“Boss, we got a weird signal.”
Jane Winsome raised a brow as she received the tablet from the newest and youngest agent on their team.
“What kind of signal?” Jane asked.
“Unknown. But it’s coming in on one of our secure channels, and it’s a repeating pattern. Doesn’t match any of our codes, but I think it’s worth checking out.”
Jane looked up and nodded her permission. She watched as Agent Sun gathered up her partner and the two headed out the door. If Da-xia Sun had picked up a real case with that anomalous signal, it would be her third. She had done well enough on her first two cases, only making the same mistake that most rookies made. They were introduced to all manner of strangeness during their training and yet most of them still made the kinds of assumptions about the world that the average unaware citizen made. They assumed physics always worked the way it was expected to. They were caught up in the details of the lore that they had heard in their grandmother’s stories or in the cartoons they watched as children or the many authoritative-sounding papers they read during post-secondary education. Vampires and garlic. That kind of thing.
But Sun had an agile and adaptive mind, an easygoing demeanor, and a damn good partner. Horace “Wally” Wallace had been with the Agency for almost fifteen years. The only reason Jane was the boss instead of him was that he didn’t want to be boss. He wanted to be out in the field and that was good for the Agency and good for young agents.
Jane glanced back down at the tablet and frowned, hoping the signal was not a security breach. It was unlikely. Anyone who was deliberately trying to break into the Agency’s databases or actual bases would not have been so careless or clumsy as to broadcast a signal on the channel they were trying to access. The channel was a secret and secure one, but not their most secret and not their most secure. She would wait and see what Wally and Sunny—as the pair were known around the office—turned up.
“The signal is definitely coming from in there,” Sunny said. She was balanced precariously on a full trash can as she peered into someone’s backyard. She and Wally had knocked on the front door, but it appeared no one was home. Sunny had followed the signal from the application on her phone straight to that house. They’d heard the dog barking in the backyard and decided to take a peek.
Sunny snapped a few pictures before jumping down. She showed them to Wally. He was tall enough to see over the fence, but Sunny wanted to see for herself and get a closer look at what seemed to be the source of the signal.
“It’s a toy,” Wally said.
“Sending out a distress signal?”
Wally wasn’t quite convinced that a signal that strong was coming from the small wreckage they saw in the yard, but he knew better than to just say so to a new agent. He needed to let his partner take the lead so she could learn. It was possible she was right. “Someone wanted to make it realistic, maybe.”
“Then that someone is in a heap of trouble broadcasting on our intelligence frequency.”
“It looks like a toy.” That time, Wally was half-talking to himself. The thing was small, but even from that distance, he could see that it was a marvel.
Sunny expanded the photo and swiped to and fro to show the details. “If it is, it’s expensive. Look at how painstakingly crafted everything is. This is a custom job. All the parts seem to be working. Look at the smoke coming out of the aft section. And there’s some kind of leak underneath.”
Wally nodded. It was an impressive and perplexing sight. The wreck of what looked like some kind of airship. The thing was silvery and somewhat cone-shaped, with several fins arrayed around the sides. There were intricate symbols or characters painted along the length of the thing. There were several lights blinking along the dorsal side. A large crack spread up what would be the port side if Wally was going with the assumption that they were looking at a ship. There was indeed some dark green liquid leaking from the wreck and pooling under it. The airship was just a bit larger than the tiny terrier that stood a few feet away from it, barking at the thing.
Sunny reached into her inside coat pocket and pulled out the tiny orb whose activation signified the beginning of a case. She pressed a button on its side and the device, the camera eye, activated. Small propellers popped out its sides. Its job was to follow Sunny and record what she experienced and saw of the case out in the field. So began official documentation. She could take the camera eye out of automatic mode and direct it. She aimed it toward the wreck in the backyard. The dog’s barking became more frantic as the poor fellow saw yet another contraption invade his home.
Sunny glanced around at the other houses on the block. “We’re going to need to question the neighbors to see if anyone saw this thing crash. And we need help getting in there to look at it and figure out who built it and how to track them down.” She met Wally’s eye when he looked up at her. “I mean what if it’s some next generation spy drone, maybe a spy…orbiter?”
She was right. They needed more manpower. Wally called it in and within ten minutes, there was a field team on site helping them to question the neighbors, and another waiting to get into the yard and start examining the site of the airship’s crash. The family to whom the terrier and the backyard belonged were at a matinee movie and couldn’t be reached by phone. Agents had been dispatched to the theater to get verbal permission to enter the backyard.
Even the boss lady showed up.
Wally tipped a head to her as she stepped out of the black sedan. “How’s the leg?”
Agent Winsome smiled politely and tipped her head to one side, then the other. “It comes and goes.” She pulled her cane out from the seat behind her and walked over to the flimsy fence that–along with a respect for the boundaries of private citizens–was the only thing keeping the agents out of the yard. But if Agent Winsome had seen fit to come to the scene herself, there definitely was something to the wreck of the miniature ship.
He turned to his partner, who seemed ready to leap over the fence as soon as they got the okay, and registered the surprise on her face at the sight of their boss.
“Language cyphers aren’t working,” Agent Winsome said as he escorted her over to where Sunny was standing. “We can’t make sense of the signal that Sun picked up. We know it’s saying something. We just don’t know what. And that is making my superiors nervous.”
“Distress signal would be a fair guess, ma’am,” Sunny said. She showed Agent Winsome the pictures she’d taken. The poor little dog in the yard was still barking, half the time at the wreck and half the time at all the strangers that were suddenly roaming around his neighborhood.
“So Agent Sun, when the person who owns that thing comes to fetch it, and they see a bunch of dark-suited federal agents swarming about the place, what do you think they’ll do? I’m sure they’ll come right forward and admit to owning this most unauthorized piece of technology.”
“Public safety comes first, ma’am,” Agent Sun said. “The agents canvassing the area have been briefed and are on the lookout. They’re also warning the people in the neighborhood to assist in watching and reporting any strange people or behavior.”
“Is the object emitting any kind of dangerous radiation or chemicals?”
“Unknown, Boss. When it doubt, proceed with an abundance of caution. There is smoke coming from the wreck. There is some kind of leak. The dog in the yard and the insects and plants in the vicinity of the wreck don’t seem to be adversely affected at this time. It’s some kind of machine and may have volatile, explosive, or flammable materials inside.”
Agent Winsome gave a single nod, and then her phone began to ring. She turned and stepped away to answer. Sunny glanced at Wally, who merely winked. Agent Winsome hadn’t been sent out to the field to assure public safety. The field agents could do that. It was the integrity of the Agency that had compelled his boss’s boss to send her out and see where that signal was coming from and how it was being sent.
The boss put her phone away and turned back toward them. “Okay, we managed to reach the family and we have permission to enter the yard and the house.”
Sunny leapt onto the trash can and over the fence. Agent Winsome looked at Wally and raised a brow just as they heard the latch on the other side of the fence turn. The fence door swung open.
“What happened to caution, Agent?”
Sunny widened her eyes. “Sorry, Boss. I got carried away. I’m eager to take a closer look.”
“Well, get out of there and let the science team clear the area of any imminent dangers before you go poking around.”
The science team poured in a few minutes later. There were no imminent dangers, other than the detection of some unidentifiable compounds. Not an acceptable risk to expose the public to, but Wally, Sunny, Agent Winsome, and the science team were comfortable with the odds. The compounds seemed to be inert, so the likelihood of the wreck exploding was low.
The lead field scientist directed his team. “Someone gather up all those ants that are crawling over the ship, and any other bugs you find there. Let’s take soil and grass samples. Check the dog too. He seems to have had the sense to stay clear, but he might have gotten something on him.”
Until the forensics team was done with their initial evidence-gathering, picture-taking, scanning, and examining, Sunny and Wally wouldn’t be able to get close enough to the ship to “poke around.” They could only see what Sunny’s camera eye had seen.
A closer look at the rest of the yard confirmed their theory that the wreck was indeed some kind of airship. They found drips of greenish liquid in a short trail, leading right to the wreck. They also found small bits of metal and other debris that might have just appeared to be regular backyard debris if they hadn’t examined closer. The debris appeared in a small area within the yard. There was nothing outside. No trail of wreckage signifying the general direction that airship had come from.
With nothing to do but review their own pictures and witness statements while they waited for their efficient yet thorough science team to finish their field examination, Sunny and Wally bandied about theories.
“Tiny aliens,” Sunny said.
“Where are they?”
“I don’t see any escape pods.”
“Come on, Wally.”
Wally chuckled. “I mean, we haven’t found anything unusual in the rest of the neighborhood. So far, the satellite feeds we have show nothing either. No sign of the ship. No sign of tiny escape pods.”
“That’s weird. And it’s weird that no one else heard or saw it, or admits to it anyway.” Sunny frowned. Sometimes she was a tad too cynical.
“What reason would they have to lie?”
“So they don’t have to become involved, or testify. Or so they don’t get in trouble in case they’ve been seeing this thing flying around and didn’t say anything about it before.” Sometimes she was astute.
They watched as a field scientist gently snipped a few hairs from the now-calm terrier. Another member of the field team—obviously a dog person—was holding him and cooing to him, while his partner took samples.
There were neighbors out and about now. The family who owned the home was being hosted by one such neighbor, as no one was allowed within a twenty foot radius of the house. The field team gathered their evidence without speaking much and when they did speak, they didn’t reveal anything that an eavesdropper could make sense of. This was good practice to keep the public from panicking or gossiping, but it was frustrating for the field agents who were eager to access the data and observations for their cases.
Wally knew the field team must already know a great deal about the wreck. They would transfer their raw data to Agent Winsome before they left the scene. And she would transfer it to Wally and Sunny. But Wally had watched many a field team conduct hundreds of tests in his time as a field agent. He could tell from the way the scientists were handling the site and from the types of tests they were running that the ship, despite its size, was being treated like the wreck of a real ship, not the debris of some unmanned remotely operated vehicle.
Sunny looked nervous as she glanced over at the ogling neighbors every now and then. She must have felt self-conscious about making such a big deal about the little wreck. Their first two cases together had involved obviously justifiable dangers to the public. She sometimes had to be reminded that their Agency received minimal funding from taxpayers, all of which went to services for the people who are adversely affected by the unusual phenomena the Agency encountered and dealt with. None of it went to the salaries of the agents, or the equipment they used, or any other aspect of their investigations.
But the neighbors who were watching Wally and Sunny seemingly milling around after their examination of the house didn’t know that. They didn’t know much at all about what the Agency did. And that was as it should be.
“So we don’t know what the ship’s name is yet,” Wally said, trying to distract his partner.
Sunny took the bait. “Let’s call it The Tiny.”
Wally gave the name a thumbs down. “You have to go ironic with these things.”
Wally gave a proud nod. “There you go. Perfect.”
“That’s good,” Agent Winsome said, walking over to them. “We have a codename for case number…whatever we’re on now.”
Sunny straightened. “Zero five zero alpha—”
Agent Winsome held her palm up to Sunny. “Thank you, Agent.”
She gestured for Wally and Sunny to join her inside the house, where they could have some privacy.
“Okay, so all the preliminary data suggests the wreck out there is a ship, a real ship,” Agent Winsome said. “So…where’s the crew?”
Sunny and Wally looked at each other each, then they looked at their boss.
Tiny aliens, Wally thought. I’ll be damned.
“It’s not alien,” the technician said. “We’ve confirmed that with our own tests and our outside consultant’s tests.”
Sunny was still trying to get used to the astoundingly quick turnover of testing and data analysis at the Agency. What she expected would take hours, took minutes. And that was with confirmations, validations, and cross-checks included. What she thought she wouldn’t know for days, she was told within hours. That was another thing she had yet to get used to, actually being informed of things, important things about her own case.
She and Wally were standing behind the technician as he organized his data for the briefing. While they waited for Agent Winsome to join them, the tech showed them the scans of the ship from the outside to the inside. The chemical profiles of the materials that comprised the ship. Agent Winsome walked in and everyone save the tech took a seat. The technician presented a summary of all they had learned about the ship in the twenty-four hours since discovering it.
As he showed the scans of the ship again, Sunny thought there was an interesting pattern about the cross sections. There were hallways leading to larger areas, lines leading to blotches, and some of the lines branched out. The ship was made of Earth-based materials. It definitely had some kind of computer, but much like the distress signal, they were able to download information but not make sense of any of it. There was no crew in sight. They were studying the ship’s design so they could see if there had been any escape pods and if the pods had been launched. The Goliath had been moved to the field office’s advanced materials laboratory.
Sunny had only been to that laboratory building once, on a tour during her first month with the Agency. There hadn’t been time during that tour for her to explore all the areas that her level of access allowed her to explore. Now she was exploring the inside of a far more fascinating structure, the tiny not-so-alien Goliath.
“We did find something that stuck out at us,” the technician said. “Something that might help explain where Goliath came from, maybe even why it crashed.” He swiped swiftly through a series of images of the ship’s inner workings, just long enough for the three non-engineer agents to get the gist of what they were seeing (the labels helped). “The whole ship seems to have all the basic parts you would expect in a ship that could travel through the air, either in an environment with an atmosphere or without one. There are rockets for thrust. There is landing gear, which was not deployed, or could not be deployed—that’s probably part of the reason it crashed. There are sections within the ship that match up with decks and expected sections like engineering, flight control, bridge. It all does look a bit alien. But we can make sense of most of it, save one thing.” He stopped swiping at a contraption that looked like an old car battery. Unlike the other parts of the ship, which all seemed to have rounded and curved components, this part was squarish and inelegant by comparison.
The technician locked eyes with Sunny, then he shifted his gaze to Wally, then to Agent Winsome.
“One of our team members from the consulting side, who was analyzing the materials and energy signatures of the ship found a very subtle but confirmed irregularity in the ship’s materials at the quantum level. I admit, even I don’t exactly understand the science. Both the consulting team and our in-house team warned me that they could be wrong about what they found. But it could explain why no one saw the airship flying around before it crashed. Why it seems to have just appeared. We do want to make sure we don’t skew our studies and our data to fit the narrative we’ve come up with.”
Agent Winsome was silent, so Sunny took the lead in giving the tech reassurance. “We understand, Lou. Tell us what you all think this is.”
“We believe it’s a secondary engine. The engine’s quantum signature seems to match both the materials that the ship is made of and equivalent materials in laboratory. We’re calling it a multi-verse engine, because we think it was intended to move the ship through the barrier that separates different universes in the multi-verse.”
He paused then. And Sunny gave voice to the questions that immediately popped into her head.
“Is that why the ship is so small? Was it shrunken on purpose? Was it an unexpected side effect from the multi-verse engine? Or from traveling to our universe?” She frowned and slowed down so she wouldn’t trip over her own words. “Or is Goliath’s native universe ‘smaller’ than our universe to begin with? Is that possible?”
Wally took a slow, measured breath. “Where the hell is the crew? If we could only ask the crew…”
“Where are we on deciphering the signal, the markings on the ship, the language in Goliath’s database?” Agent Winsome asked.
The technician answered with a shake of his head. “We do have a conjecture about the crew and the size of the ship. If you’ve wrapped your head about the multi-verse engine thing.”
They’re more advanced than we are, Sunny thought. If the research teams were right, and even if they didn’t have it exactly right, if they were even close to right, it meant that the people who built the Goliath were more advanced, far more advanced. And a whole new slew of questions flooded her mind, about what the Goliath’s purpose was.
The technician swiped through the scans of the ship again, digital models and cross-sections.
“You may have already noticed,” the tech said. He stopped at a split screen image. One was labeled as a cross section of the Goliath. The other looked not identical but very similar and was identified as a plaster cast of an anthill.
“It’s not so far-fetched,” Lou the technician said. “If we make a simple assumption, for the sake of argument, that this flight was a test run. The same way that we sent animals into space first, before we sent people up, the people of this alternate universe tested their multi-verse ship by sending ants.”
Sunny blinked. Her pen hovered over her notebook.
The tech continued. “We’re still working on gathering evidence, but our guess is that they had to build small, very small, because of energy requirements, or maybe the dangers of breaching the multi-verse barriers with a larger vessel. It’s like when you make explosives. You start with tiny batches so you don’t end up blowing yourself or anyone else up. So, with the engine being the size it was, it wasn’t big enough to house any larger creatures.”
The tech brought up another series of slides.
“We had entomologists study the ants that were collected from the site,” he said, swiping through the pictures.
The first was one that Sunny had taken, of ants crawling, almost swarming over the ship. She hadn’t thought too much of it. She’d seen ants make trails into places that didn’t seem to have any food, water, or other materials of interest to them. They looked a good sight bigger than the ants she was used to back home, but she came from a drier climate. She’d seen a lot of new bugs since she started at her new post.
The entomologist had scanned and dissected several of the dead ants that were found at the site. Some of them were the normal black ants that inhabited back yards and occasionally bothered picnickers or invaded homes when they found the odd fallen cookie.
But some of the ants, the larger ones were large because they had what the researchers first thought was a secondary exoskeleton. On further inspections, it looked like what they thought was another exoskeleton could be a tiny space suit. It was air-tight, and there even seemed to be a tiny capsule attached that contained oxygenated air. It had been easy to miss at first with everything being so small and with the examination of the ants having only the purpose of ascertaining whether the ship had released any exotic toxins.
“Is it possible to train ants to do such complex tasks like operating a ship?” Wally asked.
Sunny sighed. “Apparently not, if it crashed after hitting our universe.”
“Careful of assumptions,” Agent Winsome said.
“We’re doing gene sequencing to compare the alternate universe ants with the equivalent species in our universe,” the tech said. “In the meantime, we’re also searching for some command signal in the ship, like an artificial queen brain directing the hive mind. In the same way we can connect a bunch of computers together to make a supercomputer capable of doing far more complex operations and doing them more quickly, the hive mind might be ‘smart’ enough to operate a ship as sophisticated as the Goliath.”
Agent Winsome rose. “I need to make a phone call.” She left the room, no doubt to call upon a favor and procure some rare resource they would need to help in their extraordinary investigation.
Sunny wondered where the case stood in Wally’s scale of extraordinary. He’d told her some crazy stories so far, but nothing that compared to a small ship piloted by ants from an alternate universe.
A sudden notion struck her. “We need to take good care of those ants,” she said. “They’re the crew we’ve been looking for.”
The tech nodded. “We’ve already moved them to a more secure and—we hope by ant standards—a more comfortable location onsite. We gathered hundreds, but we’re sure a lot of them got away. Field agents are out there trying to hunt them down, but…they’re ants.”
“You mentioned the ship might have an artificial queen brain,” Wally said. “That makes sense as a way to control the ants, but you haven’t found any evidence to support that have you?”
“No actually, we haven’t.”
“What about a living queen?” Wall asked. “She’d be their captain, wouldn’t she? If we have the queen, can we use her to get the runaways back?”
The tech shrugged his brows. “We didn’t find a real queen, either among the living or the dead. If there was one, we assume she flew away. Or was carried away.”
“There aren’t any weapons on that ship, are there?” Sunny asked.
The tech shook his head. “There don’t appear to be.”
Wally glanced at her. “Expecting an invasion?”
“Just preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”
Agent Winsome returned to the room. “All right everyone.” She turned to the tech. “Lou, get back to your team and keep studying the ship.” She turned to Wally and Sunny. “I’ve arranged for a special consultant to join us when we go visit the ants—the Goliath’s crew I mean.” She checked her watch. “He’ll be arriving in less than an hour. He might be able to help us get through to the crew.”
Sunny frowned. “How?”
“That knowledge is above your pay grade, Agent. Let’s just say he has a very special form of telepathy. It may not work, but it’s worth a shot.”
“All I sense is confusion…maybe fear,” the telepath said. He was only a hooded figure on the screen. He stood in the room where the Goliath’s ant crew were being kept. They’d been placed in a vast glass case filled with sand. The industrious ants had already built a colony, a project that it seemed didn’t require the direction of a queen.
Wally, Sunny, the scientists who worked in the lab, even Agent Winsome, were not allowed in the same room as the telepath. Even his voice was disguised by some vocal synthesizer. Sunny had heard of such things. People who were assets to the Agency, but who wanted to live normal lives otherwise. So when they were consulted, they were secreted in and secreted out again. Their identities were hidden from the agents who needed to consult with them.
They had been watching and waiting for close to an hour, while the telepath sat on a stool and tried to commune with the crew of the Goliath. With his hood and gloved hands, he looked like some kind of medieval wizard trying to cast a spell on the ants.
To no avail. The telepath said that all he could hear from the ants was a confused buzzing. They were like random neurons without any organizing principle to turn them into a thinking brain. Without the organizing principle of the queen. Sunny couldn’t fathom how one individual could be so important, but then, she wasn’t part of a hive mind (so far as she knew). Moreover, the telepath doubted his ability to understand the ants even if they had their queen, even if their hive mind was restored. He couldn’t explain exactly why, but said they sounded strange to him.
So they had no choice to wait and see if the linguists and code-breakers could figure out what the markings on the ship meant, what the language of the ants was.
All Sunny wanted to know was whether the people who sent the Goliath to them were friendly or not.
It was the middle of the night, but the Agency campus, main offices, and main laboratory spaces were always brightly lit. It was the first time Sunny had to make an emergency visit to headquarters.
She’d been startled awake by a phone call from the boss. Agent Winsome told her to report to the entomology laboratory right away. She didn’t need to say more. Something must have happened with the ants.
Sunny parked crookedly, seeing Wally’s car was already there. She raced through the lobby, and the security checks. When she got to the lab, she saw, even before she entered, what was happening inside.
There were three people gathered before the glass-enclosed ant colony. Sunny entered the lab and walked slowly toward her partner and her boss. The third person in the lab was one of the entomologists, who had been tasked with monitoring the ants during the night shift.
The ants in the colony moved with purpose, as ants usually did, but they were moving with a strange synchrony that Sunny had never seen before. And when she looked up at the top of the glass, she saw why. There was an ant standing on the sand, above them all.
This ant was as long as Sunny’s index finger. It was big enough for the ornate characters of her exoskeleton, or rather her space suit, to be visible. The characters were marked in a dark silvery color. And one more thing set this ant apart from the soldiers and workers in the case.
It—she—had wings. This must have been the queen. Queen and captain of the Goliath.
“She appeared about twenty minutes ago,” the entomologist said in a low calm voice to Sunny. “I notified Agent Winsome right away. And they started making the patterns.”
There were cameras all around the colony, taking video and still photographs. A series of photos moved across one of the computer screens on the far wall. Symbols and characters drawn in the sand. Drawn by the ants. The same symbols and characters that were marked along the Goliath.
Sudden realization dawned on Sunny. “Holy crap,” she whispered. Thoughts of proof and assumptions left her mind. “They weren’t sent here by the people in their universe. They are the people in their universe.” She was at once awed and horrified.
Agent Winsome glanced at the symbols that flashed across the screen. “I sincerely hope that they’re spelling out ‘hello, nice to meet you’ and not ‘die, puny humans.’”
“Puny?” Wally said.
“We’ve been saying it all along. They’re more advanced than we are. It doesn’t matter if they’re smaller.”
“They’re explorers, Boss. They came here to explore.”
“What if they’re scouts?” Sunny said. “What if they came here to scout? Like our ants do. See if there’s something tasty in our universe.”
The queen ant leapt into the air in flight and Sunny caught her breath. The ant landed on the table on which the colony sat. Right before Agent Winsome.
Agent Winsome held her hand out to silence everyone. Sunny’s heart pounded. She glanced between the queen ant and her boss. Agent Winsome used her cane to prop herself up as she lowered herself to the ground on knees, until her head was level with the queen’s. Sunny understood the intent of the gesture. A twinge of fear and shame gripped her gut. She didn’t think she could have been as brave or optimistic.
They were all operating on assumptions and guesses now. But she hoped the queen understood the gesture somehow. As alien as they were to each other, ant and human. Sunny hoped the queen understood, and she hoped that her fears were foolish.
Sunny took a breath and held it. She lowered herself to the ground beside her boss. Wally did the same. And so did the entomologist. The ants in the colony all stopped working at their symbol-making. They began to climb up and to exit the colony. The queen crawled to the edge of the table.
Agent Winsome held out her hand, her palm facing up, making a landing pad. Sunny exhaled slowly.
The next move belonged to the crew of the Goliath.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel