The Last Key (7/10)


They had been seeking contactless propagation for eons. Many of the structures they had absorbed contained internal circuitry that seemed rudimentary enough but ended at no apparent purpose, evidently meant to send or receive across the cold air. Yet try as they might, they had never been able to refine their energy pulses in a way that made long-distance transmission possible for them.

But when they had found this external source, this living structure—or, perhaps, when it had found them—one of the most surprising revelations was a perfectly functioning contactless transmission system. After a lengthy debate, they decided to do further experiments on this living structure—though living, it was quite primitive, assuaging any ethical concerns—so that they might discern the secret to its contactless transmission.

It was a subtle and challenging task to map out the pattern of electrical pulses without disrupting them completely. It was slow progress, but eventually they had traversed every circuit, monitored every power flow, and could feel—at the end of one electrical cul-de-sac—something else! In a few moments, they miraculously found they had access to an entirely new space, another living system, which they could colonize at a distance. They sent their feelers into the computer banks aboard Alma’s aircraft, still grounded outside the city. Though it was exposed to the cold atmosphere, it was only a minor irritation for such a small structure, as long as energy levels were kept relatively low.

But there was another dead end—and they found aboard the ship a much more powerful version of the same transmission structure, pointing out into oblivion. They tried their luck, pulsing through it in the same way that they had been taught to do only moments earlier—and found themselves backward, in the aircraft once again? They could feel the very edges, but there was something reflecting them, sending them back, as if they lacked a key that they needed. And so they began to search about the edges of this barrier, and they could glimpse that it was a living being far more powerful than either of these first two. But it would not let them in, not yet… and so they probed about the borders, diverting more of their energy through the ship and its transmission system, trying to find a way in themselves…

Suddenly, the cold was unbearable, not because they had breached this next obstacle but because something had happened on the first ship—the great energy they had invested into it was dissipating rapidly. Like lightning, they retracted from it—