Unbounded, p.1
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       Unbounded, p.1

           Ander Nesser
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Unbounded
Unbounded

  a novel by Ander Nesser

  Text and cover art copyright 2016 Ander Nesser

  All Rights Reserved

  Table of Contents

  Chapter One: Rock Garden

  Chapter Two: Cold Trove

  Chapter Three: Significant Sea

  Chapter Four: Glow Canyon

  Chapter Five: Menhir Waters

  Chapter Six: The Flying Mountains of Magenta Sorrow

  Chapter Seven: Teal Grip

  Chapter Eight: Fogstill

  Chapter Nine: Echo

  Chapter Ten: Illuminations of Glimmerpool

  Chapter Eleven: Glimmerpool Glory

  Chapter Twelve: Perinucleon

  Author's Note

  Selected Bibliography

  About the Author

  Chapter One: Rock Garden

  Mission Time: +138 Earth-years

  On his hands and knees, a man stared through the floor. A dry world floated in the false window below. A few people walked by and barely looked at him.

  "Ryder? Are you alright?"

  Ryder looked up and saw the weakly wrinkled eyes of a short man looking down at him. "I'm fine Hemi; thanks." He stood up and touched the wall; the window winked away. "I'm just feeling a bit overwhelmed," he said.

  "It's a lot to take in, I know," Hemi said. "I'm heading for Command Sector. Walk with me?"

  "Sure." Ryder passed over the now plain white floor and went with Hemi to a nearby door.

  This sector of the ring was dim and hushed. Blue hues stretched to orange, and a computer terminal washed a man in ruddy light. His facial muscles gradually squeezed inwards towards a frown. Without shifting her head, a woman in a white uniform glanced at him.

  "Tangaroa--" the woman called out. "--what's wrong?"

  "I'm looking at the spectrographic analysis we just did, and it ... it doesn't ... correspond to anything we were expecting," Tangaroa said.

  The woman shifted her body in the shadows. "What are you talking about?"

  Tangaroa pressed his hands to the glossy surface in front of him. Glowing lines and boxes of text radiated from his fingers on the terminal's surface. "Our data do not match the original telemetry from the Flamecast probe. The atmosphere is cold and toxic."

  The woman's eyes widened.

  "Mbali, I have triple-checked our location," another man near Tangaroa called out to the woman. "Navigation was successful."

  "Then quadruple-check," the woman named Mbali said. "Tangaroa, is it possible the planet's atmosphere could have changed that much in one century?"

  "It's not just the atmosphere. The surface gravity is only 0.76 g, but Flamecast had reported 1.7 g. This is a different world entirely."

  "Anaru, you are certain we are at the precisely correct orbital distance from Wolf 1061?" Mbali asked the navigator.

  "Yes ma'am."

  "Is it possible another planet shares the same orbit?"

  "Not in this case," another young man in a black uniform answered. He walked to a cylindrical console in an alcove. When his hands touched the dark surface, they sprouted flowers of data. "Mbali, take a look through your viewer," he said.

  She blinked, activating bionic implants, and black nictating membranes slid over her eyes. Mbali's sight was replaced with a vista of a brown and white world one megameter below, the arc of the Milky Way above. She rotated her head around in real space, braided dreadlocks shifting between her shoulders. Heads-up displays highlighted a speck above the planet. She zoomed in to the speck and dimmed the luminosity of everything else around it. At maximum zoom, she could barely make out that the object was dimensional. It occasionally glimmered in the sunlight. "Is that the orbital component of Flamecast? I can't see it very clearly. But it's sparkling."

  "Yes. It's a bit too small for our telescopes to resolve at this distance. The reflections are from solar panels."

  "Is the landing component still in its integrated state?"

  "It should be, in theory. We have no signal from the surface, but we do have the coordinates of its original landing site."

  Mbali blinked again, and the membranes retracted. "Then we need to verify it's really there," she said. "Ariki," she addressed the man to whom she had just been talking. "You and the other senior scientists are going down. Security Chief Zhao, as well. Now."

  Ariki nodded and glanced around at some of the other men who were attending to various terminals, including Ryder and Hemi. With a gesture or an electroencephalographic pulse, the men closed their terminals, returning the consoles to a default configuration. All clad in black uniforms, they stepped out from their stations and walked past Mbali. Out in the circumferential corridor, Ariki led them up the curving floor to wall-embedded rungs. They climbed through an opening in the ceiling labeled "Radial Access." As they ascended the narrow shaft, their weight lessened until it reached zero at the top. Here they passed through another opening labeled "Main Access" into a wider, perpendicular tube. Yellow lights slowly brightened in response to their presence; the bulkhead was plush with black padding. They propelled themselves along hand-rails until reaching another radial access opening to the main skiff bay. They floated down feet first, then climbed down. As they filed off the ladder into the bay, they stepped into their full one-g weight.

  Various types of skiffs were lined up on the bay floor like sleeping insects. The vessel they boarded was dark gray with thermal tiles, and it crouched on pylons supporting vertical take-off and landing engines. The passengers swayed slightly whilst the skiff was picked up by the docking arms, and they fastened their harnesses.

  Ryder turned on his eye-camera and went to the cockpit. The pilot was a standard skiff pseudo-gynoid with minimal human interaction protocols. It was fused to the deck at the waist, arm tendrils radiating to numerous entry ports in the console. Its head was vaguely spherical and covered in cameras to view out the canopy in all directions. "This is ship's clerk Ryder Kask here in the cockpit with a Kiwi-class pilot who will take us to the surface of Rock Garden. Note that the cameras on its head are redundant backups to the skiff's own sensors. All skiff inputs are fed through the pilot as it makes decisions. In the event of severe malfunctions, the pilot's output cables can be unplugged from the control console for manual flying by humans." Ryder turned off his recorder. "There's a scary thought."

  He looked around the cockpit some more, then focused outside the canopy, turning his camera back on to record the departure procedure. "One hundred sixty-seven years ago, a swarm of microscopic machines were launched from space-based accelerators at near-light-speed." The bay doors opened, and the skiff was pushed out along the docking rails. The backdrop of stars was a blur beyond the perpetual spin of their ship. "They spread throughout all the neighboring star systems, scanning each planet for features of interest," Ryder continued. "Once they actually reached their destinations, they condensed into macroscopic objects and behaved as traditional planetary probes. They transmitted telemetry back to Mission Control at the Global Unity Space Agency on Earth." The skiff was released from the docking arms, and Ryder, becoming weightless, had to strap into a seat as they decelerated out of the spinship's inertial frame. The brown crescent leveled below, and they began a steep descent. "One probe, called Flamecast, described a warm, wet, and sterile world; dubbing it 'Rock Garden,' the GUSA made the decision that this was to be the site of humanity's first extrasolar colony. The spinship Unbounded was launched immediately. But now, new data is calling everything into question." Ryder unstrapped himself and floated out of the cockpit.

  "Kask, you need to be seated for the descent," a young man with tall, black hair said seriously.

  "Sorry Zhao Zhong," Ryder said as he chose a seat at the end of the row, leaving an empty one between himself and Hemi. He closed his eyes th
rough the gentle rocking of turbulence, and a few minutes later the skiff made a gentle touchdown onto rocky ground.

  Zhong looked at his arm-calc. "The skiff indicates a surface pressure of 0.036 atmospheres and a temperature of minus 223.8 centigrade. Wind speed, six kilometers per hour. Biogenic compounds absent."

  Ryder unstrapped and entered the vertical elevator airlock. The door rotated and sealed, and the sterilizer pulled every microbe from the surface of his body. The airlock robotics then wrapped him in a thin, translucent pressure suit, capping his face with a reflective visor and breathing mask. The robotics pulled away, and the sterilizer cycled through a second time; then the airlock moved.

  Ryder watched his bustling comrades rise up and disappear above the deck. Except for the red glow of the elevator controls, there was a moment of darkness. A crack of light appeared at Ryder's feet and quickly spread upwards to fill his cylindrical chamber through the pseudo-glass. The skiff's steaming hull receded above, and reddish brown rock approached from below. He caught a glimpse of high mesas guarding the landscape beyond the plateau on which they had landed. The elevator halted a few centimeters above the ground. The hatch opened, cold air rushed in, and Ryder stepped down onto the rocky ground. He walked away from the skiff and climbed onto a low, flat rock, then sat down cross-legged, facing the vista below. The skiff stood like a waiting dragonfly at his back. With sudden gusts, dust swirled around him intermittently, seeming to momentarily brush away the heavy sunlight. Ryder's back was straight, hands on his knees. The sounds of his teammates rustling in their preparations came through his earpieces over the soft breezes conveyed by the helmet's microphones. There were no other sounds.

  Five minutes later, there came a hiss of air as the freight elevator's floor unsealed from the ventral side of the hull. It lowered, loaded with crewmen and equipment, as the smaller elevator retracted. Ryder heard the crewmen crunch onto the new terrain, but did not turn to look at them. Angular, brown rocks of every size speckled a land which seemed never to have known flowing liquid. Minute products of wind erosion occasionally danced around them, but all else was still. Hemi unloaded several pieces of equipment, laying them on the flat ground between the skiff and a rocky bluff. Zhong pointed to various spots, directing. Tangaroa took rock samples. Zhong walked up to him. "The Flamecast lander?" he asked flatly.

  "Right," Tangaroa said. He glanced at his arm-calc. "It should be this way." Carrying a small case, he led Zhong thirty meters away from his mineral analysis package. Ariki noticed them heading off together, and he was quick to follow.

  Tangaroa stopped and pointed at a sandy patch of ground in the shadow of a low, rocky ridge. "These are the landing coordinates. It should be here."

  "Could you determine whether it might have been buried in the intervening century and a half?" Zhong asked.

  "Well, I am a geologist, after all. It depends on the erosion rate. But I would say that is indeed a possibility. Even likely." Tangaroa set his kit of tools down and extracted a scoop of sand. He began digging in the shadow of the outcrop.

  "That makes me really nervous," Zhong said.

  Tekoha turned to him and crossed his arms. "I assure you he's perfectly safe. This planet is as sterile as Mercury."

  "Found it," Tangaroa announced. He pulled a black multi-folded fractal object from the rock dust and set it on solid stone. Red dust streamed from its crevices. "If we expose it to sunlight for a few hours, it should become operational again."

  "Tekoha to Unbounded," Tekoha said.

  "This is Mbali. Go ahead Tekoha."

  "Mbali, we found the lander." He was staring at the dark crystal gleaming in the sunlight.

  "Then that confirms it," Mbali said. "This is indeed Rock Garden. Give me a moment to consult Fai-tsiri."

  Zhong shifted his weight to one foot and put his hands on his hips. He looked at Tekoha. "How could the Flamecast telemetry be so wrong? Did this world really change somehow since it first landed?" He waved an arm at the lander.

  Tangaroa shook his head, his facial expression hidden by the reflective visor.

  Mbali's voice popped into their ears again. "The skiff is being ordered back to Unbounded. All senior scientists are to report to the conference room ASAP."

  "Shouldn't we investigate the surface more as long as we're here?"

  "You got the information we came for. Let's not waste any more time. Leave the lander where it is and return immediately," Mbali replied.

  "Yes ma'am," Tangaroa said.

  The six men packed their toolkits and reloaded equipment packages onto the elevator. Within ten minutes they were strapped in their seats as the on-board computer ran through a takeoff checklist. Moments later, they were accelerating up the clear green sky. Ryder tightened the straps of his shoulder harness as he looked out a false window. He turned to Tekoha and began recording with his camera. "Do you have anything to say about the first planetfall?" he asked him.

  Sunlight hit Tekoha's scowl.

  "Is there something wrong, Tekoha?" Ryder asked.

  Tekoha glanced at the others sitting across from him and then back at Ryder. "I'd rather not discuss it at the moment," Tekoha said.

  "Oh. Perhaps we can talk later, then."

  Tekoha nodded and closed his eyes, laying his head back against the seat. Hemi was looking at them with arched brows. Ryder turned back to the view. The green sky soon deepened to black, and then the world curved away. A bright speck shifted into his view and grew larger. A few minutes later his false window was filled with the thick, reflective rings of Unbounded. Their skiff accelerated in an arc until it matched the spin velocity of the ship. When they reached the correct position over the docking ring, a bay door opened and guide rails extended; the skiff maneuvered to attach to the rails. The locks latched onto the skiff's hull, and then the rails began retracting, pulling the skiff in its ventral direction into the bay. With the skiff docked and with the bay sealed and pressurized, the six-member team hopped out and settled into their weight at one g. The door was now a floor. Tangaroa lead the others all the way back to Command Sector, where they entered a narrow chamber.

  Mbali and three men sat at the far end of a table, a large false window behind her displaying the stars, the limb of the desert world near the bottom of the frame. The senior staff took their seats along the table.

  "At the moment I am not concerned with the reason for the data discrepancy," Mbali said after everyone was settled. "We should be focused on our own survival, and the welfare of the four thousand people sealed in cryopreservation. Hemi, have you completed running diagnostic assessments on all the cryostats?"

  "Yes ma'am." He put a hand on a soft box next to his left hip.

  "And what is your assessment?"

  "Each cryostat chamber experiences a critical fault about once per century, on average, but they are immediately repaired by the Custodians. The cryopreservation system should be able to maintain operations indefinitely as long as a sufficient number of Custodians are still functional," Hemi said, adjusting the shoulder strap of his toolkit.

  "Doctor Tai, do you have anything to add about the health of the static passengers?"

  "Health levels are the best we can hope for. But I think I know what you're really asking ..." Doctor Tai looked around the table at the other men. ". What you all really want to know. I have verified the damage rate to our bodies by radioactivity, and it is within the predicted range. Thawing every five decades and going through the detoxification process can stave off the inevitable for only so long." He paused, looking down at his hands.

  "Doctor? What are the numbers?" Mbali asked.

  Tai looked her in the eyes, and then looked at the faces of his crewmates. "We can survive out here for another seven hundred years, ship-time, before the effects of radioactivity are fatal."

  Mbali leaned back in her seat and looked down at the black tabletop. "Are you certain? That's on the low end of predictions."

  Tai nodded. "I'm sorry it's not what we were
hoping for, but it's not entirely unexpected."

  Mbali looked out at the faces of her crew. "I know what you are all thinking. At maximum engine performance, it will take one hundred forty years to return to Earth." She paused, putting her hands on the table and leaning forward. "It is simple arithmetic. We can return to Earth now, having accomplished nothing. Or, ...."

  "Or what?" Nikau said. "We can't start a colony here. The atmosphere is toxic--it would take several generations to clean it, if that were even possible."

  Ariki nodded. "He's right. We don't have the capability to terraform such an un-Earthlike world. And we certainly don't have the equipment to set up a self-sustaining arcologic colony."

  "And even if we could, there's no water," Tekoha said.

  Mbali nodded. "Agreed. That leaves only one other option. We continue onward."

  "Onward? Where? There are no other planets in this system inside the habitable zone of the sun," Nikau said.

  "That's not what I meant," Mbali said. "Anaru, what is the next closest star system?"

  "36 Ophiuchi, which is 7.42 light-years away."

  "Wait a second, we don't know if that system even has planets--it's a trinary, anyway," Tekoha said. "Are you suggesting we blindly fly from system to system in hopes we stumble onto one precious gem?"

  "That's exactly what I'm suggesting."

  "But how many systems can we visit before we die?" Nikau asked.

  Mbali looked at Anaru.

  "In this region of the galaxy, stars are, on average, five light-years away from the next-nearest neighbor. That means we have time to visit about fourteen systems. But we'll be consuming much more fuel and propellant than specified in the original mission parameters, with all the additional acceleration and deceleration between each stop."

  "That shouldn't be a problem," Ariki said. "We can take in hydrogen at a faster rate than we consume it."

  "But what about mechanical failure of the engines?" Anaru asked. "They'll be working a lot more than anyone thought. They were planned for a single acceleration and a single deceleration interval. Now we're talking about doing it over a twenty times."

  "It's not as unreasonable as it sounds," Ariki responded. "This class of spinship wasn't designed for single missions only. GUSA considered the possibility there might be several journeys back and forth between Rock Garden and Earth once the colony was established."

  "But fourteen?"

  "That's why we have the Custodians. I'm confident they can maintain this ship long after our biological expiration date."

  "All right," Mbali said. "Remember that we won't be completely blind, after all: we still have the old probe telemetry originally received by Mission Control."

  "Not for every star system in the Solar neighborhood," Anaru said.

  "Right, but we do have data from a couple we might reach. I'm going to have a discussion with Fai-tsiri, but I think she will agree this is our best option if we actually want to complete the mission. I expect she will order us back into stasis shortly." The people around the table avoided eye contact with each other. She stood. "Dismissed." The staff filed out of the room. Mbali went to the wall behind her chair and touched a panel. The image in the false window exhibited a vertical motion blur until it became indistinguishable streaks, reflecting the habitat ring's actual rotation rate.

  "Mbali?"

  She turned. "Yes Nikau?"

  Nikau's eyes shifted side to side; his weight shifted foot to foot; he opened his mouth but did not speak.

  "What is it?"

  "I uh ... well, it's nothing really."

  "Tell me."

  "You know what, nevermind. I'm sorry to bother you." He rushed for the conference room's exit.

  "Nikau!"

  "It's not important. We'll talk later." And he was through the door. Mbali went to the doorway and watched him disappear up the curve of the corridor.

  As Nikau marched onward, he saw doors sliding shut as other crew entered their cabins. Some left their doors open. He passed one room and saw Tangaroa sitting on the edge of a chair, elbows on his knees, staring at the floor.

  He came to another closed door, dark gray in the white wall. His name was printed on it, both in Globalese block letters as well as the spirals and staves of New Maori ceremonial script. He put his hand into the recessed handhold of the door, and then looked behind him. The corridor was empty. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He slid the door open and entered his cabin, then closed it again.

  Nikau went to one wall and called up an alpine vista for his false window. He stared at it and sighed, sinking into his desk chair.

  A soft chime sparkled in the air. "Enter," he said.

  Hemi slid the door open and entered. "Hey Nikau, how's it going?"

  "Fine." Nikau looked at him briefly, and then returned his eyes to the mountains. Afternoon sunlight seemed to stream into the room, producing golden blooms on metallic surfaces.

  "You seemed a little strange in the meeting," Hemi commented.

  "How so?"

  "I don't know, you just don't seem like yourself."

  "I'm fine. Just a little distracted."

  "By what?" Hemi sat in another chair, frowning.

  "I suppose I really began to have doubts about this mission when Mbali said we would continue onward. I mean, is it worth it? Honestly, I don't really understand the economic drivers of our mission to begin with. The effort and cost of establishing an exoplanet colony seems greater than the benefit. It definitely doesn't benefit anyone back on Earth."

  "Well, we might make some serendipitous discoveries and transmit our findings back to Control," Hemi said.

  "That's rather speculative. Can you depend on serendipity? And even if you could, would the benefit of those discoveries exceed the cost? I'm telling you, something about this mission doesn't make sense," Nikau said emphatically.

  "Something in particular?"

  Nikau rubbed his cheeks with the palm of his hands, stretching the skin around his eyes. "I was checking some programming, adding comments to code written by Fai-tsiri. I've looked through so much code since waking up. Maybe my imagination is getting the best of me. But I think I saw some things I wasn't supposed to see."

  "What are you talking about? There's no classified information on this mission."

  "Well, actually, I think there is. There were some encrypted files, and I got into them, thinking they were encrypted by mistake. Turns out, maybe not."

  "You have to go to Mbali with this. It's your duty."

  "I know. I was about to, just now. But ..."

  "But what?"

  "To be honest, I got a little scared. I'm just not sure what's going on."

  "What did you see in the encrypted code, exactly?"

  Nikau shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it. I have to decide what my next move is, first."

  "Okay. Well, take your time. You'll make the right decision, I'm sure." Hemi stood up and moved towards the door. "Anytime you need to talk, feel free to stop by my cabin. Or if I'm not there, I'm probably in the Engineering Module."

  Nikau nodded.

  "I guess I'll be going. Got to get some stuff done before we head back into stasis."

  Nikau nodded again.

  "By the way, has that clerk bothered you much? He's been going around bombarding the crew with questions."

  "You mean Ryder Kask? The historian? No, I haven't talked to him much."

  "Okay." Hemi slid the door open and stepped out into the corridor. He turned back to face into the room, then turned his head quickly side to side, glancing in all directions. "Oh, Nikau. Fai-tsiri would like to extend her apologies."

  "For what?" Nikau asked.

  Hemi pulled something dark and cylindrical from his toolkit. There was a soft pop of air pressure, and a small shockwave bounced off the bulkheads. Nikau fell forward off his chair. Blood sprayed from his neck, glowing in the fake sunlight. Hemi slid the door shut and walked slowly up the habitat ring.

 
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