Prologue: In space, no one can hear you make an idiot of yourself…
The middle of an infinite nowhere. A two-kilometre long technological monolith hung suspended in interstellar space, holding silent vigil as its arrays of esoteric sensors probed the varied spectrums of electromagnetic and quantum backwash that suffused the vacuum. The vessel, bearing the name SS Brezhnev, was a research and exploration ship of the kind that trawled the galaxy for years at a time, measuring and recording anything of potential profit to the commercial matriarch whose stylized image was stencilled onto the gargantuan hull.
Professor Ogden Wernstrom pored over readouts in the ship's command centre, furrowing his brow and tapping the side of his aristocratic nose.
"Mmm," the old scientist grunted in derision at the Universe's reticence to divulge its secrets. "It certainly is puzzling," he said to himself. "Obviously not so puzzling that someone of my vast intelligence would be unable to solve it… but a mystery for now." He thought he saw one of his Asian assistants roll her eyes, and he cast a sharp glance in her direction.
"I… er," the woman stammered. "I've measured residual gravitronic effects in the nearby nebula which seem to support the hypothesis that a large mass was at one point present at these coordinates," she said. "Lack of any matter aside from a localized field of antiprotons undergoing gradual dispersal would indicate that the mass, whatever it was, was utterly annihilated some years ago."
"Not annihilated, you fool!" Wernstrom spat. "I give you an A-triple-minus for that botched analysis! The antiprotons are flushback from a superstring state conversion. Whatever was here was interfaced entirely in a quantum field which subsequently cancelled-out of this dimensional plane. Whatever was here was banished to another dimension – intentionally, because this 'quantum interface bomb' was no natural phenomenon… but why?"
"Because it was dangerous?" one of the younger scientists offered.
"Thank you for pointing out the abundantly obvious," Wernstrom sneered. "Whatever was transported from this dimensional plane must have been of great power to warrant such a deliberate and total banishment… something Momcorp could use to great advantage, while I go on to win another Nobel prize."
"Uh…" the young scientist raised a trembling index finger. "Perhaps… perhaps whatever this thing is… maybe it was sent away for a good reason."
Wernstrom rounded on the naysayer, narrowing his crinkled eyes in contempt. "What's your point, child?" he snapped.
"Well… maybe we should… play it safe and leave the thing where it is."
"Play it safe?" Wernstrom repeated in disgust. "How many scientific breakthroughs were made by 'playing it safe'?" He pointed at the youngster with a bony finger. "Get off my command deck – you're fired."
As the scientist slumped sadly away, the rest of the research team seemed suddenly more eager to please.
"Professor Wernstrom, we have the Q-tunnelling array powered up down in the isolation module," one of them said. "It shouldn't take too long to calibrate the quark-accelerator and U-space folding hardware to match the residual signature of the event – we should be able to send through a probe within the hour."
"Do it," Wernstrom said, peering out through the forward viewscreen at the mysterious area of empty space. "I want to know what happened here."
Deep in the bowels of the research ship, the containment section was filled with bulky particle-physics hardware that didn't officially exist. Wernstrom and his team watched through a sheet of heavily-reinforced transparent titanium alloy as crackling vermillion energies licked and spat between superconductor pylons inside the armoured spherical chamber.
"Even with both the antimatter and fusion reactors operating at full capacity, we still only have enough power to sustain a wormhole for around forty seconds – and it will be small and weak," Wernstrom said. "But nevertheless, it should suffice. Brezhnev, are we cleared to proceed?"
"Yes Professor," the ship's AI said through the intercom. "Though I would suggest caution in this matter."
Wernstrom sniffed. "That's why Artificial Intelligences aren't a substitute for real intelligence."
The headless body of Agnew toggled a control, and hard-edged light flared inside the isolation module. It dimmed to a point of glaring iridescence poised in the air between the spires of machinery, which then crackled and expanded into a rippling sphere that wavered and then seemed to solidify, a metre in diameter.
"Wormhole is stable," a technician reported as he consulted the readouts.
"Launch the probe," Wernstrom instructed, watching the wormhole with rapt fascination. From the curved ceiling above, a robotic arm lowered a sensor-encrusted Sputnik into position next to the seething sphere of exotic energy. Chemical verniers fired, and the probe shot forward, jumping towards the wormhole's event horizon where it…
…jerked to a halt and bounced away, clattering across the tangles of cable on the deck.
"What the hell?!" Wernstrom spat, staring in confounded irritation at the wormhole. As he watched, he realized what had stopped the probe going through – an object was coming through the other way. Movement pulled at the edges of the wormhole, distorted bulges squeezing at the event horizon – a shifting, indistinguishable mass was apparent behind the energy curtain, and for the first time Wernstrom felt a pang of fear.
"Bring the containment field up to full-power and activate the defence grid," he said, distantly aware of the automated railgun batteries swinging into position.
The wormhole fluxed and burst fourth an object which sailed into the containment pod, bouncing back and fourth. The flash of energy discharge from the now-collapsing wormhole obscured the room, and the science team leaned forward expectantly to catch a glimpse of what was inside.
Abruptly, the power failed, and they were plunged into momentary darkness while the energy-drain deficit was equalized. The wormhole had ceased to exist.
When the lights came back on, Wernstrom and the team gasped in horrified wonder.
"What kind of…"
"Is that what it looks like?"
"Can this be…?"
A large pink blob hovered on the other side of the transparent partition, its surface puckered and ridged, and still carrying some faint luminescence from the trans-dimensional energy. It was a brain. A huge floating brain, which seemed to regard the scientists, despite the lack of any obvious eyes.
"Duh, we should let it out and see what it tastes like!" one of the young scientists suggested, clapping his hands stupidly.
Wernstrom opened his mouth, closed it, blinked several times, and shook his head. What bothered him more than the idiocy of the comment was his sudden inability to find any logical fault with it. Maybe if they ate the brain they could gain its knowledge…
"What?" he said aloud, wondering where the ridiculous thought had come from. He watched one of his assistants bang her head against the transparent partition in apparent puzzlement as to how a solid wall could be in front of her and not be visible… which seemed like a good question…
"Heh heh… my name is Ogden," he heard himself blurt, and then grinned widely. "Og-den… Og den… Ogden… how weird is that?"
"This isn't MY hand!" one of the scientists shouted in terror, clutching at his own wrist and staring at his hand in mortification.
"Evolution is a myth," another of the team muttered. "God created us as we are."
"This ship would go faster if we painted it red…"
"How many 7's are there in 'science'?"
The ship's AI spoke over the intercom: "All personnel are advised that life support will now be rationed to preserve stores – please inhale only once every twelve hours."
Wernstrom squeezed his eyes shut, trying to drive away the wild impulse to climb up on the pipe structure that lined the bulkhead. "Something… not right… is… banana…" he struggled. "Brain… make people… monkey… stupid…"
"I can't lick my elbow!" one of the team complained in anguish.
"I'll do it for you… no!" Wernstrom gritted his teeth, and looked at the brain that hovered motionless inside the containment chamber. "Must… have to… stop… stupidification…"
"We all live in a yellow submarine!" the ship's AI sang drunkenly.
Wernstrom stumbled over to the containment module's control console and giggled at the colourful buttons. He punched a few at random, and when they did nothing he began sulking, putting one thumb in his mouth.
Agnew tried to walk up the wall and fell flat on his back while the others laughed. Wernstrom tried hard to focus, glaring down at the control console. Like the shadow of a distant memory, some knowledge flitted just out of reach. One button had a symbol on it that looked like a pair of lightning bolts. Wernstrom cocked his head to one side, trying to remember why he wanted to push the button, then shrugged and pushed it anyway.
Suddenly, the interior of the containment chamber was filled with crackling bolts of electricity that swam sparking across every surface. The alien brain convulsed and flew wildly from side to side and hundreds of thousands of volts shot through it. When the defense grid discharge ceased, it fell smoking to the deck.
Coming slowly back to his senses, Wernstrom surveyed the scene inside the chamber, and glanced at his groggy assistants.
"What happened?" he asked. There was no answer. Swallowing hard, he formulated some orders. "Put together a bio-quarantine team," he said weakly. "Check if that thing is still alive… then sedate it if it is."
Inside the containment module, the brain twitched and pulsed.