T H E       C O N V E R S I O N       B U R E A U



By Chatoyance


Chapter Two: Bubble In The Sea

Project Bucephalus - Orientation

January 1st

I still don't know truly understand why I am here. I don't belong on a project like this. I don't know enough. I barely even have a doctorate - honestly I faked and scammed my way through most of it. My advisor was a friend of the family. Most of the committee was too. I am proud of my dissertation, I won't say otherwise there. Teaching An Old Nano New Tricks: A Brief Examination Of Where Nanotechnology Failed, And How Its Promise Can Yet Be Fulfilled. It was good work. Solid work. But that said, I don't belong here.

I don't know where 'here' actually is. I think it is underground, or at least inside of a mountain. I catch whiffs of the scent of ancient mold and earthly dampness, despite the constant - and sometimes loud - churning of the ventilation system. Everything is plascrete and crystalex, and the doors are vault doors, heavy and imposing. There are no windows at all, though there are false windows in certain areas with holographic views. The entire complex feels both cutting edge and run down at the same time - or perhaps it is closer to say that it is likely an old site of some kind, re-purposed for what we are doing here.

I don't say 'trying to do here'. It has been made abundantly clear that there is literally no place for failure. We either succeed, or we - and every human being, indeed the whole of the human species - will perish. The public do not know yet that the world is ending. We have just seven years, starting today. Seven years before the world ends.

It started with a single image, taken from a spy satellite scanning the North Pacific. Last year, on April the 22nd, that was the day they first saw it. The 21st, nothing. Then BAM, the next day, a ten meter wide pearl from nowhere, half in the water, and half out, and it was growing. It wasn't floating, and it didn't move relative to the continental shelf. Not a millimeter. By the 23rd, it was thirty meters in diameter. 28.8558,-142.414221 -the precise location of the beginning of the end of the world.

By the start of May, the Pacific Anomaly - that is what they were calling it at the time - was a hundred meters in diameter, and they had aerostats and carriers and every kind of exploratory vessel imaginable out there. Submersibles confirmed it was just hanging there, a perfect sphere, a bubble, half in and out of the water, somehow locked in place relative to the crust of the earth.

They showed me the early images - it was quite something. You could see it was a three-dimensional hole into another world even then. There was this sped-up video, taken from aboard a carrier circling the anomaly. The ship went all around the thing, 360 degrees, and from every angle it showed this desert, stretching off to infinity. It was like looking at a gigantic mirror ball, only the reflection in the curving mirror was not the Pacific Ocean at all. It was this strange, colorful desert, with a deep blue sky, blue like skies used to be before the global smog permalayer. At first, they thought it might be some kind of time gate that led back millions of years, when the continent was where ocean is now. But that ended when the aliens made contact.

Holy motherfucking shit. Aliens. Aliens are real. And they do not look like UFO aliens.

Well actually, they do. They really do, if you see them square on, from the front, with their face turned toward you. Big eyes, small mouths, tiny looking nostrils, square on from the front, they only look like they have two legs. Get a gray one without a mane, and in the dark, it would look just like the classic UFO 'Gray' alien so many people have claimed to see. Except for the ears, of course. They have big ears on top of their heads.

From the side, the aliens are quadrupeds, with hooves and a coat of hair. They have enormous heads, large ears and very short, neotenous animal muzzles. They look like ambulatory equine fetuses. The have manes and tails, though. Everyone here calls them 'ponies', because that is the closest thing on earth we have to them. They don't look like what real equines looked like, but perhaps, if something vaguely equine were to evolve, or be deliberately uplifted somehow, then such a creature might end up looking like the aliens.

They are intelligent, and they have language and technology. Not advanced technology though. Apparently their level of advancement is around the 14th or 15th century. They don't have or understand industrialization. Oh, they are very, very colorful. Baasch the xenobiologist - apparently that's a real thing, he's very proud of the title - thinks the bright colors are to confuse predators. Whatever the reason, I am talking every color of the rainbow and then some. Tan, hot pink, livid green, blue - you name it. They are like a race of colorful parrots.

They have their own language, but apparently they have learned ours. All of ours. I don't know how. Maybe they have been watching us for ages, nobody seems to know. They have a leader, and everything we know, we know from her. But that is apparently going to change. Eventually we will be meeting and interacting with these beings. The thought makes me feel giddy, and also a little like I might throw up. It's terrifying, and amazing at the same time. Or maybe it is incipient xenophobia. I have no idea how they have technology without hands. They do not have hands, or any kind of grasping organ I can identify, at least from the images of them through that sphere in the Pacific.

Oh, their world is deadly. Apparently their world isn't in our universe. The hole - my higher ups call it a 'Rucker Gate' - leads not to another planet in our galaxy, or another galaxy, but to an entirely different cosmos. They are aliens from an alien universe, and we've been told that the laws of physics there are very different. Holy crap. Just.... holy crap.

The physics of their realm are not compatible with ours. A few ships got too close to the hole, to the bubble, and the crews started to burn. Their flesh began to necrotize and turn to ash. One ship grazed the bubble when this happened, because the crew was unable to pilot the vessel. They showed me the video, from several angles.

The part of the ship - it was one of those medium sized ships, a cruiser or a battleship or something, I really don't know ships - anyway when part of it passed through the bubble, it changed. By changed I mean - it really changed. It just turned into something gooey and pink, with striped red and white bits and big lumps that looked for all the world like gumdrops or maybe big sticky gems. I don't know what it was, but that part of the ship became it, and that stuff wasn't very strong and immediately collapsed into the sea. By the time the ship drifted past the bubble, a third of one side was just oozing into the sea, and the ship was tipping over. I saw the compartments and and chambers inside the ship as it fell over, bodies falling out into the sea, into that goop that used to be the ship. They didn't tell us if anyone lived or what.

Today was Initial Orientation, you see. Basically, they just threw everything at us for six hours to see what might stick. I don't know how to take any of this. Three days ago, I thought I understood the world. Today, I have just learned that an alien universe is expanding into the Pacific, and there are intelligent aliens living in it, it is deadly as hell, and even brushing it can turn a ship into something that looks like ice cream and candy bits. The aliens are colorful, technological horse fetuses that can build cities without hands, somehow. And they have an alien queen.

Not a queen, she apparently insists on the term 'princess'. That is the highest she will go. She can speak our language, and, according to Gerste, our orientation guy - maybe our manager, I'm not sure - she can read minds. And more, he says, much, much more. Over the next week, we will see some of what else she can do. Reading minds - this is pushing my credibility, but then, I saw a ship partly turned into goo. I don't have a basis to make any valid statements about any of this. Yet.

There are twenty of us. I met Baasch, the 'xenobiologist' - that is truly a thing, really? Since when? and a woman named Saulnier, I think she's a physicist. I don't know the rest. I've always been bad at remembering names. Fortunately, everyone has badges. Baasch was impressed with me being a biotechnologist, well, until I scoffed at his title. It sounded fake. I mean, studying alien biology? Three days ago, I would have bet my life savings on there not being even one example, ever. Boy, howdy was I wrong.

They wouldn't tell us what it is that we are here for yet. I guess they are seeing who folds, who breaks after seeing all of this stuff. They are introducing it to us in stages. But they have repeatedly told us that this is important. That the world will end - though not yet how that is supposed to happen - and that it is our job to make the answer work so that all humanity will not die.

No pressure, obviously. And there is an answer, apparently. They already know what needs to be done to save everyone, they just need to make it actually work. So that's a relief, apparently. Someone asked why we just don't blast off into space and colonize the moon or mars or whatever. I don't know who said it, but everyone in the room just stared at them. I worry that whoever it was won't be back tomorrow. One thing they made clear was that this was about saving as much of humanity as possible, not just a few dozen, or hundred people who we might be able to ship off to the moon. Man, I feel sorry for that poor jerk suggesting moon colonies.

I don't know what the solution is yet, but it's apparently real, and it can work if we can make it work, but it won't be easy. There are twenty other groups like ours, and we will all be working together to try to crack whatever the hell the big fix turns out to be. The whole planet is at our disposal, all the resources we have left, everything. This is priority number one, and nothing else in all the world matters anymore, just this.

We were sworn to secrecy, and to serve until we succeed. There is only one penalty for failure, and only one way to withdraw, and that is a bullet in the brainpan. That was another thing they were really careful to make clear. This is a completely zero-tolerance situation. We are in until we win, or we die. It is a lot to take. I guess that means that anyone who can't hack any of this is pretty much dead meat. Man, I feel sorry for the moon colony guy. Maybe he'll be OK.

I am scared. I am really scared, and it's hard to go to sleep. I keep trying to think that this is all some psychology experiment, some Milgram test or something, but those videos just had something about them that said they were real. Real aliens. A real alien universe. The planet is doomed. And I am one of the big push to save humanity.

Like I said, I don't belong here. I can't even imagine what good I will be. Physics, sure. I can see that. Even 'xenobiology', whatever it is they do. It sounds pretty appropriate to the situation. But basic biotechnology? Implants and nanotech? The stuff is pretty much useless except for making food, and I wrote my thesis on how much more could be done with it. Someday, with the emphasis on future. As in, not now.

I'm going to hit my special books, and see if I can relax. They let us bring a chest of personal effects. I think I need to tumble-bumble pell-mell down a few watercolor hills tonight more than ever. Thank wonderment for my antique book collection.

Project Bucephalus - Excursion

January 8th

I saw the Barrier today. Up close. I was utterly terrified.

It took a day and a half to get here, out in the middle of the North Pacific. It is now very clear that no expense is being spared with regard to any of us. My group is Group 12, of 20 such teams. I figure there are about 400 of us, altogether, if each team has twenty members on average. I overheard Mayoss - he's our neurochemist - describe us as the Manhattan Project of our age. I do get that vibe, I have to say.

We travel in and out of wherever it is the complex is located in large vehicles with no windows. It takes about an hour to get to whatever the perimeter facility is. We boarded something new, this time, a kind of big trailer, only with comfy appointments inside, but of course, no windows. I felt us being lifted up on cables - the whole thing swayed very disconcertingly. Two hours later, we were allowed to leave. We spent the time watching a movie, one of the modern, forgettable things. 'Favela Love' or somesuch - it was one of those combined Bolly-Holly musicals. Interestingly, I saw Baasch wiping his eyes at the climax - I guess xenobiologists are softies. Saulnier - she just tried to ignore the whole thing and spent the time catching up on journals. Serious type, Saulnier.

When we were allowed to leave, I expected we would be on an aerostat. Big surprise - we were on a jetcopter, burning fuel like there was any left in the world. We refueled twice, landing on these massive carriers at sea, sleeping aboard one of them. The carrier was named the Stennis, apparently, and we were welcomed by some Admiral named Holt. They had pretty good food, which surprised me. I mean, it was really quite good. I didn't expect that.

After our short stay on the Stennis, we resumed our jetcopter trip to Platform One. The thing is a large, floating structure that constantly runs engines in order to maintain an exact distance from the Barrier. Everyone calls it the Barrier, you can hear the capital letter in their voice. Everything seems to be said with capital letters when it comes to project Bucephalus.

Platform One is the size of a couple of football pitches and has some buildings on it, but mostly it is just open deck. There is stuff below, but we never got to take a tour. The whole structure is automated, and run by a dedicated A.I. We didn't get to learn much more than that. Apparently, time was of the essence.

The  platform floats right up next to the wall of the Barrier, the side of the cosmic bubble - and it is huge now, let me just say that. Huge. We were informed that it was half a kilometer in diameter now, and still growing. The speed of growth is not constant. Sometimes it stops for a while, then the sphere expands again once more. It never gets any smaller. I am getting a hint from that as to what the big 'end of the world' danger likely is.

Whatever the deadly radiation is that spills out of the damn thing has a pattern to it, one that they already understand. I heard talk that it was some fractal thing, and that it worked a little like electromagnetic waves - there were areas of cancellation. That was the reason we could approach the Barrier at all, much less stand right next to it and poke stuff into it. Platform One constantly orbits the bubble, doing its best to stay in a shadow, where waves of whatever the death rays are cancel themselves out. It isn't always possible to avoid exposure entirely, which is why time was such an issue - we had a window where we wouldn't be burned, and we had to get in, and get out, before that window closed.

The radiation is serious, and it messes with reality on the quantum level. Apparently they regularly have to replace the A.I. because it gets blasted sometimes. The platform can't always move fast enough to stay in the shifting sweet spots. They lost Platform Zero altogether - the quantum computer was destroyed when it couldn't move fast enough due to choppy seas, and the thing slammed into the Barrier and turned into butter or something. It's insane. I got to personally see how insane.

We were led up to the Barrier three at a time, the twenty of us (except for Saulnier and Mayoss who didn't have a third), and each group was allowed five minutes to dick around. We were each given a little metal bucket thing filled with sticks to prod the bubble with. There was a glass rod, a steel rod, a wooden rod, neoplastic, copper, silver, a tree branch (I have no idea where they got those), and the leg of some animal. I didn't ask any questions.

I stood on this little overhanging stage that can be extended from the platform. I was with Belden (internal medicine) and Malcolm (evolutionary biology). The ocean was behaving itself, and there were rails around everything, but it was really pretty scary. I just stood there with the instruction to keep one hand on the rail at all times, and poke the Barrier to observe the result. We were all cautioned that touching the Barrier with any part of ourselves would mean immediate retirement from the project, so we were really, really, really careful.

So I stood there, hanging on to a metal rail on a stage extended over the open ocean, less than a meter from the outer boundary of a half-kilometer sized spherical anomaly protruding from outside our universe. I was sweating like a pig, my hands shook, and I wet myself a little when my foot slipped and I almost had my hand go through the Barrier.

I picked up the glass rod, and basically poked the wall in front of me. The sphere is so huge that it just looks like a big wall, the curvature is really difficult to accept or perceive correctly with something that large. The wall shimmers. It kind of looks like how a soap bubble looks, and there are gleams of light that sort of ripple over it. Things look slightly distorted through it, though I would be hard pressed to explain just how. Like thick glass maybe, or water.

The other side was a desert, just like I saw in the videos in orientation. It's a very colorful desert, lots of reds and pinks and tan shades. The sky on the other side is just the bluest blue you could imagine. And the sun was very strange. It was clearly a different time of day in there - we arrived just after lunch, about 1:15, I think, but it looked like late sunset beyond the wall of the Barrier.

The surface of the desert landscape is about two meters or so above the level of the ocean. Below that, I saw a cross-section of what was under the surface of the alien land. Sand and rocks, all flat to the edge of the bubble. The thing looked like a gigantic terrarium. I didn't see anything alive on the other side, though Beldin swore he saw a cactus-like plant in the distance.

So I jab at the shimmering Barrier, and the tip of the glass rod goes into it. The instant it penetrated the surface, the glass changed. As far as I could tell, the end of the rod became sand, just like the desert. The sand fell onto the desert, and made a little pile. I thought, OK, that makes sense - glass is just melted sand, after all. I felt pretty smart in that moment.

Then I stuck the copper rod into the Barrier. The part that went in looked like it shattered, only the bits were not copper anymore, and they did not fall. I swear on my Golden Books that the result was butterflies. I have never seen a living butterfly, of course, but I have seen videos of them, and what that rod turned into matched those videos perfectly. The little creatures flew away, into the distance, except for one.

One of the little butterflies flew back toward me. I freaked out, and that is when I slipped - though I caught myself - and the little creature did a loop and then darted back into the other universe. That is also the point at which I wet myself. I wasted a full minute just trying to recover from that. Our handler for this trip - Johnson or something, I can't remember - yelled at me over the loudspeaker to continue, time was limited. I jabbed at the Barrier in a daze with the steel rod and the neoplastic rod, and they just turned into what looked like little candies - peppermint, if I had to guess - and some sort of pink petals, like from a flower.

The last thing I poked the Barrier with was the tree branch. It was old, and dead, and dry, but when I stuck the end through the rippling wall, the wood came to life. While I watched, the wood repaired itself, gained missing bark, and sprouted a stem and a living leaf. I pulled the branch back and just stared, open-mouthed at the end of the thing. I was afraid to touch the altered end, I had no idea what it might do to me. At this point I was thinking 'maybe nanotech! Maybe that is why I am here! Maybe this is a universe of nanomachines! That's it! Little nanomachines that really do work, and alter matter at the molecular level, maybe those quadruped aliens are secretly super-advanced!" It all made sense to me, at that moment. They didn't need hands, they probably just commanded the nano's to make whatever they needed in the moment. I thought I had it all sussed.

Later, back on the jetcopter, out over the sea, we all compared notes. Malcolm said he had the same reaction with both the wood and his branch. Beldin's steel rod turned into something like a dark brown syrup of some kind, and his copper just dissolved into the air. He figured it became air - he did not get butterflies out of his copper rod. Even so, I swear it felt as if there was some underlying algorithm to the bizarre transformations of matter occurring

For example, all of us, not just Beldin and Malcolm and me - everyone in group 12 had the same result with the wood rod and the tree branch. In every case, the wood came alive, and began to sprout leaves and stems, and grow bark. Something more than randomness was involved, I think that was clear to everyone.

We spent another night on the Stennis, and once again Admiral Holt greeted us. Everyone treated us with great courtesy. I was surprised by that, I guess I figured we would be the 'eggheads' and given a cold shoulder. I've certainly had no love for anything even vaguely militaristic, myself. But they were great to us.

That night, I shared a cabin - I think that is the term, but it was more like a multi-room hotel suite. Carriers are huge - with So-yeon and Chawla. So-Yeon's a genetic programmer for one of the genegeneering giants, and Chawla's specialty is nanotechnology. She and I had a lot to talk about - she designed some of the little buggers that I referenced in my thesis. Apparently I got a few things wrong. Good thing my advisor wasn't in the room!

So-Yeon openly stated the anomaly acts like magic. Chawla and I kind of stared at her, figuring that there was an issue with language or something but no, she chose her term very carefully. I argued - and Chawla agreed with me - that magic is just a word for something you don't understand yet. I truly believe that.

But Yi just came back with a very uncomfortable notion - we are dealing with a completely alien universe on the other side of that Barrier. We only have seven years.

What if we just don't have the time to understand what we observed? What if the human brain just isn't capable of understanding alien physics?

I had to admit she had a point.



Gwenhwyfar carefully lay the notebook down, she had needed to go to the loo for some time and had been holding things to the point she had needed to cross her legs and bear down on her own nethers. She thought to run off to do her business and run right back, but then recalled a countless list of stories she'd read over the years where the major plot point was some character taking their eyes off of what they were supposed to be minding for only a moment, leading to inevitable turmoil. The funny thing about books was, even the craziest of them was based on some truth, and Gwen wasn't about to be caught moaning and stomping for discounting a bit of narrative.

Thinking the better of it, Gwen carefully bundled up the tattered notebook like a diapered child, and barely made it to her feet with nary a leak on her own part. She dashed for the facilities, holding the notebook to her chest. She set it down on the plascrete, and put a foot on the cover for good measure - she wasn't going to let any common fictional plot reach under the stall and snatch themselves a drama from her carelessness.

When she was at last unencumbered, Gwen went to the alcove where she'd stowed her backpack. She had a sip from her water bottle, and grabbed the bag of Mexi-Korean Nanoritos to take with her. She looked around the warehouse until she found a proper little fortress of books, and settled herself down ensconced in it like a Laird in a castle. Holding the notebook between her legs, she opened the bag of Nanoritos and bit into a chip - spicy KimChee and Jalapeno goodness attacked her tongue like an squad of Blackmesh putting down an insurrection. Her tongue did not yield, but the battle was a fierce one with much of the screaming and the horrors about it.

Gwen leafed through the notebook, noting more loose blueprints for the other five nanodevices. Each was a different shape, and likely it was that they worked together to transform a human body into an Equestrian one. Flipping through the pages, Gwen found a slip that answered a request for 'more of the thaumatically active organic suspension'. Tucked deep near the spine of the book was a torn note to remember that 'quantum components cannot be used!' The words were underlined several times, apparently it was an issue of some concern.

She flipped idly to the back of the notebook. In the middle of the blank back cover, was a tiny, tiny message, looking for all the world as if it had been written by a mouse with a shaking paw. Gwen had to squint her eyes to read it, and she wished she had a magnifying lens to help. Finally, with a bit of work, she made out the miniscule letters.

I'm sorry.

Oh Celestia, forgive me.

I'm so sorry.

I'm just so sorry.

The tiny, handwritten message grabbed Gwen by the heart and mind. There was no bloody way this book was leaving her clutches now, the devil take the consequences! If she had to hide the thing or steal it away altogether, she would see the end of it. It was a dangerous thing, of course, but then knowledge always was, and secret knowledge the more so.

But this particular circumstance was more important than mere facts, truth be told. Gwen smiled to herself. This was about knowing the heart of that red-haired girl in the photo, now. The lass only known as '-Me!' She'd clearly been given cause to cry, and if there was one thing Gwen couldn't leave be, it was the tears of a soul in sorrow. Gwen had to know why that tiny prayer had been written, and nothing in either universe was going to get in the way of that.

The chips burned like the screaming of the damned in Gwen's mouth. That she should have brought a soda was quickly becoming a subject of some reflection for her.

Gwen found her way back to where she had been reading in the book, and settled in, as best as a person can with Satan tapdancing in cleats within one's yap. 'Alright, miss 'Me!', what happened to you next...?