a deep breath, looking around with wide eyes.
"Damn it," he gulped air before pulling himself together. "I think I messed that up."
"What did you answer?" asked Elizabeth.
"I was thinking about learning to be a leader, and then about when my son was born, but the thought that stuck was when I was a boy hunting my first deer. That moment when the buck stepped into my sights and I got a clean shot and my first kill."
"Oh, crap," said Lester.
At that moment, the seats lowered themselves into the floor with just enough time for them to catch themselves and avoid falling. They felt a deep rumble in their chests and sensed large machinery go into motion below the floor of the structure. The walls and ceiling of the space started to fall apart, opening gaps to the outside.
Hitchcock shouted, "Let's go!"
Dashing from the structure just as it collapsed onto itself, the three paused for a second to look up, amazed. The sky was clear and blue, as if the beam had never existed. They ran out onto the carbon plane where the beam's printing machinery had been reduced to a slick flat landscape. As they turned back, the area around the structure became a whirlwind with flying panels and beams of disintegrating carbon.
A strobing light from the center of the flying masses was so bright that they had to put their hands up to protect their eyes. The noise was overwhelming and grew louder as the winds circled faster. From within the ball of light, holographic images from their answers phased in and out: Elizabeth as a student leaning in towards her programming terminal, Lester singing into a microphone with all of his heart, and Hitchcock standing over the body of his first deer.
In the moment that Elizabeth decided that she could either die or start running away, the entire mass collapsed into itself and the roaring noises converged into a single note, more pure than any Elizabeth had heard before, more powerful still because it was louder than her ears could process.
After a few moments, Elizabeth peeked through her fingers and warily stood up from her crouch.
"It's finished," she said, realizing that she couldn't hear anything except a ringing in her ears.
Lester stayed in a fetal position for a minute, then slowly sat up and worked his jaw to pop his eardrums.
Hitchcock sat back onto his heels, hugging his knees and staring towards the place where the structure had stood, taking in the featureless plane of carbon.
"There's something in the center," he said, pointing.
Standing up and brushing the carbon dust from their hair and ears, they could see something white sitting in the exact center of the huge black disk.
From across the outer rings of the flat landscape, a loudspeaker boomed, "MOVE AWAY FROM THE CENTER." From every direction, cars, trailers, motorcycles, and military vehicles raced across the carbon towards their little group of three. Now that the beam was no longer hot, the world was rushing in.
Looking into each other’s eyes, as one they turned and walked towards the center. The white object seemed to shift in their sight, first looking like a dome with points, then a strange cube, then, as they got within a meter, it settled into a sphere. Lines and points in shades of gray slowly drifted across the face of the ball.
Reaching toward it, Elizabeth thought that she could feel it vibrating but she couldn't see it move. Almost touching it, she recognized one of the shapes.
"That's Orion's belt," Lester said, as Elizabeth picked up the ball.
"There's a star that's brighter than the others," said Hitchcock, pointing.
"It's a map," said Elizabeth, "an invitation."
Epilogue: Two years later
Elizabeth sipped her coffee and repeated, "Yes," into her mobile. She hunched over her workstation, rubbing her tired shoulders and changing a few variables in her program before rerunning the test suite.
"Look, I need time to finishing hardening the control systems and to stow my gear, I can't do another press conference. Do you want us to look good on the net or to launch on time? Choose one!" She closed the connection.
Waving her hand to beckon Lester as he popped his head into her stateroom, she walked over to her carry-on duffel and ran through a mental checklist to make sure she had everything. She let her hand linger on the white sphere, feeling its not-quite-motion.
Hitchcock knocked and walked in, neatly pressed and carrying a small bag. Looking at Lester and Elizabeth, he said, "It's that time. Let's move."
Elizabeth looked out of the window for one last view, taking in the sleek lines of her ship and the slowly spinning earth far below her.
"Yes, it's that time."
Thank you for reading Beam! I enjoyed writing it and I hope that you enjoyed reading it.
There are three more stories 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 March 2015
@TrevorFSmith on Twitter