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The Sphere



A Sci-Fi adventure that crosses the canvas of the fictional universe



The Sphere-World Series

Book 1



by

Anathea N. Krrill





Published November 2017

ANK InkPress (The author herself)







Copyright



Copyright 2017 by Anathea N. Krrill

All rights reserved.



This is a work of fiction.

All the characters, organizations, and events in this novel are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.

The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.



Cover design by ANK





The Cover

The image of “Earth in a Cradle of Clouds” was allegedly taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It made a huge impact on the internet but later turned out to be ‘fake news’.

I chose this image, altered it a bit myself. I actually like this image. I think it is striking, but at the same time, it creates a false impression – just like The Sphere creates an environment based solely on the imagination of whoever uses her.

Nothing is real!

I chose the cover as an allegory for all that The Sphere stands for: An artifact of unknown origin, a creator of unreality, yet beautiful in its appearance, unrivaled; an inspiration and an enigma alike. Something that could be real, but isn’t.

Dedication



To Colin

Thank you for believing in me!

PROLOGUE TO THE SPHERE-WORLD SERIES



When Maria-Sol first met Ah-dam, she fell in love. Threw herself right over the cliff and into the abyss!

He stood there – just stood, and opened his arms to receive her. And she floated into him as if she didn’t have a husband, didn’t have any responsibilities, didn’t have the rest of her life to drown in both unforgivable guilt and unbearable longing for his love.

And yet - at that moment - she felt neither: No remorse. No regret. No guilt.

They had a week - and one week only. Seven seconds – a tiny sliver of eternity.

1 - History

Endless space – that’s all one can see when standing on any of the 305 decks of Space Station Δ9: the first, and possibly last station to be built at the exit of a wormhole.

Wormhole WH_102Δ9ΞΩ3 – or wormhole Δ9 - was discovered in 2151 only a light year away from Earth. A short hop when it comes to space travel!

Earth: the planet we all originated from almost 5,000 years ago, is five billion light-years away. With wormhole Δ9 gone, it is out of reach!

It is the year 7288. My name is Bella ΞΙ, I am 18 years old, and I was born on Δ9 - as were all the other 5,123 inhabitants.

Earth to us is less than a distant memory – it is ancient history.

Long distance space travel took off big time in the year 2076 when Dr. Glenys Marven - a physicist and engineer at MIT - managed to fully harness the powers of antimatter. She went on to build the prototype of the Antimatter-Propulsion (AMP) drive, which won her the Nobel Prize for physics as well as eternal fame.

AMP drives allow us to travel at virtually the speed of light – the only delay being the nanosecond it takes to convert matter into antimatter and back again.

Suddenly, distant planets and galaxies became accessible and wide open for exploration. The universe invited us, and we followed its call.

If we can trust the historical records, which are still stored and curated in the archives of space station Δ9, we charted every planet in our solar system within the following three decades and had our galaxy fully mapped by the end of the 22nd century.

Traveling at the speed of light requires computational powers far beyond what was available at the beginning of the 21st century. Spatial positioning data and navigational command signals need to be transmitted and processed faster than the traveling speed of the vessel. Only the development of neuronal network based quantum-nano-computers made traveling at the speed of light possible. The late 21st century prospered regarding of technology, and the gargantuan explosion of knowledge created an intellectual climate that allowed inventors, enterprises, governments, and dreamers to thrive equally.

Marven’s successors improved and scaled her AMP drive to power larger vessels, and so laid the foundation for the engineering of self-contained spaceships. Those were designed to travel for years, decades or even centuries at the speed of light before they found their final orbit in some far away part of our galaxy.

Humankind started to colonize space.

Like space plankton hundreds of ships drifted through the interstellar abyss, powered by the most sophisticated technology known to mankind, as well as driven by scientific curiosity, and the urge to explore. Thousands ventured off into the unknown; most of them never returned. They settled at their final anchor place, and so colonized the galaxy. The space plankton became sessile and made a hostile environment home.

* * *

We have to assume, that today there are still thousands of thriving space stations within a hundred light-years from Earth. They lie dotted throughout the deserts of outer space, and like oases, they are welcoming refuges for the nomadic space traveler community. The space nomads travel the vast expanse of the universe, bringing goods and news and a much-welcomed change to any space station’s routine. In exchange, they take goods, news, and gossip with them and so distribute them throughout the universe. Over 5,000 years ago, a cosmic event brutally severed our ties to this community.

The nomads lived a life in motion. Much like the space pioneers, who first ventured on a no-return journey to explore and learn - or just for the sake of the adventure.

Those missions date back to the 21st century when the first manned mission to Mars saw a group of 100 selected individuals set off for their one-way journey on the 25th of November 2035. The team reached the red planet almost eight months later on the 12th of July 2036.

A mere century later, Mars was fully colonized, reshaped, tamed, and left with little secrets to be explored. By this time, it was about as tricky to visit Mars as it was to get to town in the early 21st century.

When the red planet was at its maximum distance from Earth – just over 400 million kilometers away - it took no more than 18 minutes to get there. On average it would take only two and a half minutes, which made the journey to Mars about as daunting as getting sweets from a 21st-century retailer.

Not that we do much retail anymore. On Δ9 the concept of retail and money has been abolished early in 2701 at the beginning of the New Era.

* * *

Δ9 is situated five billion light-years from Earth, in a galaxy known by its historic name PKS B1740-517 - or simply Δ9 galaxy. There are no other space stations in this quadrant of the known universe.

The idea of space station Δ9 was conceived shortly after the discovery of wormhole Δ9 in 2151. The ability to convert traveling matter into antimatter and reverse the process opened the possibility to use wormholes as shortcuts through space and time. Matter cannot travel through wormholes, but antimatter can.

Pioneering wormhole travels began in the year 2200. The technology got developed, established and soon thereafter an ambitious project took shape: The construction of ‘Space Station Delta 9’ at the exit of Wormhole WH_102Δ9ΞΩ3, which connected the Milky Way galaxy with PKS B1740-517. The development of Δ9 started in the year 2231 and was completed by 2340. The following colonization and expansion period lasted until the year 2500. During those 160 years, the size of Δ9 increased considerably from the original 30 decks to the current 305 decks.

Population increased, and demographics shifted over time. At first, there were engineers, scientists, pioneers, and historians, who flocked to this alien environment. The far distance enabled the historians and geologists to study Earth in a very early stage of its development when it was still nothing more than a bulk of hot loose gases in the solar nebula from which our solar system formed by gravitational collapse about 4.6 billion years ago.

The discoveries were so exciting and groundbreaking, that many paradigms shattered, shifted or vanished altogether, and entire new theories and ideas emerged from their rubble. Those caused such controversies all over the scientific community, that Earth government decided to engineer exit ports along wormhole Δ9 to allow for the establishment of scientific observation posts, equipped with permanent scientific machinery to take continuous readings of Earth as it developed over the eons.

It was agreed to build such observatories at distances of a billion light-years along the stretch of the wormhole. Technologies to create wormhole-ports developed relatively quickly, and the construction of the closest Earth Observatory, EO-1bn, was completed before the end of 2599.

By this time, scientists and engineers started to leave Δ9 and made space for the settlers, who arrived to make a living in an environment as exotic and alien as the abyssal plains of the oceans were back at the end of the 20th century.

* * *

I know a lot about Earth’s history. I am a descendant of 166 generations of historians – a space-stationer born and bred. In our society, it is tradition, to pass on trades and their accumulated knowledge from parent to child; much as it used to be on Earth thousands of years ago before the size of family groups decreased and family ties could easily be severed. Family breakups became common, and in some cases, families never formed. Globalisation contributed to the decay of family values, and novel forms of societies got established. Families and friendships still existed, but frequently the ties were forged globally rather than locally. Some people never met in person but got acquainted via mutual-interest social media sites. Life on Earth was very different from life as we know it now on Δ9.

In a confined space like ours, it is virtually impossible not to know every one of the other 5,123 inhabitants. We stopped relying on telecommunication systems since physical distances within our habitat can easily be bridged, and so face to face communication became the norm again.

We also have a long time to get to know each other. Our average life expectancy increased from a mere 99 years in 2200 to over 300 years within the last five millennia. Courtesy to the virtual exclusion of new pathogens to the space station, which resulted in an environment that is as good as sterile to us, only beneficial microbes exist. All human pathogens – including bacteria, fungi, and viruses - have been eradicated well over 4,000 years ago. And since we had no outsiders contaminate our habitat in over 4,500 years, we do not need to take great precautions to prevent epidemic illnesses.

When we first started to colonize space, we noticed, that the vastly reduced strain on our cardiovascular system proved beneficial in the long term. It was feared, at first, that reduced gravity might result in weakening of the muscle tone, and lead to cardiovascular problems. It turned out, though, that in the long run, human bodies adapt perfectly well to reduced gravity and reduction in gravity allows the cardiovascular system to work under significantly reduced pressure. The combined effects of a beneficial environment and cardiovascular stress reduction enables us to live to an average age of 300 years.

As I said before: it is a lot of time to get to know each other.

We all have the same access to food, shelter, education, medical treatment, and leisure activities. We are all equal, and nobody is valued more or less; nobody is judged for their heritage or discriminated against based on their ancestry.

Everybody has their place in our little society. We do not judge, and we do not punish. Rebellion is a rare occurrence. Besides - what would one rebel against? We cannot just wreck the place, leave it, and go elsewhere.

There is not a lot we can do to make changes happen.

We live in a closed and self-contained system. We do not mine or harvest any materials from space. We do not have provisions shipped in. To us, recycling is not just an ideology; it is what sustains us. It is our lifeline!

Refining and fine-tuning our recycling systems allowed us to survive in the hostile environment of outer space.

* * *

The first decades of the New Era were dire. The population of Δ9 was at its maximum, counting almost 10,000 souls. This number was - at the time - estimated to be an ideal population size but was based on the requirement to receive regular supplies from home. Our population size was by far too large to maintain a self-sustaining environment. Calculations showed us that we needed to reduce our population size to about 6,000 individuals to be able to sustain our people.

The average age of the space station’s inhabitants at the time of the cataclysmic wormhole collapse, which left us stranded in outer space, was 45 years. In 2700, the average life expectancy for women was 123, and for men, it was 121 years. We had at least 50 years of severe austerity to face before the population would naturally decrease to a level, where starvation, ill health, and squalor would not be threatening the fabric of our society any longer.

Our ancestors did not anticipate the social unrest, that was triggered by rationing and cramped living conditions as much as despair, homesickness and an epidemic of general poor mental health.

Many stationers had families back on Earth, whom they would never see again. This – although causing unimaginable pain amongst those affected - was perhaps not the worst. Many of them buckled under the strain of not being able to let their loved ones know, that they were still alive and well.

To this day we have no idea, if anybody on planet Earth knows for sure, that space station Δ9 survived the fatal collapse of wormhole Δ9. For all we know, they assume us long gone.

* * *

Five billion light-years is an almost unimaginable distance. The light we detect coming from planet Earth in the space station’s observatory has traveled for five billion years when it finally reaches us.

What we see today, is five-billion-year-old news regarding Earth’s history. Light traveling from Δ9 towards Earth has yet to travel for almost five billion years before we will start to exist as far as an observer on Earth is concerned.

Venturing this far into space, allowed us to study the ‘younger light’ and therefore the present of constellations, stars and galaxies, which we could not back on Earth due to their immense distances. We were able to considerably update the ancient stellar charts we brought with us from Earth and also explain some of the more obscure observations made back in those long gone days.

Five billion years allow for a lot of changes and evolution. In a sense, we are time travelers by observing what we see when looking at stellar objects at a variety of very long distances. Living in space that far away means, we have lost all communications with Earth. If we send a light-based signal, it will reach Earth in five billion years time. To receive an answer, would take 10 billion years.

Current calculations estimate, that Sol – the sun which powers life in our solar system – will swell up to become a red giant and bake our planet to a crisp in about five billion years time. Things may go pear-shaped in our solar system well before, though. Scientists believe, that planetary orbits could become unstable and planets could smash into each other within the next 50 million years - give or take.

We space-stationers will not know for sure what happened to Earth until five billion years have passed. And who knows what will have happened to our tiny, vulnerable space-tin by this time anyway.

These and other issues have occupied our thinkers, scientists, and historians for a long time. We have none or insufficient data available to predict a possible outcome.

Some geneticists tell us not to worry because our station will outlast our society by a long time; just because inbreeding will ultimately limit the genetic pool, which eventually will become too small to sustain a healthy genetic variety. While this is a theoretical problem at the moment, our society had to face more serious issues over the centuries.

The decades following the collapse of wormhole Δ9 were especially challenging: The immediate need to feed, cloth, and medically treat a population, which by far exceeded the space station’s carrying capacity, overtaxed the people. Although the authorities immediately rationed stocks and redirected all resources to improve recycling and sustainability, social unrest grew.

Fear of starvation was not the first issue to arise. Most people, who lived and worked on the space station, had no intention of spending their entire life here. They came mostly for the adventure and the opportunity to distinguish themselves from competition back home. The average worker clocked around seven years on Δ9 before they left for new horizons.

At the time of the wormhole collapse about a quarter of the population was due to leave the station within the next couple of months.

Those were hardest hit by this catastrophe. Not only did they have to deal with the immediate isolation, despair, and fear of the future, but also with the immense disappointment of not being able to see home - ever again! The dreams of soon being reunited with their loved ones shattered, the loss of a future, they might have wanted to carve out for themselves when coming back. 10,000 people stranded in space; 10,000 hopes, dreams, fears, and their accumulated paranoias. And only precious little resources to keep them from going into mental overdrive.

The confinements of the station and the hopelessness of the situation resulted in an outbreak of a cabin fever of unprecedented extent. People went stir-crazy! There was not enough space to get away from each other, and not enough distraction to occupy their minds. Ironically the psychologically trained were amongst the first to buckle under the immense pressure of what seemed like an unsolvable conundrum.

The status quo could not persist, and contingency plans did not exist. The scenario of becoming cut off from Earth, and getting stranded in deep space had not made it into the emergency books. In hindsight, this seems like an obvious blunder – one that could have been avoided entirely.

This lack of contingency and the absence of a strong leader at a time of great turmoil created a hotbed for social uprising and mutiny. Bad fortunes had it that the commander in chief had been sent off to Earth prematurely because he suffered a rare form of cancer, which we now know is caused by extensive travel through wormholes.

The standard protocol was for a station commander to stay with the station until a relief-officer would arrive. Commander James L Lewis’s condition, however, was so grave, that doctors decided to breach protocol and send him off duty early. We believe, he died on his way back in the collapsing wormhole as did relief-commander Nathan B Thorne, who never made it to the station. Left without a commander, Second Officer William James Howard took the helm.

Unfortunately, Commander Howard was of somewhat fragile mental health. His unstable psyche made him prone to a lack of proper judgment and a tendency to ignore good advice from his subordinates. The mental instability of Commander William J Howard was noticed and reported by his physician Dr. Adam Carmichael, but lax bureaucracy prevented his swift detachment from the high ranking position he held on the leadership team of the space station.

At first, everything seemed to run a normal course. Emergency procedures needed carrying out. The collapse caused many minor and a few major incidents, which needed addressing urgently. Repairs and resets got carried out swiftly and according to protocol. It took less than four weeks to repair all the life support systems and to restore communications – not that communications mattered much then. And in hindsight, putting vital resources into the effort of rebuilding a redundant system was probably William J Howard’s first severely flawed decision as commander in chief of Δ9.

Because he prioritized the repair of non-vital systems over covering the basic needs of the 10,000 inhabitants, essential resources got withdrawn from the life support systems, and hundreds were weakened and died of malnutrition and exhaustion or committed suicide due to poor mental health. Four months after the wormhole collapse, the population of Δ9 was in real trouble. Once the emergency rations were used up, it became clear, that life support systems – including hydroponics and recycling services – would not be able to cope with even the basic demands of the population.

The situation was critical, and the first voices of uprising became loud. Darwin and his ‘survival of the fittest’ was one of the most commonly abused concepts of this time.

At the time of the collapse, the youngest inhabitant was 23 years of age – a student, who won the trip to the space station in a raffle. The oldest – a shield engineer - was still hungover from his 60th birthday party, when the mighty eddies of the wormhole collapse shook the space station.

There were no children, teenagers or pensioners present. There were five pregnant women; a sixth lost her baby due to shock following the catastrophic events. In total there were 7,132 men and 2,868 women on the station – a massive imbalance that favored testosterone-fueled conflicts, which started to break out sporadically shortly after.

Fights over food or blankets broke out - the heating systems were running at a minimum and temperatures inside the station were freezing; they rarely crept above minus five degree Celsius, and people were permanently freezing and always hungry.

The ‘leadership cast’ - as they were to be called soon after the collapse - lived in reasonable luxury, well fed, and in comparatively warm quarters. The high-ranking officers reasoned that the leaders needed extra sustenance and warmth to be able to make the best decisions for the crew of the space station. And despite being warned by the station’s leading physicians, that hunger and cold could soon result in an uprising, Commander William J Howard dismissed their concerns and carried on striking the wrong path.

In the second year of the New Era, William J Howard’s blunderings, total disregard of common sense, and social justice led to the Great Uprising, in which a group of hundred mutineers captured Commander Howard and put him on public trial. The trial lasted almost a year, and everybody who wished to give evidence of their sufferings was invited to do so. The overwhelming evidence gathered against Commander William J Howard was collected, in what is known as ‘The 100 books of Injustices’, each volume being over 1,000 pages long.

Commander Howard was relegated to serve at the Community Recycling Center, where he managed to set the foundation for an improved matter recycler, after experiencing first hand, how much such a device was needed. An environmental engineer by trade, he invented a system, which allowed virtual loss free separation of any organic matter into its mineral compounds, amino acids, fats, and carbohydrates. He then reversed the process in a manner, that allowed us to create basic foods by reforming those building blocks. Crude and basic it was, but it was the crucial step in the right direction to meet the minimum nutritional demands of the community. Its much-refined descendant feeds us space-stationers today.

With social unrest beginning to settle and people gathering more confidence in their new leaders, a fresh spirit created a healthier, more emphatic, and better-organized society.

The New Society, as it came to be known, slowly but surely transformed a cauldron of fear, hate, and defamation into something amicable at first, and quickly evolved into a model society of mutual respect and understanding within two generations. After five generations of confinement in space, most of the inhabitants were bound to one another by either blood ties, friendship, or both.

Hating your neighbors, declaring war, and killing them is only easy if you don’t know them or their background. All the petty circumstances, which have the potential to spark a feud or even wars, did not exist a century after the wormhole collapse. Along with people forging bonds, forming families, and learning to live and work with each other rather than against each other, technical advances in food production, waste recycling and general improvement of the social and physical environment, helped to create a convivial and pleasant atmosphere.

Population control measures were in place, and frequent assessments of the emotional state of the inhabitants were carried out.

Now, 4,500 years after the collapse of wormhole Δ9, life on the space station – however uneventful it would appear to an outsider – runs its course like a well-oiled machine.

2 - The Sphere

One of the most significant challenges 500 years after the event was boredom. With no influx of either discoveries or innovative ideas, the floodgates were open to ennui. It crept in – slowly at first – but more rapidly with every passing year.

Initially, the government was able to keep it in check by encouraging people to learn as much as they wanted, for as long as they could. People were satisfied at first, but especially the younger generation craved for something more adventurous than what the antiquated books had to offer. Everything was outdated: Science, medicine, engineering – even history had not advanced as far as Earth was concerned.

500 years of living in the sump of a stagnant lifestyle, and with no forward thinking ideas, felt like hell to many of us.

Boredom is a fertile breeding ground for discontentment and unrest. The government was bogged down with the more mundane importance of living on a space station, which was cut adrift from its mother planet, and did nothing much to alleviate this tedium. Monotony was not classed a serious enough threat to society.

The discovery of The Sphere in the year 3205 provided a much-needed break. On the 23rd of October, the spotters on duty got lucky! Their scanners picked up a small, but very dense spherical object about 50 million kilometers from the space station. A stone’s throw away!

The only remaining space glider, Eagle I, was dusted off, and prepared for launch. The trained pilots had never before piloted the space glider for real. Only ever in the simulator, the existence of which was solely down to the fact, that it was one of the very few facilities, which served a purpose and provided a certain level of entertainment for a society, which slowly, but inevitably succumbed to boredom. Space glider pilots Jason Kwist and Susan Rome were sent out on a reconnaissance mission to The Sphere.

After much deliberation it was determined, that this curious globe with a diameter of five meters posed no threat, and it was decided, to make use of this unprecedented and unexpected bounty. The blob - made of an unrecognizable material - was towed into the quarantine dock, where it spent the next six months undergoing extensive and repeated decontamination procedures as well as scientific scrutiny. For the first time in centuries, Δ9 buzzed with excitement! Scientists spent hours on end examining the globe and discussing its possible origin. Non-scientists got themselves equally involved. It had been a long time since the communal areas within the station were filled almost 24/7 with people engaged in animated conversations.

Nobody knew where The Sphere came from. It appeared out of nowhere! Nobody saw it coming – not even the long or short range sensors, which continuously scan the vicinity as well as the more distant neighborhood of the space station for interstellar threats - such as meteors or ionic radiation waves.

The existence of aliens, deities and even the possibility of it being a rescue pod sent from Earth via another putative wormhole portal were topics, which set minds and imaginations on fire.

The Sphere itself is an unassuming artifact: five meters in diameter, the material, it is made of, is of unknown composition. And in spite of absorbing light of all wavelengths completely, it appears gray-green, like Earth’s oceans, and not black as expected. It hovers a meter off the ground on a pillar of compacted light. And although the material itself is very dense, The Sphere can be moved around with little effort, and it rolls mid-air on its cushion of peculiar looking greenish light.

It took another century before scientists and government finally decided it was about time and probably safe enough to get up close and personal with The Sphere. A team of scientists and anthropologists (there was still a vague possibility of alien life forms residing inside) approached The Sphere.

Emotions ran high amongst the space-stationers. Voices grew loud to abandon the mission and ‘send The Sphere back to where it belongs to’.

The truth is: to this day, nobody knows where it came from – so these voices were soon drowned out and ridiculed. A sense of aliveness swept through the community and people were generally in high spirit – apart from the ‘doomers and gloomers’, who painted an apocalyptic scenario; much like the fanatic, self-proclaimed messiahs of the pre-antimatter area back on Earth.

Scientific evidence tells us that apocalyptic events are not triggered by the wrath of the gods, but by powerful natural phenomena, which humankind has no personal experience of within the confines of a space station. Of the possible extinction level events, like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, mega storms, or global warming, the only ones, that may be encountered in outer space are collisions with meteors or deadly high energy ion radiation waves.

The space station is well equipped to deal with those. Early warning systems for approaching stellar objects or smaller debris, which can be equally destructive if colliding with the station, are in place. Ion radiation shelters are set up in the innermost core of the space station, to where the deadly high energy rays cannot penetrate. Compared to the constant lurking geophysical threats back on Earth, natural hazards to a space station are fewer and less frequent. Centuries of living in an alien environment taught humankind to be careful.

With only limited resources and redundancies, approaching The Sphere was a risky undertaking. Dr. Clarissa Walker, the lead scientist of ‘Operation Approach’, was the first one to make contact with The Sphere.

The events that unfolded, following her touching The Sphere, are written down in historical scripts, scientific books, and fairy tales. People can also watch it on Space Station Channel I: It is a classic!

* * *

Clarissa Walker cautiously approached The Sphere – right arm stretched out tentatively. She wore a hazmat suit, kitted out with a helmet camera, and a communication system. The spectators could hear Clarissa’s breathing; raspy and a bit too fast to sound comfortable. The people in the observation area surrounding the quarantine dock - where The Sphere was still hovering on its pillar of light over a century after it entered - were on edge.

A two-meter thick layer of Nano-Steel – a see-through polymer composite – a hundred times stronger than steel, yet flexible like rubber and incredibly lightweight, separated the observation area from the quarantine dock.

The science spectacular got broadcast via the visual communication unit in a rare holographic display.

As Clarissa approached, The Sphere changed. The solid gray-green surface blurred and swirled and formed eddies.

Clarissa hesitated.

Perspiration dampened the inside of her hazmat suit. She was uncomfortable, hot, and bothered. Her gloved hands worried the tight neck seal of her suit as if she wanted to rip it off and take a cooling shower. But she proceeded in her approach. A soft glowing waft of greenish mist surrounded The Sphere, which only became visible to Clarissa, once she got closer.

Then - almost in touching distance - she vanished.

She didn’t just fade or blur. One second she was there – the next one she was not.

A scream rose simultaneously from 6,000 throats! Then silence, heavy with shock, settled over the spectators.

The scientists who were inside the dock with Clarissa when she disappeared, were the first ones to move again. They took to their heels and scrambled to be first in the decontamination lock.

Exactly 10 seconds passed before Clarissa reappeared as instantaneously and unexpectedly as she disappeared earlier. She looked around somewhat puzzled before she marched purposefully towards the decontamination lock and demanded: “Open up the dock! There is no threat to be feared from The Sphere!” The engineer in charge of the high-security locks obeyed in his trance-like state and freed The Sphere from its confinement. As soon as the dock opened, The Sphere made its way towards the main observation deck, where it rooted itself firmly on its pillar of light, and didn’t move for the next 4,000 years.

Clarissa’s account of what unfolded after she was taken in by The Sphere - to this day - reads like science fiction.

I got sucked in by The Sphere – I cannot describe it in any other way. I stood outside, ready to touch the structure when the layer of surrounding gas swallowed me. One second I was outside, the next one I found myself inside the blackest, most enormous, and emptiest space I have ever encountered. It felt like I was floating through the farthest parts of the universe, and it was so dark, I could not even see the frequent flashes of light that appear when closing my eyes. There was no sound either, yet I felt calm, so calm, and happy.”

A dreamy smile, full of awe and childlike curiosity illuminated her face.

I should have been anxious or even panicky, but all I felt was serenity and a sense of well-being.”

She slowly shook her head in disbelief.

Perhaps I was so close to breaking point, that my emotional pendulum swung the other way, but I don't believe that. I think, The Sphere made me feel relaxed and happy. I saw a dimly glowing glove-like structure floating right in front of my face. It hovered in front of my eyes as if it was just waiting for me to pull it on. I couldn’t – my hazmat gloved hands were far too big. So I did the only thing that made sense to me in the situation: I removed my hazmat glove and slipped my free hand into the floaty object in front of me. The glove matched my hand like it had been made to measure.”

As she continued to speak, her expression remained calm and relaxed, clearly enjoying the rendition of the events.

What happened next was the most fantastic thing I ever experienced: in front of my eyes and all around me, the blackness vanished, and I found myself on the surface of Mars. Or at least a landscape that looked exactly like the surface of Mars - just as I remember it from videos and books of the first manned landing. Everything was there in minute detail. And I stood there – I could breathe, and I was warm and comfortable, although I had no spacesuit on and should have died within nanoseconds of either expanding tissue damage, exposure, or both.

I remembered my childhood and the countless times I dreamed of this first manned mission to Mars. How I wanted to be a space explorer! A pioneer! And how often I imagined standing on the surface of Mars before it got fully colonized. Now I was there. I was there, and I experienced every little detail! I could see for miles and miles, and I started to walk. I saw the habitats the first settlers built. I saw the Orionthe ship that took The First Hundred - which now served as part of the habitats. I entered, I explored, I saw all the achievements, I encountered a Martian storm and had to hunker down in the ‘Greenhouse’ for three days before I could carry on. I took a Mars-rover and drove well beyond the outer perimeters of the camp. It was breathtaking – everything looked pristine and well maintained. The only thing missing from the scenery were people. Where The Hundred should have been working, sleeping, exploring, and chatting, there was nobody. Nevertheless, I found everything I needed to allow for a comfortable stay on Mars for the 10 days I spent there.”

* * *

And that was it! Her report caused a massive stir within the scientific community. Everybody witnessed her disappear and reappear 10 seconds later. However, she firmly claimed, she spent 10 days on Mars. 10 days! On Mars of all places! Almost as far away as Earth itself and therefore out of reach. Furthermore, she claimed, that she could move around for miles within the five-meter confinement of The Sphere and that she could even see the universe around Mars. It was unbelievable!

At first, her account of what happened inside The Sphere was dismissed as the crazed reaction of a human mind when faced with a life-threatening situation.

Dr. Clarissa Walker was adamant. Her account of what she experienced, the way in which she described everything down to the last minute detail and last but not least the readouts of her vitals during her stay inside The Sphere, did not indicate signs of panic - only excitement - prompted scientists to lobby for further explorations inside The Sphere.

The High Commander decided not to release the account of Clarissa’s first contact, so as not to cause mayhem and unrest within the community.

More scientists went to explore inside The Sphere, and every one of them came back with stories of a different scenario. None of them spent more than 10 seconds inside The Sphere, but without fail, all of them claimed to have been inside for days. Nobody ever reported any anxiety or panic attacks and their biometric readings confirmed their claims.

At first, scientists blamed the release of vast amounts of endorphins for the delusions, which they saw as the mind’s coping mechanism. However hard they searched for evidence of an endorphins’ storm, as they deemed the phenomenon, scientists failed to measure any significant increase in brain chemicals during or after a stint inside The Sphere. The concentrations they measured, could not explain more than normal levels of excitement and joy, which were admittedly experienced by the researchers, who ventured inside.

Over the next few months, it became apparent that The Sphere creates a unique environment for each individual. The landscapes and experiences conjured up inside by the artifact seemed to be tailor-made to please the visitor. Another peculiarity is the perception of time. A second spent inside feels like a whole day to the visitor.

Following the initial stages of scientific examinations, data-gathering, and analyses, once the scientists concluded that The Sphere was safe to visit and posed no threat to the people, a station gathering was held.

The people were finally informed about the unique and peculiar properties of The Sphere. The public was invited to experience The Sphere first hand, and so spending time inside The Sphere became the most popular recreational pastime since.

3 - Imagining Worlds

However peculiar the properties of The Sphere seemed at first, the novelty wore off within a few decades.

One might imagine The Sphere to be a source of endless entertainment, exploration, and new encounters. However – it requires input from the user, in the form of imagination, passion, and zest for life. Without a vivid imagination, The Sphere cannot conjure up a stimulating environment. A user who lacks creativity or interests will only get a dull experience - shallow in emotional engagement, obtuse in color, boring in the landscape. Using The Sphere to its full potential requires passion, real immersion into one's imagination, and the ability to approach, whatever The Sphere throws at you, with an open mind. It is a place, where one can fully explore their inner self and interact with nature in a way, that’s impossible within the confines of the space station.

There are exemptions, however: The Sphere will only allow one person at the time. Multiple trials to get more than one user to share an experience failed. There is only one glove and only the person who wears it can encounter the sphere-environment. Animals, however, are welcomed to be part of the human experience.

I know, because I look after two horses – Silvercloud and Alchemist – and my dog, Digger. I am very privileged to have them, and to allow them to live as naturally as possible we spend at least five seconds inside The Sphere each day.

I have been visiting The Sphere since I was six years old, which is the earliest age a child is allowed inside. The younger ones are often not able to find their way out again, and it can be difficult to extract a person who is engaging with their sphere-world.

In the first years after the discovery of The Sphere’s unique properties, 10 young children were left severely traumatized. We do not know, what causes this, but our shrinks and medics think that young children’s imagination is often dominated by terror and fear, imagining evil forces - like the devil, trolls, evil spirits, and the remnants of their nightmares, which sometimes linger in their immature, conscious minds. These fears typically manifest themselves in nightmares, night terrors, and irrational anxieties. Most children have grown out of them by the age of six.

In over 10 years of using The Sphere, I never encountered a fellow human, and I am not aware of anybody who did. Although there are occasional gossips about individuals using the privacy of The Sphere to meet with imaginary lovers, whores, or long lost friends. Nobody can tell, whether these rumors have a core of truth, or whether they are as much a figment of the imagination as the sphere-worlds themselves. The Sphere doesn’t tell – she guards her secrets well!

For many decades, The Sphere revitalized our society. Our daily life got injected with many things to talk about, based on our adventures inside The Sphere. Old books and digital records came to life, and people were happy to share their experiences. Folks took up hobbies and started to pursue new interests – things they could not do before the discovery of The Sphere. Scuba diving, hang gliding, horse riding, and even gardening became popular pastimes again.

* * *

I met Barnes about three years ago after I graduated from the first stage of becoming a historian. 15 might sound young to graduate, but in our society, we start to pursue our vocation, which we inherit from our parents, essentially from the word go.

I grew up in quarters, where the old stories and ancient history are as much part of daily life as are the present and the future.

When I first spotted Barnes, he wandered through the smallest side hall of the library, where I wok; seemingly aimlessly scrolling the shelves from left to right, up and down, and across, before he wandered off to another shelf. He was apparently looking for something specific, but couldn’t find it. I approached him, introduced myself, and offered my assistance. He only looked me up and down appraisingly; then he harrumphed and turned away.

You are very rude,” there was no need to be polite! I knew who he was – and that he had a reputation for being rude and dismissive. My hackles were all up and my fangs bared.

He stopped mid-turn, slowly came back to face me and gave me a mocking smile.

You are a feisty lass, Bella ΞΙ; I have not come across one of your kind in quite a while. How refreshing!” He turned away and continued browsing.

Taken aback by his impertinence, I tried again.

Perhaps I am in a position to help you find whatever it is you are after?” I offered. “Just ask me?”

He pensively rubbed his chin as he considered my offer.

You wouldna know a thing about English rose gardens, would ya? ‘specially the ones the Channel Islands were famous for?”

Depends…,” I had no intention to make this easy for him.

He threw his arms up and turned away from me yet again.

You’re just as ignorant and useless as all the others!” he shouted.

I was taken aback. “Don’t call me ignorant, because I am not. And call me useless only after I failed to help you!”

My face was hot, and I drew my brows together, so they formed deep furrows on my forehead, the way they do when I am angry or concentrating. My mother, who is very conscientious about looks, always tells me off for ‘making myself look older than I am’. ‘No point jeopardizing my good looks for this old grumbler,I was fuming.

So – tell me what exactly you are after… then I can at least try to be of help.” I stood my ground with my arms crossed in front of my chest.

Thought I told ya already. English rose gardens is what I’m after.”

Could you be any more specific, please? Are you interested in varieties of roses, the design of gardens, soil requirements, planting, tending, pruning, or…”

His eyes lit up. “Aye, and aye, aye… all of that. Whateva you ‘ave, I’m interested. I…,” he stumbled over his words. “I mean – where do I start?”

Let’s just have a look into the archives first; do a quick check of what’s available, and then we can narrow it down.” Looking for historical records is easy if you know where to start. Finding a starting point often is the hardest thing. His sudden outburst of enthusiasm mollified me. I felt confident that I would be able to send him on his way with a load of material pretty quickly. I was amazed to find the two of us still stuck in historical records, recordings, and images three hours later. Barnes was exhilarated.

Neva thought I would learn so much about English rose gardens in such a short time. I had no idea! There is so much to learn…,” he leaned back in his comfortable air-cushioned floaty chair. “I will require another lifetime to put all of this into practice. I donna know where to start!”

Why don’t you go and talk to the hydroponists first?” I suggested.

Nah, lass. You dunna get me. I’m researching to landscape my very own rose garden inside The Sphere. A nice rose garden, overlooking the English Channel, a white cottage by the sea…” His gaze trailed off and suddenly he looked so much younger than his 202 years.

I knew exactly, how he felt. I love being inside The Sphere myself. The seconds I spend inside The Sphere with my animals are the best days of our lives.

* * *

In the beginning, it looked likely, that the allocated sphere-time had to be rationed. Simple mathematical calculations tell us that an Earth day has 86,400 seconds. So each of the 6,000 inhabitants at the time could - in theory - spend 14.4 seconds each day inside The Sphere. Taking into account the time it would take to enter, don the glove, and exit again – a process which was estimated to take no more than five to six seconds, should allow each inhabitant to spend roughly eight to nine seconds each day inside The Sphere.

It soon became apparent, that this calculation was somewhat skewed. This is down to yet another extraordinary property of The Sphere itself. When measuring the total time from a person's departure to reappearance, it becomes apparent, that the actual time in days spent inside, equals the total time of their disappearance in seconds. The time it takes to step inside, don the glove, and exit is simply not accounted for – regardless of how much time the user takes for those tasks. It is as if this time does not exist.

The physicists rolled in this finding but ultimately failed to come up with a convincing explanation.

Currently, the accepted theory is, that the space-time continuum around The Sphere is somehow distorted or warped to allow for this time-lapse to happen. This effect was not more or less of a wonder than what happens inside The Sphere itself.

As expected, the interest in The Sphere was enormous at first. People couldn’t wait to get their share of the experience. The initial enthusiasm, however, soon peaked and declined rapidly after that. It turned out that at least 30 percent of the population do not have enough imagination or personal interests to make their sphere-time an enjoyable experience. Children under the age of six were soon banned, and many adults stopped using The Sphere altogether; be it for the lack of imagination or the inability to spend time on their own in the vast and alien environment, born from their very own imagination and displayed to them by the artifact.

* * *

I helped Barnes find the information he needed to envision his white-washed cottage on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel - including a rose garden with all the trimmings.

We investigated the art of how to plant and maintain a rose garden, but we also looked into the more in-depth details of soil composition and layout of the land. We researched the tidal patterns, their range, and the temperature of the ocean surrounding the island. We drew detailed maps and used mind-imaging technology to allow Barnes to get a visual of what he was reading and researching. We worked on the project for almost three months before he was satisfied to go into The Sphere and ‘give it a go’.

He went in for three minutes and came out a transformed man. Gone was ‘the old grumbler’ and a younger, happier and more relaxed Barnes emerged. He had a smile on his face, his gait was springy, and gone were all the creaks and the stiffness from his movements. Barnes felt alive again!

Once out, he did not rest. He wanted to know more details; he wanted to improve his experience. We researched cottage interiors, wood fires, how to catch fish, how to gut and cook them. We did the same for oysters, rabbits, and sheep. We learned how to keep chickens and how to use their manure along with the ashes of a wood fire to nourish the soil around the rose bushes.

This was my first big project, and it grabbed my imagination! I recognized a burning desire to learn new things – things I never knew existed in the first place. I also learned about the satisfaction I gain from being able to help my clients imagining their perfect environment. By the time I celebrated my 16th birthday, I had developed a reputation as a Sphere Interior Designer; a profession unique in the whole of the universe as far as I know. People come to me to ask my advice, and I help them research the things they want most. They allow me to enter their thoughts, and more often than not I can help them to create their perfect sphere-environment.

A selected few, like Barnes, are after something authentic. Others are equally happy with an artificial environment - as long as it is something they can relate to.

I enjoy helping in any way possible, but I prefer the jobs, that demand a high level of authenticity; because it is the research that requires my skills as a historian as well as my skills as an imaginist.

Needless to say: the environment I created for myself is environmentally pristine as well as imaginative. When The Sphere sucks me in, and I stand in the perfect darkness to wait for the glove to mold itself to my outstretched hand, I close my eyes. And when I feel the cool, gel-like material slip over my hand, I open them again, and I can see my home.

I live in the Canadian wilds just off the coast of British Columbia. Beautiful, serene, but also wild and untamed. I live in a small log house, which stands close to a lake that is so limpid, I can see all the way to its bottom. My house stands in the foothills of a mountain range, which towers over my backyard, and the open ocean is about an hour ride away. Dense rainforests with massive evergreen trees, fairy fern hanging off the ancient giants’ branches like old men’s beards, the fresh smell of the rapid flowing rivers, and the scent of rotting leaves, littering the dark forest floor, which hardly ever sees any sunlight, create some of the magic of this country.

I love to swim in ‘my lake’ and dry off in the sun-drenched meadow in front of my house. The horses and Digger – always grazing, playing, chasing each other – provide me with entertainment. It is here that I feel alive. It is here that I crave to be. It is here that I feel free and complete. I am at peace, and my mind is allowed to wander wherever it pleases to. In my mind, I expand the place. I imagine it beyond what I can see, and then I go and explore. That’s how I know where the ocean lies and what it is like to be on top of a mountain. I camp out in the open. The wild animals don’t bother me, and they are not bothered by us. We mutually respect each other.

I could imagine my pantry stashed with the most luxurious delicacies, but I prefer to catch fish, pick berries, or eat tubers, and create delicious, experimental dishes. I have bags of corn flour, wheat flour, dried herbs and fruit, pine nuts, and acorns, smoked sides of salmon and trout stocked in my pantry. When I am in the space station, I drink coffee – when I am in British Columbia, I stick to herbal tea. I love my life, and if I were the only person left on Δ9, I would spend the rest of my life here - inside The Sphere.

* * *

One day, lazing around, stretched out to dry in the sun-drenched meadow, feeling content, my limbs heavy and tired after a long swim - a piercing bolt of fear suddenly struck me! Brutally and unexpectedly it jolted me into an upright position.

What if The Sphere breaks? What if The Sphere decides to leave us?

Out of the blue! It terrified me to think we could lose The Sphere!

Fool!’ I can be a bit silly sometimes. There was no indication, that The Sphere was damaged in any way, shape, or form, or that it might suddenly decide to float off into space. It chose its place, and it stayed there rooted for almost 4,000 years. Still – my hammering heart and the queasy feeling in my stomach told me that my visceral nervous system didn't agree with my rationale.

Perhaps I should go and see a shrink?They would probably tell me, to socialize more and not spend so much time inside The Sphere – just like my mum. She kept telling me to find friends and do things. I don’t know, what I would do in the space station. The things I enjoy – swimming, riding, planting, foraging, chopping wood – I cannot do there. There are no facilities for those mundane things. I follow my passions inside The Sphere – alone.

Besides – I meet a lot of people in my job. Being an imaginist is profoundly fulfilling. I can help people to define their niche; I can help to make people truly happy; I can help them find purpose in their lives. Who needs friends, when they have satisfied customers?

My proudest achievement as an imaginist dates back just over a year. I worked with a young woman – Claudia – who had been troubled for all of her life.

A shy and socially awkward child, she had difficulties forging friendships and other social bonds. Later during her education period, she was always top of her class, but the inherited vocation – her parents were hydroponic engineers – did nothing to satisfy the gaping hole, that years of unhappiness had slowly carved into her soul.

She was only 25 years old but already wanted to die. She had put in multiple applications to receive a dose of EverDream, the drug of choice for committing a clean suicide. In our society suicide is governmentally controlled and although we have limited resources, losing a life is not taken lightly. We do anything to help suicide candidates to find a meaning and live a fulfilled life. The drug is rarely requested - mainly by old people, who are getting towards the end of their lives and do not wish to burden the system unnecessarily. There are isolated cases of younger people, who suffer rare, incurable diseases and find themselves in such severe pain, that they wish to end their life.

Especially the physically healthy ones are not granted the suicide-drug lightly. There is a legal requirement to sit through many grueling questionings and public hearings, and the need to justify oneself in front of everybody. Those measures, cruel as they sound, actually prevent a lot of conventional suicides, like jumping, hanging, and cutting. Society as a whole becomes aware of the person, who expresses their wish to die. Suddenly they are under constant surveillance and self-harming becomes nearly impossible.


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