Particle Exchange

by Joe Jablonski

Teleportation’s not about moving an object instantly across space; teleportation’s about the equal exchange of matter. The universe only deals in fair trade—particle for particle, atom for atom. This method of travel is known as particle exchange.

#

The exploration vessel Ferdinand winked into existence in space just above a small planet—name pending. Through the view screen, the tiny world glowed silver against the darkness of space, with streaks of blue and purple wrapped around the equator. Both poles were covered with a sheet of ice which radiated out over the surface of the planet, below large clusters of clouds drifting across a clear sky.

Clean atmosphere was always a good sign.

Fresh from their latest particle exchange, Captain Ryan Jones could still feel the cold chill of stasis draining from his body as he looked out at his crew’s discovery.

There were four aboard this ship, not including the twins, and over the last two years they’d been jumping from system to system trying to find new land and new resources to expand the human races’ domain.

The Earth was dying the slow death of overpopulation and all the problems associated with it. The search for a new planet to ease this burden was becoming more and more desperate with each passing year.

After the countless numbers of dead planets, only good for resources, this was the first any of the scout vessels had found that had shown even a remote possible of habitability. Jones heartbeat raced as he saw the possibilities.

“Ah, and the wax figure emerges,” Jones said as Mary Riggins stepped onto the bridge. She hated when he called her that.

While an average beauty, none of the crew had ever seen her out of uniform or even without her three layers of make up on. Every hair always in place, and every crease in her uniform sharp—impeccable.

In contrast, he was wearing his dingy white bathrobe and a pair of fuzzy pink slippers stolen from his ex-wife in the divorce. It’s been three days since he’d last shaved either his balding head or his face; the skin along his jawbone inched furiously. Jones admired her for a moment before turning back to the screen.

The vessel sailed just on the edge of the atmosphere using the planets’ natural electromagnetic field as both current and power supply.

“This looks like a good one. I almost can’t believe it.” Jones said.

“Probes deployed, sir,” said Riggins trying to ignore him.

“I love how I don’t even have to give you orders anymore. It makes my job all the easier.”

The capsule burned orange as it screamed throughout the atmosphere at the speed of gravity. At the moment of terminal velocity, the outer shell ruptured sending a thousand micro-probes racing across the atmosphere. Readings began to flutter in instantly and they all spoke of an ideal world for a settlement.

Over the excitement, Jones started to get a strange tingling sensation on the inside of his skull; not exactly painful, not exactly pleasant, just there. A strange vibration the likes of which he had never felt before. It left him with any uneasy feeling.

He was about to mention this to Riggins when something out of the viewport grabbed his attention.

Below on the planet, a pinpoint of light flashed, sending a shock wave through the atmosphere. Their tiny probes burst into flames one by one as the shock wave hit them, sending a circular out-flowing series of explosions across the planets’ surface.

All readings went dead.

“What the hell?”

When the explosion ceased, nothing remained to say it had ever happened. The surface was as clear and calm as when the first images had begun to come in.

As Jones looked on in wonder, Dover’s normally docile voice boomed over the com-system, “Sir, get down here right now. It’s the twins…something’s not right.”

#

The twins’ chamber was a located at the back of the ship. It was a giant room dominated by a free-floating orb of liquid inside which the twins swam. They were water creatures from a water planet; the only other life humanity had made contact with in the vast universe. Their planet was not to be shared. A fair trade for the technology they bestowed in those first days of contact with Earth.

The outer lip of the liquid sphere was normally static, as if contained within some invisible barrier, but as Jones entered the room it was undulating wildly. He thought it might lose consistency at any moment.

The twin’s purpose aboard was to emit a mental field that encapsulated the ship, putting everything within it in a stasis-lock for the few moments when an exchange took place. The stasis transmitter in the center of the orb amplified the twin’s mental powers. Without this, particle exchanges would be quite deadly.

Jones looked on to see the twins swimming out of control.

Dover was across the room behind his usual mountain of electronics and screens, but today something was off. His head, with the hundred tiny wires that allowed him to communicate with the twins, was swaying listlessly on the headrest of his automated wheelchair; his eyes wide and staring at nothing.

His deformed body was the product of a non-stasis jump. The slightest movement during an exchange causes the body to reassemble out of alignment. A millimeter is all it takes. Dover was the only person ever to survive a jump made without any of the twins’ race aboard to create a stasis lock.

He once told Jones, “It felt like every cell in your body being pulled in a different direction, after they’d been soaked in acid.”

Jones could help but feel sorry for the man knowing he has been through more pain, both physical and mental, than anyone person should endure in a life time.

“Dover, what the hell is wrong with them?” Jones now asked.

He didn’t answer.

Jones could hear him muttering something under his breath as he came closer.

“Interference,” said Dover with a glazed, faraway look. Jones knew it was the twins speaking through him.

From inside the bubble the twins began to pulsate—duel strobes within the liquid environment. Dover screamed in unison with every flash.

Then, just like that, both pulse and scream stopped abruptly and Dover went limp, his head smoking as if his brain was literally fried. Jones reached down and checked Dover’s pulse—it was still there although faint and irregular. The skin of his neck was icy cold.

#

Dover was back awake in sickbay but still not himself. He kept muttering a number: “347.882…347.882…” over and over again.

Dr. David Brennings, the Ferdinand’s medic, was standing above him inserting an IV port into a vein on Dover’s right stump.

The lights were dimmed in the small room and Jones was thankful for it. That strange buzzing in his head was still there, the first tinges of a migraine just beneath it.

On a large screen against the wall a digital image of Dover’s brain was on the displayed.

“He had some minor cerebral hemorrhaging. Mostly in the inactive areas of the brain, so he should be fine given some time. His console overloaded, sending a massive jolt to his nervous system. Considering everything he’s been through let’s hope for a full recover.”

“Do you know what those numbers mean?” asked Jones.

“That…I’m not quite sure. Could be a residual memory from the twins burned into him mind from the moment the charge went off.” Brennings’ breath reeked of liquor as he talked.

He always seemed to be drunk these days. One doctor with three patients left plenty of free time to wallow in a poor career choice. Still he handled himself pretty well considering.

Jones, turning a blind nostril, said, “Well, just make sure you keep an eye on him. I wouldn’t-”

Com-static interrupted him.

“Sir, I suggest you see this,” Riggins called out over the com-system. Jones was beginning to hate the damn thing.

#

A large vessel drifted from out the planet’s atmosphere. It looked like four railroad spikes held together by three horizontal hoops. Jones and Riggins could only watch in awe at the sheer size of it as it came closer and closer. The Ferdinand was only a speck in comparison.

Five more followed, surrounding their ship on the six points of a 3D grid, the mouth of the uppermost hoop facing towards them. Within the center of each one was a cube connected to each spike by a bolt of bright energy.

“Sir, you’re orders?” asked Riggins, a nervous edge in her voice.

Jones didn’t answer. His focus was absolute.

A hatch began to open in the center cube of each of the strange alien vessels. Beyond the hatches the interior was brilliant blue light.

“Get us out of here, now!” Jones knew hostility when he saw it.

“In-system engines are not responding. Primary power has been severed,” said Riggins.

“Crap,” Jones muttered under his breath. He tried to think of other options but tangible thought eluded him.

From the cubes a swarm of what looked like glowing blue digital microbes flooded out and connected from vessel to vessel. Once the web was complete the microbes coalesced into solid form creating an impenetrable diamond. Nothing existed outside the Ferdinand now but that pitching blue field. There was no way out.

“Fire a missile,” ordered Jones knowing how futile the gesture would be. The Ferdinand was never intended as a war vessel. He had no delusions that the few armaments they possessed were bottom of the line and practically useless.

The ship shook as the missile deployed. As it approached the shimmering blue wall, a bubble of microbes jumped out and engulfed the missile. The missile dissolved. The swarm grew larger as if using the missiles’ mass as a means of reproduction.

More tiny blue microbes began to flake off the walls and make a slow approach towards the Ferdinand.

“Damn.”

“Sir, a suggestion,” said Riggins. “The exchange engines run on fusion, so they would be completely cut off from the electrical grid. In theory, they’re still operational. We…risk a jump.”

“Are you kidding me? The twins, remember? We have no stasis field. We’ll die, or worse, end up like Dover.”

“Then what do you suggest, sir. We’re dead anyway if we don’t.”

The microbes drifted closer.

Jones closed his eyes and let out a long breath. He knew she was right. It wouldn’t be long before those microbes were within the threshold.

Where the Ferdinand went these this could not follow, that was for sure. And if anything, Earth needed to be warned about this planet and this hostile species, although he knew how the powers that be would react—there was more than one way to cure overpopulation. He knew that this would be the first step of an inevitable war. A decision had to be made now before it was too late.

“Alright, Riggins…make it happen.”

“Yes, sir, it will take about five minutes to produce the proper shift frequencies.”

“Let’s hope it’s enough. Those things look like they’re speeding up.”

The proof of Riggins’ work was the sound of the ships klaxons going off, warning telling them that the stasis emitter was offline. The sound pierced Jones’ skull, amplifying all the anxiety racking his brain. That foreign tingling sensation was still buzzing in the far reaches of his mind. It was too much for thought. Too much for sanity.

“Destination?” asked Riggins, her voice barely audible above the shrilling tones. A thousand drills bore a thousand holes into Jones’ skull.

“Sir, destination?!”

He ignored her, and looked at a service panel on the wall to his left. The steps that took him to it were unshakable. Without hesitation, Jones tore the thin sheet metal panel from its latches, put his hand in, and ripped out two thin yellow wires.

The silence that followed was pure bliss.

“There, now I can think. You were saying?”

“Destination…sir?” It was an apprehensive whisper. Her expression made it clear she doubted his sanity.

“I don’t know, surprise me.”

The microbes drifted closer as Riggins bent over her calculations.

“Wait, what is this?” Jones heard Riggins mutter under her breath.

“What’ve you got?”

“I don’t know. It’s some kind of frequency. Very subtle…on a wavelength I’ve never seen before.”

347.882 A thought invaded his mind and sat just on the edge of enlightenment as the numbers replayed over and over. 347.882

“Can you block it?” he asked abruptly.

“Sir?”

“I think it’s from them. That’s what’s affecting the twins. They were trying to tell us through Dover. It was meant to disrupt our engines; the effect on the twins a by-product. Can you block it?”

“I think so, sir. I’ll try to-“

“Spare the details and do it. When you’re done, turn on the distress beacon. If we die, this ship can still relay the information of what we found here.”

“Do you think that’s wise, Sir?” She too understood the war that would be raise if that information got out.

“I said do it.”

“But-“

“That’s an order!”

Riggins face went red, but none-the-less, she obeyed. As she finished her work, the buzzing in the back of Jones head dissipated instantly.

He hit a switch for the com-system having no time to focus on the blissful relief.

“Brennings, take Dover’s body back to his lab and hook his mind back into the communicator. We need him functional enough to speak to the twins if only for a moment. Make it happen by any means necessary.”

The microbes drifted still closer.

#

Brennings had Dover back and hooked up into the console, yet mind and body were still vacant.

The wild undulations of the twins bubble started to subside; their swimming, still confused, but less chaotic. Whatever they were doing on the bridge must be working.

Brennings took out a syringe filled with pure adrenaline substitute. It was a more focused synthetic version that wouldn’t put too much instant shock into the patient.

He hoped he had the dosage right. The world was still a blur through the veil of alcohol. As steady as his shaking hands would permit, Brennings stuck the needle in the IV port and squeezed the plunger.
Dover’s eyes fluttered open slowly and fixed onto Brennings’ face.

“Dover, listen to me. Talk to the twins, tell them to initiate the stasis engines.”

He answered with a grunt as his eye rolled back in his head.

“Dover, damn it, listen to me,” Brennings slapped him in the face a little harder than he intended. Dover’s glare returned with fire. “The exchange engines are online, we are about to make a jump. You understand?”

Brennings saw the fear of remembered pain written across Dover’s face. He now had his full attention.

#

“How’re we looking?” asked Jones.

“The signal’s blocked. It’s up to Dover and the twins now.”

A long silence captured the bridge. Jones was in deep thought with fingers forming a steeple in front of his face.

“Turn off the distress beacon, and wipe all information of this planet from the computer’s memory. Mark it down as a dead planet,” he said.

“Sir?”

“You heard me. I think you know what will happen when this gets out. I will not go down in history as the man who started the war that could possible wipe out the human race. If we survive, we continue on our mission as if we never found this hellhole.”

Jones listened to the fast, repetitive clicks of Riggins’ fingers pounding on the keyboard.

He spoke when it stopped: “Oh and Riggins, it’s been a pleasure.”

“Indeed, sir.”

The exchange field wrapped itself around the ship. It was starting.

Outside, the large alien vessels outside began to pulsate with increasing intensity and the tiny microbes were swirling frantically.

They were picking up speed like a collective predator whose singular focus was a prey they knew would be forever lost if the kill wasn’t made now. In moments they would be within the exchange field. Jones could sense panic in that swirling blue cloud.

As Jones watched, he was unconsciously pounding his fingers onto the arm of his chair waiting for anything when he heard Riggins, again, working the console.

“What are you doing?”

“Trust me,” was all she would say.

The entire view port was a hazy wall of blue. A flurry of missiles shot from the ship. The Ferdinand was unleashing its full arsenal. But that wasn’t all. Jones could see the four large escape pods splitting through the cloud of microbes.

The tiny creatures froze for moment as if making a decision, before collective attacking the escape pods and missiles before they could reach their mother ships. Jones hoped the missiles would buy the needed time from the microbes, but that was no longer his main concern.

That pulsating hum meant the exchange will take place any second. Jones held his breath, and tried to be a still as possible although he knew the futility of the gesture.

The entire world went static, and in that one instant Jones allowed his mind to function with perfect clarity. One thought dominated the rest: I don’t want to die wearing fuzzy pink slippers.

The universe began to collapse inward and everything became a distortion. The bridge around him was coming apart as if one pixel at a time—it was the beginnings of an exchange.

Jones could sense his body starting to discombobulate. The tips of hairs were standing on end and he could already feel the first tinges of pain in his lower extremities. He tried to scream, but the thought never made it to his lips as the cold chill of stasis enveloped his body and froze his every movement.

The microbes were just milliseconds from reaching the exchange perimeter when the Ferdinand winked out of existence.

The End