tagNovels and NovellasInto the Unknowable Ch. 10

Into the Unknowable Ch. 10


Chapter Ten
Serenity – Year 27.32.15

The thick mane of blue and gold feathers tingled along the back of Gwark's sinuous neck. What was that noise? Were the eggs in the incubator hatching ahead of time? Gwark wasn't sure he was quite ready to be a father again so soon.

He turned his head away from the screen of runic characters he'd been reading and focused his huge eyes on the corner of the room where the incubator stood just by the connubial bed he shared with Duwinki, his wife of many decades. What he saw reassured and alarmed him in equal measure.

No, it wasn't his eggs hatching. Both of them were resting where they'd been so carefully laid when Duwinki gave birth just two days earlier. But a grotesque sight was crackling its scales and wriggling about on the wooden floor. It was a kind of arthropod, but not one that currently existed in the forests or plains of the Solar System. It was many times larger and most resembled those terrestrial beings that dominated the world in the Silurian period and known only from fossils. It thrashed around in distress and then, with no warning and leaving no evidence that it had ever been there, it vanished.

Whatever it might be, Gwark was sure that this strange arthropod was just one of those peculiar Apparitions that were so much more in evidence this close to the Anomaly. It wasn't the first he'd seen in the last few days, but it was the closest he'd ever been to one. They were real and solid for at least the time they were present, but they never persisted long enough to be analysed in detail. Now they were present for significantly longer periods of time. One had persisted in the ship's farm for well over ninety seconds, but by good fortune this monstrous thecodont disappeared before it could cause damage. The domestic sauropods grazing there were dismayed by its presence and threatened to stampede. Although the space ship was large and spacious, a wild herd of ten metre high sauropods would have caused untold havoc.

The space ship, whose name could most nearly be translated as Serenity, was almost the size of an orbital colony and had to be as it had been home to a crew of scientists and navigators for over fifty years since its launch from the Kuiper Belt. It was set on a course to investigate the Anomaly whose presence troubled all the Solar System's intelligent species.

There were representatives from all the technologically advanced species on the ship. This was not an unprecedented cooperation, but it was still rather unusual. They were all theropods, except for a species of hadrosaur and a rather less intelligent species of flightless bird. Gwark was a feathered theropod and proud to belong to the most ancient civilised species in the Solar System whose origins could be dated back many millions of years. The rational beings of this version of the Solar System had never known a mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. Like all theropods, Gwark was more a carnivore than an omnivore though he did have a craving for succulent fruit.

None of the intelligent dinosaur species were as sociable as the mammals that dominated other parallel universes and were therefore less prone to the internecine conflicts and intolerance that marred mammalian history. On the other hand, their civilisation's progress had been significantly less rapid. The events that hastened their history, such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions, happened steadily and gradually.

The peace that was all their society had ever known was reinforced by a philosophy and culture which emphasised co-existence and stability. The literature and art of Gwark's civilisation didn't revel in warfare, heroism or danger. Instead it tended towards the reflective and meditative. A typical myth or legend expounded a moral message that prized wisdom and sagacity over violent conflict resolution. Whether their society lacked as a result, neither Gwark nor any other intelligent species in their Solar System could ever know. It had in any case resulted in a remarkably harmonious and crime-free society.

There had been periods of relatively rapid progress in dinosaurian civilisation. The colonisation of the Solar System, generally a leisurely process, was a response to the encroaching glaciers that had enveloped much of the Northern Hemisphere. This event that had begun several hundreds of thousands of years earlier motivated Gwark's ancestors and the other intelligent theropod species to cooperate on what was then an unprecedented scale to ensure that civilisations already millions of years old would continue to survive.

And now a similar crisis stirred the Solar System's community. It was haste indeed that persuaded the disparate species to cooperate on this hugely expensive mission—of which Gwark was now a part—to intercept the Anomaly. In Gwark's world, expense couldn't be measured in monetary units. There had never been a capitalist society as understood by the mammals of some other universes, but there were measurements of economic activity that approximated to the same concept.

The door to Gwark's room opened and Duwinki entered. It couldn't be anyone else. No one but Gwark would enter the connubial bedroom. Theropods were jealous of their personal space and never shared it with anyone not in their immediate family. It was only when seeking a mate, which was a long drawn-out process, that a male theropod would ever welcome the company of someone not already very well known to him.

"You won't believe what I've just seen!" exclaimed Gwark to his wife, after they affectionately nuzzled each other.

In fact, Duwinki had no difficulty in believing her husband. She'd also seen several of these strange Apparitions in the last few days though it horrified her that this one had come so close to her incubating eggs. What if the arthropod had an appetite for them? However impermanent these anomalies were, they persisted long enough to cause significant damage. There had been several occasions when their presence was sufficiently disruptive to cause death and destruction. A hadrosaur suffered a very painful death when a curious worm-like object manifested itself inside her stomach. On another occasion an infestation of nanobots consumed the contents of four adjacent rooms until they too suddenly vanished leaving behind nothing but a strange void. The sauropod herds were constantly on edge when confronted by things they had no ability to understand.

"I do hope this Anomaly is benign," said Duwinki nervously. "It would be terrible if it had evil intention."

"That's what we're here to discover," Gwark consoled his wife, but betrayed his anxiety by twitching the long feathered tail that was nearly a third of his entire length. "But it's believed that this Anomaly isn't an intelligent phenomenon at all. The main worry is that it is growing at such an alarming rate. If it does turn out to be a malign force then maybe this will be the trigger that finally persuades our civilisation to colonise other solar systems."

"There would have to be a very good argument for that," said Duwinki. "Fifty years travel from home to here is quite enough. What would it be like for many generations to have to live and die before we arrived at even the next nearest solar system? There's a lot of empty space between us and Proxima Centauri. And there's nothing to welcome us when we arrive."

Although Duwinki and Gwark spent most of their waking life in their chambers, where they also meditated and conducted scientific research, they occasionally ventured into the space ship beyond. This was not for socialising, which was something only the hadrosaurs were prone to do, but simply to enjoy their walks together through the forests and grasslands that occupied more than two-thirds of the habitable space. Such exercise was important, although their extensive suite was fitted with gym equipment and, of course, provided them with the privacy to enjoy sex with one another which they would do almost incessantly when Duwinki was at the most active point of her oestrogen cycle (which was almost exactly tuned to Gwark's own sexual cycle).

Before they left their suite, the two theropods checked that the incubator's monitoring equipment was in good working order. They wanted to be there when their eggs hatched so that they could properly imprint on their children who their parents were. Although there were a couple more days until the hatching was expected, even in the modern age this was always a rough approximation.

Gwark and Duwinki emerged from their suite on the seventh level which, like all homes, was just below floor level. In their society, ground level was kept clear of obstacles that could get in the way of the lumbering ceratopsians, ankylosaurs and iguanodons that wandered freely about the ship and whose presence was chiefly to provide fresh meat for the various species of hungry theropod. The level of the ship where the couple lived was host to a mix of forest and grassland, interspersed by lakes where plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs swam. Pterosaurs and birds roosted in the trees in the company of a few small mammals and ornithopods. Like all space ships and colonies, the landscape resembled that of the Earth to which the dinosaurian civilisation was still very much attached.

Other intelligent theropods and a few hadrosaurs also wandered about the landscape, either singly or in couples. When they passed other strollers Gwark and Duwinki observed polite convention by studiously ignoring them.

Nobody on the ship wore clothes. This would be absurd on beings already well blessed with a thick covering of feathers sported by all but the hadrosaurs. Compared to the mammals that scurried in the undergrowth, the couple were large but not nearly as much as the tyrannosaurs and allosaurs confined to the wildlife reserves. Gwark and Duwinki were just over four metres long and over three metres tall when they stood upright. Normally they walked at an oblique angle to the ground with their weight balanced by long feathered tails.

Their excursion was to the lake on the sixteenth level where they could watch the long-necked elasmosaurs frolic in the water, accompanied by soaring pterosaurs chasing after fish and the occasional larger plesiosaur. This lake served both as a fish farm and as a reservoir for the fresh water that was required for the daily bathing ritual that kept the residents' feathers in good condition.

Even by the waters of the lake, the married couple were reminded that they were in a space ship and not a colony. Huge screens hovered above the ground at periodic intervals and frequently had to dodge out of the way of the more clumsy large fauna. These provided information about where the space ship was in relation to the Anomaly and how far it was from the ecliptic. It also screened panoramic views of the empty space outside the ship.

As a cosmologist, like his wife, Gwark had an academic interest in space. He'd been privileged to visit many of the Solar System's moons. He relished the experience of standing in his space suit on the surface of icy Europa or cloudy Titan and to gaze towards the horizon. Most people lived in self-contained orbiting colonies and rarely had the opportunity to appreciate such a sight. And Gwark enjoyed the emptiness of distant space where he'd often hovered in a space suit sharply delineated against the unmediated shadows of the sun.

Although Gwark had spent a happy few years as a research scientist in the Kuiper Belt, he'd never before been to a destination as remote as where the Serenity was now taking him. The next nearest substantial object to the space ship was nothing more than a comet that had been dislodged from the Oort Cloud. No other vehicle accompanied the Serenity on its mission nor was any thought to be necessary.

After all, what possible risk could there be for a space ship in such empty space?

However, so frequent were these strange Apparitions that Gwark wasn't sure that the syndicates that had planned the mission might not have been somewhat complacent. Although the Apparitions were normally harmless, what would happen if one was large enough that it could sabotage the whole mission?

Gwark and Duwinki strolled around the shores of the lake where they occasionally exchanged words and more often nuzzled each other lovingly. They fully appreciated the landscape of soaring birds and the occasional plesiosaur resting on the sand.

And then their excursion was abruptly interrupted with no warning whatsoever.

One moment Gwark was silently reflecting on the calm and beauty of the vast waters that extended many kilometres ahead of them while Duwinki's huge black eyes gazed at him with equally silent affection and the next they were somewhere that was not only not by the lakeside but not on the space ship Serenity at all.

The air smelt different. The temperature was cooler than was comfortable for a theropod however well feathered. The air pressure was somehow more constricting. They were inside a chamber that resembled nothing that Gwark had seen before. It was truly alien and bizarre. And it was also constructed on a much smaller scale than he was accustomed to.

There were some elements that were reassuringly homely. There was a sort of bed, but not the kind Gwark would ever be comfortable in. It was far too narrow and far too soft. There was a mirror but not one that Gwark could easily use as it was at such a low height and not wide enough for him to properly inspect the feathers he preened for so many hours of the day. There was an intrusive holographic display of a reassuringly familiar spacescape.

And more than that, there were two strange mammals in the room.

Gwark assumed they were mammals. One of them had a growth of hair that was unique to mammals, but rarely so long, and never in a mammal so large—almost two thirds his own height. Furthermore, no mammal he'd ever seen before was so hairless. In fact one of the two mammals had no hair at all except for some peculiar tufts over the eyes. And even though mammals usually had very flimsy tails, smaller than even that of a bird, these two specimens were totally tailless. More grotesque still, both specimens had a pair of massively disproportionate dugs that were much larger than those of any other placental mammal he'd ever seen.

Although he was no zoologist, Gwark could see that one of the mammals had one of those unsightly floppy penises that the order sported and must therefore be a male (but why have such monstrous dugs?) whilst the other was less grotesque with smaller dugs and no penis and therefore a female.

Although Gwark and his wife were equally appalled by the sight of these monstrosities, they remained calm. The meditation and philosophical introspection that was common practise in their society equipped them well for such a peculiar event. The wisdom and tolerance of their civilisation enabled them to see themselves as others, however outlandish, might see them. These mammals were undoubtedly as unnerved by the presence of two relatively large feathered theropods as Gwark and his wife were by two freakish non-ovoviviparous animals. Moreover, these strange mammals' reaction and their strangled utterances convinced him that they were intelligent beings: perhaps almost as much as themselves.

The two mammals jumped off the bed. The most completely hairless mammal shrunk into the corner and released a scream that resembled that of a mating hadrosaur, but at a much higher pitch and clearly more in terror than lust. The mammal with the disgusting penis stood up and walked towards them, showing no evidence of fear but something akin to discomfort.

"Where are we?" asked Duwinki. "What do you think these monsters are?"

"I don't know," said Gwark. "Look, this taller monster is making a noise."

The couple listened as the strange mammal made some grunts that sounded peculiarly like the few words they had just uttered, but were nothing more than a repetition of what they'd just said.

"Who are you?" asked Duwinki. "How did we get here?"

"Who are you?" repeated the strange mammal in a fair imitation of Duwinki's words, which from such an odd mammal was strange enough. "How did you get here?"

"Where are we?" asked Gwark.

"You are in..." said the mammal and then said a word that was quite unlike any that either had heard before but must have been in its own mammalian tongue.

"Where?" asked Duwinki.

"Intrepid," repeated the mammal. "Near the Anomaly."

And then, just as suddenly as they'd arrived, Gwark and Duwinki found themselves back on the shore of the lake in the homely setting of the Serenity.

"What happened there?" asked Duwinki.

"I don't know," said Gwark who was still shaken by it all.

The first thing they did was report the incident. And because there was no practise of deceit or falsehood in theropod civilisation their every word was considered with utmost seriousness and genuine concern.

The green and yellow feathered theropod, of a slightly smaller and less colourful arboreal species than Gwark's own terrestrial one, and who was the ship's expert on the strange apparitions gave his opinion as soon as he'd gathered all the evidence.

"I need to do more research," he admitted, "but my opinion is that you somehow entered a parallel universe. Just as these apparitions have intruded our Solar System, so you have unwittingly intruded another's."

"Can you be so sure that these beings come from a parallel universe?" wondered Duwinki.

"Not at all," Zhwonka admitted. "It would be a strange universe indeed where mammals were the dominant order. That would only be possible after a truly catastrophic event had eliminated the dinosaurs and maybe the birds. Mammals have been around for over two and fifty million years and are specialists in niche environments. It would be bizarre for placental mammals to dominate. They've shown no evidence of being better adapted for survival than ovoviviparous or marsupial mammals. And the mammals you describe were bipedal. Theropods, hadrosaurs and birds are naturally bipedal. I can't imagine how peculiar it would be for mammals to rise up off their four feet and become bipedal. Their tails aren't nearly long enough to balance their torsos."

"If it wasn't a parallel universe, what else could it have been?" wondered Gwark.

"There are many theories, but until we analyse the Anomaly we have no way of verifying them," said Zhwonka. "An intertwined universe. A virtual universe. A distant part of our universe. A psychically generated universe, as in a vivid dream. Who knows? What we do know is that there are parallel universes which were previously thought to be wholly inaccessible, even in theory. It is possible that the Anomaly is a kind of gateway to other parallel but divergent universes."

"But aren't some of the apparitions just too absurd to belong to a natural universe?" Duwinki asked. "Some of them make no sense at all. There are some which are unlikely combinations of animals that aren't at all related, like carnivorous mammals merged with birds, snakes with insects, and frogs with lizards."

"We just don't know what is natural and what isn't," confessed Zhwonka, "but we do know certain things for sure. And one is that you vanished for exactly the same length of time as you reported being in this other space ship or colony. The surveillance equipment that monitors the movement of the ankylosaurs and ceratopsians also observed that you'd vanished for a period of just over a minute."

The period that Zhwonka expressed was not in seconds or minutes as theropod civilisation divided the day quite differently to any human society. In fact, as they only had four fingers on either hand, Gwark's civilisation used octal rather than decimal measurements and calculated time accordingly.

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