After every planet in the known universe transformed into an exact copy of Earth, Scout Leader Patricia Riesenson and many of her fellow scouts searched for an alien world.
For almost five hundred years, Patricia and her crew searched solar system after solar system and galaxy after galaxy in the intergalactic spaceship Worldwatcher. But they only found exact carbon copies of Earth shielded with mysterious terramorphic fields, fields that made them exactly like Earth no matter what they had previously been, how big or small, or even how near or far from the stars they orbited. And they couldn't remove the fields. So people did the only thing they could do.
They settled the planets.
But according to the scout's charter, if Patricia and her human crewmembers didn't find an alien planet within five hundred years, then they would have their life extensions permanently revoked.
Only three weeks before the revocation period, Patricia lay asleep on the gel-bed in her cabin, with an empty bottle of tequila clutched in her hand. Feeling depressed at her own impending mortality, she had opted to get rip-roaring drunk to curb such feelings. And it worked. At least for a little while anyway.
Her wristcom's chime awoke her. She opened her eyes and the room's overhead lights pierced them like glowing needles while an invisible vise-grip of pain squeezed down on her head. She pressed the anti-hangover disc on the side of her forehead and her headache and sickness immediately disappeared. Then she clicked on her wristcom.
Scout 2nd Class Anthony Mietz appeared on the wristcom's screen. He had short black hair and eyes tattooed with hypnotic blue, silver and purple lines that swirled around where the white of his eyes should have been. Born from artificially gene-altered parents, his special eyes could see through almost any object and allow him to make out microscopic entities that normal human eyes could not.
"Yes," Patricia said.
"Forgive the interruption, scout leader," Mietz said, "but one of our sensor grids just picked up a planet in the local system that does not have a terramorphic field and doesn't conform to Earth standard design."
"Have you run a second analysis on your readings?"
"Yes, I have checked my sight against the ship scanners and found them both to agree. The planet has a faint atmosphere, very thin, made out of a small layer of methane, carbon dioxide and other trace gases."
"Any readings from other ships?"
"None, scout leader. We're all alone out here."
"All right, I'll be up in a moment."
Mietz signed off.
Patricia rolled off her bed and onto her feet, kicked aside several empty tequila bottles and disposable jumpsuits, then clicked on her wrist's doormaker and pressed the button. An artificial space/time door opened up in the middle of her cabin, revealing the bridge on the other side. She stepped through and found Mietz and the other members of the bridge holocrew examining the data on their screens.
She sealed the door behind her, then walked over to the main screen and through one of the virtual crewmembers, ignoring holographic etiquette.
The very idea that there was a non-Earth-like planet out there excited her beyond words, but she kept her feelings in check. This sighting hadn't been the first time she had found a so-called alien planet. Sometimes galactic raiders projected false readings and planet grams to the ship's scanners and when the ships moved in to investigate, they attacked. But having a metaseer like Mietz on board gave her an extra boost of confidence.
She stopped at her station and examined the planet on the holoscreen. It looked like a big caramel-covered apple floating in space, with white strips of icing spread across its surface.
Gravity was one and a half gees and surface winds blew up to one hundred and ten miles an hour. The planet had fourteen continents, the largest of which was located in the northern hemisphere, near the arctic pole, and the temperature ranged from 127 degrees near the equator down to minus 130 in the Arctic regions of the planet.
Upon further scanning, she found no indigenous lifeforms anywhere on the place.
It wasn't real charming as worlds went. But at least it wasn't another carbon copy of Earth and the differences, whether real or fake, satisfied her discriminating eye. And if this planet was really different, then Patricia figured that she and her human crewmembers would have their lives extended indefinitely at the very least.
"Shall I send down some more probes, scout leader?" Mietz said.
"Yes, immediately," Patricia said.
"Sending down five probes."
After Mietz sent the probes, they waited. A few minutes later he said, "Scout leader, I've lost contact with the probes."
"What?" Patricia said.
"They're gone. All the channels are out."
"Then it might be a trap." She activated her station's tactical display with a thought and sat in her chair. "Switch on the gravity cannons and activate the reflector hull plates."
"Yes, scout leader."
The Worldwatcher's port and starboard gun bays opened and the gravity-increasing cannons emerged. The ship's gray outer hull turned quicksilver with the reflector hull plates.
"Shall I contact homeport and have them advise?"
"Affirmative," Patricia said. "Call Terra Beta Two Niner and give them a report, then move us into the planet's atmosphere."
Mietz acknowledged her commands with a nod. The holocrew raced back and forth across the bridge as they carried out her orders. On her viewscreen she watched as they approached and the planet grew larger. Patricia tensed and gripped her armrests as they reached the outermost edge of the atmosphere.
Any second now she expected the illusion to fade and a fleet of raider ships to race out and swamp them with gravity increasing beams.
But nothing happened.
Usually raiders attacked the second that a spaceship came into range. Unless they had something else planned. But it made no sense to wait.
"Might there not be any raiders out there?" Mietz said.
"Maybe." Patricia folded her arms. "It doesn't fit the pattern in any case." She sighed as she planned her next move.
"Shall we back off and wait for reinforcements?"
Under normal circumstances, Patricia would have agreed and waited for other ships to arrive. But these certainly weren't normal circumstances. If other ships came in, then she would have to share the credit of discovering an alien planet. Although she'd be acknowledged as firstfinder and given many privileges, she would not be granted the literal and figurative immortality that she was so desperate to attain.
"No, we'll hold for now."
"Yes, scout leader," Mietz said. Though his face held a concerned look, he usually obeyed his orders without question.
"We should door down there and check the planet out," Patricia said. "See if we can't find any remnants of past civilizations or something worthwhile."
"Given the potential danger, scout leader, do you think that is a wise course of action?"
"It may not be wise, but at least we won't be sitting here waiting for something to happen. Besides, if there were raiders around here, they would have made their presence known by now. I think it's better to take the initiative and go right out there."
"Perhaps. But the planet may contain dangers that our scanners and my eyes may not be able to detect."
"True. But you can't find anything interesting unless you're willing to risk a few dangers now and then." Patricia smiled a bit. "I'm going down to have a look. Want to come along?"
"I may as well," Mietz said. "I must admit that I'm as intrigued about this planet as you are." From his tone, though, Patricia thought that he sounded anything but intrigued. Still, it would be comfortable to have a real body down there instead of holographic scouts.
Patricia and Mietz clicked on their doormakers and doored their way down to the fabricator deck to make the necessary environmental suits and equipment for the trip down to the planet.
Before going to the alien planet, they sent holographic versions of themselves to scan the site that they had chosen. When they found nothing suspicious in the vicinity of the dusky, amber desert, they doored down to the planet's surface.
Loud winds howled across the plain and blew large sheets of sand through the air, scouring their suits. Patricia waved her wristcom's scanner around, searching for some sign of life. But her scanner detected nothing. Although she expected as much, she couldn't help but feel disappointed that she hadn't found any alien life. In the back of her mind, she imagined a hundred different encounters with a hundred different forms of alien life, each unique and rewarding.
"Where do we go now?" Mietz said across his comline.
"Let's look around," Patricia said across her comline. "Maybe we'll find something."
They trudged across the vast plain until they came upon a small incline. At the edge of the slope there stood a large, round hole that seemed too perfect to be a natural formation. Beyond it lay darkness.
Possibly a cave or some kind of underground tunnel, Patricia thought.
She walked up to the hole to enter it, but she hit something invisible and stumbled back against the sandy ground. Mietz rushed over and helped her up.
"What happened, scout leader?" Mietz said.
"I'm not sure. I hit something'I don't know what it was, though." She sighed. "What can you see beyond it?"
Mietz stared at the hole for a long time, then shook his head and said, "Nothing. It's like a big blank. I can't see anything below the ground either."
"What do you mean a big blank?"
"I can't sense any heat, energy, EM signals, infrared. I've vision-shifted to my limits, but there isn't anything that I can detect."
"But there can't be nothing there. I hit up against something, I know I did."
Patricia strode back over to the hole, but this time she held her hands out until they hit up against the invisible barrier. It felt smooth to the touch, like polished glass, and she felt around to the edges, which blended seamlessly into the rock. Curious, she tapped a knuckle against the barrier three times, but it made no sound.
"I guess no one's home," Patricia said, turning away.
"I'm afraid you'd be mistaken about that," a voice said.
Patricia gasped as an amber-colored figure oozed up out of the ground near the barrier and solidified into the form of a man. Its skin rippled and flapped in the harsh wind. She clicked on her wrist's omnigun and aimed it at the figure.
"Relax," the figure said. "There is no need for any aggressive action. I promise that I will not harm you."
"Who are you?" Patricia lowered her omnigun just a little.
"My name is Lorganson. I'm a human scientist."
"A scientist of what?" Patricia said.
"Are you a resident of this planet?"
"Yes. For a very long time."
"Do you know who's the one responsible for this planet's current state?"
"It's unlike any other planet we've seen."
"That's to be expected," Lorganson said. "With all the worlds being like Earth, I needed to make a change."
"A change?" Mietz said. "Wait a minute, you mean you know about the other worlds in the known universe being just like Earth, even though you've been here a long time."
"Of course I know. I'm the one who made it happen in the first place."
Here stood the mastermind behind this whole situation and she didn't know what to do. Would she place him under arrest? Could she even do it? Would he go quietly? Was he insane? Were there traps abound? Why did he reveal himself? Did he have some mysterious motive or motives that she couldn't comprehend?
"I think we need to talk," Patricia said.
"Yes, well, then follow me," Lorganson said.
He went over to the transparent barrier and walked through it as if it hadn't even been there. Beyond the barrier, he disappeared in the darkness.
"Should we follow him?" Mietz said.
"No," Patricia said, and spread her arms out. "Let's just stand out here like idiots all day and wait for something to happen. Of course we follow him. We need to get some information out of him."
"What's if it's a trap?"
"Then we door out. And if our doormakers don't work, then we'll find some other way to escape."
I hope, Patricia thought. Yet the uncertainty filled her with a lingering sense of dread. She didn't like walking blindly into the unknown, but she thought it better to take the initiative than to do nothing at all.
Patricia walked over to the barrier and pressed her hands against it. They melted through it and she stepped through into darkness.
On the other side, Patricia found herself in a large underground lab with chrome and cream-colored walls and large silver engines that hummed and buzzed. Behind him Mietz emerged from the dark portal and looked around, gasped. The air reeked of burnt ozone and fresh pine.
"What do you see?" Patricia said, looking around. "Where are we?"
"I'm not sure," Mietz said. "There must be at least five hundred levels to the place and I can't see beyond a few levels since the rest are shielded with some kind of energy. But my guess is that we are near or around the core of this planet."
"How can you tell?"
"I can see that some areas have high heat and radiation levels, as well as molten rock."
"Welcome to my humble abode," Lorganson said. His second amber skin slid down his body like a sentient oil slick and disappeared inside his boots, leaving an old man who looked like Methuselah's great grandfather. His whole body was like ancient parchment left out to dry in the sun. He was hairless and somewhat palsied, yet the brightness in his blue eyes bespoke a youth and a vigor that contradicted his body's fragile condition.
"Humble isn't quite the word I was thinking of," Patricia said. "More like humungous."
There were a few other words she had, but they weren't the kind that she'd mention in polite conversation.
"Yes, it is that," Lorganson said. "But it's not that big once you've been around it a couple hundred times or so."
"I could imagine." Patricia scratched her chest.
"Excuse me," Mietz said. "But if you are the one who changed all the planets, how come I've never heard of you?"
"Because I never let anybody hear about me, at least until now. I happen to like my privacy and I only invite guests in every now and then when I feel like it."
"Guests? Like who?"
Who in the universe would want to visit you here? Patricia thought.
"The occasional sentient robot or displaced human that happens to drop in. I'm a refugee of sorts, self-employed and very smart. In fact, I daresay that I am probably the most intelligent human who has ever lived."
Patricia frowned. If this Lorganson were truly insane, then he was putting on one hell of a good act. Deep down she wondered how in the world anybody could build such a place. Even the largest space stations barely compared to this laboratory.
"Yeah, well, humility doesn't seem to be one of your strong points," Patricia said.
"Perhaps not. But geniuses have to draw the line somewhere."
Patricia stepped forward. "How did you change all the planets?"
"I pushed a button on this console."
He walked over to it and gestured to a modest console in the middle of the room.
"That's it? You just pressed a button on this console and changed every world." Patricia gawked with disbelief. She expected a much more scientific explanation full of advanced theories that she could hardly understand. Instead she was stunned by how simple Lorganson made it all sound. Was he hiding something?
"No, that's not it. It took me fifty thousand years to build this whole planet-changing machine and the terramorphing fields, you know. That's not exactly something that you can do overnight. I'm a young man trapped in an old man's body and I think my body's just about reached its limit when it comes to life extensions."
"Why, though? Why did you change all these planets?"
"I did it to try and help people."
"With overpopulation and food supply. Earth was already at its limits, you know. They couldn't feed and clothe and educate every person, so we had to stretch out and expand, but there weren't even enough planets and colonies and space stations to support every person, especially given the rate at which humans reproduce. And you can't very well stop humans from having sex, now can you?"
"But all these planets? Isn't that a bit excessive?" Crazy was the word Patricia was really thinking of, but she hesitated to say it.
"Yes, but I never meant for it to get out of hand. You see, the technology went out of control and starting teleporting all these terramorphic fields to all these uninhabitable planets before I could manage to shut it down. And when people began rushing out to them I couldn't just turn all those fields off and have the planets go back to their uninhabitable states. And if I came out and told everybody what I had accidentally done, I was afraid that some of those eco-purists might come out and lynch me, despite all these new planets being accidents.
"So I've been spending all these years trying to figure out some way that I could return at least some of these planets back to their original state and allow for the original lifeforms on some of them to redevelop. And after all this time, I think I've finally found a way to stop it. But there's a problem that I'm having."
What kind of problem could this man have' Patricia thought.
"What's that?" she said.
"I managed to temporarily halt the field for this planet for a few years, but it's only going to last for a few more years and then it'll come right back on and turn it back into another copy of Earth."
"Great, and then we'll be stuck with one more Terra too many," Patricia said.
As if it would really matter, she thought. But still she was intrigued at the idea of having more than one alien world to explore.
"Is there any way to shut the field off permanently?" Mietz said.
"Not unless I shut down the whole system. I mean, I never meant for the fields to be interconnected to each other, but the system wouldn't operate unless it could generate multiple fields for multiple planets. I tried to do it one at a time, but the system grew to the point where I couldn't stop it from replicating fields."
"So we're left with either too many Terras or not enough." Patricia shook her head.
"Exactly. And I don't know what to do?"
Patricia blinked and thought about the problem. Obviously they couldn't shut every field down and kill everybody, but then they couldn't just let the fields remain either. There had to be some way to make the alien planets return. She thought back to her earlier scout training but couldn't find an answer. Nothing in her years of study had prepared her for the possibility of bringing alien worlds back to the universe. Still, she continued thinking about the problem.
"Do you think that you can deactivate the field and then reactivate it again later on?" Patricia said.
Suddenly an idea popped into her head. She remembered when she was a little girl back on Terra three-seven-eight, taking dancing lessons. She would skip back and forth between the chairs, alternating between dance partners, twirling from one to another across the floor. And recalling that seemingly ancient memory gave her an idea about how to solve the problem.
"Then why not alternate planets?" Patricia said. "Make one non-terran for a few years, then make another, then another, then another, alternating every few years so that at least one planet in the known universe becomes as alien as it once was. Then scientists can record and observe various alien ecologies and then reproduce them in offworld labs."
"Say, that might work," Lorganson said, and smiled.
"But that still won't change all the other planets?" Mietz said.
"Well, what do you want from me, overnight miracles?" Patricia said. "I'm only one person, you know."
Not to mention that I give the orders around here, she wanted to say.
"Yes, but what a person you are." Lorganson rushed up and kissed her on the cheek.
"Well, I better door back to the ship and contact control."
"That's it?" Mietz said, looking frustrated. "This man single-handedly changed every planet in the known universe and you're just going to let him get away with it. Who knows how many alien ecologies and beings he might have destroyed?"
Patricia frowned. Mietz had a point. He did destroy a lot of alien ecologies. Yet she saw no hint of pleasure on his face, no sense of pride. Rather she saw sadness. It looked as if he regretted the damage his technology had done. Granted, it might be a front, but then she wondered what possible good would come from having too many Earths in the universe. She didn't sense any real evil in the man. Arrogance, yes. But evil, no.
"He said it was an accident and it doesn't seem like he intended any real malice," Patricia said. "And besides, as long as I get my credit and my immortality for finding this discovery out first, I really don't care what happens to him. Let the Scouting Council judge him, if they want to. That's not my job."
"I never meant to hurt anybody or anything," Lorganson said. "I was only trying to help people out. I shouldn't be punished for being beneficent."
"Doesn't he at least deserve a slap on the wrist?"
Patricia frowned, then took one of Lorganson's hands, slapped it lightly on the wrist and then said, "There, you happy now?"
Mietz groaned and shook his head.
"Cheer up," Patricia said. "We're heroes. Plus we'll now also get a chance to explore different alien worlds. Hopefully we can still repair some of the damage he's done."
"Who knows?" Lorganson said. "Maybe with some more time, I might be able to reverse the process completely and return more than half the worlds to their original alien state."
"In the meantime, just do me one favor."
"No more Terras or new worlds, all right. Just stick with the ones that we have already."
For all our sakes, Patricia thought.
"Don't worry, I will."
"Good," Patricia said.
Mietz looked shocked at her abrupt dismissal, but she honestly couldn't blame an old man for one mistake. Besides, that mistake might have actually saved humanity, even if it did give the species an overabundance of usable planets. But then what was wrong with a surplus in the planet bank? At least humanity wasn't fighting tooth and nail for every square inch of land. Now people had more than enough room to live comfortably and prosper.
Patricia set her doormaker for her private cabin so she could have a celebratory drink while Mietz set his doormaker for the bridge. Once their separate doors formed, the scouts stepped through them and left the old man behind.