The Stage Between
by Edward A. Rodosek
forum: The Stage Between
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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The Stage Between


          A spark.

          Another one. Several new sparks in darkness around him.

          What…? Where… am I?

          His thoughts were wandering, too unsorted to unite themselves. At that moment, a severe command emerged in his consciousness: 'Don't move!'

          Brad shut his eyelids obediently. He recalled that restraint was drilled into his mind during his long, tiresome astronautical training, when his instructors had educated him about everything he might need here.

          Here? Of course, here. On the 'Trough'.

          Brad Siodmack, a highly trained astronaut commanding the riskiest enterprise in history, was on the most up-to-date spaceship—its official name was 'The Messenger'—ever built on Earth. He had been sent to star system K-53, from which mysterious signals had been arriving at Earth for years. The signals' modulation and regular structure undoubtedly proved that they were the product of another intelligent species in space. This mission was a unique challenge in the history of humanity. So the best experts had designed the plans for the spaceship Emissary—that was the official name of the Trough—and the largest companies had built it.

          Star system K-53 was so inconceivably distant that it could be reached only with the invention of so-called ultrahibernation. Brad Siodmack was chosen to be a guinea pig for testing it.

          A thousand disconnected questions went through Brad's brain, chasing one another in a circle, but he was still too weak… too weak to do anything. Except, maybe, to recall the events that had happened several weeks before he'd set out on his bold voyage.

          When he'd hit that dog.


          In the middle of the afternoon crowd, the dog entangled itself between Brad's legs, nearly causing him to fall. Brad mumbled a few comforting words, tapped the dog on its head, and continued his walk home.

          A few blocks farther Brad noticed that the dog was following him. Darn it! I shouldn't have patted it. He swiftly turned around several corners and cast a stealthy glance over his shoulder. The dog was several yards behind him.

          Brad decided that he wouldn't look back, but he could hear the tired dog gasping. He opened the gate, and it closed behind him automatically. Okay. The dog had to stay outside at last. Brad entered the living room and kissed Yunona on her cheek.

          "You seem exhausted," remarked his wife. "Rest here for a moment. I'll bring you a glass of cold juice from the kitchen."

          Brad slid into the armchair and stretched his legs. Several moments later, he heard the vivacious voices of Ina and Saba from the lobby.

          He waited for a while, and after time, he headed to the dining room.

          When he entered, he saw the dog, which Saba and Ina hugged on the valuable carpet that was now scattered with fur.

          "Listen everybody," he said, "that dirty beast has to go out of my house right away."

          "No, daddy, no!" Saba and Ina grasped his knees, sobbing.

          "Don't be so selfish," objected his wife. "You can't chase away the poor animal. It'd die of starvation for sure."

          "Daddy, daddy," both girls cried. "We'll look after Fido! We'll take it out, mornings and evenings! We'll throw a stick to Fido and he'll bring it back! We promise!"

          "See?" Yunona joined in. "You won't have any work with the dog. Except signing a check for a kennel, of course."

          Brad stated many rational arguments why the dog had to go, but nobody listened to him. Finally, they voted and the dog stayed.

          Over the next few weeks, Brad was forced to get used to many changes. Saba and Ina said that they had too much to learn at school, so Brad had to walk the dog twice a day. Their neighbor, a vet, said that the dog was growing too fat and it needed more exercise.

          So Brad had to throw a stick as far as he could, and the dog brought it back, again and again. The dog never got tired of that game; it persisted irrespective of its panting.

          Why does the darned dog fetch the stick so persistently? Brad never praised the dog for that. A need for playing? The dog didn't play with anything but the stick, though.

          There could be only one reason for such behavior. The dog wanted to find favor in Brad's eyes. The dog needed someone to whom it could be devoted and subordinated. It needed someone stronger and wiser than itself.

          The dog needed an admirable master who would not only feed it but also protect it from all that unknown outside.


          Brad Siodmack felt pins and needless in his limbs. Into his dormant consciousness crawled the thought that he had to arise out of his lethargy. There were so many questions to answer.

          For how long have I slept in this plastic sarcophagus? For how long tied with these tubes and cords, connecting to the high-tech hibernation machine? How much time has passed by since I said farewell to my beloved Yunona and my tiny, lovely two…

          Brad recoiled from that bitter memory, feeling tears in the corners of his eyes. He felt so stupid for making the decision to become the most famous space explorer, and to leave all that he'd loved in order to accomplish it. However, now it was too late to regret the events of long ago.

          Slowly, Brad began to recognize familiar things around him. Here were the curved walls and domelike roof of his spaceship. Here were the large panoramic screen and the command console. Above that was, of course, Mae.


          Mae was here, next to him, as always. Mae was much more than just the most sophisticated artificial intelligence gadget ever made. She was, for all that time, everything to him: his navigator and reliable pilot, his nursemaid and careful doctor, his partner and devoted friend.

          The stand-by indicator next to Mae glowed in a ruby-red color. That meant the nuclear converter had endured all that time up to now.

          But—when is now? What date… ah, what year is now?

          Brad slowly turned his head to the left where was a digital nuclear clock. It had been measuring the standard time of the spaceship and the time passed on Earth during his long sleep. When Brad saw the clock his heart emitted two or three quick pulses.

          No, no. That couldn't be possible. That damned clock went crazy. I had to ask Mae.

          "Do you hear me, Mae?" Brad hardly believed that the hoarse croaking was his voice.

          "I hear you, commander." Mae was speaking calmly, in a low voice. "How do you feel?"

          For a while Brad racked his brains about that difficult question. He felt…lousy—as if he had a terrible hangover, or as if he was beaten black and blue.

          "I'm okay. Tell me, how long was I so…well, cold? How long did I sleep?"

          Mae told him.

          She told him how much of his own time had passed by on Emissary. Then she reminded him of Lorenz's factor of time-shortening, valid for every object moving through space with relative speed near light-speed. And then she told him how much time had passed on Earth during their voyage.

          Brad swallowed hard. Then the clock didn't go crazy at all. Or, if it went crazy, then Mae went crazy also.

          That simply wasn't possible, though. Mae was million times more reliable than any trained astronaut, Brad included.

          "You can try to get up, now," Mae said. "But do it easy."

          Brad waited until all four sides of his plastic sarcophagus retracted, and all of the small tubes and cords disappeared somewhere below. Then he awkwardly leaned on his elbows and inched his legs towards the edge of his bed. When the first dizziness passed, he swung his bare feet onto the floor.

          It was high time to take command over the Trough.


          Brad sat on his chair, close to the command console.

          "How the hell is it possible that we didn't reach our goal long ago?" he asked. "What went wrong? Have we miscalculated the distance, or was that darned Trough too slow?"

          "None of that, commander," Mae replied. "All our earlier calculations proved correct, at least nearly. As you can see, we passed the system K-53 long ago. We did not stop there because that system did not emit any signals at all."

          Brad was puzzled. "You mean to say the signals stopped?"

          "By no means. The signals are still coming and they are much stronger than before."

          Brad shook his head. "I'm not with you."

          "Look. Long ago, when we had been close to the system K-53, I realized that the real source of the signals was much farther beyond it. So far away, that the distance from Earth was only a fragment of the real distance to our goal."

          "You claim the signals from the real source just travel through that damned K-53 to the Earth?"

          "Exactly. And so I have let you sleep until now, commander. Until now, when we have reached the real source of signals: the system L-678. Look, you can see it yourself."

          Brad stared at the display. The sun they were approaching was a bit smaller than the Earth's, but its brightness was stronger.

          "The system L-678," explained Mae, "consists of that sun and five planets. On the inner two planets the environments are quite similar to Earth's, and on one of them, I found the transmitter of the signals."

          Brad noticed Mae had marked that planet with a tiny circle of light.

          "I see. Tell me something about the environment on the planet. Would I need anti-gravity gear with a respirator?"

          "Luckily no, commander," said Mae. "The gravity is only a bit stronger than on Earth and there is enough oxygen."

          Brad nodded. "All the same I'd hold off praising the planet until we land there. What's its name, anyway?"

          "For now it has no name, commander. You have the honor of naming it."

          Brad considered for a while. "Well then—let's call it…Yunona."

          "Yunona is a lovely name, commander. That was one of goddesses in the ancient Greece, was it not?"

          Brad nodded, his voice hoarse. "Yes. And that is…that was my wife's name."

          After he had a short rest, Brad noticed that Yunona was already covering a good half of the panoramic screen.

          "How much time do we have until landing?"

          "About two hours and seventeen minutes, commander," replied Mae.

          Brad admired the halo around Yunona, made by the shielded sun. Suddenly, that reminded him of an eclipse in bygone times, and of his frequent watching of the moon.

          For his fourteenth birthday, his parents had bought him a good telescope and Brad had spent many sleepless nights studying the moon. It was his greatest love and he knew all of its regions by heart. Craters Copernicus, Keppler, and Aristotle; seas Mare Imbrium and Mare Crisium; mountains Alps and Apennines… Brad's enthusiasm for the moon was the main reason he'd decided to study astrophysics.

          The rumbling of the plasma engine interrupted Brad's nostalgic thoughts, and the growing gravity pressed him in the seat. Finally, he felt a soft shake and realized the Trough had landed on Yunona.


          All around Brad there were… things.

          The Things—Brad couldn't find any better name for them—were sparsely dispersed at irregular distances up to the horizon. Brad stood in the dusk, scarcely daring to breathe. He could hardly believe that he was really on his distant goal, Yunona. He couldn't see any stars above him so he must be in a huge closed space.

          The Things were of various sizes, forms, and colors. They were all glowing in their own phosphorescent light. Some were spherical, others cylindrical, prismatic, or even in the form of a translucent membrane. Most of the Things levitated, or moved around at different heights, while some were lying on the ground. Far away, Brad noticed a huge, black dome.

          Brad turned around, and the sight of the high tower of the Trough consoled him.

          "Hey, Mae," he whispered, "do you read me?"

          "Of course I do, commander," replied Mae. "I can also see you on the screen. And through the camera on your cap I can also see everything that you see."

          Brad swallowed hard. "Okay. Now I'll move a little forward. These… Things are everywhere around me, so it seems that it doesn't matter in which direction I go."

          "Good luck, commander."

          The Things were moving in unpredictable curved lines without revealing any aim. Brad realized that the Things didn't pay heed to him at all, so he swiftly had to avoid several of them colliding with him. He was prepared for various responses from denizens of an alien planet, from utter hostility to benevolent hospitality. But there was no response here at all.

          What are these Things? Living beings, or maybe machines?

          If they were alive, what strange material were they made of? If they were machines, where were their creators hiding, and why? After they had attracted him—a representative of an intelligent civilization—to them, it would be foolish if they wouldn't show themselves.

          Brad repeatedly looked back over his shoulder. He decided he'd check just a little more of the nearby area, and then he'd return to the Trough to consult Mae.

          The final time that Brad looked back, he stopped dead, because the Trough had vanished.

          Brad rubbed his eyes in disbelief, shuddering. The several hundred ton spaceship, which had a few moments ago jutted above the landscape, had disappeared.

          No, that couldn't be true. The Trough shouldn't have taken off again; such a maneuver would last several minutes, and the thundering plasma engines would resound all around.

          Brad started to run towards the place where the ship had been just a few moments earlier. He came puffing to three holes, several inches deep: the imprints of the ship's three steel legs. He fumbled inside the imprints.

          Nothing. The spaceship wasn't there any more. With it, Mae had disappeared, too.

          Brad could scarcely restrain himself from weeping. He was alone, without Mae, his faithful comrade, without the Trough, even without food and drink. He was stuck on that alien, indifferent world, where nobody cared about him.

          Anger overwhelmed Brad. He wouldn't give up! Regardless of the cause of that mysterious disappearance, he had to try to find somebody—or something—to help him. He clenched his teeth and began to stride to where the most Things were.

          Brad moved slowly through the crowd of Things, trying to attract their attention. He gestured animatedly, clapped his hands, jumped and shouted with all his might, but in vain. The Things showed no notice of Brad's efforts.

          Brad noticed a swiftly spinning wheel when it was three feet away, so he had to jump backwards—and something hard bumped into his back. Horrified, he turned around and saw the Thing he'd collided with. It was a dark red prism that moved on the ground; at the impact it stopped for a moment, and for the first time on the alien planet, Brad felt that a Thing had noticed him.

          It noticed him, the only one to do so in that uncaring crowd of Things! Brad stared at it and felt some empathy, but the Thing set out on its journey again without paying further attention to Brad. Instinctively, he began to follow it. Maybe the Thing would, with time, realize he needed urgent help. Surely it couldn't just leave him here to die like a dog.

          The Thing hastened through the crowd and Brad took pains to follow it. When the Thing arrived at the huge black dome he'd seen earlier, a square opening appeared in it, and the Thing entered. Brad, tired and distressed, summoned up his remaining courage and rushed into the dome, too. Just for a second the glittering light dazzled him, and then he fainted.


          Brad was lying in a large, empty room on some sort of soft bed, and he felt comfort and calmness. He'd just finished his first meal on Yunona, consisting of some brownish mushy food, a bit like porridge. On the floor beside him was a jug of agreeably cool water. He still worried about Mae, the Trough, and his own future, but all of that was somehow in the rear of his consciousness. For now, he was alive and that was enough.

          Instantly, Brad perceived a kind of mental picture. They were optical sequences, which turned up directly in his brain. Brad recognized several, some he could understand by analogies, but many of them were simply behind his comprehension.

          It took Brad some time before he realized that he was watching a 3-D hologram of a brief history of Yunona's civilization.

          He stared at fascinating and nearly unbelievable devices and procedures: regulation of weather and climate, mining of raw materials from unbelievable depths and even other planets in the system, nuclear transmutation, cold fusion of elements, local reducing and even nullifying of gravity, telepathy as a common means of communication, momentary transfer of information through space with neutrinos…

          Abruptly, Brad noticed something that stopped his breath.

          "Mae!" Brad's shout was a reflex action. Only a moment later, it occurred to him how foolish it was to talk to a projected image.

          "Hello, commander," replied Mae, and her undisturbed voice persuaded Brad he was in fact talking to his faithful companion. "I'm sorry you're now separated from the Messenger and me. Are you all right, commander?"

          "What? Oh, Mae, I'm thrilled to see and hear you again. I was so alone since we were separated. What did the Things do with you? And why—"

          "Commander, I am sure we are safe here and only that counts. They—the Things— wouldn't harm us; otherwise they wouldn't have done so much to protect us until now."

          "Okay, Mae. But where are you—I mean physically? And do you have any idea where the Trough is?"

          "As far as I can judge, the Things put me and The Messenger in a museum. It seems to me that they consider both of us to be valuable objects from old times."

          "Swell." Brad waved his hand in resignation. "I'm afraid the Things don't consider us emissaries from a distant planet."

          Mae didn't respond. Brad was afraid that he was talking to Mae for the last time, but he couldn't find the proper words to say so. He wanted to tell Mae how he was frightened on that soulless, alien world. How he regretted the fatal mistake of setting off on that senseless mission, stupidly leaving behind everything that counted in his life…

          It didn't pay off, what he'd done; now he knew it for sure.

          "Commander," said Mae, "do you think now you made a mistake when you left Earth?"

          Brad shook his head. How well Mae knew him; she asked him the same question as he was thinking. He was sure that Mae knew his answer, too.

          "Goodbye, Mae."

          "Goodbye, commander. Take care."


          Brad Siodmack was sitting on the floor, unsure of his future. He could be stuck on this damned Yunona until he died. Stricken by the thought, he rose to his feet, and immediately felt sick.

          Brad clenched his jaw and strode towards one of the curved walls. But the wall instantly dissolved, and he stopped abruptly. He was puzzled, because before him there were neither Things nor ground. There was nothing. Brad stopped at the edge of the floor and stared into a dark abyss beyond his feet. Then he undid his wristwatch, dropped it into the darkness, and pricked up his ears. He heard absolutely nothing.

          He thought of a solution to his dilemma, painless and definitive. Why vegetate for many years in despair, suffering, languishing, and slowly dying? He had to make only one step forward, to where friendly, instant death was waiting for him. Brad closed his eyes, feeling his cold sweat, and clenched his fists. He had to do it at once, or he wouldn't have the strength to do it at all.

          Brad made a step forward—but he didn't fall. Instead, he was standing on something solid. When he dared to open his eyes again, he saw that he was in a huge elevator, and the feeling of gravity told him that the elevator was moving upwards.

          So. The Things won't even allow me to choose when and how to die! Why do they keep experimenting with me as if I was a guinea pig? And where, damn it, are they taking me?

          The door of the lift opened and the fresh night breeze showed Brad that he was on Yunona's surface. Everything around him was flooded with a silver light.

          Brad raised his gaze and caught sight of the moon.

          It was the Earth's moon; there was no mistake. He instantly recognized the silhouettes of Craters Copernicus, Keppler, and Aristotle; seas Mare Imbrium and Mare Crisium; mountains Alps and Apennines… Brad felt his legs weaken, so he had to lean against the wall. How in the universe was that possible?

          Then realization flashed through Brad's brain.

          There was no Yunona at all, ever. There was only Earth—his starting point, and his goal. His entire mission was purposeless. The voyage? Is it possible that the entire voyage was an illusion, too?

          "Calm yourself, Brad." A suggestive Thing's voice—touch?—feeling?—arose in the middle of his brain. "You have traveled all right; far away and for a long time. You passed the K-53 system, and after that, we had to turn you around again."

          "Turn me around?" Brad wasn't sure if he'd said that aloud or just thought it.

          "Yes, back to Earth. The landing on Yunona was just an illusion. That was necessary, Brad. The sudden disappointment after your awakening could have killed you."

          "But then you are… you are in fact…" Brad couldn't finish his sentence.

          "Of course, Brad. We are the successors of the humankind as you had known it."

          Brad shook his head. Although he was sure the voice was telling him the truth, his consciousness refused to accept it.

          He cleared his throat. "Listen… you… could I call you Thing?"

          "You may call me what you please. But now it would be better if you rest for a while."

          "I don't want to rest, damn it! Tell me everything—tell me what went wrong."

          "Technology on Earth grew much faster than the biological progress of the human brain." The Thing's voice was reverberating in Brad's head. "In time, computers became capable of making other computers, and that production was akin to organic growth. Before long, the density of microchips surpassed the density of neurons in the human brain."

          Brad leaned against the wall, stared at the moon, and listened.

          "Gradually, the artificial intelligence surpassed the human brain. In time, we became what you call Things. And so Man became for us redundant."

          Brad nodded, his voice trembling. "And so you decided that it wouldn't be rational for you to cooperate with the human race any further."

          "That is true, Brad. But we never wanted to harm the people. We have not enslaved them; we have even left their primitive computers to them. In general, we have allowed them to choose the style and speed of their own development. From that moment in history, we simply began to ignore them."

          "Like people ignoring a stray dog on their way home from work," Brad added bitterly, without realizing that the Thing couldn't understand the allusion.

          "Since then, we made progress increasingly faster. We have sent one of our ultraspaceships after your Messenger, caught up with it, and turned it around. Once near Earth, we programmed your on-board computer in such a way that it made all of the illusion you needed."

          Brad shook his head. "But why, for Heaven's sake?"

          For the first time, the Thing took time to respond. "Because we found out that those signals you were pursuing were without any purpose."

          "Without any purpose?" protested Brad. "How could you be so sure that the signals wouldn't have proved important for us, the people? Please, tell me more—tell me everything—about those signals"

          The Thing didn't reply. Brad repeatedly appealed to it, but in vain. Maybe the Thing thought that Brad couldn't have understood its explanation. However, it was also possible that the secret about those signals was too dreadful for Brad, the last representative of the human race, to know.

          "Okay, tell me just one more thing." Brad was trying to find the proper words. "What happened to the people after you left them to their own fate? Did they manage to make progress alone?"

          The interval until the Thing's next answer was longer than before. "At first, yes, for a long time, by your measurement of time. Then, with time, their problems—especially the irrepressible global pollution explosion—overwhelmed them. Their basic flaw was that they'd chosen the wrong way to solve their problems."

          "War?" Brad hardly dared to whisper.

          "Unfortunately, yes. The global war without any limits—nuclear, chemical, viral, bacteriological, genetic, climatic… Every nation had fought against all the others for the few remaining resources. I am very sorry, Brad."

          Brad remained silent for a long time. "But… but the survivors? Surely at some remote, isolated places?"

          "Believe me, Brad," said the Thing, "you do not want to meet them. Can you imagine the outcome of countless mutations over so many generations?"

          Brad slowly slid down on the floor with his face in his palms.

          It seemed to Brad that it was the end of everything, for all who'd proudly called themselves human, once upon a time. He was the very last one. He was now a rarity, some valuable specimen for a museum. He'd rashly left his beloved home, and during his absence, his foolish compatriots have demolished it. He had no home anymore. He was a stranger in a strange land.


          Brad was half sitting and half lying on the soft bunk, which adapted itself to his body with each move. That compartment was only his, and was placed next to the house of his Thing. There he had everything he needed: food and drink, a holovision set, and plenty of time for thinking.

          He pondered about the strangeness of the historical development on Earth. The people had more intellect than any other creature, and considered themselves to be the eternal masters of the planet.

          The intelligence—that divine spark—at the beginning, upgraded lifeless matter to organic compounds, increasingly sophisticated, and then to the protoplasm cell. Further development led to many stages from amoeba, through vertebrates, mammals, and to humans, who invented so-called artificial intelligence.

          Then the intelligence became unsatisfied with the protoplasm cell. The neurons in the human brain grew too slowly and awkwardly, so the intelligence discarded them as impractical. That stage became redundant, and that meant the humans had become obsolete.

          But he, Brad Siodmack, was an exception.

          The Things would, probably, preserve him. It was possible that they might even improve him in many ways, to ensure that he would stay alive and in good health for a long time. Most likely, the Things would see him as a valuable rarity, suitable as a specimen. Perhaps even as a pet.

          The door of his compartment opened, and Brad caught sight of his Thing approaching the house. Brad got up and went briskly to meet it, as he did every day. He knew what was going to happen. He remembered the procedure from the bygone times, when his own pet had greeted him. The only difference was that Brad couldn't wag his tail.

          When his Thing saw him, it conjured from somewhere an oblong, thin object, and ejected it several dozen yards away.

          Brad ran after the stick to fetch it.

          Brad wanted to find favor in the Thing's eyes. He needed someone to whom he could be devoted and subordinated. He needed someone stronger and wiser that he was.

          Brad Siodmack, a former member of the ruling race on Earth, needed an admirable master who wouldn't only feed him but also protect him from all that unknown outside.



copyright 2006 Edward A. Rodosek.

Edward Alexander Rodosek is a Construction Engineer, Doctor of Technical Science and Senior Professor in Faculty of Civil Engineering, Ljubljana, Slovenia, European Union. He is married to Rina and they have one daughter, Tejka. His pastimes are chess and long walks with his golden retriever Simba.

Beside his professional work he writes science fiction, mostly at night. He is an author of ten collections of short sci fi stories and four novels (see: in Slovenia with good reviews. Several of his short stories have been published in SF magazines in USA and UK (Aphelion, Brew City, Down in the Dirt, Dreams Passage, Expressions, Jupiter, Midnight Times, Nocturnal Ooze, Quantum Muse, Sacred Twilight, Spinnings, Thirteen, Ultraverse, Vermeer, Writer's Post Journal).