"Sestus Probes" by ehrad

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The Blue Cabukhy
by William Alan Rieser


Mahogany or acrylic pemmican. Those were the unsavory colors behind his throbbing eyes and the texture of his numbed thoughts as Engineer Jahn Tonelle lowered his beleaguered, migrained head to the plastic kitchen table. He ignored his wife's breakfast of simulated toast and coffee, ignored her latest diatribe about a nebulous whatever and focused his brain on the enigma that currently plagued the Confederation. He had let down his cousin, the inimitable Ambassador Langford Joh, by his failure after being inspired by the man. He utterly and forever ruined that association because he didn't anticipate the unknown. The words of his twelve-year-old son, Jaik, managed to pierce that fragile barrier and interrupt his worries.

"Did you tell 'em my name for it, Blue Cabukhy?"

"What?" asked Jahn, his concentration ruined. "Oh, yes. They loved it. Everyone wants to call it that now. You're famous. Any preference on the spelling?"

"Nope. Not until you figure out what it is."

"That's the tricky part, Jaik. We haven't a clue. We don't know how it appeared from nowhere and showed up on Cragen's moon. Somehow it got through my shield without tripping the sophisticated sensors. That should have been impossible considering how dense I made the neural net. The only thing we know for sure is that it happened between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Your Uncle Langford will have my hide for this."

"Maybe it's not an alien. Maybe it comes from inside Cragen."

"No. We tested the surface extensively, Jaik. No life forms whatsoever except for pre-animate bacteria. Nothing buried in the soil. We checked for miles down. This thing, whatever it is, came from outside. It's got all of us shook up."

"The photo looks like a big, blue egg, sorta. That doesn't seem dangerous to me."

"You have to understand that it's very big, the size of Luna City. We don't know what is inside it. It could be anything; an alien army, an invasive probe, a destructive device."

"I could have a discussion with my classmates at school. A hypothetical session based on the picture you gave me. Maybe we can figure out something you haven't thought of."

"Why don't you do that and surprise us? We certainly haven't had any luck."

* * *

Langford Joh decided not to get personally involved for his nephew's sake. But that did not prevent him from enlisting the aid of a formidable man. The President of Luna City University was the eminent Grogan Percolis, a mostly disabled octogenarian whose incisive reasoning ability was of such magnitude that the Confederation felt compelled to place him in charge of the League of Combined Responses to Galactic Controversies, regardless of his infirmity and other heavy responsibilities. His life was maintained by placing his nearly useless body in a permanent hyperbaric chamber where the pressures could be regulated to allow blood to circulate to his magnificent brain. No other representative from the many systems in the Confederation could be found to replace him considering his overwhelming status on the sentient index used to classify intellect by species. On Wednesday, three days after the Blue Cabukhy made its presence known on Cragen, Percolis ordered a meeting of his scientific advisors from Earth. His first words in the Luna conference room made Jahn Tonelle recognize his own insignificance, even though he was surrounded by several highly qualified people who admired his talent.

"Engineer Tonelle, give us your educated assessment or best guess as to how this entity penetrated your allegedly unbreachable shield around Cragen to compromise our efforts at establishing a sustenance globe." The old man knew that Tonelle deplored politics as chicanery, that he despised any form of dissembling. Personal truths meant the same as scientific fact to the engineer, a belief that Percolis appreciated. Jahn could hear the aged tyrant's labored breathing through the interfaced audio equipment mated to his silver chamber. He sighed rather heavily himself before responding. No posturing was permitted in the presence of Percolis and accuracy was mandated.

"The shield matrix uses a nano-molecular grid, sir," said Jahn, mustering the clarity needed for this confrontation. Meeting with Percolis was a bit disturbing because the old man was not self-conscious about the tubes and transparent bags of fluid that flourished inside his encapsulation. "Only a device or an entity using a technology based upon negative twelfth power or smaller could have passed through undetected. In other words, the alien must be dense enough at least for pico-molecules. This goes an order of magnitude beyond anything we have in the Confederation. If it is hostile....."

"I haven't asked you about that yet, Engineer," scolded the President. "Any idea about its placement on the surface?"

"It seems to occupy the whole of a fault line in a low mountainous area, sir. No impact at all on the plains areas where we want to cultivate crops. At the moment, it seems more an intrusive anomaly in the hills than a detriment to farming."

"What about its method of propagation? Any clues?"

"Well, to be completely honest, if it is pico-molecular, it can surpass any of the velocities we have achieved and travel about in a mode that would be invisible to us. It might be capable of instantaneous teleportation by thought, but that is just a private speculation."

Several participants who sat at the conference table stirred visibly at those words as though they finally realized how the problem was going to affect them personally. One man in particular, Lonigan, who sat at Tonelle's right side, kept his hands below the table where they curled into fists and turned his knuckles white with anticipation.

"Janek's hypothesis from two hundred years ago," continued Percolis, instantly grasping Tonelle's logic. "Supposing it has achieved such negative power levels, do we have anything capable of analyzing it or scanning its internals from the outside?"

"Nothing tangible, but do you recall the origin of sonar, sir?"

"The gyroscope! Two electromagnets surrounding a rotating cage of some sort."

"With a signal applied, yes sir. That was how primitive submarines pinged each other and sensed approaching craft."

"What of it? You would not be mentioning this if you did not have a conception."

"Feronay has modified the picoscope, sir, using the new femtochips from Silicox with the concavex lens introduced by Pacific Quartz. If we place this new scope between two superconductive magnetic sources and inject a teraherz signal, we may be able to scan something inside the dense matter we expect to encounter."

"That sounds promising. What do you say, Product Manager Lonigan?" Berthold Lonigan was the tool Percolis used whenever the League required a new construction of any sort. He was an outstanding manager with an unparalleled record of success in the matter of generating useful equipment and prototypes. Recently, he had been honored at a galactic conference for producing a bio-medical mechanism that rid the galaxy of deadly hydrogenic diseases, caused by time traveling ignition modules. He was much more of a politician than Jahn Tonelle and knew how to cut his losses; a survivor with a healthy respect for formidable personages such as Percolis.

"I'm familiar with the men and the projects involved," replied Lonigan carefully. "With concurrent hands-on, two days or perhaps less if you stress the urgency."

"I do stress it, Lonigan and I want Tonelle on your team. See to it immediately. By the time you have the gadget, I'll have a squad prepared for Cragen. You'll probably both have to go with them so inform your families. Hop to it, gentlemen."

"Wait a moment, please," begged Jahn. "What about some protection? You can't expect us to walk up to that monstrosity without something."

Lonigan and the few others in the room cringed, waiting for the rebuke they knew had to be forthcoming. But Percolis was relatively gentle, in spite of his awesome reputation for pounding lesser intellects into quivering submission.

"Oh, I understand your concerns, Engineer Tonelle, but as you made very clear to us, a nano-molecular taser cannon would be quite useless in the presence of a pico- molecular savage beast. I'll authorize some optical weaponry, if that will make you feel more comfortable. No doubt there will be some brave souls available to help you die if that becomes necessary, but we all recognize how hopeless that would be if the alien is antagonistic. I shouldn't dwell on that aspect. Focus on the tasks over which you have control." Percolis didn't bother to compliment Jahn on his conception. It was understood that fantastic events required brilliant counterbalances.

"Yes, sir. Forgive my outburst."

"Quite understandable, Jahn." That in itself was a form of high praise. Percolis never addressed people by their first names and was not known for intimacy, even when he sent people on missions that might ultimately result in their premature deaths. "Make it timely, please." By that, Grogan Percolis made it absolutely clear to all that he had no desire for Jahn Tonelle's untimely demise, another rare kudo.

* * *

Omega 12 was the closest Confederation station to Cragen, positioned as it was in a remote corner of the 4th quadrant. When the satellites traversing the moon's shield perimeter picked up new data, it was transmitted to them with an opto-proton link, the fastest means of modern communication. In this case, because of the distance involved, the message was literally bounced off another moon to speed it on its way.

"It's the Cabukhy, Ensign Drum," said a technician staring at his screen. "There's been a definite change."

"Don't tell me it has moved?" queried the officer in command of the station.

"No, sir. The floral landscape and the position of the entity are unchanged. It's the color and configuration."

"Show me."

"Look at the screen, sir. It has always been a kind of creamy light blue except for the ridges around its middle. They were a dark royal blue if you remember and they no longer appear shiny. Sunlight reflects differently as though the shell texture has deliberately altered. "

"They look the same to me. What do you perceive as different?"

"Don't you see the green patches? They are like spots mottling the surface of the thing. I'll adjust for contrast so you can view it better. There. It even looks like the alien is attempting to reproduce the colors of the natural environment."

"I see it," said Ensign Drum. "The greens do seem to match. This is a new development. I'll have to inform the League at once. The squad is already in transit and must be told as well. You handle that and I'll call the League."

"What do you think it means, sir?"

"Unknown, but it does indicate that the alien, whatever it is, may be familiar with Cragen's moon, strange as that may be to us."

* * *

Because Jahn Tonelle had been so instrumental in effectively interfacing the new scope under Berthold Lonigan's direction, he was assigned the job of implementing it when they arrived via a dimension piercing craft at Cragen's moon. Thirty technicians would assist him while Lonigan supervised the effort from the orbiting shuttle. Fifteen men were on one side of the great egg and the others were fifty miles to the north installing the equipment on the opposite side. Communication had to proceed through the shuttle because the Cabukhy interfered with their ground signals. As noted from the Omega 12 transmission, the Cabukhy was obviously undergoing a significant alteration.

When Tonelle first postulated the superconductors, he had no idea that the support equipment would weigh tons or that the controls demanded by precision required such extensive and elaborate calibration and maintenance. After all, superconductivity was an old idea, first achieved in the 20th century and refined in the 21st. In spite of many improvements, size was undiminished in order to achieve the effective transmission of a scan. Its advantage lay in the fact that no resistance, not even the puzzling Cabukhy itself, could prevent the minuscule electric currents from passing through the facing magnets. Ergo, if there was something inside the egg, it was going to be sensed. It took a full day of preparation before the picoscope was ready.

In that time, Jahn Tonelle made note of the fact that the Cabukhy exhibited several unreported traits. Whereas it had been lying along a tremendous fault line on the moon's surface, it definitely sank lower than previously seen. The mottling had increased to blotches that resembled the surrounding flora as though the egg was attempting to camouflage itself in a marbled sculpture. Also, the surrounding soil issued an eerie complaint in the form of a wailing hiss as though Atlas begrudged the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"The switch is thrown," reported Tonelle to Lonigan. "Spurious oscillations in evidence. Random patterns observed. Nothing substantive yet. I am energizing the sweep. Engaged. Receiving concise patterns now. Transmitting images."

"What is your opinion of those shifting globular masses?" asked Lonigan from the safety of the shuttle as he strained to understand the pictures on his plasma screen.

"I've never seen anything like it," replied the perplexed engineer. "Run a comparison with the databases. Maybe we'll find something similar."

At that moment, the moon grunted and quaked under the immensity of the Cabukhy. Jahn Tonelle was fortunate to be where he was behind the picoscope and confined on three sides by control panels. Others were not so lucky. Technicians were pulled ignominiously into the widening crack and crushed along with the natural debris of the falling landscape. The entire oval dome-like shell, all fifty miles of it, sucked downward for a full five minutes. When it was over, nearly a third of the Cabucky had descended into the moon's chasm. Lonigan immediately launched rescue personnel to the surface.

When the crews were sufficiently replaced and the equipment pulled back far enough to prevent further injury and damage, Luna City was contacted and Percolis informed of the events. The initial analysis of the scans proved uninstructive according to the databases. The League technicians were indisputably forlorn and unhappy with the negative results. Percolis, on the other hand, refused to be a doomsayer, though he did point out one obvious conclusion.

"That object is going to sink entirely into the surface. You'll have to distance the picoscope more than you have or more lives will be at risk. I do not interpret this as a hostile act. It is our own human stupidity at fault. We should have anticipated the danger. I blame myself for not thinking of it."

"No. It is my fault," admitted Lonigan with shame. "I should have known."

"I don't agree," said Jahn Tonelle, surprising them with his certainty. "I have confirmed that the Cabukhy is atto-molecular, beyond anything we considered. There was absolutely no way to predict its weight without knowing that. We were quite fortunate to pierce the shell with the scan, now that we know what it is made of."

"Atto?" queried Percolis on the delayed line from Luna City. "Are you saying the alien uses a technology based upon a matrix of negative eighteenth power molecular structure?"

"Yes I am. Unbelievable, but absolute. An inescapable fact, sir."

"Get out of there at once," ordered Percolis. "There is absolutely nothing you can do at this point. Make your observations from the shuttle from now on."

"I have to go back to link the picoscope to the shuttle by opto-protonic wave. Once I accomplish that, we can watch from above. Otherwise we'll receive no further images."

"Make sure that he is accompanied by our very best, Lonigan," said Percolis with clear trepidation. It was obvious that the old man had become emotional about the whole project and felt a personal need to protect his engineer.

Once again on the moon's green surface, Tonelle first ensured that the picoscope was reset beyond the range where it might be compromised by the Cabukhy's further descent. The huge masculinity surrounding him was clearly non-technical, the first actual warriors he had ever experienced. He was somewhat taken aback at their efficiency and strength in moving the heavy equipment and felt decidedly safe among them. They treated him like precious platinum. It only took a few moments to link the scope to the shuttle.

During that interlude, the Cabukhy lurched again, sinking more than half its diameter into the soil. The colors seen were more dramatically changed and reproduced virtually everything on the moon's surface from the grays of its rocky terrain to the browns of its branches and trunks. Every shade of green was duplicated somewhere on the vast eggshell and nothing blue remained at all. Tonelle gave the signal, taking a last look at the Cabukhy up close. He and the warriors were whisked up to the shuttle by vacuum beam deposition and received like heroes.

"It's doing exactly as you predicted," said Tonelle when next he spoke to Percolis. "I can't imagine anything weirder than what I am seeing. There is absolutely no precedent for anything like this in Confederation annals. What do you think?"

"I am as stumped as the rest of you. Is it true that the further it lowers, the more it approximates the hues of its new environment?"

"Shapes too. There are indications that the shell is now reproducing planar geometries. If I didn't know better, I would say it is learning the landscape, like an artist sketching a scene before attempting a complex painting."

"Maybe, Jahn. Perhaps it is doing just that. Not exactly inconceivable. What have you gleaned from the scope?"

"My best guess is that the internals are approximating what we think of as a chemical change. It might be reacting to the surface via the shell acting as a catalyst or interpreter. I think that rules out sentient forms. It is clearly a device."

"Then the obvious next question is why? What has any entity, galactic or extra- galactic to gain by doing so?"

"That sums up the quandary all right. The scope has performed admirably, but I don't think it can answer that query."

"Keep scanning, even if all you get are slight indications. It's the best thing we have. I am not without hope."

Whatever Percolis' suspicions, his words concerning the Cabukhy's eventual submergence proved prophetic. In the course of that Cragen solar day, the egg was swallowed whole by the fault line which then proceeded to reseal itself in a manner not seen on other worlds. It struck Tonelle as though the moon simultaneously closed a gigantic zipper from both ends. Almost immediately thereafter, the moon's surface exhibited major trauma as volcanoes erupted in tandem. The tectonic plates shifted in groaning acquiescence to the explosions and mountains moved. It was Lonigan who thought to ask Percolis the most relevant question.

"Why was the implementation of the farming delayed?" he inquired.

"Orbital instability," replied Percolis without hesitation. "I received a report that the apogee and perigee were inconstant, that the ellipse varied considerably. There was a question whether or not the moon might someday be flung out of the system altogether. I couldn't very well sanction farming without such stability, regardless how perfect the moon might be for food production. We've been seeking a solution so as not to waste the opportunity that this moon represents."

After a week of further fluctuation, Cragen's moon settled down and ceased wobbling. The moment it did so, the atmosphere produced cloud formations similar to Earth and Niprodel. Suddenly, though the floral components had formerly received sustenance from the sun and moisture from subterranean rivers, lakes sprang forth as rain pelted the panoramic valleys for the first time. The response from the greenery was enthusiastic and quite encouraging to all who saw it. Then, in a mesmerizing display of scintillation, the polar regions established themselves with thin, growing blankets of ice, proving its mastery of orbital mechanics. Lonigan described it in his notes as a solar costumed dance, a phrase that lingered.

"Moon's orbit stabilized," reported Jahn Tonelle after an exhausting analysis. "Whatever your prior objections, it seems that the Cabukhy has had a very beneficial effect for our purposes, assuming that is what caused this alteration."

"What else?" replied Percolis, jubilant over the development. "I doubt if another interpretation can be sustained. This was definitely cause and effect. You saw it yourself. Just because it is obvious does not mean it isn't so."

"Then it is your opinion," stated Tonelle succinctly, "that the Blue Cabukhy came here to heal the orbital malfunction. I'm not saying that it did this for us. In fact, we don't seem to be in its thoughts at all, assuming it thinks; not even as afterthoughts."

"And we would be remiss not to take advantage of that, wouldn't you agree?" chuckled Percolis whom Tonelle heard choking during the transmission. "It certainly prevented us from having to do it ourselves."

"So what is or what was it?"

"Perhaps your son Jaik has the right idea," suggested Percolis amidst what Tonelle perceived to be laughter. "A most precocious and inventive lad, like his father. Forgive me for intercepting his transmission to you, but I always monitor such things during emergencies. He discussed it with his sixth grade class, based I presume on one of the early images that you must have given him. I would add that they did this without the foreknowledge of the moon's former wobble. Guess what they came up with?"

"I can't imagine it," replied Tonelle, hoping his son had been discreet.

"A pill! A medicine from the void to cure a malady. Look at the analogy. It's almost exact. A moon is shuddering with imbalance, dangerously close to losing its orbit, unable to sustain a predictable trajectory. Then, magically, an enigmatic, gossamer something arrives to correct the global disease and is subsequently swallowed. Actually, it looked more like some impossible galactic suppository to me," cackled Percolis who clearly choked over phrasing that thought.

"I certainly can't dispute Jaik's reasoning," responded Tonelle, surprised again at his son's persistent logic. "There remains another unanswered question, however."

"And what is that, Engineer Tonelle?" asked Percolis, reverting to his sober self while staring into the monitor with mirthful, weathered eyes. "Your Uncle Langford and I would really like to know."

"Just this, sir. Who, in the name of all that is wonderful and fantastic, is the pharmacist?"

* * *

In his private residence, Ambassador Langford Joh reviewed the final images from Cragen's Moon while interfacing with his computer. "Is there anything different on the eggshell?" he asked.

"Specify?" asked the computer.

"A mark of identification, perhaps. Some kind of signature? I don't know. Do you see anything recognizable at all?"

"Not at this focal length."

"Then picozoom, damn it. There has to be something. No one goes to this much trouble without leaving evidence."

"Resolving pixels on a dark patch. I have a correlation, sir. I think it was missed by the scientists because it is the basis of every dot reproduced, like not seeing the forest because of the trees."

"Well, what is it?"

"I have confirmed a match between this basic representation and image 927 in the entity files."

"Which one is that?"

"Will you smash my rambi module if I tell you? You were unreasonable the last time something was overlooked."

"I promise I won't get angry. Tell me."

"You will be upset."

"I won't hurt you again. That was a mistake, never to be repeated. Now, tell me please. Who or what are the Cabukhy? What is 927?"

"I can't determine if it was manufactured there. They may simply be what you refer to as pharmacists."

"Who? Where?"

"It is the Prail symbol. It comes from Manic."

Langford sat down heavily in a chair, thinking about the ramifications. Once again the Manic had found a method to divert his consciousness by calling attention to themselves, this time by cleverly forcing him to see a cause and a result. Now, with the clarity of the computer's probative analysis, he was being given an open invitation to proceed into the enigma that mystified the Confederation. It was a summons and he, the Ambassador from Earth, was succinctly called to attendance.

Story © 2002 by William Alan Rieser wrieser@juno.com

Illustration © 2002 by Ehrad ehrad@eraduon-prebirth.com

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