Elapsed Time: 21:18:04

The Tower of Liriel glittered like a column of fire in the setting sun of the anonymous e-class planet. It was poised on a high cliff above a desolate coast, a choppy brown ocean spreading west to the limits of vision. Security fog surrounded the structure, tiny machines with a collective emergent intelligence smart and strong enough to strip flesh from the bones of enemies while letting friends pass by unmolested. Condors reverse-engineered from local genomes circled high above. The birds gleamed with beadstrings of feather-embedded telemetry packages.

"So how are we going to break it?" asked Moline. Whipcord-thin with a knifeblade nose, she sat in a cliff-top rock cluster two kilometers south of the tower. She was shrouded in thermal- and EM-absorptive fabric, her binocular lenses faceted to eliminate any telltale reflective shine. Even the scent of her sweat was absorbed, allowing her to blend with the chalky-chocolate odor of the local biosphere.

Short, dumpy, strange Davenport shrugged. He had a short-use comp unfolded on a rock. The machine's time-limited origami circuitry already drooped toward what would soon be inert sludge. He tapped the screen, which dented under the pressure of his fingertip. "Scans out as advertised, Mo. Hard target put in place by a hardass."

"Any data from Bettendorf?" The third partner in their little foursome was a kilometer offshore dressed as a clump of seaweed. He was supposed to be validating satellite measurements of seabed depth, composition and artificial defenses.

Davenport shrugged again. "No bandwidth is good bandwidth at a time like this. Rocky would have mentioned it if Dorf hit the shit."

Rocky was Rock Island, the embedded AI of their highly stealthed and even more highly illegal starship now orbiting overhead, exhibiting the EM profile of a four-kilogram rock.

"Well," breathed Moline. "We either have to be smarter or luckier than the tower builder. Which do you want to be?"

"I don't know from smarter, but luck we can control."

They both glanced at the stasis box which gleamed in the middle of their little nest. The dull silver sheen reflected everything around in a twisted inversion that tugged at the eye. It was a tiny singularity waiting to suck their whole team in.

Breaking into the tower was incidental compared to the requirement for testing what lay nestled inside the stasis box. If they succeeded, and lived, they'd be wealthy. Otherwise...in their business there was never an "otherwise." Failures simply hadn't existed in the first place.

Elapsed Time: 65:57:17

It took Bettendorf almost two more days at sea to drift far enough over the Tower's security horizon to be able to safely stream his data up to Rocky via a magnetic foam virtual dish. Rocky waited out another full orbit until he had the arranged ultralow angle of incidence and squealed Dorf's data plus his own analysis down to Moline and Davenport . It came in the form of a gamma ray laser burst aimed at a receiver they'd painted on a rock about a hundred meters from their position. No sense in cooking themselves to death just for the sake of data.

Moline decoded the transmission and read the chat tag in the header first.


When they ran the actual data plus Rocky's first and second order analyses through another of Davenport's short-use comps, they got less than they hoped. Measurement variances on seabed and pelagic environment were within margin-of-error. In other words, no hidden tunnels or secret passages. Same with the known defenses. Worse, there were two defense layers they hadn't documented before.

One was something small and fast that shoaled in a too-random pattern near the tower's position. Rocky's notes figured it for a piranha-analog that echoed the atmospheric security fog. The telltale was the shoals never got more than a thousand meters from the tower.

The second was stranger, a very strong modulated EM signal in the range of twelve to forty Hertz. None of their simulations or test data about the planet indicated that to be a naturally-occurring signal.

"Killer fish I can believe," said Moline. "But that's a God damned brainwave."

"Yeah, if your brain was the size of Port New Boston."

They shared a glance. "You've been watching too much bad virteo," Moline told him.

"Whatever." Davenport went back to scrubbing Rocky's analyses, looking for crunchy bits he might have missed. Moline stared out to sea and tried to figure what that signal might mean.

Elapsed Time: 82:03:01

"Okay smart guy," Moline said, "what do we do now?"

The sun wasn't up yet, though the eastern sky had the color of a blood infection. The Tower's security fog glowed faintly in the moonless darkness, lending it a ghostly sheen.

"Nothing left but to pull the pin and see what happens."

For reasons of operational security their communications with Rocky were one way, except in extreme emergency. Bettendorf was out of reach for the duration of the mission. It was up to two of them, and their limited supplies of food and water, to determine where and how to move. The endless debates and planning sessions in transit had all boiled down to this:

Nobody had any idea what the hell the thing in the stasis box did except that it was said to "multiply luck." The chain-of-custody on it was wonky. The only true thing anybody knew was that the stasis box was alien.

Whatever the hell that might mean.

The painstaking reconnaissance they'd done on the ground had not altered their decision criteria one iota.

"I don't like it," said Moline.

"You never like it." Davenport laughed softly. "Bettendorf and me, we're working off life-bonds. Free-born like you always worry about choices. Childhood shows through, Mo. Childhood always shows."

"Whatever." She imitated his usual too-casual tone. It was an old argument, a subject of endless in-flight bull sessions during the long darkness between the stars. Rocky had some odd notions about freedom and choice, as one might expect from a bound AI. "You're right," Moline said. "Pull the pin and let's go in with the sun at our backs. Might as well start our luck with that."

Even in night's darkness the dull silver sheen of the stasis box seemed unchanged. The two of them stared at the artifact for a moment. It was more of an oblate spheroid than a box, slightly larger than a human head, with two traction handles and a bright purple bump which might have been a button.

"Where does it get the light to reflect?" Moline asked.

"Like I know. Some other universe, maybe." Davenport patted down his equipment. "You ready?"

Moline checked herself. Low-emission camosuit. Cheek pad rebreathers to capture her exhalations. Multispectrum contact lenses. Three types of climbing gear. Bladed, projectile and energy weapons. Plus water, molecular adhesives and the usual bag of tricks. She felt like her chances would be better naked before a firing squad, but initiating a hard entry always made her feel that way. "Ready."

With no more ceremony that, Davenport leaned down and pressed the button on the stasis box. Together they waited a moment to see if and how their luck multiplied.

About the Author
The prolific Jay Lake published 20 stories in 2002 and had at least 19 more published in 2003 (which is where we stopped counting), including a 12-part series on Strange Horizons, a story in Realms of Fantasy and a first-place winner in Writers of the Future. He also published the well-received collection titled Greetings from Lake Wu in 2003. In his copious spare time serves as co-editor for the Polyphony anthology series from Wheatland Press. Previous stories of Lake's published on RevolutionSF include The Redundant Order of the Night and The Angle of My Dreams. He resides in Portland, Oregon, and maintains his own website here.

Alien Dreams © 2005 Jay Lake

About the Artist
Erin Spaull is a former art student at Texas State University in San Marcos, currently living in San Antonio. A selection of her work can be viewed online here and she can be reached via email at Erin.Spaull@gmail.com.

Artwork © Erin Spaull