March 31, 2020 for Joël

The Feature

Lieutenant Cal Rogers was used to the unexpected. His first time up in orbit, the proximal RCS on his ship had iced right over, and he got into a spin so fierce, it took them years to get the stench of vomit out of that cockpit.

Cal Rogers was used to the unexpected. But this right here? This was something else entirely.

“Uh, copy that,” he said, peering over the edge of the crater, into a vast colourless sea of fine white powder. “You got a visual on it? Because I can’t—”

Just then, something glimmered in the distance. Right in the middle of the crater, some 900 metres away, something metallic was moving just enough that it was reflecting light at his visor.

“Never mind. I see it,” he said, and climbed to the rim.

“Stand by for transport,” said Command. “Dispatching now.”

Rogers waved them off, shook his head inside his helmet. “It’s OK. I’ll walk it. Could use the exercise anyway.”

“Copy that,” said Command. “Go on foot, dig it out with your hands, carry it home in a potato bag or something. Great idea. Let us know when you regret your decision.”

He laughed and bounded off the edge, giving himself as much forward momentum as he could, so instead of a long, slow walk down the slope of the crater, he sailed off in the Moon’s feeble gravity, traveling a good 60 metres before landing, lightly, in the dust again.

He’d only had a handful of outings since he got to Armstrong Base last year, but he made sure to cherish each one. The way the sunlight refracted off the edge of his helmet, the way the shadows cut long wedges across the landscape, the way he could see for miles...and have no concept of whether something was ten steps away, or ten minutes.

“The time between two instances is infinite,” is what his C.O. had told him, on his first spacewalk. “Where you are? where you need to be? Those are. They’re fixed points. They’re facts you can’t negotiate. The journey’s what matters, Rogers. It can last as long or as little as you want. So you decide what kind of life you want to live, and do it.”

And so...he walked to the centre of the crater, letting that infinite time unfold at just the right pace.

In the last few metres, he finally got a glimpse of his objective: a slab of shiny metal, sticking out of the dirt: the Aegis V satellite...or what was left of it, anyway. Its solar panels were smashed all to hell, and it looked like most of the body was impacted into the ground. He’d need tools to dig it out. Possibly a crane.

He was just about to call in the cavalry when the Aegis shifted a little...and suddenly sank out of sight. White sand poured into a growing hole like a whirlpool, and Rogers stumbled back, instinctively, lest he be sucked in, too.

“Uh, Command, you seeing this?” he asked.

Static on the radio. He checked the screen on his forearm, gave it a tap. Poor signal strength. He glanced over his shoulder, back at the looming crater wall behind him, probably blocking his transmission. “Perfect,” he sighed.

He looked straight up and waved his arms over his head as best he could, trying to hail one of the other satellites, but knew it was a long shot at best. He was going to have to walk back up the crater and then request assistance.

The infinite time between instances was feeling a lot more infinite.

He leaned over the edge of the hole in the ground, trying to see how deep the Aegis had gone. It was dark inside, so he turned on his head lamp—and gasped. He didn’t see the Aegis at all, but what the light did illuminate was a kind of metallic ribbing along the edges of the hole...like a manufactured tunnel that led straight down.

He knelt down at the edge, reaching a hand into the hole, and—

He jerked back as more of the sand beneath him gave way. More and more of it, until he could clearly see the edge of a portal, buried in the lunar rock.

When the sand stopped pouring, he crawled back over to the hole, and gave his next step a whole lot of thought.

The ribbing made a good ladder, it turned out. The hole was just big enough for his suit, so long as he didn’t make any wild movements—and he wasn’t really inclined to do anything wild in a situation such as this. One foot down, one hand, the other foot, the other hand. Slow and steady, and somewhat blind, since he couldn’t see where he was going in the cramped quarters.

Five minutes in, he wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake. Five minutes later, he knew he had.

His foot hit something solid beneath him, and soon it became clear he’d reached the bottom of the hole. Not rock, though—metal. The Aegis. He stepped around it, trying to figure out the shape of it, see if he could reach down and grab it. He wished he had space to look down, get a lay of the land, instead of resorting to stomping around and—

Click!

The ground slid out beneath him, and suddenly he was falling! His arms flailed as he tumbled downward and smack! landed next to the Aegis, on his back, in a...

...in a well-lit room. With shag carpet. And lime-green walls. And orange lava lamps the size of refrigerators.

“What the...” he gasped, trying to take it all in.

“Oh hell,” said a voice behind him. “Ungo, did you leave the hatch open again?”

“Me?” said another voice. “Closing the hatch is your job!”

“How is it my job?” argued the first. “You know I can’t reach the handle. You’re just being rude!”

Rogers turned around and nearly cried out in horror, because sitting behind him on a long, pastel-coloured slab of sofa, were a pair of dinosaurs.

The one on the left, a T-Rex, it appears, was wearing a turtleneck sweater and a pair of purple-tinted glasses, with its luxurious feathers slicked back in a show of well-groomed sophistication. One of its loafers was hanging off its toe, bouncing back in a lazy nervous tic.

The other, a stegosaurus, wore a red vest and a bowler hat, and was just setting a beer mug on the coffee table, wide eyes locked on Rogers.

“Wh...what’s...” Rogers stammered, scurrying away from them.

“Alright, deep breaths, pal. Deep breaths,” said the stegosaurus. “No reason to—”

Rogers screamed. Not a little scream, either. A big one. The kind that happens right before a very tragic end.

Except in this case, no end came. The T-Rex rolled its eyes at him, even.

“Are you done?” it sighed.

“I...” said Rogers. “I mean...”

“OK listen,” said the stegosaurus. “I know this is a lot to take in, and you’ve got a lot of questions, but before we get to all of that, I need to ask: who else knows you’re here?”

Rogers’ breath left him. He inched backwards again, looking for a way out of this—

“Well that sounded ominous, didn’t it?” sighed the T-Rex. “What’s next? ‘How much meat do you have under that suit’? I mean really, Ungo. Think about what you’re saying.”

The T-Rex laid a tiny hand on its chest and said, as pleasantly as a massive lumbering carnivore could: “My name is Wilson. This is Ungo. And you are...?”

“R-Rogers. Lieutenant Cal Rogers.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant Rogers,” said Wilson, with a serene smile. “And welcome to the centre of the moon.”

Rogers looked around, all around, trying to get his bearings. “Wait, you mean this is—”

“The centre of the moon,” said Ungo unhappily, then muttered to Wilson: “He ain’t gonna be much help, I can tell already.”

“Patience, please,” said Wilson.

“How did... where did... when did...?” Rogers asked, then settled on a whole other question indeed: “Help with what?”

The two dinosaurs exchanged uncertain looks, but then Wilson went right ahead and said it: “Are you familiar with Planck’s Constant?”

“Uhhh...” said Rogers.

“Told ya,” sighed Ungo.

Wilson persisted: “Quantum field theory? Electromagnetic? Electron? No? Not ringing any bells?”

“I mean... I mean I think I’ve heard of—”

“You’re more of a lifter than a thinker, yeah?” asked Ungo. “‘Ook ook, me strong’ sorta deal?”

Rogers resented that suggestion, but wasn’t sure how to express that to a massive lumbering lizard-thing with huge bony spikes sticking out of its back.

“Can I just...” he said, then without thinking, unlocked his helmet and took it off, setting on the floor at his feet. He took a deep breath—stale air, but breathable. He blinked his eyes a few times, shook out his head. “That’s so... argh...”

Ungo stared at him with concern. “I think he’s having a seizure.”

“No, my dear Ungo, he thinks he’s hallucinating.” Wilson clapped his hands together and cleared his throat. “Lieutenant Rogers, I’m afraid we are on something of a tight schedule here. It won’t be long before your compatriots come looking for you, so we really must keep things moving, please.”

“Moving how?” asked Rogers. “Where are we going?”

“To the answer,” said Wilson. “The answer that will save everything.”

“Everything how? Save it from what?”

Ungo made a whistling sound, tied to the movement of his left hand, which he smashed into his right hand with a big, hearty explosion, which devolved into spittling very quickly. “The end of the dinosaurs,” he said.

“But...but you’re here,” observed Rogers.

“Yes, but should we be?” asked Wilson.

“Hmm,” agreed Rogers.

“We’ve got most of it worked out,” said Ungo. “Quantum entanglement, copying particle states across space-time, nudging electron fields by redaction...”

“But one element eludes us,” said Wilson. “The key to our salvation.”

“Which is...?” asked Rogers.

“The oddity,” said Wilson. “The thing that doesn’t belong. You see, where we are now and where we are meant to be, those are two points in time separated by an infinite space...”

“What did you say?” gasped Rogers.

“Oh great, he’s deaf and dumb...”

“I said the time between instances is infinite, “ said Wilson. “But not markerless. There exists, somewhere in between, a feature, if you will. This feature determines the flow between timescales. You cannot get from A to B without that midpoint existing in just the right way.”

Rogers thought of his journey across the crater, down into this hole. The midpoint there was the Aegis disappearing down the hole. One little moment that changed the infinite space on either end of the sequence.

“Alright,” he said. “So you’re saying you need to pinpoint that... that...”

“Feature,” said Wilson. “And yes. Find the feature, and the end points realign accordingly.”

“So how do we find it?” asked Rogers. “What are we looking for?”

“Something dumb,” said Ungo. “Something that doesn’t belong. Doesn’t make sense.”

“The flaw in reality,” said Wilson. “The thing that, from an objective point of view, does not belong. At first we thought it would be something physical, like dark matter or the misbehaviour of a black hole...”

“But nope,” said Ungo. “So then we start thinkin’ it’s something more conceptual-like. Somethin’ that doesn’t make sense. Like organized libertarianism. Or cat ownership. Or K-Pop.”

“But we quickly realized our limitation,” said Wilson. “We don’t come from Earth anymore. Our notions of right and wrong are distorted by distance. We can’t spot the error, because we don’t understand correctness.”

“So you want me to help you find it...” said Rogers, finally understanding. “But how?”

“Think back,” said Wilson. “The answer is there, in your memory. Your journey here travels directly along that axis, between the two infinite points, which means the feature—the aberration—is somewhere on that path, too. All you have to do is—”

“Turn on that monkey brain of yours...”

Ungo!” Wilson snapped. “Please!” His voice went back to being pleasant and calming. “All you need to do, Lieutenant Rogers, is think back...not too far, not too hard... just think back and find the thing that sticks out to you as incorrect. It may be big, but it’s probably small. Incidental. But wrong.”

Rogers’ mind fought furiously to pinpoint the thing he was seeking, but came up empty. He had flashes of his trip across the crater, peering down into the hole, looking out from the rim at the dark shadows and white dust beyond him. He remembered everything about it, but none of it seemed off.

The pressure to deliver was incredible. For the first time in his life, Rogers wished he’d chosen a different path. If only he’d just stayed put, waited for that transport. Skipped the walk, skipped the infinite time between points, and just taken the shuttle to the middle of the crater and wrapped up the stupid satellite in a—

“That’s it!” he gasped. “That’s gotta be it!”

Wilson’s smile was unmistakable, but Ungo just glowered. “I ain’t paying ‘til we know he’s right,” he muttered.

“What is it?” asked Wilson. “What is the feature?”

“It’s something Command said,” recalled Rogers. “They said I could cart the satellite home in a potato bag...”

“And...?” asked Wilson, desperate for answers.

“What is a potato bag?” said Rogers. “They’re called potato sacks, not bags. It’s right, but it’s wrong. I can’t explain it, but it’s wrong.”

The two dinosaurs exchanged horrified looks which quickly changed into irrepressible grins, and then they laughed joyously and hugged each other. “That’s it!” said Wilson. “That’s the answer we’ve been looking for!”

Ungo beamed at Rogers. “I’d hug you, but you’d die.”

Up above, there was a clanging sound. Wilson’s smile was quickly tempered with urgency. “They’re here! You must go before you’re missed!” He knelt down and offered Rogers his hand. “But thank you, Lieutenant. Thank you so very much. You have saved us, and we shall never forget it.”

“Glad I could... uh... help,” said Rogers.

He re-fastened his helmet and—with a boost from Ungo—made his way up to the hatch. He climbed up the ribbed metal tunnel, wishing he could look down again, and see if this had all been a strange hallucination after all. He had no idea what he’d tell Command when he got back to the surface. He wasn’t sure how to explain a secret lair at the centre of the Moon, housing a pair of sophisticated dinosaurs contemplating quantum mechanics for fun. That would take some convincing.

He finally saw the top of the tunnel, and when he reached out for the white rocks above, a hand caught his, and hoisted him out, and onto the lunar surface.

“Thanks,” he said, settling down. “I was afraid you wouldn’t know where to look for me.”

“Of course we knew,” said the astronaut in a grizzled, tortured voice, and Rogers turned to see the stranger before him: a man in a dark and battered space suit, with a pair of swords clipped to his back, and massive claw marks across the visor of his helmet. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, all these millennia...”

Rogers stumbled back, because all around him were more and more such astronauts, for miles and miles, all gathering around him like he was emitting a signal they couldn’t ignore.

“Wh...what’s going on?” he asked.

“You saved those scaly bastards from extinction,” said the astronaut, and planted a firm hand on Rogers’ shoulder. “Now it’s our turn.”


Written for Joël, who fiendishly requested the topic: “Quantum Field Theory + Moon Craters + Dinosaurs in the Moon’s Core + The Time Between 2 Instances is Infinite + Potato Bag”