“Vortex Mirage” by Matthew Lowes

Vortex, by Matthew Lowes
Illustration: “Vortex” © 2006 by Matthew Lowes.

Perhaps it was created by God, to unify the heavens with a single Word. Perhaps it was created by the ancient ones, to bind civilization together with the sacred language. But who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. Who can say from where it came, and who can fathom its ultimate purpose?

-The Ga Hedakksha

Farside station rattled from top to bottom. Dishes shook, pens dropped, and people looked up with an expression of half-realized fear on their confused faces. It was not a normal rattle, and on the Moon, anything that could damage the structural integrity of the station was a serious danger. It only lasted a few seconds, but in an environment where things could go unchanged for thousands of years, that was a major event.

Moonquakes are both rare and weak. The epicenter of this one was somewhere out near Limnear’s station, a small private facility a few miles from Farside. By Earth standards it was barely a tremor, but the quake caused a flurry of activity on what otherwise would have been another routine day. How living on the Moon could become routine, and even mundane, was the private secret of those who lived there. In fact, the moonquake was a big hit. People filled the corridors and communal spaces, grateful for relief from the monotony of the day. Some of the guys were already planning a quake party on B-deck.

It was all the commotion, not the quake itself, that awoke David Locke from a deep sleep. He made his way through the unusually crowded and noisy halls. The rec rooms and cafeteria were overflowing with people. Dave met up with his buddies from Systems, Torres and Voxwell.

“Well,” Torres said, “you wanted some excitement. Now you have it.”

“I’m not sure this is what I had in mind. What happened?”

“Didn’t you feel it?”

“Feel what? I was sleeping.”

“A moonquake,” Voxwell said. “A pretty big one, by Moon standards. That’s what the geologists are saying anyway. The whole station shook a bit.”

“Is there any danger?”

“I don’t think so, but it’s proved to be a great diversion.”

“What about Limnear’s,” Dave said. “Are they okay?”

“Yeah. The quake’s center was out there, but they’re all fine.”

“You know someone out there, don’t you?” Torres said.

“Yeah,” Dave said, and looked away.

“Any idea what they’re doing at that place?”

“I’m as clueless as everybody else. Maybe even more so.”

* * *

The lunar sunset cast long shadows across Farside. The base bristled with satellite dishes, antennae, and the various telescopes and modules that had accumulated over the years. Beyond the base, giant radio telescopes dotted the barren surface of the Moon. Their fragile-looking skeletal frames were silhouetted against a sun that was more brilliant here than it had ever been on Earth.

Dave gazed out his bunk-side window. He wasn’t going to the B-deck quake party. Dark shadows moved across the gray landscape, across the rock and the dust. He put his hand on the diamond-hard window. Outside was the coldness of space, the coldness of the Moon, with all its desolate beauty.

There were four-hundred-thousand kilometers of empty space between him and the Earth, not to mention thirty-five-hundred kilometers of rock. On the far side of the Moon, it was only by virtue of the lunar comsats that they even had access to Earthnet. The isolation made Farside an ideal place for astronomers of all kinds. There was no urban glow, no atmospheric distortion or interference, and they were shielded from the orgiastic amalgam of terrestrial noise. They loved it up here; but for Dave, Farside could seem like the most backward place in the solar system. The computers were ancient and constantly bogged down. Interruptions and bottlenecks were the norm, not the seamless dataflows of Earthnet. It wasn’t a situation Dave could ignore, either, since he happened to be here to fix it.

When he arrived at Farside, he met some radio astronomers who were looking for signs of extra-terrestrial life. Now those were guys with serious communications problems. Dave didn’t know how they could stand it, aiming their telescopes at distant planets and looking for anything that would indicate an intelligent signal. It was hard enough to find an intelligent signal in Earthnet.

He looked through his window, up at the stars. Maybe there was something out there and maybe there wasn’t, but we’re alone all the same, he thought. Besides, even if they found something, whatever civilization produced it could be long gone. Even if they weren’t, given the time it would take to reply, any sort of meaningful exchange might be impossible.

Nightfall meant a month of darkness at Farside. Tracy Lightner was only a couple of miles away, heading up a research team at Limnear’s station, the “Far Farside”, as they called it, but she hadn’t bothered to visit him, hadn’t even returned the message he sent when he arrived. It was probably just as well. Years ago, work had driven them off in different directions, and just because work had now brought them within two miles of each other on the far side of the Moon, why should anything change.

The edge of the sun dipped below the lunar horizon. Dave rolled over on his stiff bunk. Taped to his wall was a picture of a beach in Hawaii where he had gone on vacation last year. He curled up, and closed his eyes, hoping to dream of warm sands and smiling faces.

* * *

It was two days after the quake when Tracy called. He wasn’t expecting it, but there she was on his screen, with a grin on her face that only God knew the meaning of. There she was, as if not a day had gone by.

“How have you been enjoying Farside?” she said.

“No complaints. You look good.”

“So do you. I’ve been really busy here. We just had a big breakthrough of sorts and I wanted to invite you out for a visit.”

“To Limnear’s?”

“Yes, as soon as possible. I have something to show you.”

“The transport goes out in three days. I can catch a lift with them,” he said.

“Three days is too long. There’s some sense of urgency here.”

“Well, I doubt if they’ll drive all the way out there just for me,” Dave replied.

“Take one of the maintenance trams. Our people do it all the time.”

“You mean outside?”

“You’re cleared for it, aren’t you?” Tracy asked.

“Yeah, but….”

“Stop complaining and get out here.”

“Well…I’ll see what I can do.” Dave clicked off the monitor and looked at the Hawaiian beach photo. Fresh air, warm sand. Oh well…not today.

Unlike Farside and Nearside, Limnear’s Station was privately funded and operated. Maybe getting away from Farside would do him some good. He had to admit that curiosity had done something for his spirits. What was it that Baudelaire wrote… Anything, anything so long as it’s out of this world. Well Dave knew every inch of Farside more than he cared to already, and at least Limnear’s would be something new. Truthfully though, he couldn’t say what he was more curious about, the station, what they were doing there, or Tracy herself.

* * *

Torres and Voxwell helped him on with his space suit. “Three months you’re here, and you don’t see her,” Voxwell said. “Now you can’t wait two days?”

“She said it was pressing. Something to do with her research, I guess.”

“As long as you don’t leave the tram,” Torres said, “you’ll be fine.”

“Why would I leave the tram?”

“Maybe you’ll see an interesting rock.”

“I’ll leave that to the geologists.”

“It’s not likely you’ll see much of anything,” Voxwell said. “Beyond the station lights, it’s dark as hell out there.”

“Did you have to put it like that?”

Torres and Voxwell laughed. Dave chuckled nervously as his friends silenced him with a space helmet.

The tram was little more than a plastic box that slid along a magnetic rail. There were rails running all over the exterior of the station, out to all the dishes, and even as far as Limnear’s. Maintenance crews used them mostly. Dave had been outside a few times during his stay here, but that had been during the lunar day, and he had been with a group of recreational moonwalkers. Even then, he had felt a kind of sublime discomfort with the idea that the few layers of his space suit were all that separated him from a vacuum that extended pretty much uninterrupted to the end of the universe. Now, out there in the night, Dave would be alone. In space, the face of our hopes and our fears are reflected in the deepest and darkest of oceans.

Once inside the airlock, the doors shut behind him and the butterflies took flight in his stomach.

“All set?” He heard Voxwell over the radio.

He gave a thumbs up to one of the cameras. “I’m okay. Open the outer door.”

Most of the air was sucked out of the room by a pump, and then the outer door slowly opened. Whatever stray gas molecules were left in the room rushed out to fill a vacuum they had no hope of filling. The only sound now was his own breathing, the smacking of his dry mouth, and the occasionally interruption of the radio. Beyond that little world inside his helmet, there was utter silence.

He started slowly, shuffle-walking in the bulky suit. He kept talking to Torres and Voxwell, relating his progress with insignificant detail. He couldn’t see them, but it was reassuring to know that they were watching him on the monitor.

The tram was five or ten meters off to his left. He bounce-stepped over there, a little more boldly now, and situated himself in a small seat at the front of the cart.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m off.”

“We’ll be monitoring your progress till you get there.”

Dave took the simple controls and the tram silently began to move. It wasn’t fast by any means, but it moved along at a steady pace and he’d make it out to Limnear’s in about an hour. In the distance he could see the lights of the shuttle from Nearside. He watched its approach till it passed out of the view of his visor.

Beyond the station lights, he was surrounded by the real darkness of the lunar night. That darkness was as much about the void as it was about a lack of light. There was still some starlight, like on a moonless night on Earth, but on the far side of the Moon there was nothing between him and those distant alien suns but millions of miles of emptiness.

Torres came in over the radio. “How are you doing?”

“It sure is dark out here.”

“I told you,” Voxwell said.

The tram’s headlight illuminated a small patch ahead of him, basically an unchanging view of the track and some gray soil. Above him the star-filled sky stretched on forever. Ever since childhood, whenever he tried to wrap his mind around the vastness of space he felt overwhelmed, as if nature had placed a stupefying obstacle between him and comprehension. It was simply too big to imagine. Even the great adventure of mankind’s first bold steps into the solar system was at last trivial, when faced with the darkness beyond and the emptiness of interstellar space. He wondered, Would such distances ever be crossed by mortal beings?

* * *

When the inside door of Limnear’s airlock finally opened, Tracy was there to meet him. He stepped into the prep room, and after a few moments of fiddling with the seals, managed to remove his helmet. He was glad for the suit. Because of it, he didn’t have to worry about whether it would be appropriate to give Tracy a hug. The bulk of the thing made it pretty much impossible… and certainly futile in any case.

Tracy wore a tan cotton jumpsuit. It was totally pragmatic, a lot like she was, and yet, in the way it fit her, hugging her figure in various places, there was something undeniably alluring.

“How was the trip over?” she said as he busied himself working his way out of the suit.

“It was fine.”

“It’s good to see you,” she said.

“It sure has been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess it has.”

“So why the sudden invitation?”

“A lot of reasons. You’ll see. Besides, it’s not like you made an Odyssean attempt to see me.” She smiled. It was a kind of smile he remembered, the expressions of her face being like a long-unused language that had suddenly come back to him. “You came all the way to the Moon, but you stopped the boat just a few miles from shore. All you did was send me a note. Some hero,” she said playfully.

“Ha,” he said, and smiled. Their smiles slowly turned solemn as they looked into each other’s eyes. There was an unspoken dialogue that was taking place between them, one that even they could not fully decipher. “I guess work’s always been first for both of us.”

“Anyway, let’s not drag up the past, okay? What I’m going to show you is about the future. It’s going to change everything.”


“Well, maybe not everything.

Although Limnear’s station was small, it seemed spacious compared to Farside. Limnear’s wasn’t as old as Farside. Its sleek hallways and clean lines were practically futuristic, and its soft surfaces were luxurious compared to Farside’s utilitarian clutter. Dave thought of Farside as a kind of giant, landlocked submarine. Limnear’s was more along the lines of a luxury yacht.

“There are some little things we have to get out of the way,” Tracy said. She took him down to a small conference room. They sat on leather chairs. Various papers were laid out on the table in front of him.

“What’s this?” he said.

“Legal documents, waivers, and a non-disclosure agreement.” She smiled. “You have to sign,” she said, “or you may as well get in your space suit and head back to Farside.”


“There’s no way around it.”

He read through a few of the papers. It was all pretty technical legal language, but what it basically amounted to was that if he revealed anything he saw or learned here to anyone, he was screwed. He started signing. That’s what you do in situations like this, he thought. You just start signing.

When he had finished with the last document, Tracy leaned back in her chair and looked at him. There was a long pause.

“Let me ask you something,” Tracy said. “What have you heard about what we’re doing here?”

“Various things. Nobody really knows for sure.”

“What do they say?”

“I heard a rumor at the university that you were working on some kind of faster-than-light communications device, but nobody takes that stuff too seriously.”

“We did.”

“Did what?”

“We took it seriously,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve done it. We broke the light barrier.”

“How’s that?” As if to say, Did you say what I thought you said?

“By circumventing space-time.”

Dave just stared at her, the corner of his mouth turned up suspiciously. Was she joking?

The lights hummed. Between them, space.

“I’ll show you,” she said.

Limnear’s labs were down in the sublevels. They descended two floors. Tracy swiped a security card to get through two sets of locked doors.

Around the walls of the lab were several computer banks, monitors, and cabinets. What really caught his attention was a big thing that stuck four feet out of the floor in the middle of the room. It was more or less cylindrical and had massive tangles of cables attached to it in various places.

Tracy was looking at him looking at the thing. She knew he had no idea what it was, and she was enjoying it. “We call it The Ripper,” she said.

“Sounds ominous. What’s it do?”

“This shaft extends fifty meters below the lunar surface. That’s where the real Ripper is. It basically rips a small hole into another dimension.”

“What do you mean a hole? You mean like a wormhole or something?”

“Not exactly. Inside is the Vortex, a non-local, ultra-dimensional point.”

“You lost me.”

“It’s a place that can be immediately accessed anywhere in the universe, a point that’s connected to all other points.”

“So you can send data through it?”

“You got it. We could send instant messages across the universe, if we wanted, as long as there was a Ripper on the receiving end. The bandwidth is infinite, and using the quantum control computer, we can actually store and manipulate data in it.”

“It works? I mean you’ve tested it?”

“Yep.” She crossed her arms with pride, and yet Dave could tell there was something else.

“But…” he said.

“Well for one thing, we’re not sure it’s entirely safe yet.”

“Not safe?”

“Remember that moonquake a few days ago? That was our first attempt with The Ripper.”

“You’re saying you caused the moonquake with this thing?”


“Why haven’t you told anyone?”

“Are you kidding? Do you realize how big this is? I can get anything I want right now. I’ve worked eight years on this. If word got out about the quake they’d shut us down for months, and who knows who’d end up with my research at the end of all the inquiries.”


“Look, everything’s under control. We figured out the problem and the Vortex is totally stable.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“We’ve had some glitches in our systems.”

“I knew it was something.”

“Our guys can’t make heads or tails of it, and you’re the hottest computer jock on the Moon right now.”

Their eyes locked in a silence broken only by the hum of computers. Tracy looked away. “It is good to see you,” she said. “What do you say? Will you help us out?”

“I never could say no to you, Tracy.”

“You’re the best. Look, we’ll get you settled in the guest quarters and then I’ll bring you up to speed.”

There was plush carpeting underfoot, a queen-size bed, and a private bathroom with fluffy white towels. It was like a dream, an oasis of luxury. Dave had no idea anything like this was even on the Moon.

“Hey, Tracy,” Dave said as he checked out the shower. “Are you sure you have the right room? I’m not a member of the board, you know.”

“Very funny.”

He turned down the bed a little, admiring the fine linens. “Is your room like this?”

Tracy looked around her, as if making some kind of precise calculation. “My room is messier,” she said.

She took him up to the cafeteria next, where Tracy introduced him to some of the other project members. Billy Kazama, the head engineer of The Ripper, filled him in on the details.

* * *

Back in the lab, Dave pulled a pair of video goggles over his eyes and had a closer look at the local systems. Kazama had explained that The Ripper’s control computer and several workstations currently were connected to Limnear’s network via the Vortex. This was the first stage of their testing. They were streaming data through it.

Tracy rubbed his shoulders as he worked. Her hands were still familiar, after all these years. Perhaps she did it by way of thanking him, or perhaps she was moved by the same sense of familiarity. Whatever it was, whatever was in the past… it felt good.

It didn’t take long for Dave to see the problems Kazama had described. Two strange things were happening. The first was that a steadily increasing stream of random inquiries were being made through Limnear’s network to Earthnet. The second was that the control computer’s main systems were being systematically corrupted.

“Tracy?” Dave said.

“I’m here.” At the same time, she answered with her hands, pressing them gently into his shoulders.

“Do you guys use Comsat 1?”

“No, we have our own satellite.”

“Good, because whatever satellite you’re patched through is going to be overloaded with all these inquiries.”

“Do you know what it is?”

“Some kind of embedded program. It appears to be rewriting the control computer’s operating systems and simultaneously chewing up bandwidth with random queries to Earthnet.”

“A virus?”

“Yep, an exotic one, too. Sophisticated. It’s really on a rampage. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“But how could it get in there?”

“Well… it’s there. I don’t know what it’s doing exactly, but your system’s bound for a major life crisis.”

“Can’t you fix it?”

Dave pulled off the goggles and looked up over his shoulder at her disappointed face. “There’s too much damage already. Besides, I can’t locate the virus, and without analyzing its code, there’s no way to write a cure.”

“How long until it crashes?”

“No way to know, really. You should probably just shut it down.”

* * *

Late that night, Dave took a hot shower. The water fell like slow motion. He thought about the Vortex, about faster-than-light communication. He thought about the spindles of data in the control computer, transforming before his eyes. He thought about Tracy’s hands pressed into his shoulders.

After a long while, he turned off the water and dried off with a fluffy towel. He opened a package of pajamas he found in the closet, put them on and went to bed. But there he lay, in the biggest, most comfortable bed he’d laid in since he left Earth, perhaps the most comfortable bed ever, covered in crisp linens and a down comforter, feeling practically weightless, and he couldn’t sleep.

Somewhere above him, the ceiling was like the lunar night, a lunar night without stars, just emptiness forever. He didn’t know how long he lay there staring up at the ceiling, but the next thing that interrupted a long string of related and unrelated thoughts was a knock at the door. He pushed a button on the nightstand and a soft light illuminated above the headboard. He got up.

Tracy was still in her work clothes. She stood in the doorway. “Were you sleeping?” she said.

“No. I uh… couldn’t sleep.”

“I thought we could talk.”


She stepped into the room and touched the switch that closed the door. They stood face to face. “I just wanted to thank you for coming,” she said. “I didn’t want you to think I called you out here just because we had a computer problem. I guess I wanted you to know what I’ve been doing. I wanted you to know it was important. And… well, I don’t know. I wanted to see you.”


“Aside from work, we were really good together and I’ve never forgotten that.”

After a moment, they fell together. The memories of the past merged with the sensations of the present as they felt their bodies press against each other. There was a pause in which their eyes met, like distant stars, and then they kissed, at last, again.

When they finally parted and looked into each other’s eyes again, they both felt the return of something, the familiar comfort of togetherness, the relief of being accepted, the exhilaration of desire… the involvement with another being that maybe, perhaps, has always been, love.

Tracy took a step back and unzipped her jumpsuit. She dropped it off one shoulder, then the other, and with a slight wiggle on her part, it slid to the floor. “Lunar gravity’s been great for my figure, don’t you think?” They laughed, then grabbed each other, stumbling as they moved, and tumbled softly into bed.

* * *

Sometime in the middle of the night, a loud knock woke them. A muffled voice came from beyond. “Dr. Lightner? Dr. Locke? It’s Kazama. Something’s happening.”

Tracy slid nervously out of bed. “Just a minute.” She found her jumpsuit and jumped into it. “How did you know I was here,” she said when she opened the door.

“You weren’t anywhere else. Something’s happening with the computers and the Vortex, something strange.”

Dave was out of bed now, too, standing behind Tracy in a white cotton robe. “What?” he said, looking over Tracy’s shoulder. “What’s happening?”

“Well I was going to shut the whole system down just like we talked about, but… well I think you should see for yourself.”

Down in the lab, Dave goggled up and looked in wonder. “Those queries aren’t coming from the control computer,” he said.

“Then I’m not crazy,” Kazama said.

“No. They’re coming from the Vortex itself.”

“But that’s impossible. This is the only Ripper in existence.”

Dave pulled off the goggles and looked half dumbstruck at Tracy. “Here,” he said. “It’s the only Ripper in existence here.

“Of course,” Tracy said. “If we’ve developed this technology here… then perhaps somewhere else, out there, somebody else has too.”

“Somebody maybe… or everybody.”

“You mean….” Kazama said.

“Yes,” Dave said. “You said this thing could transmit across the universe, right, Tracy?”


“And the virus?” Kazama said.

“Maybe it’s not a virus at all.”

“Look,” Kazama said, “the control computer has reset itself.”

Tracy and Dave held each other’s hand, filled with a hope they were only beginning to realize.

* * *




NODE IDENTIFICATION 85774323112466342




About the Author: Matthew Lowes is an author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Visit his website at www.matthewlowes.com

(c) 2006 Matthew Lowes

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