by Edmund J. Janas, II

Artwork co-created between Edmund and DALL·E mini – This may be the world’s second Short Story Illustrated by AI and a human, followed by The End of the World According to Animals.

Synopsis: Eesa Chondra is recruited by the US Strategic Command to lead a mission to make contact with an intelligent species living on the other side of a wormhole. Accompanied by two android assistants and Saria, a young cadet, they descend into the wormhole, encountering bioluminescent life and finally arriving in Dualia. They are greeted by the Dualians, who communicate with them telepathically. Eesa and Saria establish a rapport with the Dualians and learn that they are two distinct species of humanoids, one that lives on land and one that inhabits their oceans. The Dualians are concerned about the state of Earth and its inhabitants. Eesa and Saria return to Earth to relay this information and find that the world is on the brink of destruction. They must find a way to warn the people of Earth and stop the destruction before it’s too late.

About ten years ago, back in 2080 or so, Eesa remembered she was sitting in a cafe on Tremont St., content as possible at MIT Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in a career she loved with a man she loved. Little did Dr. Eesa Chondra know, ten years of sorrow were about to visit her. Like a cruel comedy, her husband would leave her for their best man and she would say goodbye to the last of the dolphins, a heartache that had no equal. Now she had the crushing realization that her medical condition was decreasing her odds of conceiving a child by the hour. On the surface she was always confident, but inwardly she doubted herself all the time. Even with her accomplishments, Eesa inwardly wondered how an Olympic swimmer, an MIT professor, a combat pilot, and a NASA astronaut could be so incompetent at life.

Though she wore shame like a cloak, she still felt half-naked before others and preferred the darkness of labs and the isolation of a Cyclops submarine rather than expose her human frailties to others. Dr. Chondra’s desire for motherhood, love, and community alluded her, and that longing kept her in a private hell of her parent’s design.

The White House Environmental Task Force sent a helicopter to her cabin in South Dakota, and she knew there must have been urgent news for them to scramble her from her bed at 2am, yet the brief said little. It was nearly sunrise when they arrived at Offutt Air Force Base, the home of US Strategic Command, to be briefed on Project Protectress by Space 1, which NOAA and NASA created to study the vortices appearing in the world’s oceans, some 20 miles across, the largest 160 miles wide off the coast of New England. We have opted to send a manned team into the a mid-size vortex 40 miles across, near the equator in the Pacific.

A pretty female cadet with deep black eyes and raven-black hair poured Dr. Chondra’s coffee. As she handed over the coffee, she bowed, handing the mug to Dr. Chondra with two hands, not as a servant would, but as a pilgrim might, offering it with all respect and veneration. Dr. Chondra instinctively caressed her hands as she took the coffee mug, and their eyes met. Dr. Chondra and the cadet were almost transported elsewhere, far away from the tons of rock that separated them from the outside world. The moment seemed to last minutes, and the doctor felt as if she were looking into a mirror at her younger self; yet at the same time, she felt a surge of sexual tension. But this young lady, half Dr. Chandra’s age appeared worried, too, as if something in the doctor’s eyes might reassure her; or perhaps she wanted to tell her something, but she quickly walked away before any words were spoken.

“We’ve lost many vessels going into these vortices. Project Protectress has been coordinating resources to investigate the phenomenon.” General Paxton lamented.

Gathering herself, “Please, call me Eesa.”

“Eesa it is. We’ve found—something has found us. Now, if we can just keep the crazies from sailing into the pit, or dear God, from throwing their children into the mouth of God-only-knows what’s down there,” General Paxton handed Eesa a file and she thumbed through the glossy images of what looked like UFOs.

“We’ve been monitoring them for decades, as you know.”

“And they have been ignoring us for decades,” Eesa added.

“And up until now, we’ve been completely in the dark. Two years ago we sent an AI probe, Sacagawea, inside. We sent many through all nine blue holes, and our AI was the only one to successfully plant buoy data relays along the perimeter of the wormhole, to make it through and establish telemetry. We have made contact with those on the other side.”

“Those?”

“Two species called Dualia, living on the other side of these blue holes. They belong to two distinct species of humanoids. As we descended from primates, they descended from Cetaceans and Cephalopoda.”

“Humanoid dolphins and octopuses?!” Eesa wondered aloud.

“One species lives on land, the other inhabits their oceans.”

“It took our AI nearly two years to decipher their language, which is math and sonar based. We understand most of what they communicate, but they say there is a telepathic component to their communication that gives further context to their words, and to understand them fully, we must send a human for first contact.”

“And that would be me?”

“You’ve gone to space, you know how to fly, you have trained on Ocean Flyer Cousteau One, and you are only one of a handful of scientists aboard Mars1 who came back with all your marbles. The Cousteau One is our most advanced craft; it’s both submarine and jet and you’ve handled it impeccably in simulations. This craft is a real mean machine and it can even make space orbit and make it back to Earth on a dime. If you accept this assignment, you will be accompanied by two Android Assistants, one headless.”

“Headless?”

“Space is limited, it’s a remote android. You will reattach its cerebral matrix of Sacagawea when you return…if you return.”

“If?”

General Paxton showed pictures on the overhead of tall mountain peaks, streams, valleys, lakes, and cities; it was almost Earthlike.

“Their skies are blue, like ours used to be. How is this possible?”

“Bioluminescent skies, geothermal light sources, oxygen at one Earth atmosphere. You may not wanna come back.”

“How?”

“And oceans, very much like our own. Picture a sphere,” The general lifted up a ball with a map of Earth on it,. “We live on top. The Dualians live 300 miles below us, give or take, on the interior of the top layers. But their up is our down, and our down is their up.” He placed the ball down gently.

“If you choose to go, you may not come back, Doctor, because there may be no Earth as we know it to return back to. But if you are successful at first contact and you relay back, some people go. Some will stay… and some will send their genetic material to assure the continuation of our species.”

“I’ll go.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to think about it?”

“No, I’ll go.”

“Gyroscopic stabilization and AI,” Eesa threw up her hands, motioning him to stop speaking.

“Cousteau One. It can support me and two androids? How many others?”

“Two additional people; the journey should take all of 20 hours,”

“The cadet that served me coffee, is she qualified to assist me?”

“She wouldn’t be here if she weren’t capable.”

“I want her to come with me.”

“Her name is Saria. I will ask her, Doctor.”

Eesa, OX1, OX2, and Saria breached the event horizon of Blue Hole 1, and for as long as possible, the android OX2 navigated until Eesa decided to preserve the hull’s integrity and bring them down to one mile below sea level where the ocean currents were more stable. Saria and Eesa would take shifts navigating the wormhole. After the eddies, It took roughly five minutes to descend from the deep turquoise waters of the Pacific just along the equator and into pitch tar darkness.

“Captain, according to telemetry sent back from the AI probe, the wormhole is stable, 3,000m of pressure extending through the 240-mile vector.” Saria reported.

“Be ready for anything. It makes no sense why we are descending, then suddenly at 100 miles down changing orientation to go forward. There is no explanation for this shift. In theory we should have been crushed like a pea 10 miles down.”

“Pressure holding steady, Captain! We are now in complete darkness, ladies,” OX2 said without looking away from the deep abyss.

“But look!” Saria shouted. She pointed up into the void where a glowing incandescent shark twisted, almost dancing for them. It swirled around the Ocean Flyer for what seemed like two hours then vanished as other bioluminescent life forms of every conceivable color encircled the craft. The three of them beheld the beauty in silence as Saria played her favorite classical playlist. Then, abruptly, the craft changed orientation, flinging everyone at a 90-degree angle. Saria hit her head and was bleeding badly. OX2 went offline, and OX1 went about his repairs.

Saria mumbled incoherently, “I know I’ve only been on simulations for… month, but The Ocean Flyer Cousteau… nuclear powered and can easily maintain…forward…” Eesa ordered OX2 to pilot the craft while she tended to Saria’s head wound.

Essa comforted Saria, “Hold on, kid, fasten your seatbelt because in a few hours, that orientation change happens again, but this time in the other direction. Once on the other side, the wormhole will be spinning in the opposite direction.” Eesa encouraged Saria as she fastened her into her seat.

“We will have two options once caught up in the counter turning eddy. I’ll have to play it by ear. Either OX2 AI will take over or I will override and launch gravity break engines and launch into the sky, or whatever that is… on the other side.”

Saria added groggily, “Data from the Sacagawea probe was inconclusive. Nobody knows what lies just beyond the event horizon on the other side, in Dualia. We could end up smashed upon an iceberg, or God knows what land mass on the other side.”

“You’re a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?” OX2 quipped sarcastically.

“I’m confident our first contact with the Dualians will be a success. We didn’t come this far to fail.” Eesa said.

OX2 chimed in, “The wormhole is steady, and we know more about this inner world within Earth now, stable and temperate it is, the bioluminescence, their light sources, their ways of its inhabitants, their laws and customs, than could fill a thousand libraries. Outside of being sociopathic omnivores the odds are in our favor of successful first contact.”

“Now that’s thinking positive OX2!” Eesa said as she broke into a broad smile.

“Making it back to our Earth is another matter, however; our odds of surviving a return are abysmal.”

“Jeez, thank you OX2! Take over navigation through the wormhole… I need a break.”

OX2 continued, “the main question was that of their spirits.”

“Shouldn’t you be navigating?”

“I am fully capable of doing several tasks at once, but if you feel more comfortable if I don’t speak and navigate, Captain.”

“I’m sorry, continue.”

“The Dualians have art, they have culture, a nearly identical environment to Earth’s surface, but can humans adapt to the descendants of dolphins, a species that split off from the human evolutionary chain 95 million years ago? And octopuses… humans have even less relationship to them. Half a billion years was the last time humans shared a common ancestor with that species. Technologically, they have surpassed Earth in technology, and possibly morality. The octopuses have cybernetic bodies that enable them to walk about on land. Both species did not find us worthy of contact before we destroyed our surface…why now?”

“Are you programmed to make us depressed OX2?” Saria asked pointedly.

“I’m not sure how much their opinion could have improved now that we’ve ruined the surface,” Eesa wondered aloud.

On their second orientation change, all were strapped in and nobody was hurt. As they ascended, strobing rainbows, linear and circular pulsating and communicating lights enveloped the darkness outside the Ocean Flyer. Dazzling, exploding, filling their minds with meaning, words, symbols and stories.

Puffs of blue and pink smoke glowing in the dark and greeted them with messages they understood upon seeing. They were safe. Eesa flew along chains of bioluminescent material, living or otherwise, extending for the last 40 miles of the wormhole. It illuminated like a super-highway beneath the sea. Flashing, sparkling darkness slowly yielded to a beautiful turquoise blue.

“I can hear them!” Saria yelled.

“I can too,” added Eesa.

“Me… nada.” OX2 chuckled.

And in their minds… they could hear the voices of nature. The same nature that was once above, that called Eesa to study the seas. As the last of the darkness faded, glowing softly in every vibrant to subtle hue, the delicate movements of thousands of tendrils each communicating intricate complex meaning, nuance and tone. Mesmerizing, intoxicating and subtle. This was their new home. Cycling rainbow patterns… guiding them along the edge of the vortex and into Dualia.