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Fade to Black
by E.S. Strout
"There is considerable material in the universe that emits very little or no light, according to cutting-edge astrophysicists. This has been discerned through observation of the flow of intergalactic hydrogen streams. These behave as though they are being acted upon by unseen gravitational forces. The source of such energy has been a matter of much conjecture. Dark matter is the current designation." -- Scientific American, October 1997
Astrophysicist David Silver glowered at the scintillation-counter monitor. "Nothing. Not a flicker."
"Problem, David?" asked Major Katya Andreyev, pilot of the intergalactic research probe YURI GAGARIN.
"I can't get the ionization chamber cold enough, Katy."
"So your perfect silicon crystals are not so perfect?" she asked, her lips reflecting a smug grin.
Silver tapped the side of the scintillation device with an index finger, then pounded it with a fist. "Our Astrophysics Department was sure that absolute zero was the catalyst for a dark-matter reaction."
Andreyev tugged at the pale blonde tresses cascading over her forehead, then brushed them aside. "Please, David, go easy on equipment. Space Corps could dock our paychecks if their hi-tech toys are broken. There's no such thing as absolute zero, even in interstellar space."
Dr. Silver gave her a contrite grin and gave the black box a loving caress. "My research data indicate we need to get within a thousandth of a degree."
Major Andreyev raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Perhaps, David," she teased in her sharp Slavic accent, "there really is no such thing as dark matter."
"Uh-oh, Katy. Look here. External temp sensor is showing a sharp drop. Turn left just a tad and slow down a bit. Opening silicon crystal shutter now."
"You need course in Astropilot terminology, Professor," Andreyev said with a wink. "I'm giving you five-degree turn to port and returning to sublight . . ."
They both started at a sudden sharp ping. A brilliant green spike cleaved the scintillation counter's screen.
"Sonofabitch," Dr. Silver said, his voice quivering with elation as he froze a recorder chip image. "Look here, Katy."
"I agree. It is different from background noise, yes?" Andreyev asked. "Hydrogen? Helium?"
"It doesn't match any known elemental configuration." He brought up a column of figures on the monitor screen and tapped on one with a fingertip. "I knew it. Minus 272.997 degrees Fahrenheit. Closest yet. It lasted a nanosecond and coincides exactly with the time of the spike."
"So, you think it is real, your dark matter? More likely computer glitch or micrometeorite. Perhaps message from UFO?" Andreyev gave him a mischievous grin. "Take us to your leader, Professor David," she taunted.
"Hmpf. Computer systems checks are in the green, Katy. And a micrometeorite couldn't pass through the silicon crystal's one-angstrom window. This could be the scientific find of the year, the decade."
"I just drive intergalactic spacecraft, David. Ask me anything about Lynch Gravity Drive. I can't get my pantyhose in uproar over dark matter," Andreyev said. "And do you know you blush when you get excited?"
"Are you hitting on me, Major Andreyev?"
A pout of indignation. "How could you believe such a . . .?"
"Now who's blushing?"
"So tell me, David, what should I think about this dark matter," she said, deftly changing the subject. "Will we collide with dead neutron star, undiscovered planet? Perhaps stray black hole?"
The Professor gave her a dazzling smile. "You're a baryonist, Katy."
"Please explain. I am only spacecraft pilot, not Professor."
"Baryonists believe dark matter is composed of known subatomic particles, all the way up to what you said. Star or planet-sized objects, as yet undetected."
She gave him a doubtful frown. "And you?"
"An exotic, Major. I believe dark matter is something undiscovered. Theoretical structures, their existence unproven."
"Like that little green blip on your screen?"
"Exactly. Now all I've gotta do is repeat it, enhance it, run it through the Space Corps computers and . . ."
"Get yourself another Nobel Prize? You will mention me in your acknowledgements, yes?" Andreyev said, giving him a coy grin.
"Can you match up the receipt of our blip with time and coordinates?"
"Done, my dear."
The monitor screen reflected Dr. Silver's jubilant smile as multiple green pings lit it up. "I'm impressed, Katy. How'd you find it so quick?"
She gave him a contrived pout. "If I couldn't plot celestial intergalactic positions I wouldn't be driving GAGARIN. You would be stuck with male anal-retentive egotistical overachieving American. Not congenial, fun-loving blonde Ukrainian lady like me."
"I see your point."
"Why is it pulsating, David?"
He stared. "Hmm. That's new. I wonder . . ."
"You wonder? I'll bet it is alien intelligence trying to make contact. A UFO, perhaps?"
"You mean like extraterrestrial radar? Pretty far-out concept, Major."
"Hah!" Andreyev sniffed. "Just because you didn't think of it first? I am expert. My first military assignment was weapons officer on battle cruiser KIEV. I served on four combat missions."
"We were trained always to be suspicious of unexpected contacts," she continued. "We had three. Two were reflections from Zeta II Reticuli ice planet's surface, but third was cloaked Arcturian spy ship. We sent it packing with concentrated neutron burns all over its sorry ass."
"I remember," Dr. Silver said with reverence. "You and your crew were awarded individual Stars of Valor."
Her features lit with a brilliant smile. "You remember that? You must have been in kindergarten."
"High school, actually. I'm twenty-eight."
"A mere child."
"And you're an old lady?"
"I'm thirty-three. My reflexes are too slow anymore for combat duty. GAGARIN is my twilight tour. In appreciation for heroic service."
"You should feel honored."
Andreyev pounded the control console with a fist. "I am naked out here. No cloaking device, no weapons. Just eggheads like you. Don't get me wrong now. I enjoy your company, your sense of humor, your . . ."
"You're hitting on me again, Major."
"Strap in, David. We're headed home."
Space Corps Special Projects Director Commodore Andrew J. Shaw, a trim, graying black man, indulged his illegal tobacco habit with a puff on a contraband Venezuelan cigar. "Major Andreyev, Professor Silver, I congratulate you on a mission accomplished. Your dark-matter contact is a major scientific coup. How does two weeks of R&R sound?"
Andreyev gave her partner a nudge in the ribs with an elbow. "Odessa is wonderful, restful place on Black Sea. As teenager I danced in ballet there. My family has dacha only few kilometers away. I show you many places of interest . . ."
"I appreciate the offer, Katy," he stammered. "But I need to review our mission findings. Something is bugging me."
"Bugging? Like cockroaches? We've got plenty of those. You interested? And yes, I'm hitting on you."
"Save the romantic overtones for later, Major," Commodore Shaw said, scowling through a haze of cigar smoke. "If Professor Silver wants to continue his research, he has my blessing."
"Thank you, Commodore. I need some time with the Space Corps computer geeks . . ."
Andreyev gave him a seductive eyelid flutter. "So meet me later at Officers Club, Professor David. How's seven? I'll get us couple of Stolichnayas."
* * *
"What can you tell me about this little chip, Dr. Silver?" asked electronics technician Narindar Singh, as he popped the chip into the VideoTrac.
"Definite dark-matter contact. It fits all the parameters, Nari. I'm wondering about this fluctuation on the second hit."
Technician Singh tapped computer keys. He viewed the screen with interest, chin cupped in one hand. "I see. Single spike on the first contact, repeating hits on the second. Yes, I agree. Definite fluctuations," he said in his soft East Indian accent. "They appear rhythmic. Let me plug in some diagnostic software. This could take some time, Doctor, but I have the duty this evening. Can I reach you someplace?"
"The Officers Club."
* * *
Major Andreyev stood and gave him an enthusiastic salute. "David. How good of you to come." She motioned to the waitress. "Another double Stoli on the rocks for me, and one for my Ph.D. partner here."
Silver raised a questioning eyebrow. "Your second, Katy? It's only seven-thirty."
"Third, David. In Ukraine we are expected to have vodka with lunch and dinner by age fifteen. I have built up good strong tolerance. Drink up now. Nice Russian vodka. Almost as good as Ukrainian."
Dr. Silver raised his ice-crusted glass. "To your indestructible liver, Katy."
"To your dark-matter UFOs, Professor."
"Phone, Dr. Silver," the bartender said. "You can take it right here, sir."
"Be right back." Andreyev gave him a lazy wave and swallowed a mouthful of her gelid drink. Dr. Silver's conversation was brief. His expression was one of concern and guarded excitement when he returned to the table. "Gotta go, Katy. Electronic surveillance and crypto folks are interested in our dark-matter chip."
Andreyev drained her glass with a single gulp, then finished David's. "Let me get us couple of sandwiches, then I go with you."
* * *
"I called the spooks after I ran a few tests on your dark-matter chip," technician Singh said. "The results were extraordinary."
"Warrant Officer Mary Howell, Dr. Silver," the graying, expressionless woman introduced herself, offering a brittle handshake. "Space Corps Intelligence. Mr. Singh is correct. Extraordinary is an understatement."
Dr. Silver's face betrayed puzzlement. "What did I miss?"
Howell's countenance softened a trace. "Nothing you could have done about it," she said. "Our most recent software upgrade can precisely identify patterns such as this. Look here." She tapped the keypad. The green spikes were replaced by multicolored overlapping sine waves. "This is the fluctuation you described."
"Very pretty. Like aurora borealis over arctic circle."
"Hush, Katy," Dr. Silver admonished. "What have you found. Officer Howell?"
"It's a systematized transmission. We're still working on it. It'll take a while. Check with me tomorrow."
* * *
"What do you have, Warrant Officer Howell?" David asked as he and Major Andreyev peered over her shoulder at the Naval Intelligence Laboratory's computer screen.
She regarded him with wary eyes. "Can you assure me that this is not some private little joke? I know how you civilians like to tweak us military types."
"Professor Silver was under my direct observation the entire mission, Warrant Officer Howell," Major Andreyev informed her with an icy glare. "No screwing around, as you Americans say."
"Very well, Major." Warrant Officer Howell handed Dr. Silver a computer printout sheet. "This is a partial translation of the transmission. As you can see, Doctor, we did have concern regarding, shall we say, some fabrication."
WE SENSE VITAL LIGHT AND WARMTH.
Silver read, his brow furrowed in confusion. He handed the sheet to Major Andreyev. After reading the text, she grinned, then laughed out loud. "You see, David. UFOs, like I said. Your dark-matter aliens must be freezing their little green butts off out there." Suddenly her eyes grew wide and she covered her mouth with a hand to stifle a gasp. "Commodore Shaw will not be pleased, I think."
Shaw eyed the printout with a prudent grimace. "Major Andreyev, I'm within a gnat's eyebrow of relieving you of command."
"Sir, I have no explanation," she stammered.
The Commodore's restraint collapsed with the hammering of his fist. "Enough! This sort of foolishness is for plebes at the Space Corps Academy." His wrath then shot like a blade toward the astrophysicist. "And you, Doctor? What degenerate sense of humor . . .?"
Silver's neck reddened, betraying his smoldering anger. "I've been a Space Corps mission specialist for almost six years. I was awarded the Nobel Prize in Theoretical Astrophysics last year. You, Commodore Shaw, recommended me for this position. And may I add, sir, Major Andreyev was following your direct orders."
Katya Andreyev almost imperceptibly fluttered her dark eyelashes over azure irises. "I love it when you get mad, David," she whispered. "Thank you."
Commodore Shaw cut her off with a chopping motion of his left hand. His voice was now subdued, almost contrite. "So what do we do now, Dr. Silver? I'm serious."
"Try to get them to talk to us, sir."
"This is the place, Professor David."
"So soon, Katy?"
"I anticipated such a scenario, so I entered location in GAGARIN's celestial navigation database when we were here before. I'm good, don't you agree, love?"
Silver shrugged into his shirt collar to hide the blush. "Loading Warrant Officer Howell's translation module. Opening silicon crystal port now."
The screen displayed only background noise. "Wild goose chase," Major Andreyev said. "Your dark-matter aliens seem to have . . . Sonofabitch, like you Americans say! Look there." The dark screen had come alive with sinuous, multicolored, and interweaving coils of light. "What are they saying, David?"
Silver pressed a key.
YOU COME FROM LIGHT AND WARMTH?
Andreyev punched his shoulder. "Well, answer them, David. They are your friends."
Dr. Silver tapped the keyboard, his lips pursed in concentration.
"We are sentient organic beings from a bright, warm world."
ORGANIC MEANS WHAT?
"Carbon-based life forms. And you?"
WE ARE MANY COHESIVE PARTICLES. NOT ORGANIC. WE HAVE EXISTED ALONE IN COLD AND DARKNESS SINCE THE GREAT SINGULARITY.
"See that, Katy? Exotic entities, here since the Big Bang. A form of matter never before encountered. I was right. This could be . . ."
She grinned. "Your second Nobel Prize?"
A new message lit the screen. "Oh, oh. What means this, David?"
WE WILL CAPTURE BRIGHTNESS AND WARMTH.
"Capture? Please explain." Dr. Silver typed.
"I don't like this, Major Andreyev. Feels like the ship is moving . . ."
"Six-point restraint harness. Now, David!"
"Is dacha!" Andreyev exclaimed with unrestrained wonder and joy as she stepped from GAGARIN onto a rustic wooden floor covered with thick animal-skin rugs. "Exactly like one I knew near Odessa. Nobody else here, David. Is dark outside windows. No stars." She opened a series of cabinets next to a wall-sized TV screen. "And look here. Movie, literature, music chips. Must be all ever recorded. And Stolichnaya in the kitchen freezer!"
Bewildered, David returned to the dark matter communicator-translator. "What just happened?" he typed. "I don't understand . . ."
ALL UNIVERSAL WARM ORGANIC BEINGS, ALL LIGHT-GIVING BODIES ABSORBED. EXCEPT YOU. WE OWE YOU ONE.
Story © 2002 by E.S. Strout firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2002 by Ehrad email@example.com
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