By Thomas Allen Mays

Liam snapped awake when the alarm went off with a bright flash and an ear-splitting howl. He slapped at the alarm with a displeased grunt, until it eventually shut up, and then yawned and scratched himself. With a quick glance he saw that he was nearly at the Triad's operational area. "Great," he stated to the empty cabin.

Out the viewscreen Liam saw the pale blue, shifting glow of the Triad set in the reddish haze of the planetary nebula. The scene was something from a dream. It was something that humanity had only been meant to see from telescopes. Here around the Triad, though, was a treasure so precious that it had drawn mankind out across the void to claim it. Liam checked the gravitational gradient sensor. Nearly a light-month out from the Triad, spacetime was relatively flat, except for the random spikes of positive and negative gravity that were so valuable. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and the comm log showed no transmissions from the Copilot. With nothing to do at the moment, Liam grabbed for a squeezeglobe of apple juice and started to reread some letters from home.

Old letters were about all he had now. He had left the research base nearly two months ago, making way to the Triad at nearly the speed of light, propelled by the reactionless exotic matter drive that lay at the center of the collector vessel in which he lived. Alone for two months, headed into the most barren stretch of void ever discovered, waiting to meet up with mysterious aliens that no one had ever seen, to collect particles that the laws of thermodynamics said couldn't exist. It was all so ludicrous that the taste of home which the letters provided were the only thing allowing him to maintain his sanity.

His favorite was the letter from Sandra, his great - granddaughter back on Earth. She was seven years old now and sent him letters through the wormhole whenever she could. In the one that Liam read now, she asked how it was possible that Liam himself was younger than her parents. It was too hard to try explaining time dilation to a seven year old, so in his response he had just stated, "Magic." Magic. That was what Liam thought of the Triad project itself. Pure magic.

The Triad was a system of three black holes, orbiting chaotically right outside each other's event horizons at nearly the speed of light. It had been discovered in the early 21st century by astronomers, lying 90 light years in from Earth, toward the galactic core. Besides being a perfect example of physic's classic three body problem, and besides being the closest singularities to Earth, they were special in another way.

They were surrounded by the most perfect vacuum in the universe. The Triad was in the center of a hot nebula so it should have had a gigantic disc of stellar material accreting into it. Instead, there was the nebula around it, then a blank ring that made the vacuum between galaxies look like pure lead, then the Triad itself with only a nimbus of Hawking radiation to give it away. It had been a mystery for years until a young theoretician had proposed that the chaotic gravity waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime, from the three spinning, corotating black holes were reinforcing each other. The constructive interference of three sets of gravity waves would occasionally form regions of repulsive, negative gravity. Virtual particles produced in these nodes would be of a special class of matter, exotic matter, with an energy density less than a vacuum state. This exotic matter, when combined with normal matter simply nullified, leaving behind a coldly perfect vacuum. It was this creation and nullification of exotic matter around the Triad that made the strange void in the middle of the gaseous nebula.

The Triad's exotic matter nodes were far from an interesting footnote in a physics text, though. Exotic matter was one of the Holy Grail's of modern science. With it, reactionless drives were possible. And wormholes. Those tunnels through spacetime would open up the universe to humanity, and that was the prize which drove mankind, and Liam, into making the 200 year round trip voyage to the Triad. Man had crossed the void in spite of terrible peril and loss in order to mine the exotic matter and gain the prize of the universe itself. The draw was so great that Liam had abandoned his young son after his wife had passed away. He had made the costly journey, while back on Earth, over a hundred years passed him by. He was totally cut off from home. Only Sandra's simple letters tied him to home.

Liam's reverie was cut off by a shrill beeping. A signal awaited him on the net from the other mystery of the Triad. Copilot. Liam put his squeezeglobe of juice back in the tiny galley and hit "Receive" on the comm panel. The screen filled with static until a line of text flowed out. "Copilot is here. Copilot awaits Liam."

Liam hit "Send." "Howdy, Copilot. Are you ready to do a little prospecting?"

Text flowed onto the screen after a moment. "Copilot is prepared to handle maneuvering functions. Liam must be prepared to deploy collection plates. Is prospecting?"

"That's about the gist of it. Have I ever told you that I think you're a dandy conversationalist?"

"No such statement has been made by Liam."

Liam shook his head. "Well, I will certainly have to some day. You're pretty much the only one that I get to talk to for weeks at a time, and even though our conversations are about as exciting as watching metal rust, I look forward to them. It gives me someone to talk to besides myself."

The screen paused for several moments until eventually, "Copilot awaits Liam."

"I know, I know. Cut the chit-chat. What are your coordinates, partner?" Rows of course numbers sprang onto the screen. Liam tugged on the controls. The starscape wheeled about on the viewscreen, until a tiny bright dot centered itself. The Copilot's vessel.

Driven by a new purpose, the people of Earth had sought out the best, the brightest, those willing to leave behind forever the comforts of man's home. Many answered the call, but until the possibility of harvesting exotic matter was made a reality, only a few scientists were allowed to make the 150 year journey. In interstellar ramships they had made the tedious journey at but a fraction of the speed of light. Eventually the scientists reached the Triad and were awakened from their artificial slumber. They took in the marvel's beauty and studied from outside the vacuum ring for nearly two years before they made the first tentative efforts to mine the shifting pockets of exotic particles.

Tragedy befell them.

One of the Triad's many oddities was that it was a perfect example of physic's three body problem. The orbits of the three corotating black holes were totally chaotic. They could not be predicted for any useful length of time. Thus, the gravity wave nodes that produced the exotic matter appeared in random locations at random times for random intervals. When workpods were sent into the vacuum ring to mine a "stable" node, they were always destroyed, caught at sometime during the journey inside a negative gravity node. The exotic particles created in the node collided with the normal matter of the workpod, nullifying it. Parts of the small mining vessels simply ceased to exist. After that, they either floated as derelict or were vaporized as engine plasma escaped. Ten of the scientists died and it was feared that the whole project was doomed to fail.

Liam looked up from his reverie. Copilot's ship was looming in the viewscreen. It was a featureless sphere of mottled red and gray. No sensors or antenna broke up its smoothly perfect curves. Liam keyed his microphone and sent a message out to the other vessel. "How's it going, Slick? Ready to do this thing?"

Text appeared on the screen. "Copilot's readiness is complete. Initiating docking collar." The smooth surface of the large sphere dimpled and puckered to form an exact copy of Liam's docking hatch. Liam took his hands from the controls and allowed Copilot to maneuver into position. The sphere moved along abrupt, sudden vectors, stopping and changing direction instantly, as if it had no inertia. The sphere nestled into the groove fashioned for it aboard Liam's mining ship, and bumped slightly as contact was made. There was a slight hiss as the docking seal was established. Text flowed out. "Copilot confirms docking with Liam vessel. Data link established. Thrust control is with Copilot. Is Liam prepared to continue?"

Liam had never been sure what the Copilot meant by that. The charged condenser plates and cooling lasers were always ready to be deployed. Or was the alien referring to the low level trance that Liam had to place himself in, in order to remember exactly every move that the Copilot made?

Back in the early days, the surviving scientists had been about to pack up and move on. The Triad was impossible to navigate. If man wanted to issue in a knew age with exotic matter, then it would have to find another way to do it. On the very day of their departure, however, contact had been made.

The first Copilot had emerged from behind the Triad and had zipped across the vacuum ring, maneuvering in odd, seemingly random directions. But the alien sphere had made it across without damage, a feat thought to be impossible by the scientists. A dialogic was exchanged, in the exact same way that it happened between Liam and his Copilot. The aliens offered to use their superior technology to guide the humans through the vacuum ring safely, so that they could harvest the exotic matter as they desired. In return, the aliens wanted nothing. The scientists regarded the offer with suspicion, but in the end, overcome with desperation, they agreed and the first link was made. After that, the journeys became routine. The pilot of the human vessel would rendezvous with the Copilot, turn maneuvering over to the alien, and would safely collect the exotic matter while nimbly avoiding the dangerous nodes of negative gravity. Try as they might, the miners had never been able to predict the formation of the nodes, while the Copilot's did it with ease. Somehow they knew exactly where and when the treacherous pockets would form, however, they would never reveal their method to the miners. In order to quell the scientist's curiosity, the Copilots instructed them to keep a meticulous record of every maneuver's timing and direction, so that one day they might unravel the mystery for themselves. Now, 200 years later, their method was as enigmatic as ever. Mankind had begun making extensive use of the exotic matter technology, but they were as dependent as ever on the Copilots.

Liam slowed his breathing and willed himself through long practice into a state of deep relaxation and concentration. The computer would accurately record every maneuver made, but only as a backup for the limitless gulf of Liam's mind. He glanced at his bioscreen. Though there was no outside change, his mind was now in a deep alpha state. Liam keyed the mike. "Copilot, everything is ready on my end."

"Affirmative, Liam. Copilot begins maneuvers now." Signals from the sphere invaded the mining ship's computer and willed the fields surrounding the exotic matter core to shift. The two vessels, linked like a mother and child, accelerated into the perilous ring of vacuum.

Their combined masses were sluggish, but Copilot's maneuvers were still nimble enough to avoid the nodes that Liam imagined were forming. He watched the gravitational gradient sensor and noted that for each change in trajectory, moments later a negative gravity node formed. Had Liam been piloting, they would not have made it 100 feet into the ring.

"Copilot believes that Liam is now positioned in a somewhat stable location. Copilot recommends deploying."

"Good enough for me. I'm extending the plates. Cooling lasers are up and ready to start herding in some particles." Immense, charged plates extended from the storage bay of the miner. Their tenuous fields drew in the tiny particles of exotic matter that had survived nullification and annihilation. Slowly, the magnetic bottle where they were stored began to fill. Liam surmised that they must have been near a gigantic node. The particles practically fought to fill the bottle. The cooling lasers were redlining, trying to rustle the bits of exotic matter into storage. "Get along, little dogies! Time to hit the corral and head back to the ranch."

"Copilot is not understanding Liam."

"Don't worry about it, partner. You just fly 'em, and I'll worry about drivin' 'em. Yeeeahah! I'm a particle cowboy!" Liam laughed. All of a sudden, the two ships lurched. "Whoah, Copilot. What was that?"

"Copilot indicates a burned out transformer aboard Liam vessel. Unbalanced fields on exotic core. Unable to compensate for acceleration. Vessels are drifting. Not right. Not in remembrance."

Liam turned pale. Now the two ships were moving toward the node that he had been mining from. "Copilot, do something!"

"Copilot has no thrust control of Liam vessel. Current trajectory passes through particle flux region. Nullification of Liam and Liam vessel imminent. Not in remembrance. Did not happen."

The mining vessel passed through the node. Liam felt nausea as the particles of matter of his own body were nullified be the exotic particles of the node. However the flux was so tenuous that the damage was infinitesimal. Other systems aboard the ship were not quite as hearty, though. Computers erupted in showers of sparks and bulkheads weakened to the strength of cardboard. Moving aft, the node passed through the ship's reactor. Hot plasma erupted from the weakened bulkheads and flew out into the vacuum of the ring.

All the air in his ship blew out behind it. Numb and weak, Liam could barely keep himself from being blown out as well. The emergency suit that he wore snapped a bubble of clear plastic over his head, holding a few final breaths.

Liam shook his head to clear it. Amazingly, a few systems still worked. One was the screen that he conversed to Copilot with. Written all across the screen was, "Did not happen. No remembrance. Not before. Did not happen. . . ."

Liam keyed the suit's mike. "Copilot, is your ship damaged?"

The litany of nonsense stopped marching across the screen. "No. Copilot vessel undamaged. Of course, Liam is alive. Why no remembrance?"

"Can you still maneuver if you detach from my ship?"

"Yes, Copilot vessel retains maneuverability. Did happen?"

Liam crossed to the hatch that joined the two ships. Another wave of nausea struck him as he passed through another node. There was no telling what sort of genetic damage or internal bleeding the nullification was causing. The plastic bubble of his helmet expanded as it weakened. "Copilot, open your hatch. I'm crossing over to your ship." The hatch on Liam's side slid back to reveal the mottled exterior of Copilot's sphere.

It did not open.

Liam looked back to the comm screen. It read, "No. No. Liam must not be allowed to come aboard. Too soon. Why no remembrance."

"Damn it! Open the damn hatch! I'm going to die out here if you don't, Copilot! You can't let me just die, you freak!" Liam began to pound on the sphere. It was pliant but firm, like flesh. Nothing. He looked back at the screen.

It was starting to fade as the electronics were nullified and the power finally gave out. "N . iam can not d e. Logica i possib lity. Stil too s on. W y no re embranc !"

Liam began to pound on the sphere again. "Please!"

"Ope ing hatch " The mottled pattern swirled and turned completely gray. Then it irised open. Liam leapt through and it snapped shut behind him. The inner surface of the airlock swelled around him and spat him out the other side.

Liam lay on the pliant surface of the sphere's interior. He clawed at the clamp to his emergency suit and ripped off the plastic helmet. It crumbled in his hands. He breathed deep of the sweet air that filled the Copilot's vessel. Liam opened his eyes and looked around. It was undeniably alien, but also seemed utterly familiar, like some half remembered dream. The iridescent structures flowed out from the curved inner walls. Liam tried in vain to discover at least some of the components' purposes, but then stopped as the breath caught in his throat. Finally he saw the Copilot.

It was Liam.

Copilot was an older version of himself, with timeless eyes, surrounded by a blue nimbus of phosphorescence. Liam was confused and terrified, but Copilot possibly looked even more distressed. It approached tentatively. "Copilot does not remember this happening. Why no remembrance? Disaster not remembered. Crossover not remembered. But must have happened. Principle of Self Consistency. Past and Future immutable."

"What the hell is going on? Who are you?" Liam rose to his knees and tried to touch his doppelganger, but his hand skittered off the blue nimbus.

"Copilot is Liam. Liam is Copilot. Separated by centuries but joined by memory. Is necessary. Only Liam and other pilots have information needed by Copilots. Need memories to anticipate." Copilot began wringing his hands nervously. "Why no remembrance of this?"

Liam shook his head, though a glimmer of understanding was beginning to form. "What do you mean?"

Copilot collapsed into what Liam assumed was some sort of acceleration couch. "Triad was unapproachable. Random orbits. Random gravity nodes. Going to leave, but Copilots came. Let man get exotic matter. Let man open up universe. Let man advance, evolve. Copilots tell Liam to remember maneuvers exactly and say one day that mystery will be solved. Liam, other pilots remember. Then mystery solved. Man is Copilot. Man goes back to first days of Triad project. Is Copilot."

Liam nodded. "We can never predict where the negative gravity nodes will form, but you have knowledge of the future. You remember the routes that allowed you to avoid the nodes, so when you guide us it looks like you know where the nodes WILL form. It's a loop, a sort of self- fulfilling prophesy. How would something like that form? Where did the knowledge originally come from? How did you come back to this time, Copilot?"

"Closed timelike curves. Orbits around Triad that propagate into past and future. Now Liam understands. But Liam did not understand. Liam did not remember. Why no remembrance? Knowledge of Copilot identity not until centuries hence. How?"

Liam shook his head. "Copilot, I won't tell anyone. I promise."

"Not matter of telling. Matter of knowing. Liam did not know. Copilot would remember."

Liam smiled, an idea forming in his head. "Maybe this is a break in the cycle, a paradox. You have to come back with me. With your knowledge of the advances and discoveries to be made, think of how much further mankind can be advanced, more even than what it is in your day."

Renewed fear came into Copilot's timeless eyes. "NO! Principle of Self Consistency! Cannot change the past because the past has already happened. Whatever is tried only conforms to the past. Liam returned. Some remembrance about Copilot vessel, but no Copilot. Copilot not with Liam. No remembrance of meeting with Copilot." Understanding and realization dawned on Liam's older face. "Copilot not with Liam when Liam returned. Copilot must not exist then. Liam in shock. Liam not remember."

His eyes finally held a measure of time. All the weight of all the years drew them down in a look of infinite sadness and resignation. "Copilot must cease to exist."

The Copilot reached for something and held it to his own chin. It only took a moment for Liam to realize that he was going to kill himself. "No!"

"Cannot help it. Has already happened." Copilot triggered the device and his head disappeared in a flash of golden light. Liam screamed. The golden light supplanted the blue nimbus and the entire body shone. Then the light's magnitude grew a thousand fold and exploded outward, filling the sphere and stabbing at Liam with infinite pain.

Liam groaned. Sandra looked up from her coloring book and ran from the hospital room yelling, "Mommy, Mommy!" Liam opened his eyes and gazed at the light blue ceiling. He felt unbelievably weak.

Liam's granddaughter, Lyssa, whom he had never met, was pulled into the room by his great- granddaughter Sandra. He looked at them. "What? Where?"

Lyssa smiled. "Liam," she said, unable to call him granddad since he looked younger than she did, "you're in a hospital on Earth. You've been in a coma for several weeks. They rushed you from the Triad through the wormhole. You were found in the burned hulk of a Copilot ship on the outskirts of the vacuum ring. There are a lot of people anxious to talk to you, Liam. What do you remember about the Copilot?"

Liam was quiet. His face screwed into a mixture of confusion and depression. "I, I don't remember anything."

The End

Copyright 1997 by Thomas Allen Mays

About the Author: "I am an Ensign in the U. S. Navy posted to the USS STETHEM. I am from Texas and have B.S. in Physics from UTA. I am currently stationed in Newport, RI but I will soon be moving to San Diego. I am 25 years old. I am also a student pilot and an amateur fencer."

You can E-mail Tom Mays by clicking here.

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