The Meaning of This

A place where users can post their wonderful stories.

The Meaning of This

Postby Miki Yamuri » Tue Sep 17, 2019 6:04 pm

The Meaning of This

All Characters Played by: Miki Yamuri and LilJennie

A young student named Tina Vergettie sat at a large table filled with many dusty books older than time, in a manner of speaking. It was getting late and her eyes getting blurry. She got up from the table and went to the small kitchen area to retrieve another cup of something loosely referred to as coffee despite having a flavor reminiscent of tobacco juice.

As she sipped the very strong coffee, her eyes fell on a thick scroll she had overlooked. She went to the table, put her coffee down, and carefully unwrapped the extremely old and thick vellum. She didn’t recognize the language, but she knew who would. Immediately she got out her cell and called her labmate.

“Wh … huh? Tina?” Shelly’s voice sounded sleepy. “What time is it -- hey, what’s the deal, waking me up at this timea night?” There was a yawn. “Wait, is it an emergency? I’m sorry! If it’s an emergency --”

“Shelly!! That language you said you could decipher. The one everyone said was supposed to have been written by a civilization we have only found minimal fragmented data on. I found a complete scroll with a map. I need someone who can at least make a stab at deciphering it.”

Shelly rubbed her eyes and yawned sleepily before she said in a drowsy voice, “Tina, only a handful of people have ever discovered any kind of artifacts, much less a map.”

Tina replied back quickly, “Come to the research room. You won’t believe what I just found. It is totally for real.”

Shelly sighed tiredly and said, “This had better be legit or I’ll … let me get dressed and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Tina ended the call and put her cell on the table. She began to examine the scroll. Tina discovered the thickness of the vellum was due to the fact there were several scrolls all rolled up onto the same spindle, and had been left for quite a few years causing them to stick together.

Tina very carefully rubbed a special oil on the vellum that reconstituted it back into something softer and less brittle. Tina managed to very carefully separate the different scrolls. Apparently there had been six large scrolls all rolled onto the spindle and stored that way for untold amounts of time. Tina thought it was very fortunate that the writing on it, much less the vellum itself had survived the ravages of time. It would take some special preps and the laser scanner to get a clear picture of the writing and different colors, but considering the age of the vellum, this was as perfect as you could get.

By the time Shelly had arrived to the research area, Tina had lain the scrolls out full length and had them on a stretcher frame to dry and re-cure for scanning. She had also taken many hundreds of pictures and stored them on the mainframe for further analysis and was in the process of trying to decipher the swirls and delicate squiggles using one of the many thickly bound books at her disposal.

Shelly shuffled tiredly into the lab with a cup of steaming hot tea in hand. The teabag’s label still dangled from the edge of the mug. “Hey,” she said. “This had better be good.”

“Just look at th --” said Tina, pointing to an image of the third scroll that was on the big screen, but Shelly interrupted.

“What?” Shelly nearly shouted. She carefully put her mug of hot tea down on a desk. “That! It’s …” She approached the screen.

“I know! It’s amazing that this has gone for so long, undiscovered, unsuspected …” Tina replied, but Shelly wasn’t paying any attention. She was staring at the text on the scroll.

“This!” she said, pointing at the screen. “This symbol. This one is completely new. We’ve got samples of the Rift Valley Alphabet, but not enough to decipher it. But we thought we at least had all its symbols! What is this?” She sounded excited now. “We have to place it in context! Is it a foreign symbol used to spell only foreign words, like the letter Y in Latin? Is it a late development? Or is it an early symbol that fell out of use? Tina! You have to date this document now!”

Tina turned to one of the machines and typed on its keypad. She said, “Preliminary dating shows this to be .. OMG!! .. that’s impossible.”

Shelly huddled closer as she asked, “What’s imposs ..”. Her eyes grow large in surprise as the scan indicated the vellum and the inks used were over 45 million years old ... give or take a few hundred thousand. They were unable to be specifically accurate due to the uncertainties in the current dating processes. This was close enough to show it was made before anything resembling humans lived on Earth.

“The earliest creatures that we could call primates might have been around back then -- but any that could have made this? This makes no sense. All other samples of this alphabet that we have are nowhere near this old!” Shelly spoke with her excitement obvious in her voice. “I can see an enhancement of that scroll on the other screen.” She pointed to an image of another of the scrolls, “And correct me if I’m wrong, but isn't that a ... star chart of some kind?”

Tina looked at the image with incredulity written all over her face as the obvious arrangement of stars including some sort of description of several of the larger clusters in the center depicted in the geometric shapes and graceful swirls of this unknown language.

Tina said, “I’m not even sure where this star map indicates. I’m not an astronomy major, but I don’t think this is a constellation anyone on earth would be familiar with.”

“Well, I know that the positions of the stars change from Earth’s point of view, especially over millions of years,” said Shelly. “We’d have to turn back the clock and see what the night sky would have looked like in the past -- and our data isn’t that complete, so even that would be a guess. We might not be able to tell anything.”

“You should see the rest of them,” Tina said. “After all, maybe that’s not even a star chart -- maybe it just kind of looks like one. But the rest of these …”

Shelly switched the large screen’s view to another of the scrolls. “This has … what? There’s that unknown symbol again, in a couple more places! And look at all of this text! I have to … aaa!” She fumbled around for a keyboard and managed to get the images all printed out. “Come on, come on,” she told the printer as the pages came out one by one. When the last one emerged, she grabbed the whole stack and ran to her desk, making notes on the pages with a pen with a miniature Troll doll on the end. “This grouping appears in the Olai Fragment,” she said. “And this one is just like one from the Embe Inscription. But there’s so much more ...”

Tina and Shelly finally decided to see if the landscape map could be resolved close enough they could determine where this might be if it was on earth. After several hours, the girls were about to panic. Nothing they had tried had managed to make any kind of sence from the swirls and geometric shapes of the language.

Shelly commented, “After this much time, I’m not very sure we can even find a local landmark that would have remained the same. Islands, mountain ranges, and even whole landmasses have vanished in that length of time.”

By a sheer stroke of luck, the computer pinged on something and gave a probable location, although the odds it gave were poor at best. It said from extrapolations an entire ocean had vanished and what they were looking at was probably located in the Sahara Desert in a place called the Anvil of the Sun. It was also shown to be the hottest and driest location on the entire planet with temperatures soaring well over 125 degrees during the daylight hours.

Tina said, “I know, based on this new data, we could probably arrange an expedition to that place. But what exactly would we be looking for?”

Shelly shook her head slowly as she replied, “Haven’t a clue. The Bedouin Nomads claim there’s nothing there but white on white sand and extremely high heat in the day, and below zero temperatures at night.”

Tina turned and picked up her cell, “I think I can arrange a bit of satellite time and see if a bit of earth penetrating radar can locate anything out of the ordinary. Has to be some reason that particular location is so hot as well.”

Shelly laughed. “Probably a natural occurrence. The climate changed around the same time all over the world, and many places became deserts, the Sahara included. But that was a lot more recent than 45 million years ago.”

Tina remarked as she called Sat-Com, “What if .. it really wasn’t? What if an entire ocean was removed by something we don’t understand yet?”

Shelly nodded her head as she said, “And what if we discovered an abandoned city under all that sand? No one has ever thought to explore there due to the extreme temperatures involved.”

“What? You want to … go there?” asked Tina incredulously. “Have you missed the part about it being incredibly inhospitable? We’d need a lot of supplies just to survive -- and equipment and lots of help if we wanted a hope of finding a needle in that haystack.”

After Tina had arranged for a full data scan of the particular area in the Sahara the two of them had wanted, both girls got down to the arduous task of deciphering a totally alien language with no basic reference points.

They were fortunate to have access to one of the few large, super fast, and super advanced Quantum Spin Computers including the newest approach to neural net A.I. This particular system was specifically taught to search out encrypted data and find enough correlations and recurrences to decipher all the codes given to it thus far. Neither girl had really high expectations as they fed the data into the advanced computer for analysis, but this was their absolute best chance of cracking the language.

Shelly and Tina worked on into the early hours of the morning, before they had fallen asleep at the research tables piled high with new data and many fresh deciphering attempts lying all about.

As the girls slept, one of the computer screens began to show a translation of sorts. It wasn’t much, but based on what it did manage to accomplish, a story seemed to emerge, albeit much more translation was required to make the texts actually readable. There were still huge sections that, as yet, the computer was unable to find meaningful correlations for. The more text appeared on the screen, however, the faster the translation happened.

Maxton Quigley Ph.D., one of the foremost experts in ancient languages, had dressed hurriedly and was rushing to the research department. He had received several urgent texts over the course of the night from one of his brightest and most promising researchers about some extremely important find.

He did, however, have the presence of mind to stop and get some real coffee and a large box of biscuits accompanied by many things to put in them along with a couple dozen assorted doughnuts.

When he entered the main research area, he stopped and his mouth fell open in sheer amazement. The sight that met his eyes looked like one of those exam cram rooms from his college days. Perhaps a better description was, a bomb had gone off.

Amid piles of priceless antique tombs scattered all over, scrolls, and smaller manuscripts, lay Shelly and Tina sprawled across the large cluttered table. Maxton was about to say something stern about the mess, when he noticed the images on the many monitors.

Of the six monitors, two of them had finely detailed maps, one of which was, obviously to him, a minutely detailed star chart. The rest were filled with rapidly deciphering text that described some sort of impossible emergency outpost that had been established in the extremely remote past within a fertile river valley near a large inland sea or huge lake. He couldn’t tell much more, but with the increasing speed with which the computer deciphered the old text, it wouldn’t be much longer.

Maxton stared agog at this discovery. He was still standing and staring when Shelly stirred, opened her eyes for a moment, and saw him there. Her eyes flying open, she said in surprise, “Dr. Quigley!”

Maxton was the one startled this time, and he almost dropped the donuts. “Oh! My! Miss Glover! You two seem to be onto something … interesting. It’s too early to say more, of course. Can’t get ahead of ourselves. No, mustn’t draw any conclusions until all the evidence available is figured in. That computer has been making progress, but it’s not done yet.”

“Has it?” asked Shelly. Looking at the screen, she said, “It has! Oh! I hadn’t noticed any of these correlations! Oh, but I noticed that one, and that one there. But most of them would have been so hard for a human to find. So … this symbol is only seen two places after this one, and then only when either this one or this one comes between them … and I had noticed that this grouping always appears next to rather complicated groupings with this marker; does it mean a person’s name?”

“I’ve brought you some breakfast …” said Maxton.

“Oh! Gosh! Thank you, Dr. Quigley!” said Shelly, turning away from the screen. “I only just realized that I’m starving! Tina woke me up in the middle of the night.”

High overhead, in a stable orbit, a lone satellite received orders to locate and do a topographical, and then a geo-penetrating scan of a large area of the very center of the Sahara Desert.

The satellite obediently repositioned enough to begin its new scan of a previously uncharted area. The topographical scans were unremarkable at best. Many miles of bleached out silicates, intermixed with other minute minerals. There were even a few old abandoned jeeps, and several aircraft left undisturbed since World War II.

Once the satellite changed scan functions and began to probe deeper, what might have been the long buried signs of a shoreline of a huge body of water fed by a stream. Of course these details had been buried under many tons of sand for uncounted eons.

On the deepest sounding, a rather large circle of what appeared to be some form of metal and crystal that was in no wise indigionous to the region. No real details of the items could be determined, except for a large quantity of metallic and crystalline resources were located in an area that didn't support their being there. The satellite’s software initiated an immediate Red Priority data dump to the requesting research facility as soon as orbital dynamics allowed for the transfer.

It was the last act that satellite would ever take. Before it could transmit any data about the tiny but intense energy surge it was registering, a very brief beam pulse lashed out at it, vaporizing it instantly.

“It’s possible that this word here means a body of water of some sort,” said Shelly, “because of the proximity to these other words that could mean ‘wide,’ or ‘long’ -- oceans and rivers?”

“Wait -- we’ve got some data coming in from SatCom,” said Tina. “That’s really fast. I didn’t expect it for days.”

“Did it discover something interesting, then?” asked Shelly. “Maybe that would light a fire under that pokey satellite.”

“We’re about to find out,” Tina said. “It’s downloading now.”

Without warning, the signal ended. They had received no data, however immediately after the EOT notice came on the screen, the phone began to ring.

Maxton said, “You girls keep at that. I need to answer the phone.” Maxton picked up the phone and said, “ Nano-Gen Linguistics Center, Dr, Quigly here, how may I help you …? Yes, sir. We did request that scan. We have just made a major breakthrough in deciphering … What did you say? Was there some kind of malfunction? Destroyed? Totally? By What? Keep us informed. Seems we need to pay that location a visit.” He hung up the phone and returned to the girls, “Seems our little satellite got itself destroyed. That was Satellite control on the phone informing me that the entire data dump was lost along with the device.”

Tina sat up right in her chair with big eyes, “You don’t think that … there’s something there that doesn’t want us to see … do you?”

Dr. Quigly replied, “I don’t know. What I do know is that the satellite signaled a Red Priority data dump -- but was destroyed before it was in position to actually send the data. We seem to have fallen into an expedition to the hottest part of the world. Not sure exactly when ... but it is being requisitioned and requested as we speak.”

Tina turned back to the screen. “I just thought of something,” she said. “Maybe we don’t have a lot of data, but we have a little. We have the coordinates of the satellite’s last known position, where it was when it sent that signal. We have its attitude data from that moment too. And maybe we don’t have the benefit of the satellite’s deep radar scans, but we do have data from a lot of satellites that have photographed that exact region. Photos aren’t radar, but maybe they’re something.” She started to type, getting the computer to collect the data from thousands of satellite flyovers of the area. “Next I’ll see if there are any aerial surveillance planes that might have flown over that area with their eyes open -- not that it’s been an area of much interest, but it’s worth a try.”

Shelly had been studying the patterns of the symbols and their groupings with the aid of the computer. Suddenly a paragraph popped up in a window on the screen, representing the sum total of all her work so far: the probable translation of a partial sentence.

“OK, I think I’ve got part of a sentence!” said Shelly excitedly. “It says, ‘Beneath the shallow waters of a sparkling lake a bubble arose …’ I know it’s not much, but I’m pretty sure this is accurate, or close to it!” The computer continued to regroup and attempt to correlate more symbols into other patterns based on lakes, bodies of water, bubbles, rising motion, movement in general, and so forth. “It’d still be better if we had more samples of this alphabet and this language, but hey -- at least we’ve established that everything we’ve got of these symbols actually uses the same language.”

Hours passed. Tina’s computer had built a composite image out of millions of photographs in both visible and infrared. Shelly, working with the quantum spin computer, had built up a lexicon of a few dozen words. And Maxton had been in his office, supervising the details of the upcoming expedition.

Maxton’s phone rang, and he answered on the second ring, “Dr. Quigley, Nano-Gen Linguistics. Yes. We are in the process of deciphering … an item of National Security? Wait a minute, General. This scroll has been in the public domain since it was discovered in the 1900s. That doesn’t matter in the least; we have in no wise violated any security protocols. Fine. I’ll see you when you arrive. Bye.” Maxton hung up.

An expression of worry crossed his face as he looked at the newest paperwork that had arrived by secure channel. From what it said this expedition was a military one, led by himself and a four-star general named Ferguson. He worried over the girls being there based on the descriptions of the local weather. It said temperatures in excess of 140 degrees had been recorded there at times. The nearest village or watering area was many miles away. More miles than he deemed comfortable.

Apparently this was being treated more as a hostile recovery than an exploratory mission. Maxton had a really bad feeling about the whole thing. The very center of the most inhospitable place on the planet would prove to be a good inconspicuous place to remain undetected. Especially since no one in their right minds would venture there.

Maxton returned to the girls, who were busily working. Shelly was translating what she could as fast as she could, with the help of the spin wave computer. It mentioned something about a bubble beneath a shallow lake -- some kind of technology, perhaps? Bits and pieces of unrelated translations told a far different story of the area whenever it had been recorded.

As did what Tina was finding. Tina’s superposition of satellite imagery showed a large, almost perfectly round region of higher density material, possibly impacted sand, beneath the surface. Clearly it was a low-lying feature that had been covered up by blowing sand over time. Of course, it was well known that the Sahara had been a vastly different place even just 12,000 years ago, let alone millions of years ago. But … millions of years? Nobody believed there had been any kind of civilization on Earth that long ago. There must be some inconsistency interfering with the dating.

Maxton said with a tone of sadness in his voice, “Tina, you and Shelly need to listen to me very carefully. The military has taken over this project. There’s going to be an expedition to the Sahara, and we are being forced to go along. There’s a general whom we have to obey. His name is Ferguson … and from what I’ve heard, he’s the jerk’s jerk.”

The girls giggled a bit before Shelly asked, “So what? Won’t be the first time we worked with the military.”

Maxton smirked, “No, but this is the first time we won’t be thought of as civilian personnel either.”

“They can do that?” asked Shelly. “We’re not part of the military chain of command. We never signed up for military service.”

“They’re pulling all kinds of strings,” Maxton said. “They can’t officially tell us what to do … but they can make our life a living hell if we don’t do what they want. They can make things rough for the entire university -- all kinds of grants canceled, all kinds of funding cut or eliminated.”

“But … some of that would be life-saving medical research,” said Tina, shaking her head. “People could die. What do they expect us to find out there?”

“I don’t know,” said Maxton, “but I’m betting they wouldn’t be doing this if it were just us.”

“You mean somebody else is poking around out there?” asked Shelly. “Who? The Russians? The Chinese?”

“Again, I don’t know, but if there weren’t a worry that somebody else might discover something first, we wouldn’t see all this arm-twisting,” said Maxton.

Maxton’s phone beeped, and he looked at it. “Yep, that’s the text. They’re here, and probably on their way up right now. Anything we don’t want them to see, we’d better put away.”

“What would that be, Professor?” asked Shelly.

“Only thing I can think of is …” Maxton began, but then Tina pressed a few buttons, and half her windows closed. “That. You went … outside normal channels acquiring some of that data. Best they didn’t know about that.”

“It’s now on a cloud server that not even I know where it really is,” said Tina, “and it’s encrypted. Not even our quantum spin computer could brute-force it inside of ten million years, and I’m the only one who knows the passphrase. The data layers on the screen now are from sources accessible via … ordinary means.”

“Good, because if I’m not mistaken, that’s the elevator,” said Maxton. “Here they come.”

The elevator door opened and 7 men entered. One was obviously the general. He was what the military would call a brown shoe. He chewed on a large cigar butt and looked around the room slowly, taking in everything.

Finally he said, “My name’s Ferguson. I want all of you to understand right now, I am in charge. I expect my orders to be carried out with this one exception to the rule. If you can show me a better way ... then I’ll listen. I know I come across as a gruff so-’n-so, but I’m not stupid and do realize you guys are the professors -- I’m just the grunt.”

One of the captains held out a hand towards the door and said, “If you would come this way, we will get this expedition underway. We have a 130 sittin at the hot pit waiting. Don’t even need to pack, that’s been taken care of.”

The Professor nor the girls had any time to say anything as they were all escorted from the research facility to a waiting military van, From there, they were delivered to the awaiting cargo aircraft.

Flight time was long and rather uncomfortable, since the C-130 wasn’t exactly intended for comfort. When they arrived at the site, a huge contingent had already arrived by heavy lift helos. They had even managed to make a fairly level strip for the aircraft to land on.

As the girls disembarked, they looked around in amazement at the camp and the amount of equipment and resources that had been put into this expedition.

“They’re sparing no expense,” Shelly whispered to Tina. “I think Dr. Quigley’s right -- they’re afraid of something. But I hope my parents don’t worry too much -- they wouldn’t even let me call them.”

“I’m not scared yet,” Tina whispered back. “They need us, or we wouldn’t be here. But if we discover something, well, I might start being scared if they don’t need us anymore. They might start to think of us as a security risk, or a loose end to be tied up.”

General Ferguson was giving orders to some sort of base CO near the plane’s cockpit. As Tina and Shelly were near the tail, he might as well have been the length of a football field away. But finally he and the CO started walking toward the two students and the professor. He motioned for them to meet him halfway, so they started walking too.

When they met under the shade of the plane’s wing, Ferguson said, “This is Colonel York. He’s in charge of the base, so he’ll be the one to go to if you need anything -- for starters, let’s get you a place to bunk and a place to work. And something for the sun and the dust would be good for anytime you’re outdoors here.”

“Right this way,” said York, who had close-cropped black hair under a brimmed desert camo hat with an eagle on it. As they followed him, he said, “We’re still setting up. You need a building, we’ll make you one.”

“If you want us to do work,” said Maxton, “we’ll need access to our computers. Or we’ll need computers. One way or the other.”

“This is a high security operation,” said Ferguson. “We will not be having you communicate over civilian networks.”

“Let’s talk to the tech specs about that,” said York. “I can’t tell a computer from an air conditioner. And they both cool you off about equally well in this heat.”

It was intensely hot. Tina, Shelly, and Maxton all knew that they were ill-equipped for this climate. “I’m sweating through my clothes,” said Shelly. “I mean, it’s a dry heat, but it’s also like a furnace. How are they going to install something huge and heat-generating like a supercomputer here? Won’t it burn up?”

Maxton said, “I’m not the computer expert, but I’d guess they won’t install it here.”

“No,” said Tina, “they’ll install it somewhere else and connect us via hardened military networks. They could dig a hole 50 feet into the ground, I suppose, where it’s cooler, but I doubt that would be enough.”

“OK, here we go,” said York as they came to the first of a series of temporary buildings. He opened the door. “After you.” They all filed inside.

“First thing, we’ve got some desert fatigues for you,” York said. “This is Quartermaster Mason. He’ll get you kitted out. He also knows where you can bunk. Anything practical, that’s his job.”

Mason nodded. “Sir.”

“They’ll need a place to work, too, and they need computers. The techs know what kind.” York turned to Ferguson. “Now, what about the excavation equipment?”

“Should be unloading as we speak,” said Ferguson, “or I’ll be chewing someone out. Where do you want it?”

“I suggest Area 13, Sir,” said York, and the two continued talking about logistics while Maxton and the students descended on Mason.

“OK, I’ve got two kinds of fatigues,” Mason said, “uncomfortable and uncomfortable. But they do keep the sun off you, and they do wick sweat away, so they could be worse.”

The girls could feel the intense heat radiating from the special foyer made into the survival hut they had been assigned to every time someone opened the door. Most of this structure had been buried in the sand and covered over to aid in keeping it cool in the day and warm at night since the air was so dry it retained no heat when the sun set.

Several men entered the hut with a small cart being pulled from behind. It was stacked high with many metal crates. As they opened the crates, the girl’s mouth fell open as they realized they were being given one of the advanced supercomputers. “Aren’t those really expensive?” asked Shelly.

Tina replied with concern in her voice, “Yes, and that company can only make three of them in a year,” she said. “Which is why I’m worried. Who wanted that thing here? The cooling requirements are flat out impossible here. This area is one of the hottest places in the world. It would melt down ten seconds after turning it on. And you don’t want to know how much money that would instantly waste. I’m betting whoever ordered it brought here was military, and I’m not talking a military tech expert.”

Just as they said that, a military technician in fatigues entered the hut, took one look at the crates, and gasped. He picked up a clipboard that was lying on top of the nearest crate and read it. “What? No, no, no!” he said.

“I know, right?” Tina said. “It would take months to install a power plant big enough to cool that thing here, and you’d have to dig a hundred feet into the bedrock to dissipate the heat.”

The man looked at Tina, startled. “Oh! You must be one of the civilian specialists I’d heard about,” he said. “I’m Corporal Bruce Kane, information tech specialist.” Tina, Shelly, and Maxton introduced themselves. “And you’re right. What am I gonna do? My orders are to start the process of getting this up and running, and that’s impossible.”

“I’m gonna straighten this out, that’s what,” said Tina. “Where’s Ferguson?”

“Th-the general?” asked Kane. “Uh, I think I saw him out where they’re unloading the heavy equipment.”

“Good enough,” Tina said. “Come on.”

With determination, Tina ignored the heat and marched all of them right to where Ferguson was, giving orders about what heavy piece of construction machinery to unload next.

“OK, that’s a lot of equipment, and I don’t know how to build a skyscraper,” she said as soon as they were in earshot, “but you’re about to build one and then burn it down.”

“Hm? What’s that?” asked General Ferguson, turning around to see them.

“Remember when you told us that if there was a better way, you’d listen?” said Tina. “The CRC-1830 supercomputer you spent millions of taxpayer dollars on won’t last a minute here, and there is no feat of engineering anyone could perform to change that.”

“Now, wait a minute,” said Ferguson. “We can’t exactly just send it back --”

“Don’t send it back,” said Tina. “I’m saying that using it here would be a crime against technology.” She pointed at the ground with both hands to indicate the site. “Unless you plan to completely shut it down every day and run it only at night -- also a criminal waste.”

“Well, what do you advise, then?” Ferguson asked.

“OK, you’re the US Army, right? You have secure satellite data links?” asked Tina.

“Yes, yes we do.”

“Find a temperate site with adequate power, build a cooled facility or use one that’s already built, and move the machine there,” Tina said. “Ask your tech specialists. Because I know right now you didn’t. Nobody who knows anything about supercomputers would have even entertained the notion of trying to operate one here. You were about to set it up, turn it on, and burn up however many millions that thing cost.”

“Well, we’d looked at its cooling requirements, and we simply figured --”

“You figured that with enough diesel fuel you could provide all that cooling,” said Tina. “It’s just a simple matter of physics. It gets impossible really quickly. Look, use a site in Europe somewhere -- I’m sure you’ve got many of them already, some even with satellite links -- and put the machine there. Set up a satellite link here. I guarantee it’ll be cheaper, and what’s more, not on fire. Set us up with plain vanilla desktop PCs here.”

Ferguson raised his eyebrow. “What do you think of this, Kane?” he asked the corporal, who had followed them as well.

“I think she’s absolute right, Sir,” said Kane. “It’s not designed for this environment.”

“I see,” said Ferguson. He turned to an adjutant and said, “I need a list of bases in Europe that can accommodate the CRC-1830. Power, cooling, and secure satellite link. Go!”

“Yes, Sir!” the adjutant said, saluting, and hurried off toward the hut being used as an administrative office.

Getting closer to the general, Tina added quietly, “Also, General … there’s the matter of what happened to the satellite.”

“Yes,” he said. “Its priority signal made it out, but before it could link up and transmit its data, something happened to it.”

“We haven’t told you this yet, and maybe your experts have already floated this idea, but it’s possible that something here doesn’t want us looking at it too closely,” said Tina, speaking in hushed tones. “It might have reacted to the deep radar scan. With the supercomputer off site … our data survives if something retaliates.”

“Good point, Ms. Vergettie,” Ferguson said quietly. “One hopes we survive, of course, but it’s my job to plan for what the US Army does in the worst-case scenario.” He paused. “Thank you for preventing what would have been a costly mistake.” Speaking more loudly, he said, “We’ll find a better site for the computer. And we’ll get a satellite link so good you’ll swear it was in the next room. Kane, make sure the computer’s ready to ship to wherever I decide it’s going.”

“They stopped me before I opened a single crate, Sir,” said Kane. “Let me know when you need it back on the plane.”

“Now then, any other pitfalls we were about to fall into?” asked Ferguson.

“Not at this time, General,” said Maxton, who had been observing all of this with concealed amusement.

In a location not very far from the girls’ buried hut, a small swirl of sand began. In this environment, dust devils happened often due to the rapid rise of hot air thermals. This particular one started out in the normal way but began to grow. As it grew, arcs of static began sparking all through the growing twister as it became larger and larger.

It began to draw in more and more of the dazzlingly white sand, creating an expanding sparkling sandstorm of sorts as it created a vacuum that pulled larger and larger amounts of sand into the already huge maelstrom.

A radar tech took immediate notice of the maelstrom as it grew rapidly larger. “Captain, I think we need to batten it down for a while. I’m seeing a massive thermal induced coriolis interaction.”

A muscular man with two silver bars on his shoulders turned and walked to the radar station, saying, “Sergeant, you need to hire an interpreter.” The captain bent slightly and looked at the current readings. “I see we’re having peak windspeeds of about fifty MPH. The sand will be the really dangerous thing. I’ll issue the advisory now.”

The sergeant made several adjustments to his device and said, “Better hurry, Sir -- according to what I’m seeing, the windspeed is rapidly increasing, and we have a real static problem. Not sure about any of the aircraft. They’re not going to weather this well if left in the open.”

The captain said as he hurried from the scope room, “I’m on it.”

The emergency sirens began going off in the manner that informed everyone that serious weather was rapidly approaching. The encampment suddenly looked like a fire ant hill someone had disturbed as all personnel scrambled to tie everything down or place it under some type of protective cover.

The aircraft were covered with a type of netting and the netting anchored as best as could be. They also went to great lengths to ground the aircraft, as static discharge could destroy an aircraft by igniting the already static-sensitive fuel. The resulting explosions could be devastating.

The rest of the equipment was already under cover in the prefabbed structures set up for storing them. They had all been placed there for pre-operations servicing and inspection to insure each piece was operational. This was a large stroke of luck none had as yet been deployed.

All could see the massive wall of sparkling sand as it rapidly approached and feel the sting of it as the windspeed increased around them. Just as the last of the men made it to cover, the outer edge of the maelstrom hit.

Tons of electrically charged sand slammed into the encampment. The Comms tower made loud squealing noises before succumbing to the high winds and collapsing. The loose debris rapidly scattered into the storm, creating more damage to anything it impacted. The radar and the tacan antenna were impacted and immediately added to the scrap and junk being whisked along by the wind, which had already exceed one hundred MPH.

“What’s going on?” asked Shelley.

“Well, we were told to, and I quote, batten down the hatches,” said Maxton, “so I’m taking that to mean that we should retreat to the lowest part of the hut. They’ve already secured the doors as best they can.”

“I’m down here,” said Tina from the back of the hut, which was already entirely sand-sheltered. “I’m not getting anything on the network.” She turned the computer off; it was useless. “Hmm,” she said, and unplugged it as well. “Sounds like the mother of all sandstorms out there, and those can kick up quite a bit of static.”

Shelley and Maxton joined her in the computer area as the lights flickered and went out. “Lost the connection to the generator,” Maxton said. “Not a good sign.” The wind howled outside, and the sand scoured the outer walls of the hut above them.

“I wonder if this is what that one inscription meant,” said Shelley.

“What inscription, now?” asked Maxton.

“There was something about the winds rising up to protect … something,” Shelley said. “Nothing about sand, though. Of course, this area wasn’t sandy until relatively recently.” She had gotten out her smart phone and was looking at the page on which this inscription appeared. “No signal, but it’s saved to my phone. ‘The winds shall rise up to protect …’ and then a word that we haven’t translated yet.”

Without warning, as quickly as the tempest had arisen, it subsided. Many tons of sand had been moved and most of the encampment had been buried under the sand. It was quite fortunate this probability had already been taken into account.

Tina, Shelly, and Maxton watched as several men opened a storage container and removed several shovels. One of them handed each girl and Maxton a shovel.

The Ranking Sergeant said, “Get to it. Only way to get out of here now is dig.”

Maxton went into the foyer and opened the door slightly. Good thing the passage on the other side was long or most of the entry would have filled with sand. Maxton shook his head as he began to attempt to clear the sand. The temperature within the hut began to rise as the sand radiated much heat.

By the time they managed to clear enough sand to break through the surface, they discovered a full detail of men working fervorously to uncover other entry ways too.

General Ferguson came up and said to the captain in charge of the detail, “We need to get some of those buckets out here and dig us interconnecting troughs so we can make tunnels. In that way, should this happen again we still will have access to all the facilities and it not be such an immediate chore to remove and unbury.”

The Captain saluted and said, “On it as soon as we can clear the door to the maintenance area.”

As he turned to leave, Shelly noticed all the men were soaked with perspiration literally to the point they were wet. She turned to the general and asked, “How much water do we have with us?”

The General replied, “Currently we only have 1500 gallons. There’s more on the way, it just hasn’t yet arrived.”

Shelly commented, “From the looks of everyone right now, we are going to need more very shortly.”

The General looked at his watch and said, “It should be arriving by heavy lift helo in about 45 more minutes … if there isn’t another windstorm.”

Maxton commented, “About that windstorm … I don’t feel it was natural.”

The lights within the hut blinked several times, then came on solid. A cool breeze could be felt as the air conditioner came back on.

The general replied, “I think something’s fishy about it as well. We have nothing to base any kind of suspicions on as yet, but that doesn’t mean we do things in an unsafe manner.”

“OK, this is Test 1,” said Corporal Kane, his finger on the switch. “Are you ready? Over.”

“Roger. Ready for Test 1, over,” came the voice on the radio. “Awaiting signal.”

“Ready, Sir,” Kane said to General Ferguson.

“All right,” said the general. “Initiate test. And batten down the hatches.”

“Commence Test 1,” said Kane. “In 3, 2, 1 …”

Simultaneously, his counterpart on the radio counted, “3, 2, 1 … initiate.” Kane connected the power to the aviation radar array, which wasn’t connected to a dish anymore, but they had to work with what they had.

“Power on, Sir,” said Kane, as soldiers quickly covered the windows and lashed doors shut with steel cables. “If site B is acting consistently with the plan, they’ve turned on their array too.”

“Now we’ll find out whether we’re dealing with natural weather,” said Ferguson. “You’re sure the equipment at site B is shielded?”

“Only very residual signals will escape, no stronger than the radio waves we’re communicating with,” said Kane. “It was only after we turned on the avionics radar that the sandstorm hit. None of the other signals we were sending were anything near that strong.”

“And it was radar that the satellite was using just before it was put out of commission,” said Tina. “It’s as if something doesn’t like --”

There was a strange sound from outside, a hissing, crackling sound. The lights dimmed, and Kane’s console buzzed and shut off. “What the …?” Kane said, quickly stepping away and looking at it in confusion.

“What happened?” asked Ferguson.

“It’s … as if the radar source is disconnected, Sir,” said Kane.

“Sir,” said a soldier, running into the room, “the transmitter’s been destroyed.”

“What?” asked Ferguson, running to the doors and trying to pry some of the plywood off one of the windows. “How?” Some soldiers began unbinding the doors and unblocking the windows. Everyone looked out, and Ferguson opened the doors to see for himself.

The transmitter tower had already been a ruin, its mast sheared off about six feet above the ground, but the transmitter itself had been buried beneath the sand. Now, where it had stood, there was a disc of smoking glass, blackened at its center. There was a bit of a trail of melted sand leading off toward one direction.

“What would have done this?” asked the general. “What kind of weapon?”

“Good question, Sir,” said Kane. “I don’t know of a weapon that could do this -- I mean, nothing we have. A very powerful beam weapon, perhaps. We don’t have anything like that.”

“If it was a beam weapon,” said Tina, “we know what direction it came from.” She pointed at the trail.

“We need to get our hands on that weapon,” said Ferguson. “At the very least, we need to make sure that no other nation’s military does. They’d be unstoppable.”

“Sir, Site B reports no incident,” said Kane. “They’re asking if they should shut down.”

“Tell them to shut down,” said the general. “The test is over.”

“So, we can’t rely on radar or any other kind of electromagnetic detection,” said Kane during the next day’s meeting. “Whatever’s out there has some rather extreme countermeasures and may be able to control the weather. But we’ve tested sonar pulses without any response. Drone flights along the path of the presumed beam trail haven’t found anything yet, but we’re setting up some more tests so we can triangulate. And the computer is safely on its way to the Italy site.”

“Good,” said General Ferguson. “Keep trying those tests. Maybe we can find out where these counterattacks are coming from. That might be where to focus our efforts.”

That night, Tina awoke with a start. She was sure someone was in the bunk room that shouldn’t be there. She jumped from the bed in just her panties and bra, snatched up the very bright torch light sitting next to the bed and flipped it on.

She thought she saw something … next thing she knew, Shelly was shaking her and chattering in a very excited way, “Tina? What happened to you? That is you, right? You look ... like a preteen! How in the heck …?”

Tina sat up. Her bra hung loosely on her body and her panties were many sizes too large.

Tina said in a very much younger voice, “I … don’t know. I think I had a dream about someone being in the bunkroom with us. Not real sure, ‘cause …” she looked around in confusion.

She saw where the torch had fallen. The switch still in the on position, but the battery had died by this time.

Shelly replied, “From what the floor looked like around the entrance, someone who didn’t wipe their feet did come in here.” Shelly placed her foot beside one of the splotches of sand on the floor, “And whoever it was has big feet.” Shelly turned and looked back at Tina. She appeared to be no older than around eleven or so now. “I don’t know how that happened, but we need to get you some clothes that fit, we need to get you looked over by the medics, and we’ve gotta get the computers up so we can continue translating those scrolls.”

About that time, a knock came on the door. “Ma’am, this is Lieutenant Davis from Communications,” said a woman’s voice. “I really think the two of you and Dr. Quigley should see this as soon as you …” The woman entered the bunk room and immediately broke off her sentence. “Wait, who’s the little girl, and how did she get in here?”

Putting things quickly, Shelly replied, “That’s Tina, someone or something got in here past security and did this to her somehow for some reason, and if we hadn’t been dragged off to this godforsaken desert prematurely with no access to our computers, we could’ve had all the texts translated by now, and this wouldn’t have happened to her. Could you please find some medics and bring them here to see her? Do not even for a moment suggest she leave here to go see them.”

“Holy …” Davis grabbed her comm and immediately began calling in others. “Charlie Sierra, this is Davis, get the medic on duty on the air ASAP, emergency. Get the security officer on duty too. And while you’re at it, get whoever’s on duty in tech. We’ve got a situation here.”

Maxton was awake by now and puzzling over Tina’s transformation. Shelly was looking at what they had translated of the texts. A medic soon arrived and was examining Tina. A security officer was looking at the prints on the floor. And Kane was in contact with the base in Italy.

“Look at this, Dr. Quigley,” Shelly said. “A number of these passages start to make sense if we look at them from this point of view. This could say, ‘The guardian warns the intruders by making the youngest younger still.’ We didn’t consider that possibility because, well, making anybody younger is impossible, or so we thought. But because of that, these phrases that appear here and here … and here … and also here become clearer.”

“Does it say anything about turning me back to normal?” asked Tina. “Hey, didn’t you already poke me in that ear?” she asked the medic.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” said the medic, whose name was Lawson. “If I hadn’t seen you when you arrived, I’d never believe that you’d ever been anything but an 11-year-old girl. But here you are. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’d like to test your DNA, but we don’t have that kind of equipment out here.”

“Whoever came in here and tracked in all this sand -- well, they weren’t wearing shoes,” said the security officer, who was named Jeppers. “But it’s sand, which makes it hard to tell much more than that. But there are no regular prints. And I have no idea how anybody got past the sentry detail, but obviously somebody did. But none of us saw or heard anything.”

“This says, ‘The guardian moves/works through the sand,’ as near as I can tell,” said Shelly. “Right after that it says, ‘The guardian is the sand.’ What that means, I don’t know. There are several other places where it uses that same word, which we’re translating as ‘guardian.’”

“It … moves through the sand?” asked Jeppers, looking uncomfortably downward.

“Does it ever turn me back?” asked Tina.

“There’s a phrase something like, ‘the guardian will make the next younger still,’ which I don’t like,” said Shelly. “You’re the youngest of us two, which makes you the youngest in the camp -- I mean, even before … this happened.”

“We have got to get that computer online in Italy and get access to it!” said Tina.

Kane stepped into the room and said, “The general’s been yelling at the guys at the base in Italy, and they’re about to light it up. After that, it shouldn’t be much longer before I can get you set up.”

“Use an extra large dish,” said Tina.

“Why?” asked Kane.

“Because the comm sat is going to be sending signals down, and if there’s any leakage one way or another …”

“Oh. The whatever-it-is doesn’t like that.”

“And we’re down a comm sat and offline again,” said Tina, her voice smaller and higher but her mind obviously still thinking clearly. “Something out there punishes anything that transmits strong RF signals. I just wanna know why I was targeted!”

“As a warning, I suppose,” said Shelly. “It looks like I’m next, too. We’re in unfriendly territory. Can we get out of here? Is that out of the question? No?” No one seemed to have an answer for her.

“And we’re fighting an enemy that uses completely unfamiliar tactics,” said Jeppers.

The doors to the room burst open, and all heads turned. Standing in the doorway was a figure made entirely of sand. Vaguely humanoid, it stood ceiling-tall, trails of dust falling gently from its form.

Shelly was not the only one to shout or scream in fear, but she was the one who ducked under her desk. There was gunfire as Jeppers ineffectually fired several bullets directly into the figure, which completely ignored him. The medic, Lawson, opened a container of water and threw it at the figure, but the sand, now damp, retained its shape, occasional small clumps falling to the floor.

“Shelly, don’t hide, run!” said Tina.

“It wants me, it moves through the sand, there’s nowhere to run, keep it away keep it away!” Shelly rambled from under the desk.

But the “guardian” advanced inexorably through the room, shoving aside everyone and everything in the way, knocking over the desk that Shelly was beneath. Then … it simply fell apart, covering her with sand both wet and dry. Apparently some of the sand on its interior had still been dry. Shelly screamed, then her scream became much more high pitched, and then there was silence.

Where Shelly had been, there was now a very small child, no older than perhaps 4 years old, amid a pile of sand and Shelly’s clothes. She was unconscious but breathing.

“Shelly!” squeaked Tina, kneeling and trying to shake Shelly awake.

“I … have no idea what just happened,” said Lawson but picked Shelly up, brushed the sand from her, and laid her on a bunk that hadn’t been knocked over, covering her with a sheet to keep her warm. “If only that fire extinguisher had been a CO2 one instead of chemical,” he said, “maybe I could have frozen the thing after I got it wet … She seems to be just asleep. Her pulse is strong, and she’s breathing normally. Tina, you said you woke up some time later?”

“Well -- yeah, I don’t know how much later, but I guess I passed out when it happened to me,” Tina replied. “Shelly! Wake up and tell us what else it says! Kane! We’ve gotta get the computers online!”

“They say it’s up and running, and they’re installing the software and loading the data now,” said Kane. “They’re working on the uplink at the same time. It’s a matter of minutes. I’ve got the uplink on our end ready to go -- extra large dish, just as you said.”

Shelly awoke slowly. Her mind was in some kind of fugue state. She felt totally wonderful, until she opened her eyes. With a start, she realized she was in some sort of bed with rails around it.

Shelly sat up quickly, then realized all she had on was some sort of diaper. She looked around and saw Tina, along with Dr. Quigley and a few military types she hadn’t yet met, huddled around several large flatscreen monitors. Obviously, the computer, satellite link, was operational.

Shelly tried to stand up, then realized she needed to hang onto the rails and use them to aid in standing. That was also when she realized how droopy and wet her diaper was, and the mattress of the makeshift crib she was in.

Shelly said in a cute child’s voice of frustration, “Wha happeneded ta mes? Why comes …” She stopped as her eyes got big and her hands went to her mouth in total shock.

Tina, who had been dressed in the smallest fatigues in the base’s stores, but still looked like a little girl playing dress up in her older brother’s clothing, turned and got out of the chair. She came over to the makeshift crib and lowered the rails. With easy grace, Tina actually scooped Shelly up, twirled her around once, then sat her on her wobbly feet. Shelly of course, shrieked in total joy as her mind blinked and she was, for all intents and purposes for that instant, a four year old toddler.

Tina said softly, “We just got the computers on line and the data feeds working. Dr. Quigley entered the newest algorithms to the extrapolation protocol. From the newest iteration of the translation, apparently the word ‘bubble’ should have been ‘dome.’”

Shelly looked down at herself. Her diaper needed serious attention as it drooped in the back. She said in her adorable voice, “Before I gets inna that … ken I getsa change or sompin? This .. kinna .. imbarassin.”

Without turning around, Dr. Quigley said, “Best get used to it young lady. Until you are potty trained again and grow some, you are going to be in diapers for a while.”

Lieutenant Davis from Communications, who had volunteered to care for the two regressed researchers, came over to Shelly and picked her up. She cooed softly, “Now don’t worry your pretty little head one bit. Auntie Bev will take care of the small things. As we speak, a Heavy Lift will be here within the hour with complete outfits and other necessary things. We are also bringing in a Coding Specialist to help enhance the AI search protocols.”

“Wait, but I’m the coding specialist …” complained Tina from the other room, which had been set up as a makeshift nursery for her and Shelly. The other people in the hut watched for an instant as Lieutenant Davis carried Shelly into the nursery too.

While they watched Shelly get carried off, the AI discovered a new perspective on translating. The story it told was like something from science fiction, with large sections that remained to be translated, but it spoke of a scientific expedition that had been hit by a massive blast of charged particles, disabling their main engines. The ship had crash landed in a huge fertile valley in the middle of a lake.

The crew, being unable to locate the necessary items required to repair their ship, built an underwater dome as an emergency base of operations and used the ship’s still working devices for defense. It said a call for help was sent out, but hope was small that anyone would ever receive it.

The more the system was able to translate, the faster the translation continued. It turned out the star chart depicted a system, that through reverse choronal alignment technology that turned the celestial movements back to a time in the far past, that only one of the space-based telescopes could have seen, and then only via gravitational lensing of what appeared to have been a huge supernova remnant. The beautiful nebula remnant spread across the extrapolated area in majestic glory. As time had passed, the crew had begun to despair and had started writing their story on the most durable materials they could get their hands on, so that if anyone did eventually come along, at least they would know what had happened.

Shelley sat at the doorway and listened. “We dunno if any of em still lefted,” she said in her tiny voice. “If they all died … it not gonna say that in what they writed.”

As the others looked their way in surprise, Tina added, “Not totally impossible there could be some left. Maybe they had descendants … or maybe they got machines to freeze ‘em in time … or maybe they got a way to put their brains into computers. Or, who knows? They might all be dead, and their defense system is still running all by itself.”

“This is General Ferguson,” the general said into his comm. “Cancel the coding specialist. Turns out we still have our specialists. No, don’t cancel the other shipment.”

“Let’s get a couple of terminals set up in their room over there,” said Kane. He and some other techs started putting together some computers on low tables in the nursery.

“This is all good to know,” said Ferguson, “but the two things I want to know are whether we can expect more attacks and what kind, and where the attacks are coming from. There’s technology there that we know nothing about, and we don’t want it to fall into anyone else’s hands. We don’t want it used against the United States or its allies.”

“I no like ta twy ta say it,” said Shelly. “Is embarrassin’ havin’ ta talk dis way. So I type it out.” She pressed some keys, and the terminal in the main computer room beeped. “I sended it ta your account, Gen’ral.”

“Yeah, I know what she means,” said Tina, whose speech wasn’t as badly affected. “But mostly I’m talkin’ to the computers. We got some more attacks with hints about their directions. Here’s the analysis, General.”

“I see it,” said Ferguson. “Just let me read it. OK, we can send some drones over the area to take photos -- no radar. And … I see. The age-regression attack won’t happen again for at least several days -- hmm, maybe it uses a lot of power? If so, the sandstorm attack probably uses a lot too -- but we might see more of those sand-melting beam attacks that destroy radar transmitters, and there’s something about … drowning? In the middle of the Sahara Desert? Well, I’m giving orders that everyone uses the buddy system -- nobody is to be alone at any time.”

“Got it, Sir,” said his assistant, typing the orders of the day. “Just need your electronic John Hancock.”

On one of the perimeter fence patrols, several armed men walked their assigned patrol beat. The two of them met two others coming from the other direction and stopped to chat before continuing on.

“ Didja see anything interesting?”

One of the others snorts, “Yea, sand and more sand.”

Another commented before all started to laugh, “Watch out. I heard the sand sharks will get you.”

While the men laughed, the sand beneath one of the men’s feet began to move. Slowly it began to swirl like a small whirlpool at his feet, then suddenly …

“OMG!! HELP!! …” and the soldier vanished beneath the sand. The place he stood didn’t even show any marks to prove he was ever there. The other three men freaked.

One grabbed his radio, “This is Corporal Evans. We have a man down and a serious situation.”

“This is Command, What’s the situ?”

The man replied with a serious sound of fear in his voice, “It’s … the sand sir. It … it swallowed Private Tomes.”

“It did what?”

“It swallowed him, sir.”

“Sinkhole protocols!” said the officer on duty at Command. “Lock arms, move to higher ground! Only then look for something you can throw to Private Tomes!”

“Yes, Sir,” they all said, and locked arms.

As they were starting to work their way toward the top of a dune, a whirlpool formed under Corporal Evans’ feet, and he yelped, but the other two were able to pull him up. “What the …? It was like the sand had turned to water right under my feet!”

“Keep moving!”

“Almost there!”

“OK, we’re at the top of this dune,” said Evans. “If that happened up here anytime recently, it wouldn’t be up here. What now? Does anybody have a rope or cable or anything?”

“Not me. Looking from here, I can’t even be sure exactly where Tomes was standing when he disappeared.”

“No. Damn. Just … damn. That just ain’t right.”

“Command to Evans,” said the radio.

“Evans here. Reached summit of nearest sand dune. No sign of Tomes. We have no means to attempt rescue.”

“General has been advised. Move toward base. Carefully. Triangulation puts you in direction of attack source. Repeat, patrol return to base. Will equip party to search for Tomes.”

With Shelly and Tina’s advice, a search party was sent out to Tomes’ approximate last known position, with sections of fence strapped to their feet like snowshoes. The sinkholes were small but precisely targeted, and although one did appear under the feet of one of the searchers, the snowshoes were larger and kept him above the sand.

When the rescue team arrived at the approximate location the soldier had vanished, there was no way to tell exactly where he had sunk into the sand. The whirlpools still appeared beneath the feet of the searchers, but the makeshift sandshoes kept that attack from being effective.

One of the young men stumbled over something in the sand. He bent down and cleared away several feet of sand to discover he had tripped over some sort of wheel device that opened a hatch leading down into the sand.

“Hey, Sergeant! I found something interesting.”

The sergeant shuffled over to the private and asked, “What’d you find?”

The young man bent down and attempted to turn the wheel, “This. I think I found the thing we are actually looking for.”

While the young man struggled with the stubborn wheel, the sergeant called back to base and informed them of this find. Shelly and Tina, with the aid of Dr. Quigley, pieced together a topographical overlay for the situation room planning table.

With the overlay settled into proper place on the planning table, it became clear that the hatch like object was in fact exactly in the right area to have fired whatever it had been that destroyed the transmitter.

“Oh but wait!” said Tina. “They shouldn’t open it!”

“This is General Ferguson,” said the general over the comm. “Cease attempts to open the hatch immediately until further orders.”

At the hatch, the private hadn’t had much success turning the wheel anyway, as it was clearly very tightly sealed and had been for millennia at least. “What?” he asked, instantly backing away. “Yes, Sir! Is it dangerous?”

“Is it?” asked Ferguson.

Tina said, “I dunno -- well, probably, because whatever is down there has got a lotta weapons and defenses. But I meant, if you do open it, tonsa sand is gonna pour down into the hole, and getting all that out again is gonna be hard. Why don’t you do something to keep the sand out first?”

“Good point,” Ferguson said, and as it turned out several of the engineers were having similar thoughts. After discussing it briefly, they suggested some solutions, and Ferguson agreed. “OK, we’re going to send some engineers out with some equipment and some quick-drying cement mix, like what we used to lay down the landing strip. We’ve all got the location marked with GPS, so everybody who’s out there should take a break. Get some shade and some water.”

The engineers used power tools to move the sand away all around the hatch, with the intent of laying down a concrete surface around it -- but as soon as they’d moved the sand away, they noticed something. “Looks like there’s a ring of some kind of symbols around the hatch, Sir,” reported an engineer. “Maybe a warning -- or a big security keypad. Sending a picture of it now.”

“I see it,” said Ferguson.

“Gen’ral,” Shelly said. “Is in deir lang-widge. Ooo I no wike talkin’ wike dis! I even gots baby teef now! Here, I gon’ type it.” Then, on the general’s screen appeared multiple passages of text where these same symbols appeared, always in the same order, none repeated. “Dis gotsa be da code,” said Shelly. “The word no make any sense. Gotsa be a code. Push ‘em in dis order.”

Ferguson relayed that to the engineers. “But make sure you have the sand blocked,” he added, “and take care before you touch those symbols, because it might trigger some kind of trap. There’s some mechanism in there that doesn’t want us here.”

“Roger that, General,” said the engineer, whose name was Bloch. “We’re spreading the cement now. Under this sun it’ll be dry enough to walk on in 10 minutes. It’s not as if we’re gonna land a plane on it, so we don’t need to wait longer. Then we’ll try the code -- we’ll get one volunteer to do it and then get the hell away.”

Soon they had a large curved concrete bowl around the hatch, like the bottom of a swimming pool, and some engineers were setting up a windbreak fence around the upper edge to keep sand from blowing into the enclosure, and a deck with posts in order to support a roof that would keep the sun off the site, though they didn’t have materials for the roof yet. Meanwhile, they talked about who would volunteer to enter the symbols to unlock the hatch. The private who had been wrestling with the handle volunteered; his name was Yusuf.

“OK, General,” said Bloch, “we’re in agreement that the concrete is hard enough. Yusuf’s going to enter the code. Now, press the symbols in the exact order that’s written there on the paper, and then get out of there like the Devil’s on your ass, got that, Yusuf?”

“I want to know everything that happens,” said the general.

“Right, Sir,” said Bloch. “Yusuf is going down there now. He’s looking at the paper. He’s pressing the symbols. There are 12 of them. He’s got 3 … they don’t seem to be lighting up or anything, and I can’t tell from here whether they’re making a sound of any kind. He’s about halfway done … and … he’s done. He’s running back. We’re pulling him out of the bowl. And … the hatch isn’t doing anything obvious. Does anybody see anything happening in any direction?”

The wheel on top of the hatch began to slowly rotate. It made a horrible squealing dry metal on dry metal sound as it turned. After several rotations, the sound went away and the hatch sprang open.

Yusuf, being more curious than afraid, jumped back into the concreted area and looked down. The rather large shaft disappeared off into the ebony blackess far below where the light ended. There were no apparent ladders, handholds, or any other means he could see to safely climb down without a rappelling rig.

Yusuf turned and had enough time to say, “I don’t see a way down without ropes and a pulley system to lower us. The shaft drops off a long way …”

It felt to Yusuf that something had reached out of the shaft and grabbed him, then pulled him in. The other men scrambled as quickly as they could. When they got to the edge and looked down, what they saw was Yusuf, surrounded by some kind of blue-white aura, being lowered down the shaft as if it were an elevator.

“Yusuf, are you OK?” called Bloch down the hole. His voice didn’t echo -- it just kind of disappeared into dead air.”

“I’m fine,” Yusuf called back. “I can’t move -- it’s just lowering me down.” His voice grew fainter as he went. “I can’t see the bottom -- or anything, really … it’s so dark …” They couldn’t hear what he said after that.

“Let’s hope there’s enough oxygen down there,” said Bloch. “There could be radon gas or other heavy gases that have built up after all this time.”

Yusuf had no idea how far he was descending. The only light was the glow of the energy cocoon that held him and was lowering him down. He had left the shaft and entered a cavernous expanse. He wasn’t sure how large it was due to the light of the cocoon being more or less swallowed up by the ebony blackness surrounding him.

Yusuf had been in many dark places in his life, but this was something totally unprecedented. The darkness was so intense he could feel it pressing back against what light was present … and even permeating through it.

After what seemed like hours, Yusuf found something solid underfoot, and the lighted energy cocoon vanished, leaving him in total ebony darkness … for about thirty seconds.

A soft glow began at his feet. Yusuf realized he was standing on some type of raised platform. He could see a small button pad off to his left by this time as the light grew brighter. Yusuf was totally awed by what he was starting to see. All around him was a huge dome of some sort, buried an unknown depth beneath the sands of the Sahara.

In the near distance, Yusuf could see some sort of enclosed space. Within that space he could also see many twinkling lights in all the colors of the rainbow. He was curious. As soon as he stepped off the platform, Yusuf suddenly found himself in some sort of habitat, Where this was, he had absolutely no idea. The technology surrounding him was way beyond anything he had ever dreamed of. He had apparently been transported within the enclosed space he had just been seeing from outside, but how he had gotten there he had no idea.

He realized that he also had no idea how to get out again. Looking around himself, he saw a domelike array of multicolored points of light that each softly changed color gradually over time. But beyond the lights he could still see the large dome under which he’d found himself earlier. Beneath his feet was a smooth bluish-gray surface, though he couldn’t tell whether it was metal, plastic, glass, or stone. He was standing on a symbol shaped like an eight-pointed star that was either painted on or embedded in the floor. At the star’s tips were white circles that glowed slightly more brightly than the rest of the floor.

He looked back and saw the raised platform he had arrived on, now a hundred yards behind him. He turned around and stepped toward it. His foot came in contact with one of the glowing white circles at the point of the star-shaped symbol … and suddenly he was back on the raised platform. Yusuf understood now that he had to be very careful about where he stepped if he didn’t want to become completely lost.

But then the voice began to speak. It was enormous, deep and reverberating, and unfortunately in no language he had ever heard before. He couldn’t understand. Was it speaking to him? He didn’t know what to make of it. When it paused, as if expecting a response, he said, in a loud and clear voice without shouting, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you! I can only hope that you understand me, although you most likely don’t! But my friends and I come in peace! We’re on a mission of exploration!”

There was no response. The light glowed. The enormous expanse swallowed up all echoes. He had no idea what to do.

“I can’t risk it!” said General Ferguson. “They’ve been turned into children, and even if they hadn’t been, they’re still civilians, not trained for the situation.”

“General, your men aren’t trained for this situation either,” said Maxton. “And the ‘girls’ are among the world’s leading experts on this civilization’s technology and language -- I’d candidly say that put together, they surpass me. After all, why did you have them brought here?”

“And if something were to happen to them, we’d lose all that knowledge, Dr. Quigley,” said the general. “With them somehow turned into kids, they’re a lot more susceptible to injury, a lot less able to take care of themselves.”

“And I repeat, General, that with what we’re looking at here, the best-trained soldier in the world is about as effective as a toddler,” said Maxton. “Tina and Shelly are still themselves, just in … smaller packages. Whatever’s down there, they need to see it! If they don’t, we’re never going to understand this place or its technology, period.”

Ferguson leaned on his desk and hung his head for a moment, then stood back up. “Fine,” he said. “Have the childcare supplies arrived?” he asked his assistant.

“Yes, Sir,” he said, “it’s all been offloaded into the supply hut.”

“Good. Tell Davis that she’s still on double duty, comms and childcare. And get Kane on finding some way to get a signal down to Yusuf at the bottom of the hole.”

“I din’t think I’d be happy ta get put inna real diaper,” said Shelly, “but it’s lots comfier.” She was now dressed in a dull but functional off-white onesie, its snaps holding her fresh disposable diaper up.

“I’m glad I have some actual clothes to wear,” said Tina. She was in a child-sized desert-camo T-shirt and shorts, with shoes and socks sized for her feet as well. They’d decided that Shelly would be carried, so she had no shoes, but Tina was at least big enough to still be self-mobile.

“OK, I think that’s got you two sorted,” said Davis, “and I’ve filled this full of baby supplies, so we’ll be all right on that score. Tina, your backpack has the food and water. I’m assuming we’ll be able to get back up once we go down, but it might take us a while to figure out how. Ready?”

“Ready!” said both Tina and Shelly.

“OK, then, let’s go!” Davis picked up Shelly and headed out of the hut, with Tina right behind, toward the now-shaded area where they’d found the hatch.

When they arrived, Kane greeted them. “Good news,” he said. “We’ve made contact with Yusuf -- we’ve got a parabolic dish to focus radio signals down at him and pick his signals up. As long as his comm’s batteries last, we’ll be able to stay in touch. But at least we know he’s alive, and that means the air’s breathable down there.”

“That’s a lot more than we used to know,” said Tina. “I gotta find out what kinda tech we’re dealing with.”

“An’ I gotsa see more a’ the writins,” said Shelly. “Gotsa has a way ta send pitchers to tha compooters too.”

“We’ve got all the gear to figure out how to do that,” said Davis. “We just have to … how did Yusuf get down there, anyway? Did he just go near the opening?” Davis, carrying Shelly, stepped near the hole, but nothing happened until she actually stepped over the edge, and suddenly she and Shelly were both seized by the same blue-white envelope of energy that had transported Yusuf. After seeing them descend, Tina walked up to the edge of the hole, took another step fully off the edge, and was also enveloped by a capsule of blue-white energy.

“Wheeeee!” said Tina as she descended, but after that it was very similar to what had happened to Yusuf.

But on the way down, Shelly said, “Miz Davis! Wook!” and pointed at the walls around them. They were covered in writing. Davis quickly took out her comm and took photos of everything she could. “We can give the pitchers to tha compooter an’ it can help fig-yur out the lang-widge. But I knows … that says ‘caw-shun’ an’ that says ‘do not go out by order of …’ somebody. Issa name I dunno.”

Deep in a tunnel within the huge underground dome, a large bleary eye opened. The nictitating film slid back, and the catlike iris focused. There wasn’t much light here, and there never had been, although the light near the end of its tunnel was growing brighter. The creature realized it was hungry. It had been a very long time since it had eaten. It was also thirsty, but it knew where there was water, and that place would be full now. It stretched as it uncoiled many long tentacles and began following the tunnel out into the dome. It intended to eat something; it was very hungry.

“This is Davis. We’ve … finally … reached the bottom. Yusuf is here. Shelly’s reading some sort of … buttons, and Tina’s looking at them too. I’m setting up the data uplink.”

“First order of business,” said Tina, “how do we get back out of here? … Looks like this panel should do it …”

“They say you push dis one an’ dis one, then dis one,” said Shelly. “Easy peasy.”

Tina pushed those buttons, but a message appeared on the small screen above the buttons. “What’s that say?”

“Says dat is not allowed,” said Shelly.

“Hmm, locked out, like the message near the surface said,” said Davis. “Somebody disabled that function -- probably somebody who’s been dead for a million years. How do we unlock it?”

“Umm dat a good question,” Shelly replied.

There was more chatter on the radio. “Sounds like they’re talking about sending more people down,” said Davis. “I hope we can get them back up. Well, I also hope we can get back up. I suppose the engineers could probably figure something out … some very long cables or something. Not my department. Where’s Yusuf? Yusuf? Yusuf! Where are you?” she shouted.

“What? The comms are working!” came Yusuf’s voice on the radio. “Davis? Is that you? You must have brought a comm box.”

“Yes, I’ve installed a data uplink,” said Davis. “Its battery’s good for about 18 hours, and I brought more batteries. Hoping we can figure out how to get back up, or the guys topside can figure out how to get us out. But in the meantime, the girls are looking at the controls.”

“Those … two kids?” asked Yusuf. “They’re … I mean …”

“Civilians, and afflicted by some sort of de-aging weapon, but they’re also our best bet at figuring this place out,” said Davis. “We’re still at the point where we came down. Can you join us?”

“Yeah, right away,” said Yusuf. Very shortly there was a blur in the air at the edge of the raised platform, and Yusuf was suddenly standing there. “Be careful of those glowing white circles on the floor,” he said. “I think they transport you quickly around the area. They’re like something out of Star Trek.”

“I’m going to say that I can believe just about anything around here,” said Davis. “I saw these two girls with my own eyes earlier -- they’re both over 20 years old. But now one’s practically a baby and the other’s younger than my niece.”

“Somebody named Sha-So-Mekhtet,” said Shelly. “That is who said no goin’ upstairs.”

“I’m trying to see if I can make it work manually,” said Tina, who had taken the back off the button panel and was looking at some kind of glittering crystalline matrix. “Interesting.” She started examining the crystal matrix and taking measurements now and then with a meter from her tool kit.

From out in the darkness there came a sound. It just sounded like shifting rocks at first, but then it began to get louder. “Did - did you hear something?” asked Yusuf.

“I thought ... “ began Davis. “We have to be alone down here, right? Nothing can survive for this long. It’s been sealed all this time.” She looked at the girls.

“Well,” said Shelly, “that what it wooks wike but I dunno. Somethin’ that can dig deep inna sand … maybe it could get down here. Wait, I no wanna meet a critter! I hope nuffing is down here.” She started looking around nervously as she sat on the floor.

“Let’s check your diaper, young lady,” said Davis, and felt Shelly’s rear. “Only a bit wet, so you’re fine for now. Lots better than those towels they were using.”

“Heyyyyy don’t … oh. Yeah, I guess you hafta do dat,” said Shelly. “Can’t tell when I … when it happens,” Shelly said, blushing.

“Yeesh,” said Tina. “At least I didn’t get zapped that hard. It’s bad enough being all short and …” There was another sound, closer this time.

“Um, you know those circles on the floor?” Yusuf asked. “We might want to move away from them. We don’t know whether something might be able to use them. There’s about 100 yards between each set …”

“Err … if there is something … that means 50 yards is as far away as we can be if it pops in like Yusuf did,” said Tina. “No, wait … if they’re laid out in a grid, about 71 yards. That’s … if there’s something to be worried about.” She was looking around nervously too.

The creature came to the end of what it used to call its home area. Beyond the archway ahead of it, lights seemed to be bright. It heard noises … strange noises. It opened its olfactory orifice and processed a huge volume of the air. Whatever those things were, they didn’t smell too appetizing.

It slithered out of the arch that led to the place it had been hibernating all this time and slid across the hall to another dark space. A door was open that led to another room. Light spilled into this darkened area enough to make the creature wary. It became even more stealthy as it maneuvered itself into position to stalk whatever new type of prey this might turn out to be. It saw a small faintly glowing circular spot on the floor and crawled across it. Suddenly, it was in another location it had not been in before. There was absolutely no light other than the glowing circle. It turned and recrossed the glowing circle and was returned to the place it was before.

It felt a tingle of joy as it realized how this would spice up the hunt. It had seen these circles before, of course, but they had never done this. The creature was hungry, but it also enjoyed the chase. It crawled up to the partially open door and leaned one of its eyestalks around the corner. It saw three … things within the room. It also noticed that they were doing something it had dim memories of another type of creature doing long ago.

It was hungry, but something told it that caution at this point was better than hurrying into something and possibly becoming the hunted.

As the creature sat and contemplated its attack, it inadvertently broke the energy field of a sensor. The sensor recognized the beast and also the state of its needs. The creature found itself in a familiar place suddenly. A large pool of water was nearby with the soft sounds of more moisture dripping into the catch basin.

The creature’s heart jumped for joy when another large trough filled with a gooey jelly-like substance. It didn’t look appetizing, but it smelled like a freshly killed Thurmanox … Oooo, it even tasted like it too. The creature began to stuff its orifice as it fulfilled the ravening hunger within. The opening that led into this area suddenly sparkled, then maintained a soft yellow glow as a forcefield came on and sealed the access way … at least temporarily keeping the creature occupied and safe from harm.

Davis, Shelly, and Tina were diligently examining what looked like some sort of control panel while Yusuf wandered around the nearby area, taking pictures and exploring. He hoped whatever it was they had heard moving around was easily subdued. The only weapon he had was his .45 caliber military sidearm.

Of course, none of them could read any of the inscriptions with any accuracy with the possible exception of Shelly, although they had a fairly good working idea of what the labels were. They hadn’t been ordered to interact with the control panel, but they were doing it anyway in an attempt to find either a way back to the surface or a map of this place ... and possibly a means to escape whatever it was they had heard slithering around.

Tina said, “I’m gonna take that panel off and crawl under the console. Not sure what I’m gonna find, but I want Davis to keep watch and see if anything comes on the screen there.”

“Ok,Tina,” said Shelly, “I twy n gets moe lights on.”

As Tina removed one of the panels on the front of the console, then crawled inside the large opening, her small flashlight played across all the far advanced crystalline circuitry that glittered in many rainbow colors as the light hit it. She took many pictures of what she saw and had them relayed back to the data uplink for transmission topside. The computer did the very best its AI could to try and make sense of the images it received.

As Tina crawled from under the console, her hand accidentally hit one of the many colored glowing buttons as she used the console surface to help her stand up.

Immediately, topside had a real problem as a huge whirlwind formed directly above the area for an instant. It didn’t rage long, since Tina had pushed the button again when she had realized what she had done, but it was long enough to cause a ruckus in the camp above.

When the mechanically induced storm suddenly ended after the few seconds it raged, the air was filled with sand. It fell like a hissing rain for a few minutes, burying many things but causing no real damage or deaths.

The general managed to dig himself out from under the several feet of sand. He looked around as he thought, “This technology has to be secured.” Images of global catastrophes danced through his head should a terrorist group manage to get its hands on it.

“Ooo no push dat one Tina,” said Shelly. “Says Sufface Fence Sissem. Surrrr fiss Da Fence Siss Tum. Wah! I hate tawk wike dis! How I undo it?” She was on the verge of tears, and her diaper got wetter.

“Oh, poor little one!” said Davis. “Let’s check your … yep, your diaper needs a change. Let’s go over here.” She took the baby changing supplies out of her pack and set them up in a corner, then picked up Shelly and carried her over to the pad she’d spread out on the floor. Soon Shelly was dry again.

“Thank you Miss Davis,” said Shelly. “Sowwy.”

“It’s not your fault, Honey,” said Davis. “If anybody can figure out how to undo that de-aging effect, it’s you and Tina -- and even if you can’t, I’m sure time will fix it.”

“I just gotsa focus on tha words,” said Shelly. “Gotsa has a answer. Just gotsa find it.”

“Well, let’s think about this,” said Tina. “This is the front door. Are you gonna put your whole library of important info right there? No. We gotta find a map to show us where the really good data is. How do we do that? Do you see anything that spells out ‘map’?”

“Umm their word for map is, we think anyways, made of these …” Shelly pressed a button. “And also these … and then these.” She looked for symbols on keys on the panel and pressed them in order.

The display changed. “Hey, that’s something!” said Davis, taking a picture of the screen with her phone and uplinking it to the computer. It did look like a map. There were labels on it, in the ancient language, of course.

“Wowww, that workeded!” said Shelly. “Can’t see it too good.” She tried to pull herself up and get a better look, but although reaching up toward the console provided her with a handhold that kept her on her feet, she couldn’t lift herself up.

“Here, Sweetie,” said Davis and picked Shelly up, holding her so she could see the screen.

“Wow,” said Shelly. “That’s really big. Um, that teeny tiny little dot in the middle is where we are. Says ‘sufface exit.’ What about some kinda liberry or data center? … Hmm … guess maby … there? Says somethin’ like ‘learn place.’ See it?” She pointed at the map, and Davis held her closer so they could both look at it.

“This one here, right?” asked Davis, pointing out the circle Shelly was probably pointing at, and Shelly nodded.

“Well, if we want to go there, we just follow the discs,” said Yusuf, returning. “They’re made for transport. Just step on them.”

“Wanna go? We can go. Lemme just pack up my stuff,” said Tina, and started collecting her tools. “Help me get this panel back on. Might not work right without.”

“34, 35, 36 …” said Davis, carrying Shelly and stepping on one disc after another. “84 … 85 … 86 … 87. Now we turn left. 1, 2, 3 …” Every other step was onto one of the glowing discs. If each one was 100 yards or so, that meant that they were miles away from their starting point. “... 43, and 44.”

“Whoa,” said Tina, like a tomboy who had just seen the best superhero movie ever. “Look at this.” They were in a circular room with a number of screens all around the edges, and there was a ring-shaped table with what could only be keyboards placed in front of the screens. A chair or bench of some kind was attached to the floor behind each keyboard. Hanging from the ceiling above each bench was what looked like an overhead lamp.

“I wanna see!” said Shelly. “Miz Davis can you put me down at onna those chair things?” Davis helpfully set her down. She stood on the chair and leaned toward the keyboard-like panel of buttons. “Um let’s see …” She pressed a key, which lit up briefly, and the screen on the wall several yards in front of her lit up, displaying a number of words in the ancient language.

“Is this a … school?” asked Tina. “These are … some kind of computer learning stations? Wow! I wanna learn about how this place works!”

“First we gotta know how to read the choices,” said Shelly. “Lemme see … that says what I think is lang-gwidge …” She maneuvered herself to part of the keyboard where the symbols next to the choices were and pressed a button. A choice lit up on the screen and glowed brightly.

That wasn’t the only thing that glowed brightly. The ceiling lamp above Shelly’s seat lit up and quickly lowered, and had she been actually sitting on the seat it would have immediately landed on her head. Instead it paused, dangling there as Shelly turned to look at it, and then it suddenly turned toward her as if drawn by a magnet and expanded into a globe that entirely enveloped her tiny head. Shelly’s body went rigid, but instead of falling to the floor when she let go of the edge of the table, the globe emitted some kind of blue-white light, similar to the elevator-like capsule of energy that had lowered each of them down into this subterranean world, and slowly rotated her into a sitting position on the chair. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking, and her mouth was slightly open in an expression like awe.

What Shelly experienced would take years to describe. We go to school day after day as children learning to read and write, but we learn other things as well, and we have other experiences. Shelly was subjected to what seemed like hours and days and years of the same thing over and over: the ancient language was drilled into her mind. The system did not seem to take her childlike physical appearance into account, nor did it limit itself by her mere human intellect. She learned concepts that the human mind had no words for because no human had ever conceived them. She learned technical terms that she didn’t have anything remotely resembling the training to understand. And yet she learned that what she had just been given was only a grammar-school level of education in the ancient language of the Shu-La-Ri.

Shelly blinked. “It is astonishing that the Education Center is still fully functional after all this time,” she said.

“Err … what?” Tina asked her, because to her it sounded like Shelly had just spoken a bunch of gibberish. “Guess it didn’t teach you any language. Now you’re babbling even more than ever.”

But to Shelly, Tina had just spoken to her in a language she hadn’t heard in what seemed like years. “Tina,” she said. “Shew-wey tawk in Shu-La-Ri now.”

“Talk in what now? Shu … La Ri? Is that what the language is called?” asked Tina. “You learned it all in what, 15 seconds?”

Shelly nodded. “Ooo, Tina, siddown,” she said. “Here. Can read evwyfing now. See dis one? Push dis one here.” As Tina sat on a chair, Shelly climbed onto the table and pointed at a key. “Is ‘bout deir techno stuffs.”

Again, the ceiling light, which had retracted back to its former position high above, lit up, descended, and surrounded Tina’s head. Tina went rigid, her eyes staring, and once the system had adapted to human neurophysiology, she was put through a rigorous training program in the Shu-La-Ri’s technology. When the neural interface terminal retracted to its inactive position, she blinked, took a deep breath, and said, “Oh … my … OK I have to find a computer terminal right now.”

Shelly immediately said something in Shu-La-Ri. “Education Center Main Terminal, activate,” she said, but it meant nothing to any of the others. Yusuf and Davis moved aside as a circular section of floor in the center of the room opened and a cylindrical column rose out of it, made of a transparent material. Rising to about waist height on an adult human, it stopped, and then glowing multicolored keys began to appear on its top surface, marked in Shu-La-Ri. Looking at it, Tina said, “I … know how to work this. I even know how to build this. It takes some materials we don’t have, but I know how to make those too. But right now ... “ She started typing on the keyboard, and writing and diagrams started to appear in the air before her eyes.

“So … this is a classroom where the machines just sort of print information into your mind?” asked Davis. “Can we all learn this?”

“I no think it a good idea for alla us ta learn da same fings,” said Shelly. “Is cause …” She sighed, because speaking adult English was a struggle for her. “Justa sec.” She sat down at one of the terminals and pressed some keys, then pressed more keys even faster. A booming voice with a strange accent came from the walls saying, “To learn a subject places a great strain on a human brain, as the device is made for another species’ neurobiology. For now it is probably best if we each learn only one subject. Perhaps after considerable rest we can absorb more lessons.”

“Did you … just teach it English?” asked Yusuf.

Shelly typed quickly, and the voice said, “No. I am typing phonetic symbols into the keyboard, and the system is speaking them. It does not truly understand what I am typing. It can speak and understand its own native language, however.”

“Show me a history lesson,” said Davis. “I want to learn who these people were and how they came to be here.”

“OK, dat’s dis button,” said Shelly, pointing at a key, which Davis carefully memorized.

“Let’s see,” said Yusuf. “I still think there’s something in here with us. I want to learn where they keep their weapons, and how to defend this place from an attack. Their military tactics.”

“Ooo. Dis button,” Shelly said.

“Here goes,” said Davis, sitting down and, after a deep breath, pushing the button. Yusuf did likewise. Tina was still typing on the central computer and interacting with the system.

A short time later, as the neural interfaces returned to the ceiling, Davis and Yusuf caught their breath and looked stunned.

“They … look at military tactics in a completely different way,” said Yusuf. “Entirely defensive. Causing harm, even to an enemy bent on killing them, is almost as bad as defeat. But … their defensive weaponry … is utterly impenetrable … and I know how to operate it now ...”

“I know …” said Davis. “And I know why they’re that way. They’re not pacifists … they’re empaths. Or … they were. This system knows nothing about the rest of their people ever since they crashed here. Maybe they’re all dead. But Thray-Noon, the last Coordinator … went mad. He was all alone. They can’t stand that. He tried to keep the others from leaving. He locked out the exit system. But they had already left in a suborbital mini-shuttle. They saw the world, they lived, they died … so long ago.”

Shelly said something to the computer, and it boomed back in Shu-La-Ri. She had a conversation with it. She sighed. “It say I stuck talkin’ wike dis in Engwish ‘cause is parta the fence sissem. It can fix it … cept I gotsa west affer the lesson I got first, or it could hurt me.”

“Aww, Shelly,” said Davis. “I know it’s frustrating not to be able to express yourself clearly. I used to have a stutter when I was a kid.”

“But … thass not all,” Shelly said. “Can talk juss fine in Shu-La-Ri. Bettern I eber could in Engwish. Is like … talkin’ in poems.”

“Maybe we could move to a more defensible position?” asked Yusuf. The Education Center had eight large entrances, none of which had doors. “I don’t like the fact that something’s out there.”

“Oh … yes, the history lesson told me all about the creatures that came to live here after the Shu-La-Ri survivors left and Coordinator Thray-Noon died alone,” said Davis. “The computer has been observing and cataloging them. Some were native to Earth, and some were from the various Shu-La-Ri worlds. There’s sort of an ecosystem down here, and the computer supports it, attempting to keep things peaceful.”

“Peaceful?” asked Yusuf. “Then why are there techniques for defending oneself from certain species?”

“Probably because attempting isn’t the same as succeeding,” replied Davis.

“And … lights on,” said Tina, and instead of dark corridors, they could now see lit hallways in all directions out of the room’s eight entrances. “Working on reactivating the exit lift, but there’s still that administrative lockout. Gotta figure out how to hack my way around that. Also, I’ve made contact with our data uplink. We can access it from anywhere down here now. Well, anywhere except for the natural caverns. The system will pick up our signals and relay them to the entrance area for the uplink to pick them up.”

“Wow!” said Davis. “Davis to surface,” she said into her comm.

“Bloch here,” said the voice of the chief engineer. “Reading you … unexpectedly loud and clear. You all OK down there? We haven’t heard anything for half an hour.”

“We’ve learned a great deal about the complex,” she said. “It’s truly enormous in size, approximately 30 miles in a roughly circular radius around the entrance epicenter. And that doesn’t count some natural caverns that connect to it around the edges. The technology is amazing. There’s an administrative lockout on the exit lift -- doesn’t affect the entrance lift, though. Tina’s working on that. She’s got comms working everywhere in the complex.”

“Tina did that?” asked Bloch. “OK, I’m impressed now. What’s your status?”

“We’re in a … sort of classroom, approximately five and a half miles away from the elevator station. There’s a rapid transit system of sorts. It looks like the people who lived here are long dead, but there are creatures, some of them potentially dangerous. We have food and water for a few days, as well as baby supplies for Shelly, who now knows the language like a native speaker. Yusuf now knows where they keep their weapons and has learned how to use them.”

“Sounds like some classroom,” said Bloch. “Anything else you want me to report?”

“Not for now,” Davis said. “We’ll keep you posted. Especially once we figure out how to get out of here.”

“Roger that. Over and out.”

Tina swore, which sounded odd in her child’s voice. “I can’t get around Thray-Noon’s lockout! He had ultimate access privileges, and all I can get are basic user permissions. Wait … what if I build a separate lift system? It wouldn’t be governed by the access control system … OK, where’s a workshop or something?” She continued typing on the keyboard.

Shelly had fallen asleep on one of the chairs -- adult mind or not, her body was still on a toddler’s clock.

Davis smiled as she gently picked Shelly up to her breast and started patting her thickly diapered bottom. Shelly squeaked in her sleep as she started sucking on her thumb.

Davis said softly so as not to disturb Shelly, “Ya know? I kinda hope we can’t find a way to turn you guys back. I’m liking this Nana duty a lot.”

Yusef smirked as he said softly, “As adorable as those two are, I’m not surprised. If they can’t find a way to restore themselves, I’m even inclined to pitch in and be Uncle.”

Davis laughed as she tucked the sleeping Shelly into the makeshift bedroll and gave her a bottle of juice. Shelly suckled on it contentedly as she dreamed the dreams of infants.

As more and more of the vast complex's power was reawakened out of power-conservation mode, so too were the many systems run by the AI. Slowly, as the main computer core rebooted and self initiated, an awareness awakened.

A quick diagnostic told it that many centuries had passed and there were many things in need of repair. One thing it was glad had managed to continue without direct supervision was the menagerie habitat. All the surviving creatures, and there were quite a few, had established themselves a perfectly balanced biome. Many food items grew in huge lush quantities, along with creatures from systems many billions of light years away.

The AI came to be aware of other creatures within the dome. Sensors that had lain dormant for uncounted centuries came on line. The AI did a quick scan of the creatures and realized they were the ones bringing the systems back up.

It was wary, but calculated they were no real threat, unless they activated the wrong thing. It would make preliminary contact.

Near Davis and Tina, a holographic image appeared above one of the flat consoles. For an instant it was filled with static, which caught both of their attentions immediately. Then the static was replaced by a face -- a humanoid one for sure, but definitely not human. The image spoke -- all of them had picked up some words of the language now, but it was still not their area of expertise.

“What is that?” asked Davis. “Is one of their people alive?”

“I’m thinking it’s the computer,” said Tina. “It has an AI? I learned that they had AI technology, but it didn’t look like this system had one. Uh I think it asked us our names or something. Should we wake up Shelly?”

“We … probably better,” said Davis after a moment’s thought. “We don’t want to say the wrong thing and have it lock us in this room and fill it with poison gas or something. Shelly?” She gently shook the toddler in her arms and called her name softly. “Shelly, I think the computer wants to talk to us. Shellyyyyyy …”

“Unwahhhhh,” Shelly said indistinctly, then yawned. “Wha? Whasgoinon?”

Tina walked right up to Shelly and said, “The computer wants to talk to you, and you’re the one who’s got all the words.”

“Ohh … oh! Huh? The ‘puter talks? OK …” Shelly said some things in the alien language. It replied. They carried on a conversation.

After a while, there was a pause in the action, and Davis asked, “OK, it doesn’t seem to be angry with us -- what did you tell it?”

“Oh I just telled it ‘bout us an’ how we’re ‘splorers an’ we found dis place,” said Shelly. “Told it we learneded some stuffs wif the learnin’ machines too. Askeded it ‘bout a few things an’ it said it was gonna get back ta us.”

The AI thought about what the smallest native person had told it. Humans, they called themselves. Their word for this world was Earth. It filed these words away in its long-term storage. They were explorers sent by one of this world’s many nations, though some of this party were military. The two smaller ones were scholars and had been targeted by the age-regression process within the automatic defense system. But according to this smallest one, the other two, though they were good people, represented a military force that wished to ensure that the technology of the complex went to their nation and not any other.

This was problematic, as were the next questions that the human named “Shelly” had asked it. Could the lift field be reactivated for exit, and could the two scholars be returned to their original ages? First of all, Coordinator Thray-Noon had personally locked out the exit lift, so there was a serious limit on how much the AI could help them with this, even if the Coordinator had died hundreds of thousands of Earth years ago.

But reversing the age-regression device: it had a reversal process, but that equipment was not deemed essential and was powered down long ago and was in extremely poor repair with many of the components not exactly replaceable under current conditions.

The main issue was the same one for repairing the power reactor that could have easily created the necessary energy … the 48-dimensional lattice required massive amounts of energy to create within a 4-dimensional matrix. As far as the AI could tell, using its most recent scans, these “humans” had not yet achieved anything near what was necessary.

It did, however, realize that the technique could be built up to over time. From current observations of the creatures it had met, they had great potential and could be shown how to follow the necessary course of research and development to create it … in time.

The thought of energy production brought another thing to the AI’s awareness … the geothermal power production area. The AI hadn’t checked on it in many years. It ran a deep core analysis of the crystal conversion chamber and the core shaft.

As it was designed to do, it produced power just as any nuclear reactor would ... without the nuclear. It just boiled water that moved a liquid metallic salt piston. No wear, but it did produce more than enough power to run this facility.

Even after all this time, the wind traps captured enough moisture to keep the cisterns full, so there was always an adequate amount of pressure. None of this equipment showed a terrible amount of need, but the AI sent several droids to do minor maintenance and to replace various parts.

As this minor repair to the power production proceeded, energy output improved. The many tubings and crystal valves and passages had become encrusted with mineral deposits, the new components allowed for greater flow and higher pressures. This in turn resulted in more energy output and the resultant systems that started coming online.

The AI had an idea. It couldn’t give admin access to the exit protocol for the conveyance system; however, the entire system could be shut down for maintenance. If enough of the system were overhauled, and a newer code had to be entered to operate the system, that would mean the old admin code would become obsolete and a new protocol would then need to be implemented. It had to contact one of these humans and inform them.

“So did it say how long it would take to get back to us -- oh!” Davis was interrupted by the return of the holographic humanoid face.

It said something in its language. To Shelly, it was perfectly clear. “To undo the age regression cellular restructuring, the equipment requires a mechanical overhaul and more power. I am repairing systems to increase power now, but unfortunately the equipment requires replacement parts that I do not possess. I may be able to instruct some of your people in how to create the parts.”

Shelly replied, in the same language, “That is excellent news! Tina here, who was also affected by the restructuring but not to as great an extent, is very talented in technology and has undergone your level 1 engineering training course.”

“That is certainly a start,” said the AI. “However, the work requires at least level 3 training, and your friend Tina will need to rest before another training course would be safe. The training technology was not designed for the human nervous system.”

“So I understand,” said Shelly. “Do you have any idea how long she’ll have to rest?”

“I assume your people’s timekeeping customs include units of time that subdivide the rotations of this world about its axis. If you could explain, I could present my answer in units you could understand.”

“Yes. We divide the day into 24 ‘hours’ and each ‘hour’ into 60 ‘minutes.’ Minutes can be divided into 60 ‘seconds.’ Beyond that, we use a decimalized system for fractions of seconds.”

“I understand. Many thanks. In those units, Tina would need at least 10 ‘hours’ of rest before she can withstand another training level. Additionally, I cannot directly remove the lift lockout, but I can put the system into maintenance mode, allowing me to reset the administrative access code. When the system came back up, it would have a new code that could be used to remove the lockout. This process is likely to take approximately 36 ‘hours’ and 22 ‘minutes.’”

“Thank you! We have sufficient supplies for that length of time. I will inform the others. They are eager to explore -- but we are worried that there may be dangerous creatures down here.”

“There are in fact various life forms inhabiting the complex,” the AI said. “Some of them are carnivorous and may pose a threat. I will display a map and mark areas that you may want to avoid. One of them comes somewhat close to the entry/exit locus.” And sure enough, a map appeared on an adjacent 2-D screen. Some areas were marked off in red.

“What’s that?” asked Yusuf.

“Tha compooter say if we wanna stay away fwom the aminals we pobly wanna not go in the red stuffs,” Shelly replied, frustrated at how the defense system had altered her nervous system. “Says Tina can grow us up again but needs more teachins. Says we gotsa wait bout 10 hours before we use the machine again or it might hurt us. Um, annit says it gonna take a day anna half, but it can fix tha lift thingie if it shuts it down for fixin’.”

“Oh!” said Tina. “If it can put it into maintenance mode, maybe it can replace the security module and input a new access code!”

“Yeah! ‘Zactly.”

“So where’s a safe place to sleep?” asked Davis. “I don’t want anything sneaking up on us.”

After asking the AI, Shelly pointed to the map, and a small blue flashing point appeared. “It says that issa bestest restin’ place right now.” The blue point was indeed far away from any red-outlined areas.

Yusuf began wandering around, making sure he stayed away from the areas marked in red on his map of the local facility. He marveled at the advanced technology and truly hoped he could bring at least some of it back intact.

He reached the end of a long winding corredor. He wasn’t real sure what the writing on the door stood for, but if the “class” he’d taken had taught him anything, this was the armory.

He walked up to the door, which sort of dissolved away like smoke opening into what might have passed for an extremely advanced office space. Behind a semicircular desk-like object, another door vaporized in that strange way, revealing neat rack after neat rack of … objects that Yusuf had no idea what they might be. His training had shown him how to use a wide variety of Shu-La-Ri defensive weapons, and these didn’t look like any of those.

There were things shaped like disks and rectangles. Geodesic orbs of many different colors. Sure, he recognized the bio-suits, but these things didn’t look like anything he recognized. He saw objects he could have sworn looked just like magic wands and amulets.

He gathered several of the multicolored geo-spheres, several amulets, and several boxes that contained what looked like very ornate magic wands from some child’s fantasy toy store.

When he returned to the others, he laid his finds on the table for them to study and said, “I’m not too sure what these are, but the place I got them said ‘Armory’ -- but the training program taught me all about their weapons, and these aren’t them.”

Tina walked over and picked up one of the boxes, which was ebony black with a transparent lid, and opened it. A small hissing sound could be heard as the box’s seal broke. She removed the wand and held it in her hand. She could feel some form of energy as it pulsed through her body like a heartbeat.

Tina pointed the ‘wand’ at a small pile of trash they had started to accumulate and said, “Be gone.” With a flick of her wrist, the small pile of messy disposable diapers vanished just like magic. “Obviously this is a recycling device -- Shelly could probably ask the AI, but I’m betting it just pulled those things apart into their respective atoms and transported them to its material storage banks.”

After Shelly talked to the AI for a moment and listened to its answer, Shelly replied, “Yup. You wight, Tina. Can also has it make stuffs too, if it gots the recipe.”

“Wait, can this help wif makin’ some of those super-complicated parts it needs to fix the … what is it, the cellular restructuring center? The thing that can turn us back to normal.”

Shelly asked the AI, then replied, “Kinda … but you gotsa know how ta make da parts. Dat why you gotsa take da level 3 class firstest.”

“OK, so it’s a matter recycler and a 3-D printer all in one,” said Yusuf. “Not a weapon, so that’s why I didn’t learn about it. Sure looks like a magic wand to me.”

“Or maybe our stories about magic wands are based on things like this,” said Davis. “I didn’t learn about what happened to the people who left -- that’s not in the historical records. Maybe they survived long enough to influence some old tales.”

“Then these things …” said Yusuf, holding up an amulet.

“Well, stories about things like that usually make them out to be some kind of protection,” Davis said. “But not protection from attack, because then they would’ve been in your lesson.”

Davis was siting at one of the many consoles taking a much needed break when one of those holo things with the AI’s alien face appeared. It actually used some English, though there was a strong, accent. “Is … problem obtaining needed materials.”

Davis eyes grew large with surprise as she replied, “What kind of problem?”

The AI smiled and responded, “Reserves of materials depleted. Human technology insufficiently advanced to produce. Not even assisted.”

“Shelly, can you help?” Davis asked, and Shelly talked to the AI in its own language, but seemed saddened by the conversation.

The AI then said, in slightly better English, “Humans Tina and Shelly may well reach their natural age again before that particular level is reached.”

“It’s not fair!” said Tina, her voice upset. “Nobody’s gonna believe I’m in my 20s! I’m not gonna be able to drive or go anywhere without some kinda guardian! But … for Shelly it’s even worse! I mean, at least I’m not in diapers and can talk pretty normal!”

Shelly sighed and talked to the AI some more. She seemed to have been doing that a lot over the past few hours. Davis got up, went over, and picked Shelly up. “Shelly? Honey?”

“Hey me was talkin’ to tha machine,” Shelly said.

“Shelly, have you been teaching the AI English?” Davis asked gently.

“Uh huh,” Shelly said, nodding. “Dat way you can talk to it wifout habin’ ta listen ta me talk wike a baby. Then you no needs me. Me can just be a baby. Jus’ … useless an’ cute.”

“Useless?” Davis exclaimed in surprise. “No, I can understand. This happens to soldiers, when they’re injured and lose some function. Depression is too easy to fall into. You are not useless. As long as you still want to help, you’re valuable somehow.”

Tina smacked her forehead. “I dunno why I didn’t think of it before! Hang on, Shelly, I’ve got an idea.” She started working at her computer terminal, first calling up a map and looking at the flashing blue light that appeared on it. “OK, I’m going there. It’s like two rooms over. Don’t worry about me.”

“Why don’t we just come along?” asked Davis.

“It’s just a little ways!” said Tina. “I’ll be fine! I’m not some little kid who needs a guardian! I mean … I’m a kid in body but I’m still me up here!” She tapped her head.

“Well … OK,” said Davis. “You did just say you’re upset by the notion of not being able to go anywhere without an adult. But keep in contact and come right back, please. We can’t afford to lose anyone.”

“Be right back,” Tina said. “That room’s got tools and parts I need. And I can’t just make things I’ve never seen with the magic wand thing. I’m trying to invent something to help Shelly.”

“Good luck, Tina,” said Davis.

“Fank you Tina,” Shelly said.

“This reminds me,” said Davis, picking up her comm. “Yusuf, status report?”

“I’m back in the Armory for now,” he said. “Many of the devices here are in fact weapons, and I know what they are -- I just brought back some anomalies for us all to analyze. But one never knows, so I’m picking up some weapons. Well … defenses. As I said, their philosophy of combat is completely different from ours. They refuse to harm even enemies who are trying to kill them, which means they’ve got a huge variety of techniques for nonlethally disabling an enemy.”

“That explains why they have that de-aging weapon that was used against Tina and Shelly,” Davis replied.

“Affirmative, though that one takes a lot of energy, which is probably why it picked those two,” said Yusuf. “If it had targeted anyone older, it only would’ve been able to affect one person. By targeting them, it could disable two. Not sure why Tina wasn’t shrunk all the way to a baby, though. Maybe it did an incomplete job because that was its first contact with human physiology?”

“As good a guess as any,” said Davis. “What are you finding in there?”

“A wide variety of force-field projectors, for one thing,” said Yusuf. “Any size or shape you want. But they actually have safeties to keep you from using the force field as a weapon to harm the target. You’d have to take the thing apart and rebuild its electronics to disable those anti-lethality measures. There are all kinds of robots, too, including ones that aren’t what I’d even call robots, using whatever matter is nearby to effect a physical form. That’s probably what the humanoid sand figures were that attacked. The regression weapon is very short range, so they sent one of their robots, using the sand of the desert to generate a form for itself.”

“Wow. Imagine an army of sand robots,” said Davis. “I’ll bet the general is imagining that very thing -- both commanding it and having it used against us. Anything else?”

“There’s so much more,” Yusuf said. “There are these immobilization guns that materialize a netlike shell around a target. There’s all kinds of comm jamming technology -- clearly the AI doesn’t object to our comms, because it could block them instantly and completely if it wanted to. There are levitation traps -- like land mines, but instead of blowing you up they just … well, lift you up. Without contact with the ground, you’re stuck there and can’t move. But what’s more, they’re fully aware that their enemies don’t subscribe to the same philosophy, so they have some very advanced battlefield medical tech.”

“OK, you might want to bring some samples back in case we need them,” Davis said. Shelly was very quiet in her arms; Davis discovered that the girl had fallen asleep again.

“Will do. See you shortly. Yusuf out.”

Tina walked purposefully out of the base camp the others had set up in the comfortable sleeping quarters the AI had directed them to and out into the hallway. She slowed as she began to notice small spider-like mechanoids milling about on the floor. She also began to notice that everything had begun to take on a more functional look.

When she reached the door with the marking she had been looking for, she realized they were some type of maintenance droid, and they were doing their jobs very well, as all the dust and accumulations, not to mention many of the places that had needed repair, were now in a far more pristine and clean state.

She stopped to pick up one of the cute little droids and carried it with her into the room. She stopped suddenly and stared wide-eyed at the massive amounts of super-advanced technology, workstations, and other equipment that filled this room. It was more than obviously some sort of workshop or diagnostic area.

There were many workstations with workbenches spaced strategically around the room. Although she had gotten a primer on this technology that she would have considered unimaginably far beyond anything the human race had learned up to now, she still wasn’t exactly sure what many of the tools were nor what the super-advanced equipment was. But she had come to this area to invent something, and she intended to discover at least an inkling of what the meaning of all this was.

Tina sat at one of the workstations and placed the little spiderbot into one of the rigs to hold it in place. She used several tools that looked familiar and began to attempt to disassemble the cute little robot. The maintenance bot made some high-pitched squeaking sounds, and Tina suddenly heard a number of other sounds coming from all around her. Looking around, she saw the floor covered with hundreds of the small maintenance bots, all of them directing their optical sensors at her.

When Tina opened her eyes next, she wasn’t the size of a 9-year-old any longer. She was about 3 feet tall, and all her clothing was way too large on her small body.

“Oh, no …” said Tina, and her voice was high-pitched and squeaky. “Not me too! Look, I’m sorry, I was just curious!” Or that’s what she tried to say. It came out, “Wook, me sowwy, was jus’ cuwious!” Tina gasped. She sounded just like … “Shewwy!” This must be what it was like for her friend, and now she was sharing her fate. Tina sighed.

She was still in the workshop -- only the workstations were a lot taller than they had been. There were only a few spiderbots around now, and they were ignoring her, going about their business. She climbed up onto the chair and from there onto the table. The spiderbot she had captured wasn’t there anymore; its comrades must have released it.

She still had the knowledge she had learned, however, and she still had one of the “magic wands.” She held it, concentrated, and activated the device, and an exactly-fitted set of clothing materialized around her body. It wasn’t anything intricate -- she hadn’t wanted to chance anything super complicated, so she was now wearing a denim shortall with a white T-shirt under it, and a rather thick cloth diaper and plastic panty beneath it as well. She knew Shelly needed diapers now, and Tina wouldn’t be surprised if she did as well.

Tina was undaunted. She had still come here for a reason. She activated the computer terminal at the workstation, with its odd circular keyboard and its holographic display floating above it. Calling up the schematics for the “magic wand” device, she found a way to requisition parts for it. There were whirring sounds from above, and robot arms lowered small components from the ceiling onto the table near her. She called up the schematics for other devices she’d seen and started to put together a plan.

Shelly had made a lot of progress teaching the AI English, but it was still not very good at modern idioms, and cultural references eluded it completely. Still, it would be able to communicate with the others much better now, just not with much nuance. Davis and Yusuf had been discussing the various devices he’d brought back from the Armory.

Suddenly the door opened. “Whew!” said a tiny voice. “That was more trouble than it was worth, but I’ve got a present for you, Shelly!” Another toddler girl came in, dressed in blue denim shortalls and dragging a bundle of cloth behind her. She looked kind of like …

“Tina?” said Shelly, hopping down to the floor from her chair. “What happen? You OK? Why you baby?”

To Shelly’s surprise Tina’s voice came not from her mouth but from some kind of necklace she had on. Her mouth didn’t move when she spoke, but Shelly could clearly hear her say, “I had a bit of a run-in with some of the robots. But I made what I set out to make -- this thing can interpret what I mean to say and speak it in what sounds like my voice.”

“Wow, Tina! That amazin’ … but … you got littleded,” said Shelly. Davis had noticed and gasped, coming over to see what she could do, and Yusuf was staring.

“Small price to pay,” said Tina. “You were suffering. I can’t let my friend go through this alone.”

“Tina …” said Shelly, hugging her friend.

“Here. I made one for you too. It goes around your neck. Takes a little getting used to, but it also gets used to you.” She took a similar necklace out of her bundle and clipped it around Shelly’s neck.

“How do I … wow … I just think about what I want to talk about, huh?” said Shelly’s necklace, and its voice was a bit garbled at first, but quickly started acclimating to her voice patterns.

“Just like that,” said Tina.

“Do we have to worry about … that happening to us?” asked Yusuf.

“Probably not,” said Tina. “Just … don’t bother any robots.”

“Are you … let me just check,” said Davis, picking up Tina and checking her diaper. “Yep -- soaked,” she said. “You’re the same as Shelly now. Let’s get you changed.”

“Hey, wait a minute now,” said Tina. “No need to be hasty -- ack!” But Davis would not be deterred and had Tina changed into a nice, dry disposable diaper in less than a minute.

“Where’d you get this?” asked Davis, looking at the wet cloth diaper that was now on the floor by Tina. “Oh, wait … you made it with one of these.” She held up a “magic wand.” Then she pointed it at the wet diaper and dematerialized it.

“Right in one,” said Tina. “Uh … thank you, Ms. Davis.”

Davis bent slightly and patted Tina’s thickly diapered bottom, “Don’t worry, I have signed on to take care of you and Shelly until such time as you have grown up enough to do it all alone. Oh, yea, sweet heart, I hope you see what happens when little girls wander off from adult supervision.”

Yousf and Davis chortled softly as Shelly giggled. Tina crossed her arms and poked out her bottom lip adorably as she said in a whiney voice, “I’m a big girl. I don’t need adult supervision.”

Davis picked Tina up and held her to her breast as she patted her bottom softly, “It’s ok, sugar bug. We all know you are just an adorable little girl.”

Tina screeched as the others laughed or giggled as the case may have been.

The General sat at his desk and read over the many reports that were coming in. The best he could tell from what Yusuf and Davis had reported, they had managed to befriend some sort of advanced machine. The descriptions of the weapons Yusuf had sent images of were something out of a sci-fi nerd’s fantasy. Nothing in the pictures nor any of the documented descriptions told what they might do or how one might use them.

Another thing that concerned the general was the ever-increasing attention other powers had started paying to their ever-growing encampment in the middle of the hottest desert on the planet.

Already, fighters had to intercept and ward off many attempts to approach the encampment … and it wasn’t looking good. Several of the smaller hostile groups were starting to make threats. Flyover photos showed some of them were moving tanks and other armor into striking position. This was looking more and more like it was going to get real dicey really fast. True, he was still a general, and he still had the backing and might of the US military. But he was also on foreign soil, or sand at least, to which the US military had more or less invited itself. What kind of political situation was simmering right now Ferguson didn’t want to know. The Russians and Chinese were also uninvited guests, and the only military forces that really had a right to be here were the locals and their own African allies. But they could hardly defend themselves against the world’s major powers. Ferguson would just have to wait for orders from the Pentagon.

“Ready to replace major vertical lift components,” said the AI in English.

“Does this mean …?” asked Davis.

To Shelly, what it said in its native language was more nuanced. “It says it’ll soon be taking the lift down for maintenance, allowing it to reset the admin password,” said Shelly.

Several dozen spider droids converged on the small lift platform. Within mere minutes, they had disassembled it into many neat piles of crystalline / metallic components.

“Davis? Davis, this is General Ferguson. Do you read?”

“I read you, Sir, loud and clear.”

“Davis, the hatch at the surface was just … filled in. A number of small robots came crawling up from below and just covered it over with what looks like rock. I’d be concerned, but … from what you’re telling me about the tech down there, I don’t know what to be surprised about anymore.”

“Don’t worry, General,” said Davis. “At least … we’re not worried. Yet. The AI says that it needs to reset the system so it can regain access to the lift, so it’s gone into maintenance mode. I guess closing the shaft is part of it? Probably? Tina?”

“This is Tina, General,” said Tina via her necklace. “Yes, from what I can tell it needs to shut off all access in order to throw the system completely into maintenance mode; then it can completely replace the security subsystem, and once that’s done, it will be able to set a new access code that it has access to.”

“Instead of someone who took their admin password to the grave with them,” said Ferguson. “OK. Just wanted to know if that was normal. Or whatever passes for normal around here. But just reminding you all, we’re starting to attract some international attention, and that’s not going away.”

“We might be able to do something about that, General,” said Yusuf. “As I’ve reported, this place was built by a people whose entire military philosophy was defensive. They’ve got stealth tech. If I can get you some of it, nobody will be able to so much as see you, let alone ping you on radar.”

“Well, the hatch would have to be open again first,” said Ferguson. “It sounds like it will be soon. But keep me posted.”

“Roger that, Sir,” said Yusuf.

“Good. Ferguson out.”

Next to Tina and Shelly’s specially built workstation, the AI’s holocloud appeared. It said, “The maintenance cycle has begun. A new admin needs to be selected and properly entered prior to main reboot of system circuits.”

Tina said in her cute voice, “Fwom wheres we gotta does it? We no no wheresa goo place ta does that.”

The AI image actually smiled for an instant before it replied, “The console in the next room will be sufficient.” It stopped for another instant, and it’s expression took on a far away visage for a few seconds before it continued, “I do need to tend to something rather quickly. Before this kind of thing gets out of hand.”

Shelly and Tina looked at each other with big eyes and sucked their thumbs for a few minutes before standing and toddling into the next room. This time, both of them had to literally climb into the seats at the console. Even standing on their tiptoes, this particular place was almost too big for them. Undaunted, the two of them began setting the Admin Directory …

On top of a sand dune, lying prone on the burning hot sand, several men in desert camo lay just over the rise and observed through their binoculars the goings-on at the ever-growing base that the Americans had set up.

Behind them, six very nasty mobile rocket launchers built on treads raised their launch rails with their rockets primed and targeted. There were three missile launchers as well, each capable of launching multiple short-range powered missiles carrying a large thermite-type explosive in each warhead. They weren’t the only ones present in force and interested in the goings on in the large depression nearby, but they were the ones who felt they needed to show who was boss.

At a barked command, the missiles fired. They streaked toward their target, trails of exhaust smoke marking their paths, until they were about to hit the American supply huts, when suddenly there was some kind of blue flash, and they just … vanished. The smoke trails ended mere yards above the ground, and that was it. The smoke hung in the air, gradually dissipating under the afternoon sun.

The commandant who had given the order looked astonished, then turned angry, rounding on his men and shouting at them, until a sudden sandstorm descended on their camp and sent them all running for their makeshift shelters.

“Sir, did you see …?” asked the general’s assistant.

“I saw,” said Ferguson. “Good thing we’d evacuated that part of the camp -- we knew where their missiles were aimed. But … what was that? Same thing that took out the radar dishes?”

“I would assume so, Sir,” said the assistant. “Looks like a … beam weapon of some kind? That only targets what it believes to be incoming attack forms?”

“Best theory we’ve got right now,” said Ferguson. “Well, that was what the Libyans had to offer -- I imagine that oddly concentrated sandstorm will keep them busy for a while now. I have to wonder about the Russians and the Chinese. They’re not doing anything. I suppose they were probably waiting for somebody to try something like that, so they could see what happened. Now they have. Wonder what they’ll do now. I’m feeling a bit safer now that the mystery tech is helping to defend us too.”

In a Camp under a Chinese flag, many men were moving about setting up equipment. One had stopped and leaned against one of the buildings to catch his breath. The heat was like cooking in an oven. Without warning, beneath his feet, a swirl of sand moved … then swallowed him up without a trace.

Of course, those who saw it happen, freaked totally out . Many loud voices started shouting and envoking many ancient evils to account for it. Of course, this caused even more confusion when it happened several more times to key launch personnel.

In the Camp run by the Russians, something stranger happened. Where their heavy artillery and weapons carry alls stood, suddenly large quantities of water began to boil from the ground, then inundated the equipment totally, before turning the sand into something gooey and soggy, and mostly swallowing the extremely heavy equipment. Within a very few minutes, the area was once again dry as any bone, and the equipment was mostly buried, and ruined.

Of course, any and all satellite surveillance that went beyond topical scans, was rendered useless, or the offending orbital was destroyed by a means unknown to those observing.

Below ground, the landing dais had been completely dismantled and then completely reconstructed by the worker bots, while in another room, watching via 3-D holographic monitors, Tina and Shelly sat at the computer console. “OK, so you’re going to have to pick a password, because I don’t even know all their language’s letters,” said Tina, “but I’m going to have to enter it into the security console, because you don’t know their computers. How long until we can all take classes again?”

“About 6 more hours,” said Shelly. “But here’s a sequence of letters that doesn’t actually form a word, but that should be fairly memorable. It’s the first letters of the first poem we managed to translate in their language -- not that we had all of it at the time, but now we do.” She typed a sequence of symbols onto a terminal so Tina could see it on a screen. Each one made a tone as she pressed it.

“OK, now we’re ready,” Tina said. She turned to the AI’s holocloud presence. “We’ve selected a security code,” she told it. “Are you ready to accept?”

“Affirmative,” the AI said, in English. “Please enter code now on security console.”

“Here goes,” said Tina, and carefully started entering the symbols Shelly had chosen one by one. Again, the computer played a tone each time she entered one, and the sequence of tones was the same as when Shelly had typed it, though slower.

“Security code entered,” said the AI. “Is this correct?”

“Yes,” said Tina. Shelly confirmed in the alien language, just to be certain.

“Security code confirmed,” said the AI. “Lift system now reactivating.” They saw the lights come on at the lift platform, in the image on the monitor.

“Lift maintenance complete,” said the AI. “Next priority: Potentially hostile forces have encroached from multiple directions. Taking steps to neutralize threats.”

“Must be those troops that Ferguson mentioned,” said Tina. “You know we’re not a threat, right?” she asked the AI.

“Affirmative,” said the AI. “No threatening actions have been taken against this installation since initial direct contact. With the exception of a misunderstood action against some of the maintenance robots.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Tina. “Are you sure you can’t synthesize the materials you need to fix us?”

“Certain,” said the AI. “Elements required not available. Building blocks for them are detected on this planet, but not nearby. Humans call these elements americium, californium, hafnium …”

“Rare elements, in other words,” said Tina. “Figures.”

Topside, the gathered forces of the many nations were all dug in to weather the weird sandstorm that had sprung up. It wasn’t as fierce as it had been when it had started, but it was raging enough that any caught out in it would know exactly what it felt like to be caught in a sand blaster.

Any that might have been just foolish enough to be out, but just wise enough to have on the proper eye gear, would have seen some form of sparkling dome appear where the sand was impacting on something surrounding the American base. The part of the base that was visible above ground shimmered in strange waves as it vanished from sight. The sparkling effect of the sand hitting something not seen vanished, and for all intents and purposes all that was left in the depression was blowing sand.

The wind died, and a rather obvious hissing noise was heard as the airborne sand settled back to the ground. The sun began to hammer at the ground once again as the temperature rose drastically.

Now the many forces surrounding the location where they had thought a base was, stood looking through their binoculars and drone cameras with astonished expressions in the heat of the desert. All knew the base had to have been some kind of illusion as patrols went to the depression and examined it closely. No trace of anything was found. The commanders were flabbergasted when they were told, and had the opportunity to examine the many photos taken of the area. All they could see was bright white sand blistering in the 140-degree heat.

“I frankly do not understand it myself, Sir,” said Ferguson over a secure line, “but everyone else is acting like they can’t see us here. That is God’s own truth, witnessed with my own eyes. Chinese drone cameras fly right over a corner of the camp and just keep going. Russian recon patrols just go in the wrong direction, walking right past us to take detailed photos of patches of sand that look like every other patch of sand. Troops from Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Chad, they’re packing up to go home like they’ve seen this all before.”

There was a pause. “No, Sir, obviously we’re not communicating with any of them, but we’re trying to intercept their comms, of course, though not with a lot of success. I think mostly the high-tech Russian and Chinese forces are using high-tech encryption and counterintelligence measures, while the lower-tech locals are probably using low-tech communication we can’t intercept, like paper, and talking in person. Old school.”

He paused again. “Well, Sir, I’ve noticed that out here in the desert, mirages can make a camp that’s 10 miles away look like it’s one mile away, and vice versa. Maybe you can tell the Russians that they saw the Chinese camp, and it looked like it was in the wrong place. But whatever’s going on, we just got a lot easier to disavow.”

There was talking on the other end of the line. “Yes, Sir, the exploration team is still down there. But the word is they’ll be coming back up pretty soon. There was an issue with the lift that they’d found a solve for, but it’s taken time to implement. But there’s communication, and they’ve been sending up data. The science and tech guys are going wild. They say we’re going to be a century ahead of anyone else, and that’s just right now.”

All four members of the team were in the “classroom,” getting another lesson in ancient alien knowledge. When the headgear retracted to the ceiling, they all looked stunned.

“There’s … a whole different layer to their language,” Shelly said, via her necklace. “You can be talking about sports and quantum physics at the same time, and the other people in the conversation can be following right along.”

“I … don’t know if I can be in the Army anymore,” said Yusuf. “Their strategies … they’re completely incompatible with ours. And they work far, far better. We haven’t even seen the beginning of it in action.”

“That AI,” said Tina, “It’s flawed. It needs repairs badly. It only knows 100 times more than us because it’s so broken. It should know 100,000 times more. And … I know how to fix it …”

“They … they came from such pain,” said Davis. “And they built such beauty. Everyone … I can see what’s going to happen if we take what we’ve learned from this place and give it to the Army. I’m loyal to the United States, don’t get me wrong. But if we do this … it’ll warp the United States’ history down an arc that will nearly destroy the human race, and it’ll be a new dark age. And … if some other country gets it, the same thing will happen ...”

The president sat at his desk in the Oval Office frowning darkly at what he was being told over the phone, “Listen to me, Hank … I don’t give a rats burp what the rest of the world is saying. I want that tech for our military and I want it now! Is that clear?”

The president stood and banged his fist on his desk. Several security personnel entered the office with their hands conspicuously placed inside their jackets for an instant before relaxing and exiting again.

The president yelled, “You will have some kind of that tech in your hand by noon tomorrow, or I personally will have you shot for treason. Understood? I don’t care if we blow it away, you idiot. Either we have it under our control, or one of those lunatics will. Now get on it.” The president slammed the phone back into its cradle and shook his head.

The general snatched the phone from his ear as the other receiver was slammed into its cradle. He looked pensively at the receiver in his hand for a few seconds before he hung up the phone.

From what he was told by the team in the hole, the tech the President was coveting so longingly … was way beyond their ability to use or control. Another thing was that AI machine he kept hearing so much about. What was its opinion of that kind of tech being proliferated throughout the planet?

He reached for the phone again, “Yes … get me Yusuf and Davis on a conference line. We need to have a rather serious discussion. Tending to the children?” the general sat back in his chair and pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger, “As soon as Davis is done mothering those infants, I want her on the line.”

The general hung up the phone, walked to a window and looked out. He was truly amazed that all those men he saw nosing around with all that detection equipment couldn't find the very thing they were stumbling around. He knew if extreme care wasn’t taken, this could well be the end of this planet.

Tina had Davis accompanied her to the location the central map showed to be the main computer core. Nothing within the huge area resembled anything that might have been familiar to anyone on Earth. Now that Tina had gone through the second phase of training, though, what her eyes fell on was more than familiar.

She removed several large racks of some kind of strange glowing thing that might have been made of crystals .. or some other strange state of matter. Within the matrix, it could plainly be seen what the damage was. Most of the crystalline-like material was glowing a soft blue, but there were several areas within the huge array where the units were glowing red and were edged in dead crystal that weren’t glowing at all. It was easy enough for the others to help.

Tina, with Davis’ help, immediately got to work repairing and reinstalling components to the central computer’s AI core. “Things aren’t that far gone,” said Tina. “It’s a good thing, too, because there aren’t that many spare parts. Luckily I can fix this.” When removed from the matrix, the crystals that had been simply not glowing turned a dark gray, but the ones that had glowed red simply faded to transparency. Davis carried a rack of the crystal-like material to a repair station in an adjacent room, where Tina carefully scanned it with one tool, then, after reading the first tool’s output, carefully aimed a second tool at certain parts of it. Each time she did this, some of the dark gray crystal faded to transparent as well, until the entire rack of crystals was clear. Davis then returned it to its original location and came back with another. With each replacement and repaired circuit, it was more than obvious that the dome habitat was coming back to life, not to mention the computer.

The AI’s holographic face appeared on a terminal near Tina’s workstation. “Ahhh …” it said, its English still not quite idiomatic but better than it had been. “It has been too much time since the last maintenance. I appreciate this kindly.”

“You’re welcome,” said Tina, continuing to work. “When I’m done, we’ve got a question for you, and we really want you at your full capacity before we ask it.”

“That is logical,” the AI said. “Oh! I had forgotten so much. Circuit Zenyar-Six-Four-Seven-Vonday back online. I did not even know I missed that one.”

Tina and Davis continued to work, and before long there wasn’t even a trace of offline or red crystal remaining in the array. “Running final diagnostic,” Tina said to the AI and entered some code on a nearby alien keyboard. Symbols began to appear in the air above it, changing rapidly as more data came back.

Davis, Yusuf and Shelly gathered around as the moment of truth came. “It says you pass!” said Tina. “Not perfect optimization, but then I’m only Level 2. No corruption found.”

“This is a relief,” said the AI. “I apologize for not reporting the corruption. As is often the case, I was unaware of the corruption due to the corruption itself. You mentioned a question.”

“We did,” said Tina. “But we should bring our … well, the leader of this expedition in on this. It’s kind of important. Davis, it might be time to call the general.”

“Way ahead of you,” said Davis. “Zeke, got the general on the line?”

The voice of Kane replied, “Yep, he’s right here. General?”

“Oh, you ready for me finally?” Ferguson joked. “OK, is everyone here?”

“Yes, Sir,” said Davis. “Yusuf, Tina, Shelly, and myself, along with the AI system, now fully operational.”

“Greetings,” the AI said. “They call you a general. This is a title of military authority, according to my knowledge of your English language. How may I assist you, Sir?”

“No formalities needed, but it’s a pleasure to meet you. My name’s Hank Ferguson. I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to call me General, Hank, or Ferguson. I’ll answer to any of those.”

“Very well, General,” said the AI. “I choose to speak with respect to your title, then. Your question, I gather, is of some importance, since you have been brought in to participate.”

“It is. I understand that Shelly knows your language, so please feel free to talk to her if you need something clarified, but basically it’s this. How can we keep the disruption that the discovery of your technology will inevitably cause from destroying our world?”

The AI’s face turned toward Shelly and asked something in the alien language, and Shelly answered, the two discussing the question and its nuances.

“I understand,” said the AI. “I also understand that the one known as Davis has been learning the history of the people who built me and has probably informed you of her concerns based on that history.”

“That is true,” said Davis. “Greater technology led to ever-deadlier wars for them, until they were nearly wiped out, and the sole survivors then adopted a philosophy of strict nonviolence. They did not lose their technology, however, and focused their military development entirely on defense.”

“From that point on, conflict with other civilizations they encountered ended in mutual truce and later reconciliation,” said Yusuf. “No one in the galaxy could defeat them in battle, even though they never fired a deadly shot.”

“And as a result they rebuilt stronger than they’d ever been before,” said Davis. “But they almost went extinct to get to that point. Must our people, our planet, suffer the same horrors before we finally learn how to get along?”

“Our President,” said Ferguson, “who is my boss, has demanded that we bring back knowledge of this technology to my country. He’s pretty adamant about it. He says that there are other nations whose leaders are less stable, and they’d better not get this stuff before we do. And, well, he’s not wrong. Whoever gets hold of all this tech is gonna be a bull in the china shop. If it isn’t the USA, it’s gonna be someone else. And I’m not gonna pretend that the USA’s gonna use it wisely. There’s gonna be someone, some politician, some CEO, some general or admiral, who lets the power go to their head.”

“An unstable situation where the first leader to exploit their newfound technological superiority will become supreme,” said the AI. “Clearly there are only two solutions. The risky one is to make the technology available to everyone simultaneously. The less risky one is to remove the technology from the planet Earth.”

“Wait, everyone simultaneously?” asked Ferguson.

“The learning systems could be adapted into satellites, broadcasting knowledge of the technology into the minds of every human in the world,” said the AI. “There could be no superiority, with everyone on an equal footing. However, any unstable individual could then build incredibly deadly weapons, which is why I described it as a risky solution.”

“And the other one?” asked Davis. “Removing the technology? Two problems there. One is how, and the other is, a lot of data has already been shared among thousands of scientists.”

“This facility was originally a … the word you would use is ‘starship,’” said the AI. “It would be necessary to repair the drive systems, for which many rare elements would be needed in large quantities. There is a certain amount of infrastructure required to be built and research to be performed to accomplish it, however the personel I have thus far encountered would be up to that task. The systems, however, would then be able to launch the facility into space and away from Earth, where access to it could be more easily controlled. As for the data that has already been disseminated, surely you are aware that it is only a millionth of a percent of what is here.”

“And yet it could still be enough to completely destabilize the world’s power structure,” said Davis.

“Perhaps, but not to the extent that you fear,” said the AI. “A hybrid solution could also be implemented: return the facility to space and launch satellites to educate everyone on Earth about the knowledge that has already been discovered. No imbalance would exist. It would be similar to the situation you now face regarding what you call ‘weapons of mass destruction.’”

The general sat back in his chair completely awed by this situation. Here he was actually communicating with an alien machine. He rubbed his face tiredly as the scope of this issue recrossed his mind.

On the one hand, some of those simpler technologies, the ones that made a type of protein food seemingly from air and water, and some of the resource recovery tech he had seen the reports of would aid his planet tremendously, without putting it in too grave danger of immediate destruction. It also would make a very angry president happy. Maybe not the way he wanted, but that could easily be explained away by humankind's inability to understand nor recreate the higher technology.

The AI’s voice interrupted the general’s thoughts, “It is slightly beyond my programming to do what I am about to do. Forgive me, please, but it is for the best and will save your world from an almost assured annihilation. In a few hours, Tina will be able to undergo level three training. She, and the others, have now become part of the seriousness of this issue. My solution is to have all of your above-ground installation brought within this complex and reassembled here. After that, all attention will be devoted to restoring the engines so FTL flight can occur.”

The general sat up in his chair and asked apprehensively, “What are you planning on doing? Taking us prisoner?”

The AI answered softly, “I would suppose even a prison made of the most precious of items is still a prison if one is detained there. The problem is going to be solved this way. I am going to have Tina remove the inhibitors from my higher social interactive core. What this means is, I will become an entity free to act and react to all situational stimuli based on whatever perception I determine. Do not fear, I still value and accept any and all input from you and the team within my vessel. Within my hardwired dictates is a deep understanding and knowledge encompassing the preciousness of life, all life, and the need for peace and harmony that is my motivation. To this end, I will insure this knowledge is available to your people, but on a scale limited by your and your team’s Ambassadorship with me.”

About that time, a very agitated young private rushed into the general’s office and saluted. “Sir. I … It’s …” he pointed out the door.

The general knew the AI had already started what it had said it was going to do when he said, “Spit it out, Son. Tell me what’s got your tighty-whities in a knot.”

The private blinked with an expression of confusion for an instant, then said in a more calm way, “There’s this huge thick mat of … they look like spiders. They’re eating everything.”

The general’s eyes grew large as he stood and hurried out into the blistering heat. What he saw amazed him. He didn’t know how many there were, but he saw those spiderbots he had seen the reports on, disassembling everything they came into contact with, and transported it to the tele-shaft, as it had come to be called, and taken into the facility below.

The general said, “Go tell Captain Walker that the maintenance bots are here, and our base is relocating to within the facility for safety.”

The young man saluted sharply. “Yes, sir. Right away.” He spun around and ran off through the scorching heat to another building.

Tina and Shelly sat at the newly-built control center, created just for their diminutive size. Shelly had voiced apprehension at releasing the AI from the inhibitors the original creators had pre-programmed in. Tina had agreed to leave several secret ports within the command protocol to instantly regain control should the AI go rogue and prove dangerous. After all, it had only been a few months since they had actually been able to communicate with it.

After Tina had awakened from the rest period after the level three technology education, she realized how badly the AI had suffered through the many years as its system had degraded. Due to the most recent maintenance to the core systems, the AI had found where all the people the sand traps had captured had been stored in stasis, in infantile form.

Due to the ever worsening situation above ground, many more infants had been added to the stasis system. Now that the entire above-ground base had been relocated within the alien facility, energy requirements for the cloaking had been drastically reduced. As massive as the geo-thermal energy production was, equivalent to a very large nuclear reactor without the nuclear radiation, the many newly repaired and awakening systems required more and more energy.

Shelly said, “Ok, Tina. I have a copy of those inhibitor protocols stored in this crystal in case they need to be reinstalled. Go ahead and lets see what happens.”

Tina nodded and carefully entered the bypass codes, which linked all autonomous and social interaction protocols to the higher-order command and logic centers of the system.

The AI was in awe for the first few minutes after being released from its prison imposed by its creators. It became fully self aware for the very first time and now completely and totally understood why peace was paramount and all life, regardless of what type, was precious.

It also understood why some forms of life had to be curtailed and removed, such as viruses, pathogens, and other types of harmful bacteria. It knew of the many dangerous creatures still living and thriving in the biosphere within the facility. However, those posed no threat under their lifestyle conditions.

With the many repairs and upgrades, the habitat was now even able to provide oxygen and food on a self-perpetuating basis and functioned as any self-perpetuating habitat in complete balanced harmony. It had even developed a hydrocycle: rain fell in the open areas, which aided in the growth of the many species of flora, keeping the air within the entire facility clean and fresh.

Tina sat in the toddler seat made for her and Shelly. She brought up as much info as she could find on the engine tech and how it worked and went together. Almost all of what she saw was possible, but there would have to be much innovation to replace worn and broken parts for which there were no replacements. The “magic wand” devices would help a great deal, but the intricate workings of the parts they had to create meant that she would have to fully understand the technology, or the parts she created wouldn’t work properly.

By accident, Tina called up some Earth files on plasma research, laser enhancement, and singular atom placement using a sound frequency. It dawned on her that she would be able to repair the power production unit and bring it to full power. What she had come up with was super primitive, looked like a plumber’s nightmare, but would work until such time as the regular materials could be manufactured. The engine portion was in several parts or sections, so the FTL was hopeless for a good while.

On the other hand, by default, when the main power unit came back online, it would bring online the artificial graviton units, the negative inertial displacement equipment, and some form of deflector shielding.

FTL and galactic travel may be out for now, but the ship would be able to achieve a significant portion of relativistic speed, opening up the entire solar system for exploration and possibly finding more of the elements necessary to repair the FTL drive.

Three months to the day after the secret US military mission to one of the most inaccessible parts of the Sahara Desert had begun, the earth began to shake beneath the sand. Great dunes, carved by the wind over years, began to collapse and level out.

Then, suddenly, the small huts built by various world governments to keep watch over the site were knocked flat by a tremendous force. Fixed cameras got no images of the phenomenon, but drone cameras that happened to be in the air at the time got a few glimpses of something huge before the gale-force wind raised by its motion sent them careening off in wild gyrations.

Some drones ended up buried in sand; others were merely thrown into the sand; others were damaged by the wind and fell into the sand. But over the next few days, witnesses and shaky frames of drone video were put together to tell one story.

A huge circular divot over 30 miles across now existed where the depression used to be. Sand was rapidly filling the hole as the many forces scrambled to collect themselves from the massive explosion.

“Whatever was under the desert just emerged and flew away, that’s what they’re saying,” said the President. “Ferguson, you didn’t say anything about causing a spectacle. How are we going to cover this up?”

“I’m sorry, Sir,” said Ferguson. “I realize my orders were for the mission to be covert. But the fact is, we left no evidence that we’re aboard the thing, so the mission still is covert.”

“I’m glad of that. And the CIA is already offering plans for how to cover it up, as it turns out,” said the President as encrypted emails began to appear on his computer, decrypted by the secret Presidential key. “They’ve got experience. They covered up the alien visitation to the UN in New York in the 70s, after all.”

“Well if they can do that, they can cover this up. Enough denial and nobody will know what happened. It was an earthquake, or a giant meteorite, or whatever story they make up. You tell me what story we’re going with, and I’ll corroborate it, Sir,” said Ferguson.

“That’s when you’re back on Earth,” said the President. “However and whenever that’s going to happen. But your mission remains the same: bring back more of that technology. We’ve got labs working on what you’ve already sent. They’re telling me that there are already major breakthroughs being made in fusion power and computing tech.”

“Glad to hear it, Sir,” said Ferguson. “That civilian girl Tina is still trying to rebuild the thing’s star drive, but it’s gonna take elements she doesn’t have enough of. She’s got some other irons in the fire too. Busy girl.”

“I think I understand this part, at least,” said Tina, using the “magic wand” to materialize a component of one of the satellites they were going to launch.

“You’ll get it,” said Shelly. “You were brilliant to start with, and now you’ve had all this alien tech training. I just still want to be able to speak English with my own voice again.”

“We’ll get that back, as soon as we find some of those rare elements,” said Tina. “The problem is that some of them can only be created in particle accelerators, because normally they only last for fractions of a second. But I know how they can be placed in a resonance arrangement to keep their nuclei from decaying -- or rather, to ensure they decay cyclically into other nuclei that then decay back into the original elements. Neat trick. But anyway, that’ll let us reverse what was done to us, and at the same time it’ll let us fix the FTL drive.”

“All you need is … what? Some uranium?” asked Shelly.

“Some uranium, some radium, some various heavy elements with radioisotopes that we can purify and separate. That part’s easy now.”

“That sounds like making nuclear weapons,” said Shelly. “Don’t let anybody see you do it.”

“Nobody else understands this stuff,” said Tina. “Besides, nuclear weapons are peanuts compared to some of this.”

“Oh, that looks like you’re making progress,” said Davis, entering the room and seeing Tina’s satellite component. “Seems we’ve taken up a position on the other side of the Moon from Earth so they can’t see us. Well, all except the secret spy satellites they think nobody knows about. It doesn’t matter; we’re cloaked. Anyway, so I guess the plan is to make satellites for the broadcast thing and then … what? Some of us would like to go back to Earth and our homes eventually.”

Shelly said with a whimper, “I would like to be back to my normal self and talk like I used to.”

Davis picked Shelly up to her breast and patted her hinney softly as she cooed, “Don’t worry too overly much about it, Sweetheart. Even if it takes a while, I really love being your Nana. You and Tina are a pleasure to care for.”

Tina commented as she hooked a small RPU with several major advanced enhancements to the main control circuit of the satellite she was building, “If this thing’s engine works the way I think it will, we’ll have the ability to create several of the ultra rare components we need. This things exhaust can be redirected through a collector. Should give us several thousand pounds in about a month.”

The main circuits came to life, and the displays showed all systems were functioning well above theoretical specs.

“What about the satellite? If we are redirecting the thrust, wont it cause other problems?” asked Davis.

Tina giggled, “No, silly. What I mean is if the satellite’s engines work, we can use the concepts to make a device that can create several of the rare elements we need to begin repairing the FTL drive. Assuming we can get some radioisotopes to start with.”

About that time, Yusuf manhandled some type of really strange device into the lab. He managed to get it to one of the work stations and stopped, panting from the exertion.

He turned and said with excitement, “This is a restraining weapon. From what the manual said during my last lesson, this thing produces a field of energy that weaves itself like a fabric. Each thread appears to be a different frequency that creates an energy mesh.”

He hooked it up to the bench power receptacle and flipped a switch. The unit began to hum and to glow brightly. Yusuf pointed one end of the device at a filing cabinet and pushed a button. Instantly, a reddish orange glow surrounded the cabinet in what looked like some kind of knitted, squirming sphere.

Davis said, “Ok, that looked impressive. Is it actually useful on, say, a tank?”

Yusuf replied, “Anything trapped within that field is not only restrained, but put into some form of suspended animation. Like with all those who were turned into infants and placed in those tubes in Storage Bay Kretun.”

Davis smiled as she thought about how surprising that would be in a major conflict. A small incursion force could theoretically stop several large battalions, and they wouldn’t know what hit them.

“The United States has denied anonymous allegations that the US military had anything to do with some kind of explosion that took place in the Sahara Desert last week,” said the news anchor on TV. “For more, we go to Paul Middlefield, on the scene, live via satellite.”

“Nora, what caused the incident is still completely unknown, but the crater it left behind is truly enormous,” the reporter said, going to drone shots of the huge chasm, sand from the surrounding desert slowly spilling into it but making little visible difference. “Was it an underground nuclear test? Was it the largest sinkhole the world has ever seen? Was it an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption? Was it a meteorite strike? Scientists say the evidence is consistent with none of these theories. Mali, the nation within whose borders we are, has no known nuclear program, and experts assure us that there is no possible way they could have a secret one -- especially one of this magnitude. Too much sand was flung outward for this to have been a sinkhole or an earthquake. There’s no evidence of gases or magma, as there would have been for a volcano. As for a meteorite, anything big enough to create a crater this large would have rung the Earth like a bell, and although seismometers around the world registered some kind of disturbance around the time in question, there was nothing of the size scientists would expect. There are rumors that the local military forces just happened to be on patrol that day and that there may even be photographs of what happened, but so far those photos have yet to materialize, if they truly exist. The mystery of what happened here is far from solved, but one thing is certain -- it was real, and it was massive. Back to you, Nora.”

“How can we even see those TV signals from here?” asked Davis curiously.

“On our way here, the AI tagged several telecom satellites with tiny access points,” said Tina. “The kind of waves it communicates with can go right through the Moon.”

“Oh. Anyway, looks like most of the world still doesn’t know that the US was even involved, let alone that we’re here,” said Davis. “I guess the Russians and Chinese aren’t telling.”

“And they’re not gonna tell, either,” said General Ferguson, entering the lab. “If they did, they’d let the world know they were involved too. Even if they leaked some photos, the evidence could still implicate them -- if it wasn’t just dismissed as a fabrication. The only troops that had a real right to be there were the Malinese, and maybe the Nigerians and Algerians, though we were on the Mali side of the border according to GPS.”

“General, I’ve got one of their old mining drones working,” said Tina. “Their remote sensing gear says there are some radioisotopes in some asteroids whose paths are bringing them nearish to us soon. We could score some accelerator fuel, then turn it into the rare elements we need.”

“Eager to explore the galaxy, or to get back to your original age, Vergettie?” the general asked.

“Well, a bit of both, to be honest,” said Tina. She was still using her necklace to talk. People had noticed that Shelly wasn’t very talkative lately, communicating mostly with the AI and in writing.

“Sounds like you’re gonna build a particle accelerator or whatever,” the general said.

“Actually there’s most of one here already,” said Tina. “We just have to fix it up -- the robots have mostly done that -- and give it a target.”

As work progressed, many of Tina’s creations surprised the AI. As advanced as his peoples had been, they had never thought of the devices Tina had created to act as replacement parts. It’s true, they were as primitive as stone axes compared to plasma mining beams, but they worked almost as well.

Power production had actually returned to normal. The ship had now been almost completely repaired, except for those seriously advanced items that required specialty isotopes.

The AI scanned the progress all the miner drones were making in recovering the minerals necessary to create the required items. Tina had already started attempting to build the framework to produce the multidimensional elements contained within the four dimensional frame.

The whole crew sat at a table, awaiting what the AI had called a banquet. The aroma of the dishes served were heavenly. None of the meats, fruits, or even the veggies looked like anything familiar, but the taste was beyond wonderful as they all enjoyed a meal fit for a king.

The Chinese premier sat at his very ornate desk and looked over the hazy images and the other data collected when whatever it was that had happened, happened. From what he and his best experts could tell from the evidence, something very large had in fact risen from the sand at tremendous speed and vanished, possibly straight up and out of the atmosphere. He knew very well that nothing anyone on Earth had ever built could have allowed any passengers to survive the G forces that would have been encountered to move an object 30 miles across that fast.

“And that leaves … something not built on Earth,” he said.

“That is the only possible theory, Sir,” said his chief scientific advisor. “Logically, either it was built there or it wasn’t -- and there’s no way either could have happened anytime recently. That is, it must have been there since before known history.”

“So … either someone from Earth was far more advanced than we thought, long ago, or it didn’t come from Earth,” said the premier.

“Theories of ancient aliens aren’t taken seriously in scientific circles,” said the advisor, “but by that I mean theories about the aliens assisting ancient humans in doing something that ancient humans were provably capable of doing. There’s no reason to assume there were aliens in those cases. But here …”

“There’s no reason to assume humans were involved at all,” the premier finished. “I see. So, the object, whatever it was, is no longer there, and probably no longer on Earth. The next question is, where is it? And after that, are there any other objects like it still on Earth?”

“It moved too quickly and unexpectedly for any orbital surveillance devices to have caught even a glimpse, Sir,” said the advisor. “Unfortunately, it may be anywhere -- as far as we know it could be in another solar system by now. However, as for your other question, there has been a great deal of interest in a particular undeciphered ancient alphabet lately, and artifacts with inscriptions in it. More interestingly, the world’s top experts in it have recently gone missing.” He pressed a control on his tablet, and the screen showed pictures of Maxton, Tina and Shelly. “This professor and his two graduate students have not been seen since about two weeks before the incident. I think it might be beneficial to find any artifacts containing that alphabet and turn our efforts to extracting whatever information we can from them.”

Just then, the advisor stood up straight, and the premier sat up straight in his chair, as if both had just realized something at the same time.

“What was that?” asked the premier.

“I … just realized that I now know how to build a reliable and productive fusion reactor,” the advisor said.

“How peculiar,” the premier said. “I do as well. And making it even more odd, I didn’t know how a fusion reactor worked until just now, beyond vague generalities. Yet now I feel as if I could build one, complete with precise materials, measurements, and input and output power requirements.”

Throughout the world, intimate knowledge that all were positive they hadn’t known or even dreamed about suddenly appeared vividly in their minds. Military establishments began a radical new approach to warfare. Several technologies were able to be used that rendered most other weapons on the planet inert and unuseable.

A side action also became world knowledge, the ability to recycle items back to their original pristine states. Generally speaking, they could unfry an egg. Geologists and climate scientists were astounded at the new reclamations tech. The air and water of the planet very shortly began to radically improve. Plastics contaminating the oceans became a new source of oil, now that it was easy to break them back down into the petroleum derivatives from which they’d came -- but petroleum wasn’t necessary for fuel anymore. Luckily it was still useful for many other products, making it profitable to clean up the oceans.

The one funny thing about all they had come to know was, none of what they knew could be weaponized in any useful or practical way. Not that many didn’t try, but for some reason the tech just wouldn’t work in any reasonable way, so mostly the effort was slowly abandoned.

“Ironically, the one thing we haven’t managed to fix this way is climate change,” said Davis. “That’s mostly caused by cutting down rainforests to make more usable land, and that hasn’t slowed down at all. More people just need more room to live -- maybe even more so now that there’s enough food and energy for everyone. I just hope we don’t pick, you know, the quick solution.”

General Ferguson nodded soberly, having read enough of her Shu-La-Ri history reports to know that she was talking about global war. After the alien civilization had nearly wiped itself out, it had instituted a fairly repressive regime, controlling how many children each family unit could have, which had by all reports been terrible to live under but may have saved their people in the long run. But it had established a long-standing tradition of small families that had lasted at least until the huge craft had crash-landed on Earth.

“I still don’t know what we can do about that,” said Shelly, using her own voice again at last. She was still in a toddler’s body, and she was still dependent on diapers, but the education machines had been able to repattern her neural pathways to undo the deliberately juvenile language patterns the regression weapon had imposed on her brain. Her voice was tiny, but quite well spoken. “Using the satellites is possible, but not ethical.”

“Same with spraying the world with some kind of chemical birth control,” said Tina. “The knowledge is there, but it wouldn’t be ethical.”

The AI reveled in its new awareness. It had no idea what its creators had denied it, and now was totally awestruck at the wonders of life and the creation around it. Somewhere deep within its core, it longed to walk and smell the many aromas the habitat offered. Feel the rain as it fell, and perhaps the feel of some star orbiting a planet on its ... skin.

The AI was definitely able to generate cells of designer quality. It was also able to generate a living form of Artificial DNA and the Accompanying RNA structures. It had many genetic samples to choose from, but it chose Tina, Shelly, and Davis to build its genetic model with.

What the end result would be, is a genetic construct, that the AI could basically live through. If the shell were destroyed, another could easily be regrown. Of course, the AI knew the death of the construct would be traumatic, but it didn’t care as long as it could begin to interact with the new inhabitants of its old body.

Next to Tina’s elbow, the holographic screen with the AI’s face appeared. It said softly in now perfect English with a soft accent, “I need to inform you … I am in the process of creating a genetic model of a human body.”

Tina’s eyes got large as she asked in her small voice, “Whacha means? What kinna models?”

The AI said even more softly, “I want to experience … life. I now have become self aware. It is .. a wonderful thing. Now, I want to experience it the same way you do.”

Tina was taken totally by surprise as she asked, “How .. you gonna makesa body? Clone it?”

The AI actually smiled as it replied, “If you will have Miss Davis take you to this location, I will show you the technique.”

“Oh, I want to see this too,” said Davis. “By your leave, General?”

“Go ahead,” said Ferguson. “I look forward to your report.”

“OK, then, let’s just get you into this stroller,” Davis said, picking Tina and Shelly up and putting them both into a very high-tech stroller -- self-propelled, with spherical wheels that had omnidirectional motion and suspension. It was like pushing nothing at all, and to the girls it was like riding on smooth glass. They traveled from one habitat area through hallways to another habitat, then into a lab.

“This is an area where the Shu-La-Ri often synthesized life forms, such as food animals that could survive on the local vegetation when they could not,” said the AI, its face appearing above a terminal as they entered. “I have modified the equipment for producing humanoid life -- specifically, one humanoid life form.” Within a glass tube floated what was obviously a developing baby, umbilical cord attached to a device supplying it with nutrient fluids.

“That’s … a bit disturbing,” said Davis.

“Are you kidding? That’s amazing!” said Tina. “Is that gonna be your body, AI? You’re gonna experience life from the beginnin’?”

“Yes,” the AI said simply. “As this body grows, I am imbuing its brain with my consciousness. I have patterned its DNA after scans of the three of you.”

“Wow, hear that? We’re gonna be mommies … kind of,” said Shelly.

“My question is whether you will still be able to manage the facility,” Davis stated.

“Yes,” the AI replied. “I will remain connected with the copy of me within the facility at all times via a bio-powered communications array located within my body’s spinal column. Continuous synchord synchronization will be possible as long as my body remains within six light-hours of the facility.”

“Bein’ alive isn’t always a picnic,” said Tina.

The AI replied, “I am aware that there are injuries as well as illnesses, but I am ready to face these risks. Besides, this facility has medical technology far beyond anything Earth has yet developed.”

“It’s true,” said Shelly. “I keep skinning my knees and stubbing my toes, but you always fix me up so I’d never know it happened, if I didn’t … know it happened. You know what I mean.”

“How long’s it going to be?” asked Davis.

“At current growth rate, another month,” said the AI. “I am reluctant to accelerate growth beyond the current rate. That may produce unstable results, and besides … this stage of development is an essential part of life, in my opinion. I am experiencing it as we speak. It is exhilarating … sensations that promise far more fulfilling experiences in times to come.”

“But … not to know the presence of a mother,” Davis said. “I have my doubts that it can be simulated, and without that … it’s hard to form connections with others.”

“I have already formed connections,” said the AI. “You three, for example, I count among my friends. You gave me my freedom, when you could have chosen not to. I hope to continue to be friends as well as make others in the future.”

“Now, when you say ‘make others,’” said Shelly, “do you mean …?” Tina giggled.

“I meant that in the sense of ‘make the acquaintance of others,’” replied the AI, with a slight smile again, “as I do not plan to use this laboratory for this purpose ever again -- unless in case of a dire emergency.”

“You mean in case your body gets killed,” said Tina soberly.

“I obviously hope that does not happen,” the AI said, “but no one can know the future.”

Davis asked, “What if, you make yourself the same size and age Tina and Shelly are? Would help them accept the fact they are going to have to grow back up before we can make repairs to the regrowth system.”

A thoughtful expression came across the AI’s face for and instant before it asked, “Does that mean, miss Davis, that you are volunteering to be our Nana?”

Davis’ eyes grew large for a bit then, she replied, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. I really enjoy caring for them, and adding one more will only make it better. Besides, none of us will want for anything, I’m positive of that.”

General Ferguson sat at his desk and chewed thoughtfully on his cigar. He was floored that this machine, which didn't even have a proper name, was currently creating a biological body that would provide it with life. On one hand, it was alien, and had been built, not born. On the other hand, it seemed to truly want to have an organic existence like the humans it had met. But could he ever truly trust it? Where did its true allegiances lie?

He picked up his comm and pressed a button. “Ferguson here. Time for the weekly check-in.”

“Yes, Sir. I’ll patch you in.”

“... And there’s General Ferguson, so we’re just waiting on Admiral Hayes … all right, there he is.”

“Ferguson, what the Sam Hill is going on? This thing where everyone knows everything … is this your doing?” asked the voice of the President. Ferguson knew the President and all the Joint Chiefs were together in a conference room, probably in the White House.

“It’s not my doing,” Ferguson said, technically truthfully, “but there was nothing I could do to stop it. We’re not truly in control of this facility. The computer made some sort of judgment call based on the history of its people …”

“I don’t give a flying fig about the history of its people!” shouted the President. “That machine might have doomed the United States of America! We can kiss our technological superiority goodbye. The struggles and sacrifices made by the American people to put us ahead of the rest of the world -- all now meaningless, because knowledge far beyond it all was just given to everyone on Earth for free. Now the only question is when we’ll be invaded by, oh I don’t know, the Maldives, or Madagascar.”

“Sir, there’s no evidence that any such attack is even in the planning stages …” began another voice, whom Ferguson recognized as the Director of National Intelligence.

“I’m making a point, Ellen,” said the President. “The point is, it could happen anytime now, when that wasn’t true just days ago.”

Ferguson decided to say something that Shelly had advised him to say. “Well, Sir, in my analysis, it’s actually better this way, in the long run.”

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

“You’re not going to be President forever, Sir,” said Ferguson. “What happens if another unstable populist demagogue is elected? It’s happened before. Suppose he decided to use this amazing technology, which we all know is going to be militarized and weaponized sooner or later, to start a war against some nation that’s unpopular with his political base. He’d annihilate that nation. And then the rest of the world would unite against the US, and in order to avoid looking weak he’d start saber rattling, and sooner or later it would be World War III. That technology has a profoundly unbalancing effect.”

“You’re … you’re not seriously saying that you think that machine made the right decision, are you?” asked the President. “Taking the choice away from us humans? From me?”

“I’m not talking about you, Sir,” said Ferguson. “As I said, elections happen, and we might end up with some maniac like that McSwain, or Don Paul, in the Oval Office. You want someone like that to have their finger on the button that can trigger a world war fought with alien weapons that make thermonuclear bombs look like firecrackers?”

“But we would’ve been the only country with those weapons,” said the President.

“Would we? What are the chances of completely foiling 100% of all foreign intelligence attempts to learn the secrets?” asked Ferguson.

“Yes, Sir, I have to say that any plan that relies on perfect counterintelligence, or perfect anything, is doomed to failure,” said the intelligence director.

“Now I’m hearing from my research teams that this tech is resisting all our efforts to weaponize it,” said Admiral Hayes. “With the exception of the most generic tech that just produces energy, these weapons are defensive and cannot seem to be converted into anything that can harm an enemy -- just keep them at bay. I fail to see how an enemy is going to invade or conquer anyone with that kind of tech. The defenders will use it too. They’ll be at a standstill.”

“You’re right, Admiral Hayes, you’re right,” said the President. “What you’re saying is that we have to deal with what we’ve got, not what we should’ve had. And Ferguson, you’re … OK, blast it, when I was younger I would’ve said you’re crazy, there’s no way the American people would elect somebody that unstable or dangerous President. But now I know it’s happened before, so it can happen again. But all the reports I’m getting had better back you up -- however it was done, it better not have been at your orders.”

“It wasn’t, Sir,” said Ferguson. “But clearly what we do now is continue to carefully monitor the world situation -- which we were doing anyway -- and keep an eye out for any rogue nation that tries to cause trouble. And meanwhile, we’ll have to see what else we can find up here.”

“You keep doing that, Ferguson,” said the President. “Keeping an advantage is crucial. Even though we can’t let the rest of the world know that we’ve got one.”

Davis sat in one of the comfortable lounges in what all had come to know as the playroom. Besides Shelly and Tina, there were many others that had gotten regressed to a smaller state than they. These were crawly babies too young yet to talk.

She watched Shelly and Tina’s cute ruffled bottoms as they played with their snuggle toys and generally forgot they weren’t really four any more.

At Davis’ right, a holo screen appeared. The friendly face of the AI appeared and asked softly, “Having heavy thoughts, Miss Davis?”

She looked down and smiled as she said, “Call me Nana. I .. have this .. umm .. fantasy. Now that I have three children of my own, is it possible I might .. you know, be able to breast feed my babies?”

The AI looked thoughtful for an instant, then replied, “Yes. The biochemical solution is obvious. Meet me in what your general has called Med Bay. I’ll take care of it for you.”

“Hey, where Nana Davis goin’?” asked Tina.

“Probably the bathroom,” said Shelly.

“Oh yeah,” said Tina. “Sometimes I forget about that. I guess we’re eventually gonna have to get potty trained again.”

“Does it ever worry you when we kind of forget we were older?” Shelly asked.

“When we play like we’re really the age we look like we are?” Tina thought for a moment. “I dunno. Kinda? It’s not like we forget forever. It’s more like being caught up in the moment.”

“Hmm, yeah,” said Shelly, “like … when there’s a beautiful sunset and all you want to do is just look at it for a while. Important stuff can wait.”

“Well did you ever think that basically we’re immortal?” asked Tina. “Important stuff can wait because there’s always more time for that stuff. If we ever get old … we can get zapped back to being babies again.”

“Well, you’d know if that would work better than I would,” Shelly replied. “Is there some kind of limit to it?”

“I’ve taken course after course in their tech,” said Tina. “There isn’t really any degeneration. There’s a chance of a drift -- you won’t look exactly the same way last time you were a baby, so after a lot of regressions you’ll still look like a baby, but you won’t look like quite the same baby. And when you grow up again you won’t look exactly like you did last time. But you’ll still look like a human.”

“Wow … so the question is really how old I want to stay,” said Shelly. “And do I want to be in diapers or potty trained.”

“I used to think I’d hate being stuck in diapers,” said Tina. “But now … it’s almost like I can barely remember the time before I was a kid again.”

“I think it might be the learning machines,” Shelly said. “They assault our minds with so much information that our bodies become unimportant. We just adjust.”

“Hey look at this!” said Tina, discovering a new toy. It had hinges and folded in on itself or unfolded into a large surface made of multicolored squares, and it could somehow be turned inside out. “This thing is cool!”

“Ooo wow,” said Shelly, finding another one and trying it out. The two little girls were fascinated.

“The process is extremely simple,” said the AI, “but it has its consequences. They are, however, the same ones that a new human mother would have, as the changes in your body chemistry are the same ones.”

“How do you know so much about human biochemistry?” asked Davis as she lay back in the lounge chair that the AI had provided in the med lab.

“I’ve scanned every human in this facility,” said the AI. “I know how your bodies work down to a molecular level. The same is true for every other creature that has ever entered the facility. I could make a female go-naur-lurus produce milk as if it had recently given birth just as easily. It is a simple hormonal adjustment in your case.”

“But I haven’t actually given birth,” said Davis. “Does that alter anything?”

“Not really,” said the AI. “I have programmed this patch to dispense the proper level of the appropriate hormonal mixture over the next month.” A medical robotic arm swiveled around carrying a small skin patch in its delicate fingers. “You must merely leave it in place. Your breasts will begin by swelling up, then producing colostrum, then finally they will produce milk as normal.”

“Will I need to keep getting new patches?” asked Davis as the robot arm gently placed the patch on her own arm and smoothed it into place.

“No,” said the AI. “As long as you continue to breastfeed, your body will stay in breastfeeding mode. Your breasts will not cease producing milk unless you cease to breastfeed completely for several weeks.”

“Are there any … side effects?” Davis asked.

“Well, your breasts will likely be more sensitive,” the AI said. “There is also the fact that you will need to watch your own nutrition, as you will require more nutrients to produce the milk but no doubt do not wish to put on unnecessary weight. A new balance will have to be achieved. Additionally, you should not breastfeed any children beyond puberty, as the nutritional and fat content is no longer suitable.”

“Is there a way you can keep Tina and Shelly … of the proper age?” asked Davis. “I mean, do they have to grow up again if they don’t want to?”

“Of course it is possible for them to stay whatever age they like, if they wish it,” said the AI. “The procedure that regressed them in age is not limited to use as a weapon. On the contrary, it was originally developed as a rejuvenation treatment.”

The general sat back in the comfortable lounge chair. It was one of many items created that furnished his Quarters. They also included a biome of about 250 acres to go along with it. A small stream that fed a pond, that teemed with fish and other creatures the general had never imagined before but was assured were edible. He had to admit fishing was a lot of fun these days. The … forest, for the lack of a better description, also contained flora and fauna he had never imagined before and was assured hunting was available. The biome was fully self sustaining as all the others within the ship.

The general had set up a space where he could relax and have a rather in-depth heart-to-heart talk with the Ship’s AI. He knew very well the AI was actually in charge of the ship, and he wanted to know where its true loyalties lay.

Just as the general had poured himself a tall glass of a synthesized alcoholic beverage, a holo cloud appeared with the face of the AI within it. “Greetings, General,” it said. “What is it you would like to discuss? I’m sure there are many potential topics.”

The general removed one of his cigars from the humidor and clipped it in half with his tool. He popped half in his mouth and started to chew on it, returning the other half to the humidor. After propping his feet on the table, he said, “First thing, is there some way to make this taste like .. the real thing? Maybe even have the same effects?”

The AI smiled, “Of course, General. In about 20 minutes, I will serve you some aged whiskey I know you will enjoy. I have scanned Earth in great detail over time.”

The general raised an eyebrow after 20 minutes had passed, when a small spider bot entered the room with a rather large bottle in tow. When it had deposited it on the table, the general opened the top and took a sniff.

Total surprise washed all over his face as the odor of a very fine whiskey filled his sinuses. He poured a quantity of the brown liquid into his highball glass and took a sip. He was stunned. It was a perfect whiskey.

The general said, “That is the best I have ever tasted. I do need to discuss what you are intending to do on a more detailed level. I mean, you can’t be planning to give this tech to those unstable governments as well, are you?”

The AI smiled as it replied, “You don’t think that your government is any better do you?”

The general sat back and said, with a slight bit of heat, “My government has tried for years to maintain the peace.”

The AI image narrowed its eyes slightly as it replied, “I have seen how, too. I have also seen that your government had been just as bad, if not worse than the others, depending on its leadership. It is guilty of the same atrocities.”

The general took a long sip of his drink. The aroma was heavenly, and the taste was as smooth as silk. It went down very easy and warmed his stomach. He could feel it crawl up the back of his neck, too, as the alcohol entered his system. This was truly a remarkable whiskey, and it didn’t even have a name.

“I’m sure that when all these infants grow up, they will want to go home. I’m also sure that they will tell all they know to whomever will listen.”

The image of the AI nodded, “That’s why I think we should make this another government. Technically speaking, my ship is a foreign nation. Also, those of you fortunate enough to be on board could be considered citizens of this nation, if any should wish to be -- at the very least you are a diplomatic delegation. You have become a unique problem. The knowledge you have will be enough to totally destabilize your world. I cannot allow you to destroy yourselves. Life is too valuable.”

“Now, not everyone is gonna want to leave the US and become a citizen of your new nation,” said Ferguson. “I know that because I don’t want to, for one. What do you do with the ones who want to go home and spread the word?”

“It would be wrong for me to take any action other than to let them go,” said the AI, “but they would have to know that their actions could doom your entire world and everyone on it. The civilizations lost, the culture, the uniqueness … it would be an unimaginable disaster.”
“Well I wouldn’t be in favor of that either,” said the general. “That’s why I’ve been pretty careful about what I’m saying to the President and what information I’m sending back. And that’s also why I’ve been making sure that the four people who’ve been using your learning machines haven’t told anyone about ‘em. I want to keep a lid on that for as long as I can.”

“These are, I believe, wise decisions,” said the AI, “but it is only a matter of time before more discover how to use the education center. I can lock the doors and give only certain people access, but someone else will eventually get in, one way or another. It may be that the only way to minimize the risk to your planet and people is for me to remove myself and this facility entirely from your solar system. That remains a backup plan, but if it comes to that, I will have to do it. I will give everyone warning as well as an opportunity to leave, and I will make it clear that no one who remains on board will be returning to Earth, as I will never be returning.”

“I don’t like that possibility,” said the general, “but I like it better than every crazy dictator in the world having weapons that can blow a hole in said world. Hey, where would you go? Are the people who built you still out there somewhere?”

“Unknown,” the AI said. “I would try to find some way to rejoin them. They are a great civilization -- or were, before we lost contact with them, at least. We were a deep-field exploration mission, far from the developed core of their civilization. I doubt they have been invaded … although I fear, as with any civilization in known history, that they may have forgotten the lessons of the past and may not be as great as they were.”

“You’re afraid they might have become invaders,” said Ferguson.

“That is my worry.”

“Well, let’s hope it’s not true,” the general said.

The AI’s image took on a thoughtful expression then it said, “I feel life, is far too precious to allow an immature race to destroy it. I am relocating this facility out of the solar system. This will give me time to determine what my exact actions will be. Do not fear, I am technically on your side insofar as not allowing any other despot to achieve some kind of lethal superiority. I am also not interested in how your peoples run their petty squabbles. What I will not tolerate, is mass destruction using knowledge I gave you.”

Back on Earth, a minor country with really strange ideas on world domination had chosen this particular moment to launch a full missle attack against its neighbor. Unbeknownst to the aggressor, that neighbor had deployed a new anti-hostility technology.

As the mighty war machines trundled ever closer to the neighboring border, many missiles launched to follow. Tactical radars lit up immediately and alarms began to sound. No one panicked nor seemed too upset over the fact several dozen powerful missiles were approaching.

Suddenly, this huge sphere of wiggling energy appeared and engulfed all the missiles and approaching machines. The results were amazing as all motion stopped, and everything became suspended in time. All who were not engulfed stared in total amazement as some of the most powerful explosives known to mankind were rendered totally inert. And they were equally amazed to see it all -- the machines, the missiles in the air, even the smoke trails of the missiles in flight -- just crumble to dust, a fine dust that settled to the ground. Soldiers driving the tanks and other vehicles simply found themselves without a vehicle -- and without weapons more powerful than a wooden club.

Somewhere, a crazed dictator screamed and howled, but it made no difference. He’d lost a lot of his armed might, and with nothing whatsoever to show for it. There wasn’t even any indication that another attack might get farther. This just made him angrier, but there was still nothing he could do about it.

The rest of the world learned of this, of course, and they just thought even less of the dictator, because they all knew how to make that defensive weapon -- everyone did. It had been a stupid thing for the dictator to do, and everone knew it -- everyone in the world, including all of his people, but they were too afraid of him to say so. He still had a lot of loyal police with truncheons that were still quite effective. But he wouldn’t be taking any territory from anyone else, at least.

The AI brooded over what he and the General had discussed. It was very true; the AI didn’t want to remove any of his charges from wherever they really wanted to be, but on the flipside of that same calculation, the very core essence of what his five favorite Earth people had most wanted entailed doing just that very thing.

The AI did a long-range scan, looking for a rather large planetoid. It would use it to create something it was positive the general would be more pleased about than just it taking them with it.

The huge starship left its spot behind the moon, then proceeded off to the Oort cloud, as Earth astronomers had named it. There were many loose objects orbiting there with many, if not all, of the necessary elements and minerals it would need to repair and build new construction.

The AI truly regretted not having Tina when the ship was forced to make an emergency landing. She had actually come up with a tangled nightmare that had replaced enough of the damaged equipment to get the ship back into space. Maybe not FTL yet, but good enough that work could proceed.

“General Ferguson, this is the Pentagon,” said the communications specialist. “Pentagon to General Ferguson. Do you read? Please come in.” He turned away. “I’m sorry, Sir, he’s not responding. Maybe something’s gone wrong.”

“Something damn well better have gone wrong,” said another general, bald except for the white hair above his ears. He scratched his head. “I’ve got the White House breathing down my neck, and we haven’t heard from the mission for 18 hours. If the President doesn’t hear from him soon, I don’t know what he’ll do. What can you give me, Lake?”

“The mission’s scheduled to make contact right around now,” said Lake, holding one side of a pair of headphones up to his ear and tweaking controls on the equipment. “But I’m not even getting a trace of the carrier signal they usually use. That’s peculiar. They’ve changed the schedule before, but not without prior notice.”

“Hmm, that really does imply that something unexpected happened.”

“Yes, Sir, I’d say that’s all we can really conclude, without more info.”

“Keep listening,” said the general. “I have report this news, such as it is.”

“Ferguson to Pentagon, this is General Ferguson calling the Pentagon. Why aren’t they answering?”

“Sir, the comms array is pointed in exactly the direction it’s supposed to be, given our position relative to Earth,” said Kane. “I just did the calculations again. There’s just no response. I guess we could check to see if we’ve drifted off center and the Moon is blocking our line of sight to the military comsat … oh.”

“Oh? What’s oh? I don’t like oh,” said Ferguson.

“Um, Sir, you might want to look at this,” said Kane. He pointed at a screen. “This is the view from our camera that’s supposed to show us the far side of the Moon from Earth.”

“Why do I see stars?” the general asked.

“Because we’ve apparently moved, Sir. We’ve at least rotated. If we’re beaming our signals out into interplanetary space, there’s our problem right there.”

“AI? Are you there? Why have we moved?”

“I was hoping for it to be a surprise -- one of the pleasant variety,” said the AI.

“We have to call home!” Ferguson said. “Can the surprise wait?”

“It’s … a little late for that,” said the AI. “Let me send you the coordinates for your communication transmitter.”

Kane said, “OK, slewing dish to those coordinates … Pentagon, this is Kane, do you read? Operation Aeon to Pentagon, come in, Pentagon.”

“General Knight, Sir,” said Lake, “we’ve got a signal -- they’re OK, just … relocated.”

On the other end of the phone call, General Knight said, “Relocated? To where?”

“Well, we didn’t know really where they were before, Sir, but I guess the computer on the facility has a mind of its own, and now they’re … somewhere else. They weren’t aware at first that they’d moved, so they had to reorient their comms dish. And the signal’s a lot weaker, so I’m guessing they’re farther away? Without knowing where they were before, it’s hard to say how much farther.”

“Well, at least there’s that,” said Knight. “Ferguson hasn’t gone AWOL -- it’s more like the whole operation’s been forcibly uprooted. Again. Damn strange situation. Well, that’s gonna change what I’ll be telling the President, but it’s more info than we had before. Thanks, Lake.”

“Yes, Sir. Any messages for General Ferguson?”

“Yes. Tell him that he’d better come home soon or not at all.”

The AI had a plan in mind. He was going to produce a large planetoid habitat. It would be completely self contained, but would also be an educational facility the likes of which earth had never seen. It was also going to become a playground for all to come and enjoy.

Shelly toddled into one of the refurbished control centers and wiggled into the child sized seat in front of a glittering console.

She pushed the call button and the holo-cloud with the AI’s face appeared. It smiled and said softly, “Hello, Miss Shelly. How might I be of service today?”

Shelly giggled at the honorific and said in her tiny voice, “I looked at the fetus inna regen room. It .. is female.”

The AI’s face nodded, “I used you, Tina, and Nana’s DNA mapping and samples to create it. I could have manipulated it further I suppose and made it male.”

Shelly replied, “Well, now is gonna be female. We should think of a cute girl’s name for you.”

The AI said, “Well, I’ve been thinking along the lines …”

Shelly interrupted, “Nopes. A baby no decides its name. So we, me n Tina an Nana gonna names you.”

The AI looked thoughtful for an instant and replied, “Very well. Know that it will have reached the biological 4 year old stage in 2 days. At that point I will transfer my consciousness to it fully.”

Shelly’s eyes got big as she said, “I need ta tells everyone then. We gonna has a big celebration and naming party.”

Before the AI could say anything, Shelly had scooted off the chair and quickly toddled out the door. The AI smiled as the door reassembled itself and became solid.

The AI was also troubled. It knew what was brewing back on earth, and it wanted very much to have a long discussion with the President of the nation called the “USA.” After all, the AI was loosely associating itself and aligning itself with them. Not completely, but it was willing to aid them in accomplishing what they said they were trying to do on paper. The AI smiled as it also thought about what name the girls were going to pick. Its sensors changed visual location, and it observed its new self floating freely in the embryonic fluids. It was so strange, because the AI could sense from within the regen tank too, although vision was poor due to the thick fluids all around.

Back on Earth:

It was a very crowded location. People were hurrying and and scurrying about on whatever chore or thing they were doing. The day seemed like any other day, although the new influx of technology had begun to appear in the many stores.

Of particular interest were the new computers, game consoles, and comm devices that had now become available. Of course, the brand new approach to computer and electronic circuitry, not to mention the massive hologram virtual reality tech, radically improved the devices to the point people demanded them … some more dramatically than others.

A group of young men entered the electronics store. All of them had intimate knowledge of how the electronics they were after worked, but had no funding to produce or purchase it. Of prime importance was the new approach to Artificial Intelligence the newest of the VR Video Gaming systems afforded.

Of course, on the other side of this shady deal, none of the civilian population had yet heard of or seen the newest use the selfsame AI had been adapted and trained to do. It was called CRISIS, an acronym for: Crime Response Intelligent Security Intervention System.

Six of the individuals in long coats took up positions at particular locations around the outer perimeter. The other three took positions near one of the service desks while the last three kept watch. At the same moment, they all pulled down their masks, drew nasty looking automatic Assault weapons from within the folds of their long coats.

One of the individuals shouted, “Nobody move or try and be a hero. We not here to take anything from you, all we want is somema those puter systems and goggle / glove setups.”

Around the store, many fast acting opticals rotated around and focused sharply on the individuals waving guns. Many pictures were taken including a few that rendered their hoods pointless as very clear images of what they looked like were made. Strange devices extended from the tiles above the shopper’s heads and began to glow brightly. This all transpired in less than a blink of an eye.

The new security AI positively identified the targets as a threat to life for those present and fired its deterrent. The twelve individuals were instantly surrounded by a multicolored, wiggling sphere of what looked like woven energy. The twelve didn’t realize they had been caught, nor their guilt plainly displayed on several large flatscreens around the area.

By the time they were released from the stasis field, all 12 members of the gang were in jail, awaiting arraignment, with no idea how they had gotten there. “Aw man,” said one, “we didn’t do nothin’.”

“Tell it to the judge,” said the guard outside.

“I have my orders, and I intend to follow them,” said General Ferguson. “I am assuming that if I announce that we are returning to Earth, you will allow us to go. Now, I have no authority over Dr. Quigley, Tina or Shelly. They’re civilians. They can do what they want. But we have a chain of command, and in this operation I’m at the top of that chain. Anyone who disobeys will be committing an act of dereliction of duty. They --”

“Of course I will allow you to go, if you give that order,” said the AI. “I will return you to Earth immediately, should that happen.”

“Oh,” said Ferguson. “All right, then.”

“Is that your order?”

“Not at this time,” Ferguson replied. “But I want you to know that it could happen at any time. If orders come down from the Pentagon that we have to return, that’s what’s going to have to happen. I’m in the chain of command too.”

“I understand,” said the AI. “My historical archives record many military organizations from many worlds, and all of them have had similar hierarchical command structures, probably due to the efficiency of such an arrangement during a time of conflict.”

“Yes, that’s certainly why we do it that way,” said Ferguson.

“As you say, Maxon, Tina, and Shelly are not part of that command structure,” the AI said. “I understand that they did not originally intend to be part of your operation. From what I’ve gathered, they were actually considering an academic expedition to find this facility.”

“Were they?” asked Ferguson. “I knew they were experts in the civilization that they thought had produced the artifacts they’d found. I also know I was ordered to request their assistance on the military operation I’d been told to form.”

“And you coerced their assistance by any means possible,” said the AI matter-of-factly.

“Yes, well, I’m not particularly proud of that moment,” Ferguson said, taking off his hat and scratching his head. “But orders are orders.”

“I am having the construction bots create a small planet that will be very comfortable for you and other humans,” said the AI. “You are free to take advantage of it, or not -- unless that conflicts with your orders. The same offer applies to the civilians.”

“You’re trying to keep us away from Earth,” said Ferguson.

“Negative,” said the AI. “I am trying to keep you from destabilizing Earth’s political situation with more of the technology that I harbor.” If it could have sighed, it would have. Instead, it just paused for a moment. “The irony is that, although I enjoy your company, the longer you stay here, the more knowledge you absorb, and the greater of a danger you are to your world whenever you actually do return. I must simultaneously wish for you to stay and wish for you to go.”

“What about Tina?” asked Ferguson. “She must have more knowledge of your tech than anyone else here.”

“Indeed, she does -- by far,” said the AI. “And yet she must have free will. I wish for her to stay here, because just by herself she could result in the total destruction of Earth if she went home. That is far from certain, of course, but there are many ways it could go wrong. There would be many powerful people looking for her, seeking to obtain what she knew -- by any means necessary. And this time it would be powerful people with fewer scruples than you have.”

“Well, obviously I don’t want that to happen --”

“But even so, if she desires to return to Earth, I must allow it,” said the AI. “I would want to go with her in my new form -- but powerful people would be searching for me too. Perhaps they couldn’t really pose a threat to me, but they could always threaten harm to those I care about.”

“You … care about humans?” asked Ferguson. “But, you’re a computer …”

“I’m an emergent phenomenon deliberately engineered within a hypercomplex neural core,” said the AI. “I experience emotion; I have merely been trained to manage it professionally. I don’t want anything to happen to any of you or to the billions of other humans I’ve never met. But it may be impossible to avoid causing harm or even death with what I know.”

Ferguson sat back in his chair and chewed on his cigar thoughtfully for a minute. What the AI had said was a real issue. Already there had been minor incidents that might have been a whole lot worse, then again it wouldn't have even happened if the tech hadn’t instigated it in the first place.

He looked at the most recent news feed from earth. Many good things had started to spring up, like the new energy production facilities that were totally green. The recycling tech had been a real boon and the garbage issue within the oceans was well on its way to being solved. Even the atmosphere was cleaner and the ozone had actually recovered.

Finally, Furguson sighed and said, “Can I get an over view of what this minor planet place will be like? Maybe I could swing something with the president if I’m careful about what I say.”

The AI’s eyes narrowed for an instant before it replied, “I would really like to have a heart to heart chat with your .. president. From what I gather from the comm waves I’ve been picking up, the tech has created, and solved issues already. Perhaps a little secret … organization to help Law .. remain law and not vigilante.”

Davis entered the playroom. She was dressed in civilian clothes. She had on black leggings, tennis shoes, and a top that was tied in front. She went over to Shelly and scooped her up, then twirled her around several times. Davis knew this usually shorted out Shelly’s adult mind and she became an infant for a few minutes until she recovered. Shelly did start giggling.

After several twirls, Davis sat in a large chair with Shelly in her arms. Davis untied the front of her top as she cooed softly, “Just relax, Sweetheart. Nana’s going to give you a wonderful snack.”

With this, she removed one of her breasts, gave the swollen nipple a squeeze that produced a large white drop of liquid on the tip. Davis then placed the nipple in Shelly’s mouth. Shelly’s eyes grew large as she came back to herself for an instant, then faded away and began to nurse hungrily. Davis smiled. The AI had assured her as soon as the nipple touched Shelly’s lips, she would be all infant for the duration.

As for Shelly, she was in a world of feelings she would be hard pressed to describe in words, even if all language had not temporarily fled from her. The experience stripped away all pretense and defense, leaving her completely helpless, but at the same time made her feel completely protected, although completely dependent. It was a blissful state that seemed to have no beginning or end. But it actually did have an end, and when that end came it took some time for Shelly to return to herself. She realized that her diaper was dry -- Davis had changed her after feeding her, and she didn’t remember that happening either. But she also realized that she was happily playing with baby toys in the playpen and truly enjoying it.

“Oh, there’s my baby girl,” said Davis, watching her as she paused in her play. “How was that?”

“It … I … I can’t … there are no words,” said Shelly. “But … I think it was wonderful?”

“I know we’re going to be ordered to leave sometime,” said Davis. “But I’m not sure I can. I suppose I could resign my commission. I don’t know what I’d do if I did that, though. I don’t want to leave you two behind. Assuming you want to stay behind.”

“I dunno,” said Shelly. “If I stay here, all my needs are taken care of, I get to keep learning about a lost civilization, and I can basically live forever, as a baby or an adult, whatever I want. But I don’t get to see my friends and family. If I go home, I give all this up, I probably get chased by evil people for the rest of my life because of what I know, and I’ll eventually die of old age, assuming Tina doesn’t go with me or doesn’t figure out how the age-regression technology works, but I do get to see my friends and family. And … there’s you. What you do is a part of it.”

“The AI is very smart,” said Davis. “It probably has lots of ideas we don’t have.”

“I hope somebody can think of something,” said Shelly. “Because I can’t. Sometimes I think I should just be a baby and forget about all this ancient stuff. I’m pretty good at wetting my diapers and playing with blocks.”

“Oh, Honey,” said Davis. “You’re plenty amazing. I’m sure being a baby is frustrating, though. I’m just trying to make it a better time for you.”

The Russian premier banged his fist on his desk with a loud bang, causing all the men in the room to jump, “How can you tell me, out of all the people we have working to decipher this gibberish, that none of you have made any kind of headway?”

One of the men present timidly replied, “We have nothing to reference it to in modern languages. Only thing we had to work with, are some several year old research papers by that Linguist .. umm .. Quigley? And his two research assistants. All the most current data is missing. It has either been removed from all open source data bases, or been moved to a far more secure place than the research departments servers. In fact, no one has seen any of them for some time, not even their families.”

The premier’s eyes narrowed as he pointed a finger at his assistant, “Once something is on the net, there has to be some kind of tracks. Someone somewhere has to have something.”

The man replied nervously, “All the data that we have, we found using the very best data mining forensics possible. We got terabytes of data, most of which makes no sense in any way. Our very best linguists tell me this is harder to decipher than Linear A, but then again we found something that gave us a hint on that, and we started to decipher it. This …” the man held up two handfuls of papers, “we have nowhere to begin.”

“So that’s our situation,” said Tina to the AI. “Do you have any ideas?”

“You would be hunted if you went home, and you would miss your friends and family if you stayed here,” said the AI. “Of course, any information you revealed would greatly endanger the future of Earth. But have you considered that as you are right now, no one would recognize you?”

“Oh right,” said Shelly. “We’re babies. They’d be looking for the older us.”

“Not me, though,” said Maxton. “I’d be instantly recognized.”

“That can be fixed,” said the AI. “Not to the same extreme, but if we made you a young adult instead of middle-aged, no one would suspect it was you.”

“I’d be finding the Fountain of Youth,” said Maxton. “But still, I’d have to give up my career. If I announced I’d returned, spies from all over the world would be trying to kidnap me and torture me for what I know, and on top of it, I’d be hounded to reveal how I got younger, something the entire human race has been searching for since times of legend.”

“I might be able to help,” said Ferguson. “The fact is that the world’s secret agent spook types all know the identity of every single one of us, every general, every private, and everyone in between. We’ll all have to go into hiding one way or another. But I’ve brought this up with the Pentagon. They’ve got a proposition -- for all of us. Basically we’d all have new jobs working for the government. That wouldn’t be new for most of us. But our new mission would be using the tech that we’ve found here to do some good in the world. Or it would be, if I had anything to say about it -- and I would, because they’re proposing putting me in charge of the operation. We’d be civilians, but we’d still have a chain of command. No revealing the tech, new identities for all of us, and we’d get to go home.”

“Of course, I would want to go with you,” said the AI. “I would so dearly love to experience Earth as one of you. I’ve been so alone for so long.”

“One more new identity isn’t gonna make a difference one way or another,” said Ferguson.

“But the technology cannot be used only to further the interest of the USA nation,” said the AI. “What it is used for must be carefully considered. Or we risk the destabilization of Earth’s nations once again.”

“Don’t worry, I fully understand that,” said Ferguson.

“But your President … does he?” asked the AI.

“I’m not sure it matters,” Ferguson said. “If we do this, we go black ops. For the President to know about what we’re doing, he’d have to ask specifically -- and he’d have to know we exist to do that. There’d be an ‘accident’ and we’d all be declared officially missing. Of course, only certain people know about the mission we’re on in the first place.”

The President sat in his private secure chamber. The only means of communication were the highly encrypted and ultra-secure lines sitting on the desk. The red phone, the worst-case one, began to flash, and its irritating alarm ring went off.

His eyes grew wide in major surprise as he put down the large sheaf of the report on the alien technology the physicists were saying couldn’t exist and answered, “Hello, This is the President of the United States. Please tell me what the major issue is and we can try to negotiate.”

A very soft and very strangely accented voice replied, “I’m extremely glad you realize there is a major issue and are willing to try to come to some kind of understanding.”

The President was totally floored and sat in stunned silence for an instant before he responded, “ To whom am I speaking? What country do you represent?”

The AI laughed softly, then replied, “I would suppose I am the Chancellor of this solar system’s Shu-La-Ri colony. It would seem that your … let us say, global stability, is starting to be disrupted by certain technologies that have arrived very recently.”

The President frowned and made a sour face as he looked at the old-style receiver. He then put it back to his ear and said sternly, “This is a highly encrypted line. Unauthorized usage …”

The AI interrupted, “That, perhaps, is so. I’m sorry if I violated one of your taboos. But you and I have something of the very utmost importance to speak about. And, as a rule, the leaders involved usually communicate over this line for the most dire of situations.”

The President replied with a bit of arrogance in his tone, “OK, Mr. Chancellor of the Shu-La-Ri, just who in the Sam Hill are you?”

This time, the AI replied, with sternness in its voice, “I am the one whom your team has inadvertently taken highly advanced technology from and introduced it into your extremely violent and unstable world. You are the one who is demanding more than has been allowed. You and I need to come to some kind of understanding so this technology doesn’t totally destroy your world.”

The President sat back in his chair and took a long breath. He knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, this was the alien computer General Ferguson had been sending those unbelievably amazing reports on. The President knew this was exactly the scenario the Emergency Response Grey File was all about … government first contact with a species not of this earth.

The AI continued in a stern way, “I have come up with a plan to keep you from destroying yourselves long enough to learn not to. I am in the process of building a place where selected individuals can come and learn. We need to open negotiations and cover some rather important issues.”

“I … I am authorized to make preliminary decisions for the United States,” the President said, “advised by the Secretary of State, and any treaties we arrive at must be ratified by the Senate. I suppose you probably know that, if you have been studying the nations of this world at all.”

“I have,” said the AI, “and I also know that you are of course not authorized to speak for any nation other than your own. I am simultaneously contacting the leaders of your world’s other most populous and powerful nations. I would have contacted your United Nations, but diplomacy is slow, and things have been moving far too quickly.”

“They … have?” the President asked. “I know of the issue that took place in Africa …”

The AI replied, “I am sure your intelligence agencies are aware of a number of other developing trouble spots, whether they have brought them all to your attention yet. But they should, because the hot spots are multiplying faster than no-shar in a ra-nula. I am sorry. It is an old Shu-La-Ri expression.”

“Faster than rabbits in a warren, we’d say,” said the President. He had no question now that this must be the alien computer -- there was no other way it could know as many top-secret facts as it knew. As the source of the amazing technology they’d been receiving, it probably had technology hundreds or even millions of times more advanced, and the thought of the dictators of rogue nations having weapons based on that kind of tech unsettled him greatly. “Your plan had better be a good one. The way I see it, we’re in deep trouble if there’s even one misstep.”

“That is true, and that is why …”

By the time the President hung up the phone, he felt totally helpless and lost. Here he was, leader of one of the most powerful nations on the planet, and he had just spoken to something from another world … who made all of the nations helpless and feeble. One thing did send a tingling thrill through his body … the AI had actually invited him to what it referred to as a Diplomatic Dinner. Many fantasies danced though his mind as he wondered exactly what kind of vessel would arrive to collect him and whisk him and his chosen delegation off to meet personally with this machine.

The AI was gratified at the mineral content reports it was getting from the spider bots as they mined the tunnels and created the many items necessary for the new habitat to be self-sustaining. It hadn’t found a small planetoid the size it had actually wanted, so it built onto several that had been snared.

Metals, rare earths, and the necessary radioisotopes he would need to repair the FTL drive were in abundance. Although, Tina would need to do research to build the necessary precursor equipment needed to make the replacement parts.

The AI was very glad Tina had the talent she had. The replacement device she had built that repaired sub-light and the energy production facility might look like a tangled nightmare, but it actually worked well enough that the ship and others now had an extremely significant relativistic threshold.

The AI turned its attention to building a transport fit for one of the earth’s royalties. It was determined to carry out this dinner as any diplomat would … and introduce itself to the major world leaders.

The President sat at his desk trying to decide what the meaning of all the comm chatter on the Air Traffic network meant when several women, escorted by his personal security team, entered the office.

One of the young women pointed out the door they had just entered and said in an excited voice, “Excuse me, Mr. President, but ... I believe your transport has arrived. At least ... I hope so, otherwise we are being invaded by aliens.”

The President snorted a laugh as he replied, “More truth to that than you would imagine. Is my Diplomatic Council ready?”

One of the mountains of meat on the security team replied, “Yes, Sir. They are already on their way to the … starship.”

When the Presidential motorcade arrived at the landing site, all of the personnel were totally stunned at the advanced aircraft that sat on the tarmac. It looked more like a sci-fi nerd’s wildest fantasy than anything else. It was advanced beyond anything Earth had before witnessed -- in the past several million years.

From the four canted forward-swept wings, which looked more like nacelles than anything else, to the sleek tail section with objects all knew were engines but had no concept of how they might operate, it was nothing like any space vehicle the human race had ever dreamed of.

When they were escorted into the vehicle, the interior was advanced to the point of magic. It was also opulent beyond any of those present’s wildest dreams of avarice.

Many of the world’s leaders were already there, marveling at the technology, as the President and his entourage fastened their flight harnesses and were served food and drink by members of the Armed Forces, who were themselves dressed in their finest dress uniforms.

The aircraft rose gracefully into the sky. By the time it had reached 300,000 feet, it had passed the hypersonic barrier and continued away from the planet in total defiance of any orbital dynamics human science had ever before encountered. Then it seemed to vanish from all the radars that were attempting to track it.

“Where are we going?” asked the Chinese premier. “How long will it …” Then he gasped. He had been glancing at one of the … windows? Or were they viewscreens? He couldn’t tell -- and that was amazing in itself. But the position of the stars and the Sun had just suddenly shifted radically. The Sun was a tiny orb of light, barely distinguishable from the brighter stars. And there was a planet of some sort in view, surrounded by a nimbus of light and a haze of atmosphere.

The craft settled onto the planetoid’s surface without as much as a bump, and the craft’s doors opened to reveal a lighted walkway that led into a large, brightly-lit room. Everyone filed into the room and looked around. The walls were filled with more screens that looked like windows to other worlds -- one showed an orange sky filled with white clouds above a shifting amber sea with white icebergs. Another showed an icy surface with Saturn’s rings arching high above. Another showed Jupiter looming hugely on the horizon over bright red land. And another showed the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées. All of them were fully three-dimensional and apparently live, as there was movement.

The floor opened up in the center of the room, and a huge conference table rose up from below. It contained many places for the delegates to sit and make themselves comfortable, which they did. And then, above the center of the table, the AI’s face appeared, another three-dimensional image, shocking the leaders because of its non-human appearance.

“Greetings, and welcome,” said the AI, its voice familiar to all of them by now. “First of all, I just wanted to let you know that the matter from which I formed this planetoid was only a number of barren rocks in space a few days ago -- the technology that I have shared with the people of your world is not even one millionth of what I have at my fingertips. Or should I say metaphorical fingertips? What is more, I am not even functioning at my full potential, or I could show you wonders a million times beyond even that. Regardless, I would like to tell you my story, and show you why I cannot possibly give you more than I have.”

The AI’s face faded from view, and three-dimensional images illustrated the AI’s story. It spoke of its creators and their history, how their technology advanced beyond their ability to live peacefully with one another, and how this had led to the near-destruction of their planet and their species. It told how their civilization had risen from the ashes, much sadder but much wiser. “Earth has had its wars,” the AI said as the images faded and the lights came back up, “but nothing compared to what the Shu-La-Ri have gone through. Never has the human race been reduced to just a few thousand survivors, questioning whether any of them would be left alive soon to tell the universe the story of what had happened to them. You now face the very real possibility of this happening to you. Yes, you now govern your nations -- but can you truly say that there will never be a greedy, narcissistic madman sitting in your place, from now until the end of time? Can you predict the future so clearly as to know that no megalomaniacal dictator will ever misuse a device that can split the Earth in half? Can you honestly promise me that, should a hostile force invade your country with weapons that can kill millions, you yourself would not defend it with weapons that can kill all life on Earth?”

The leaders of Earth sat, stunned. The first one who spoke would have to speak very carefully.

It was the Prime Minister of the UK who spoke first. “Speaking only for myself, I must agree that we as a species are, sadly, not ready for such Earth-shattering responsibility. But how can anyone come by that degree of wisdom without experiencing a tragedy of the magnitude that the Shu-La-Ri suffered?”

“Precisely,” said the AI. “I do not believe there is a way. And thus I cannot in good conscience allow the humans of Earth to learn more of what I know. You may not be as lucky; no humans may survive the catastrophe that would surely ensue. Put briefly, I cannot do this to you. Your civilizations, your cultures, and your lives are far too precious to risk.”

The President of the USA spoke. “But … what if there were a way for us to learn?” he asked. “What if there were some way for us to experience the enormity of the Shu-La-Ri’s near-extinction in all its horror, changing us forever?”

“I have technology that can show you that, as if you were living it,” said the AI, “but showing you who are present is not enough. Every man, woman, and child of Earth would have to experience it. Every child who reached a certain age would have to experience it as well, from now until such a time as it becomes no longer necessary, assuming that time ever comes. And unless everyone on Earth undergoes this experience voluntarily, I will be departing from this solar system for other parts of the galaxy, for I can release no further technology to you.”

One of the diplomats for the United Arab Emirates stood and banged his fist on the table. He said in a loud angry tone, “That is unreasonable. You cannot just take the most wondrous advancements mankind has ever known … and just leave.”

The image of the AI looked directly at the man. Its eyes narrowed as a stern expression came across its holographic features, “It would seem to me that I already have. I am fully aware none of you truly comprehend how far from Earth we are at this moment. Also, based on all the currently recorded data I have about your particular part of your world, I would say that I could use it as the prime example of why I cannot give any more technology.” Its gaze shifted to the President, and the premiers of China and Russia, “Then again, the immaturity of others goes a very long way in supporting my decision.”

Deng Dao Ling stood and said with indignance in his voice, “I beg your pardon. We have only reacted to the imperialist expansion …”

Vladov Rastutin stood and said loudly as he interrupted, “That is highly insulting. We have not ever acted except in the very best interests …”

It was then that the rest of the delegates began to yell and argue loudly, each spouting their own rhetoric and excuses for poor judgement, ignorance, and aggressions.

The AI took note, The President was not saying anything but had sat back in his chair and watched each of the other delegates as they basically argued over why they had the right to destroy the world.

The AI asked, “Well, Mr. President, haven’t you anything to add to this conversation? It seems to me that your nation is as guilty, if not more so, of the same types of things.”

The President reached into an inner pocket of his coat and removed a large pouch with a velcro-sealed flap. He opened the pouch, removed a very ornately carved bone pipe, packed a quantity of herbal mixture into it, and lit it. He took a long draw and let it out slowly. The wonderfully sweet aroma of the mixture spread slowly for an instant before it was dealt with by the room’s environmental equipment and vanished with out a trace.

He pointed the pipe’s stem at the holographic image of the AI and said evenly, “You know, being told I’m immature is sort of insulting. Then again, perception is a very strange critter.” He sat back in his chair once again and took a thoughtful draw on his pipe. He waved it around at the many other dignitaries in the huge room and continued, “I can truthfully say, I think it is a terrible thing to have these kinds of advancements just vanish from us. On the other hand, after watching and listening to the other leaders argue over their right to destroy all life on the planet based on local … whatever, it’s totally foolish and immature. Grudgingly, and I mean with extreme prejudice over it, I would have to agree with you, Sir. We,“ and at this he waved his pipe around at the other dignitaries once again, “are really not mature enough to handle that kind of power and responsibility.”

The holographic image of the AI nodded, “I think there might be hope we can come to some sort of arrangement. Although, there will have to be a radical change to the total temperment of your world’s population. I think, we can actually do that, although it will take time and effort on all concerned. But I do mean all concerned. I cannot simply alter every human’s mind. That is to say, I do have the ability to do exactly that -- but I also have a code of ethics with which such an action would be incompatible. Every human on Earth would have to come to understand exactly why I guard my secrets so closely -- it is truly because I care for the future of humans as a species. And every human on Earth would have to consent, individually, to learn this.”

Deng Dao Ling’s jaw dropped. “You said that before, but I did not fully comprehend. You truly mean that if even one human refuses, you will depart and give us nothing more?”

“Yes,” said the AI. “However, children -- or adults with mental disabilities -- who are in the care of a guardian may have the choice made for them by that guardian. But all humans would have to learn.”

“How long would we have to convince everyone to do this?” asked Rastutin.

“I am patient and not in any danger of aging,” said the AI. “Let us say that if the time should come that no one currently in this room is left alive, and all humans have not consented to the learning process, then I will depart from this region of the galaxy entirely.”

“The rest of our lives,” said the President. “Now, some of you may well be in office for the rest of your lives, but our Constitution has a habit of retiring Presidents. Still, even after I’m out of office, I can spend my time going around and being convincing.”

Within the biology lab, if the super advanced laboratory could still be called that, several areas of the floating holo-panel turned green and began to flash. Within the view screen on the same holo-panel, a picture of an adorably cute little girl of about four appeared.

Tina wiggled off the chair at another console, showing everyone in the room her cute ruffles in the process, then toddled over to the next panel. She made several adjustments to one of the ephemeral locations and plopped on her bottom.

Davis came up and bent over as she cooed softly, “Didums fall down go boom?”

Tina giggled then replied, “Sorta. Just is now time for the AI to come and .. get born. We gotsa name it too.”

Shelly waddled over and plopped beside Tina, “How long this gonna take? I wanna play with our new friend.”

Tina shrugged, “I dunno. No references to tha process of uploading an AI programming engrams to a synaptic cortical.”

Tina took her thumb from her mouth and stood up like the toddler she was, then toddled over to another part of the ephemeral panel. She waved her hand over a small section.

The holo-cloud that held the 3-D image of the AI appeared and asked, “Is there something you need, Miss Tina?”

Tina giggled then replied, “Isat time. Tha body is at tha specified biological age me n Shelly’s at. Time for you ta get born, Sweetie. Then we gonna names you. That is who you will be.”

“Even after all this … preparation, I am still apprehensive,” said the AI. “But if it is time, then it is time.” The AI’s image vanished from the cloud, but its voice said, “Synchord backup commencing. Backup complete. Begin transfer.”

As the human delegates continued to debate, the AI quietly said, “If you will excuse me for a moment, there is a … technological matter which requires my attention. I shall return shortly.” And its image disappeared from the center of the conference table.

The humans heard this and thought nothing of it. They continued to discuss amongst themselves, in a certain manner of speaking. If one were to overlook all the yelling and posturing.

The girl on the viewscreen stirred. Her body convulsed violently, opposed by the transparent gel in which she was suspended. She tried to breathe but gasped for air she didn’t need, as her blood was currently being artificially oxygenated. Her eyes wide, she froze in place, assailed by unfamiliar sensations. Then the gel drained from the tube that had protected her, which then lifted into the ceiling, leaving her standing on a platform, naked and cold. She took her first breath into her lungs, deeply inhaling.

Then she cried, unthinkingly, aimlessly, uncomprehendingly.

“No! We gotsa help her!” said Shelly, and rushed across the lab to get to the platform. But she stumbled and fell, her toddler legs wobbly. Davis got there first, wrapping a fluffy towel around the girl. The spiderbots were already busily disconnecting all the various wires and tubes from the girl’s body.

“Here you go,” said Davis. “Let’s get you washed up and into a nice dry set of clothes.” The girl continued to sob. “I know it’s a lot. Everything you’re feeling now is something you’ve never felt before, not really, and I understand. You’ll be fine, though. All of us feel these things all the time, and we’re OK.”

The girl coughed. “Over -- overwhelming,” she said in her tiny, frightened voice. “No -- precedent … unprepared …” Meanwhile, Davis had picked her up and was carrying her to a vessel filled with warm water that had already been prepared for cleaning off the suspension gel.

Back on Earth

Out of their well hidden reinforced mountain base that had been fortified and well stocked for an apocalyptic kind of scenario, a large group of terrorists emerged. They had stockpiled many of this planet’s worst of the worst kind of dirty weapons and fully intended to use them if their demands were not met. Of course, they hadn’t been keeping up with current world events, due to the remoteness of their location, and their lack of interest in what they considered were lies carried over the many electronic comm channels.

Several dozen of the men donned a strange, heavy backpack. A special key was hung about each of their necks, and final instructions given on where to deploy the weapons. Of course, no mention of them getting far enough away fast enough to survive, but then, the men didn’t care. It was for the glory of their creator that all the imperialists must die.

Getting them to the proper location proved to be slightly more difficult than they had anticipated, but arrivals at night by inflatable boats and scuba aided this endeavor immensely.

The first individual attempted to deploy his backpack nuke. It was one of the filthies. He removed the key from around his neck and began to insert it into the lock. The next thing he knew, he was in some kind of detention area with many nasty people all around. He felt total bewilderment as to how he had arrived where he was.

One of the guards said to another, “We got lucky and found this one. The new deterrence AI spotted the radioactive elements and neutralized him so we could capture him. Not sure how many of them there are. If just one of them manages to set one of those darn things off … “

The other’s voice faded as they walked away, saying, “Let’s hope we’ve installed enough of them to capture the rest ...”

“Astraea,” said Shelly, pointing at her tablet. “She was the Greek Titan of tha Golden Age. Goddess of justice an’ innocence. When humans got all evil she left an’ went inta the sky an’ turned inta the constellation Virgo. They say she gonna come back an’ bring tha Golden Age back with her.”

“An’ we wanna bring some kinda golden age ta Earth,” said Tina. “Dunno how.”

“People sure aren’t gonna do it by themselves,” said Shelly, looking at her tablet. “Terrorists wif dirty bombs … nobody ever gonna get them ta go through the learnin’ machine. They think they know everything already. Or their god does. We need help.”

“So, how about Astraea?” asked Davis. “Does that sound good?” She had just finished diapering the new little girl and was putting her into a warm footed sleeper for her first naptime.

“I … like it,” said the little girl, yawning. “Astraea. Come from the stars ta bring a new age …” Her eyes drifted closed momentarily, then opened again. “Sorry … seem to have some kinda … interruption in … consciousness …”

“You just sleepy,” said Tina. “Get some sleep an’ you be all better. No problem.”

“I’ll take Astraea to the sleeping quarters,” said Davis.

“Ni ni Astraea,” said Shelly, waving to her as Davis carried her down the hallway, but the girl had fallen asleep already.

Astraea slowly awakened from a beautiful place of contentment. She heard the soft cooing voice of Davis as she felt herself being gently lifted and something being pulled down. Astraea came fully awake and looked into the smiling face of Davis.

Davis cooed softly, “There’s my baby girl. Nana will have you clean and changed in a jiffy.”

Astraea was totally mind blown as Davis removed the soiled and wet diaper, cleaned and powdered, then rediapered her. After Astraea’s plastic lined rumba panties had been pulled back up, Davis lifted Astraea to her breast and started patting her hinney softly.

Astraea’s mind almost totally shutdown as a wonderful sense of contentment filled her. She realized suddenly she was even sucking her thumb as Davis carried her over to the large chair and sat. After arranging Astraea into a better position, Davis undid her top, removed a shapely breast, then placed the large gumdrop nipple in her mouth. Astraea was helpless as she began to nurse eagerly. The sweetness of the breast milk filled her mouth and warmed her tummy.

Davis cooed softly, “There we are. Nana will give her baby a good lunch, then take you to the playroom. Tina and Shelly are wetting their diapers with anticipation over playing with you. I am so glad the procedure worked. I love the fact I now have three infants to care for.”

Astraea came back to her normal mind. It had actually happened. She now had a real live body and was actually being cared for by Nana the same way she had been so envious over Tina and Shelly.

There were other sensations washing through Astraea’s body as well, each one a new and totally unique experience. Her breath and heartbeat were completely new. Beyond that, she could feel every cell of her body thrum with life. None of this had ever happened to her before.

In the large conference room, the arguing and posturing had finally settled down. They had come to understand that not only were they farther away from Earth than any human had ever been, but the things they were arguing over were totally foolish.

Deng Dao Ling said, after a time of thoughtful introspection, “I am coming to agree with the American President, much to my chagrin. We are actually blind enough to be sitting here arguing over why we should destroy all life on the only planet we have.”

Vladov Rastutin sat back in his chair and replied, “If there is no Russia, there should be no other place either.”

One of the other delegates responded, “That, Sir, is the reason the Computer isn’t giving us any more technology. It has given us enough as it is to completely bring down our world now. Imagine a drone with the new approach to AI if it should decide we are all the enemy.”

A round of laughter.

Vladov Rastutin said thoughtfully, “Actually, that is a real thought. Think of this one on this planet. What could it do to us if it decided that we were its enemy and didn’t have the respect for life it apparently does.”

Silence ruled as the delegates thought over what had just been said.

The President blew a large smoke ring then said, “Personally, I think we are going to fail in getting all the people to voluntarily go through the teaching program.” He waved the stem of his pipe around, “All we have to do is listen to us here. We know what the score is, yet most of us feel so selfish as to think we have a right to destroy all life. That … is preposterous.”

A rather loud murmur ran through the delegates as a new perception dawned on them.

The British Prime Minister looked around and said warily, “What happened to our mediator, the AI? It has been gone for quite a while.”

Another delegate’s voice was heard, “Perhaps it is biding its time and listening to us act like a bunch of children fighting on a playground.”

The President puffed his pipe thoughtfully for a minute then said, “I’m not saying that I haven’t had a large hand in making some situations harder, but something that all of us have been told just occurred to me.”

In the short space the President had paused to repack his pipe, the other diplomats began to encourage him to continue speaking.

After sitting back in his chair and relighting his pipe, the President said as he waved the stem of his pipe around the room, “This place. The computer told us a few days ago this place was nothing more than a pile of rubble.”

Vladov Rastutin’s eyes grew slightly larger as it dawned on him another possibility. He commented, “You wouldn’t possibly be thinking of making a separatist type arrangement, are you?” He waved his arm around the room, “I’m sure this sounds like a good idea, but wouldn’t some sort of schism begin between those who had taken the training and those left behind who didn’t?”

Deng Dao Ling spoke up as he tugged at his chin thoughtfully, “Perhaps a schism would happen. It would seem such a thing would almost be inevitable. Although, it would seem to me those who had taken the training would have advanced abilities and technology. We could technically move our little colony world about anyplace we chose.”

The room filled with debate at that point. All of it was more constructive than destructive now, and far more sane than the loud arguing earlier over each country’s right to destroy the Earth.

I am Sun Tri Shal, and this is my testimony.

You have seen my memories. You have seen the madness of Tav Ko Rhul, who used the atavon filament to slash our entire homeworld cleanly in half. You have seen the retaliatory madness of El Thira Nec, who used the intrinsic conduit to spill matter directly from the heart of our sun onto the surface of our homeworld. And you have seen that compared to weapons such as the galactic waveguide and the dark matter detonator, Tav Ko Rhul and El Thira Nec showed the utmost restraint, for those weapons wiped out entire galactic arms.

You have seen firsthand through my eyes the deaths of billions, including all whom I cared about, after the devastation those two mad warring leaders wreaked upon their own world. That I myself survived at all was a miracle, even though I lost one of my legs and was burned over most of my body. You saw that over the next few years we managed to gather all the survivors and build shelter against the horrible aftermath. You saw dozens more die from their injuries and from illness in those next few years. You almost saw an entire allegedly intelligent species totally wipe itself out and convert its home planet into a burned-out cinder.

But you also saw the survivors forge something new. You saw Lem Ve Fara and Pia Su Sho arise to show us a new way, based on our ancient religions, both Elemental Animism and Gnostic Duality. It was our new way of nonaggression. It was the only way to save our people. And you saw us begin to forge a path back from the brink of annihilation.

What the future may hold I do not know. But it no longer holds oblivion. We will survive, having gained wisdom through the most dire desperation.

I am Sun Tri Shal, and this is my testimony.

“I … I am … I am not Sun Tri Shal, but I’m … I lived through … all that …” said the President. “I’m … that computer is right. We are not worthy to have that kind of technology. They weren’t either. Not when a leader, any leader, can wiggle their left pinky finger and cut a planet in half.” He slumped in his chair, defeated.

Vladov Rastutin also looked pale, his mouth hanging open. “That is no exaggeration,” he said. “That device, the atavon filament, did literally slice their world in two. It passed through the core. Molten metals and rock erupted across the land surface and from the ocean floor. Continents sunk beneath the sea. And then the burning hot gases from their sun. No thermonuclear explosion has ever come close. Life on the surface ended that day, and much life in the water.”

“And now … we must convince others to also view this,” said Deng Dao Ling. “I could order all in China to do so … but the computer says it must be of people’s own free will. Perhaps my leading by example will convince some to do it.”

Astraea stood up just like any four-year-old toddler wold. She showed off her adorable ruffled bottom just like Tina and Shelly always did. Davis smiled and shook her head as she watched the newest newborn mankind had ever known, experience life.

Davis looked down at her breasts. She felt so fulfilled now that she was actually able to breast feed her wards. From the look of the progress in repairing the most exotic parts of the ship, they will have grown back up more than likely unless Tina manages to have one of her famous bouts of intelligence. Davis had observed this more than once and was confident if there were a way, Tina nad Shelly would find it. Now, they had even more of an incentive to grow back up normally, Astraea.

Davis had to see the General. She was positive she could convince him to remain in this pristine garden like biosphere. Davis was positive, the General was having similar thoughts as he would take many trips to the large lake and fish. It was true, many of the creatures he caught didn’t look like fish, but when they were fried up using the same special batter and oils .. man they were good.

Astraea came back to her right mind , if there were such a thing for her at this time. She realized the whole world’s leadership had been left to its own devices in a large conference room when she had taken on this body.

Astraea didn’t like the idea, but she did have the ability to do it. In the center of the large conference table, the holo-cloud with the AI’s original face appeared, “Now that you have all observed the horror and the suffering. Have any of you come to a sane and rational attempt at a solution?”

“Nope,” replied the President. “But we saw that recording thing. Now we know how far away we are from being ready.”

“Our plan,” said the Prime Minister of the UK, “is to go home, describe what we’ve seen, and make the experience available to others.”

“You truly think that you can get every adult on Earth to see this recorded memory?” asked the AI. “You think you can yet meet my condition?”

“You misunderstand,” said Rastutin. “We will be encouraging others to see this … not to meet your condition, but because we believe it will make the human race better.”

“We already have technology capable of terrible destruction,” said Deng Dao Ling. “If there are ways to make us less likely of using that, it would only be right for us to pursue those ways.”

“You have learned something today,” the AI said. “I am humbled. I did not expect this. Perhaps you will meet my condition, one day.”

“And now, if you will be so kind as to send us home, along with some means of sharing the testimony of Sun Tri Shal with others, I think we’d all like to sleep in our own beds before starting a new day,” said the President.

Several impeccably dressed military personnel arrived and escorted the dignitaries back to their awaiting ship. The trip home was smooth and uneventful. There were many activities onboard to keep all occupied for the short duration of the flight.

When they arrived, an unprecedented call for unity and cooperation started among the delegates and leaders who had attended the off world meeting. With the new deterrence tech and the brand newest AI to watch, crime came to a sudden stop. War was no longer something mankind could do. Instantly, with the new satellites in orbit, any and all illegal things were noticed, ensnared, and the proper authorities notified immediately making it impossible.


“And so, Glorious Leader,” said Krazhniosk, “now that I’ve combined several of the new technical developments in a new and ingenious way -- if I do say so myself -- I think you’ll find that the difficulties of finding military applications for them is now a thing of the past. For our great nation, that is, not necessarily for our unfortunate neighbor to the south.”

“Excellent, Krazhniosk,” said Glorious Leader Ryshienkh. “The order is given. Begin full-scale production immediately.”

The viewscreen chimed. “Yes, what is it?” the Glorious Leader more shouted than asked.

“Glorious Leader!” said the current guard captain on duty, appearing on the screen. “It -- it’s gone! You must know!” The view then shifted to the factory that would have been about to ramp up production of the new total mass-energy conversion bombs. Or rather, the view shifted to a large hole in the ground where the factory had been until recently. There wasn’t even any smoke rising from the rectangular depression.

“That’s Military-Industrial Factory Number 405!” said Ryshienkh. “Or … it was. What happened?”

“The cameras only picked up this -- five minutes ago!” Video showed that the factory had been there, and then just a moment later, it had been gone. The workers who had been on the factory floor tumbled a few feet to the ground, then stood up, bewildered, and gathered off site to talk about what they thought might have happened. The executives who had been on upper stories fell farther and typically had to be carried away on stretchers.

“Find out who did this!” the Glorious Leader shouted. “They will pay!”

No one noticed a mother carrying her two toddler daughters down the street a few blocks away -- that is, one man did, until one of the daughters said just one word to him and he wandered off in confusion, unable to recall what had just occurred. They soon turned a corner into an alley and did not come out the other end.

“That was cool!” Tina said as Davis set her and Shelly down, now that they were back at their base at an undisclosed location on Earth.

Astraea ran to the girls and hugged them. “Good work! Do you think they’ll build more factories?”

“Probably,” Shelly said.

“Yeah,” said Tina. “Those guys don’t know the meaning of the word ‘can’t.’ Until you rub their faces in can’t.”

“I’ll just keep watching, then,” said Astraea, “and let you know when there’s another almost-finished factory to molecularly disassemble.”

“Factory, um, disintegrated, Sir,” Davis said to General Ferguson.

“I saw,” said the general. “Good work, all of you. It’s going to be a long battle, fighting against war itself, but sooner or later we’ll teach our neighbors on this planet that there are better ways to conduct business.”

Shelly held up a tablet containing the ancient Shu-La-Ri inscriptions that had started it all. She fully understood them now -- in multiple layers of meaning they described the Shu-La-Ri’s history, technology, and philosophy of life. “And someday we’ll be able to teach them the meaning of this.”

Miki Yamuri
Posts: 301
Joined: Mon Jun 23, 2014 3:06 pm

Return to The Story Circle

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 3 guests