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Thee Machine was humming. Its creator thought it was a pleasing sound. After putting the finishing touches to his handiwork, he took a moment to admire it. In its physical form, the Machine resembled a translucent sphere that dominated the center of his small laboratory. Yet there was an aspect that existed elsewhere, beyond the physical dimension. It was this aspect, his so called scientific peers had trouble comprehending. Many had called him a dreamer, a time waster, or worse. Reaching out, he found it was warm to the touch, like a living thing, and had no doubts. In the end, he would prove them all wrong. Now there was only one thing left to do. He made a gesture and the glass-like surface of the sphere came to life with swirling colors and intricate patterns that danced around each other. A moment later all was ready, and when a doorway in the sphere irised open, a thrill of anticipation ran through him. His only regret was there would be no one to witness the attempt. Succeed or fail, he was on his own.
When he entered the sphere, an invisible suspension field embraced him, lifting him from the floor. While he floated weightless, the Machine's mental integration process began, and gradually his awareness shifted, altered to a higher pitch. Rising above the limitations of his physical senses, he began to perceive wavelengths of energy far beyond mere light and sound. They permeated the lab in waves of color, in twisting spirals of light and in tiny particles that were there and gone in an instant. The lab, the planet, the whole universe it seemed, was alive with energies he had never known. He felt a slight nudge, and he was looking back at himself, at his body hanging limp in the center of the sphere, the suspension field now visible as glowing lines of force. Stunned, he realized it had worked, and with a silent roar of exultation, his mind leapt skyward.
Climbing higher and higher he saw the great city spread out below, and there his tiny lab, just another hexagon among millions, until it and the city were lost below dense layers of cloud. A moment later, he felt the last particles of atmosphere slip away and he entered the cold vacuum of space. Here he paused, marveling at the sight of so many stars. They burned bright and unblinking, beckoning to him.
He flew on, watching with fascination as his world became a colored ball that fell away with ever increasing speed, until it was nothing more than a tiny speck next to a bright star. Onward and outward he sped, faster and faster, like an invisible meteor. Flashing past the orbit of the outer planets, he entered the dark void between stars that was the true vacuum of space. He knew he was only a thought, more insubstantial than light, yet he felt like a God. In what seemed only an instant, he reached the nearest star. It was an old bloated sun, its retinue of planets rendered frozen and lifeless long ago. Following dark veins of interstellar dust he visited other suns and touched a myriad of worlds. Although each one was unique, the results were the same. He plunged into star clusters alive with furious energies that could not harm him, and peered into dark holes in space-time. He heard the death cry of exploding Novae, while witnessing the birth of new stars, aglow in their cocoons of colored gas. Everywhere he looked there were wonders, yet it seemed he was the only one to witness them.
He was beginning to doubt himself, perhaps he was only a dreamer after all, when a strange wave of energy brushed his mind. It was faint with distance, little more than a scattering of particles, yet he thought there was structure within it. When the wave came again he knew, this was no natural phenomena, but a deliberate signal. With growing excitement, he located its source near the edge of the galactic rim, and hurtled towards it.
He soon discovered it lay beyond a dark cloud of interstellar dust so dense, it looked like a ragged hole in the nebulous veil of stars, and he was falling into it. Near the edge of the cloud he became aware of an insistant chiming sound in his mind. At first, he could not place it, until he realized it was a warning from the Machine. He remembered he was still connected to it, and to a body in a distant lab. That fragile link was growing tenuous with distance and he was in danger of dissolution. With an odd detachment, he wondered what that would be like. If the link was broken would he cease to exist or would his mind wander aimless, until his body perished. Either way, he was not turning back now. As he entered the cloud he was enveloped by a darkness so complete, the surrounding stars disappeared. His only points of reference became the ever increasing signal ahead and his ever diminishing link to home. Soon another warning came from the Machine, more strident this time. It sounded like a mother chastising a child who had strayed too far. It was calling him, willing him to come home.
Eventually there was a thinning in the cloud and he was through. He halted, filled with wonder. The glowing outer arm of the spiral lay before him, and there was the source of the signal, a distant yellow star. Around that sun orbited a planet that was emanating copious quantities of energy, either as a byproduct of its technology or a deliberate attempt to broadcast its presence to other civilizations. Here at last was the end to his search, the culmination of his life's work. He was both elated and humbled by it. He longed to get closer, to see this world for himself, and the creatures that inhabited it, but he dared not, the risk was too great. Already he could sense the link to the Machine beginning to fray, time was running out. Of the various waveforms coming from the planet, he selected one at random, and focused on it. Gathering as much of the signal as he could, he caught a last glimpse of that distant point of light, before the Machine brought him home.
The return was brutal in its swiftness, his mind reeling as stars swept past in a blur, until at some point he lost consciousness. When he awoke, he was lying on the bottom of the sphere, staring up through its transparent skin. Across its curved surface ran a string of unreadable symbols. The Machine was decoding the signal, he realized. With an effort, he drew himself erect and stumbled out into the lab. He felt groggy, his body heavy and sluggish. After soaring like a God, it was a rude awakening.
When the decoding was complete, a wall screen flickered to life, revealing a dark amorphous shape, moving against a bright background. Spellbound he watched as the shape on the screen slowly resolved itself into a being from another world. It was a thin upright creature standing on two spindly legs. From its upper body hung two jointed arms and on top sat a hairy bulbous nodule that appeared to house the sensory organs. Remarkably, the creature had two eyes, which would afford it the advantage of binocular vision. A sudden wave of sound filled the lab, a cacophony of noise that had rhythmic qualities. There were also guttural sounds that appeared to emanate from an orifice in the lower part of the sensory nodule. The viewpoint shifted and he saw a close up of the nodule, its orifice moving up and down to the guttural sounds, its two eyes blinking in unison. He had to admit it was hardly an attractive creature. Yet it was evidence of the divergent forms life must take, each a unique response to the nature of its environment.
The scene altered to reveal the creature standing over a large boxlike device with a row of controls. On top sat a circular container holding a quantity of clear bubbling liquid. The creature was manipulating some tool within the container, moving it in a circular motion. More rhythmic sounds and guttural noises accompanied the scene. Some strands of long thin material were then placed into the liquid and moved about. Baffled, he watched as another container was placed on the device and more unrecognizable objects placed within it. Eventually the contents of both containers were mixed together upon a flat circular dish and some shredded material sprinkled over it. As a pronged tool was slid into the congealing mass and twirled, the screen went dark, and the lab fell silent.
For a long while he stared at the blank screen, letting the full import of what he had witnessed sink in. Although the meaning of this strange message was as yet unclear, the proof that other forms of intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe, would change everything. And he had done it. No, he corrected himself, they had done it. Reaching out, he laid a thin sinewy tentacle upon the Machine, feeling genuine affection for his creation. The Machine hummed contentedly.
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