"Monitor mode. Report station status."
The holo display lit up, projecting a floating blue M, sans serif. A melodious voice emanated from the slowly revolving letter.
"Monitor mode. Station integrity is nominal. An alarm has been acknowledged by station superintendent Harry Harms at 4:48:52 internal subjective estimate time. . . ."
"I'm Harry Harms. Why don't you tell me something I don't know, like what the alarm's for, you shaggy excuse for a baldie's toup . . . ah . . . ah . . ."
A sneeze tore through Harry's curse. He wiped his eyes with the back of a hirsute wrist.
"The alarm denoted an interruption in our patrol circuit of E Level hyperspace," the monitor continued, unperturbed. "The station has apparently become mired in an anomaly region."
"You mean we're grounded on a reef. I already knew that much. But what kind of . . ." He muttered. "Oh, never mind. I'll go see for myself."
Harry ambled over to a set of vertical louvered blinds--one of six banks that rimmed the hexagonal chamber--and slipped a fingertip between two of the slats, prying them apart to make a narrow slit opening. He hesitated, then brought one eye forward to peer outside.
The station appeared to be shaped in its standard format, at least. Not like a whale, or jellyfish, or amorphous blob, thank Ifni. Sometimes this continuum had effects on physical objects that were gruesomely bizarre, or even fatal.
On this occasion the control chamber still perched like a glass cupola atop an oblate white spheroid, commanding a 360-degree view of a vast metaphorical realm--a dubious, dangerous, but seldommonotonous domain.
Jagged black mountains bobbed in the distance, like ebony icebergs, majestically traversing what resembled an endless sea of purple grass. The "sky" was a red-blue shade that could only be seen on E Level. It had holes in it.
So far so good.
Harry spread the slats wider to take in the foreground, and blinked in surprise at what he saw. The station rested on a glistening, slick brown surface. Spread across this expanse, for what might be a kilometer in all directions, lay a thick scattering of giant yellow starfish!
At least that was his first impression. Harry rushed to another bank of curtains and peeked again. More "starfish" lay on that side as well, dispersed randomly, but thickly enough to show no easy route past.
"Damn." From experience he knew it would be useless to try flying over the things. If they represented two-dimensional obstacles, they must be overcome in a two-dimensional way. That was how allaphorical logic worked in this zone of E Space.
Harry went back to the control board and touched a button. All the blinds retracted, revealing an abrupt panoramic view. Mountains and purple grass in the distance. Brown slickness closer in.
And yes, the station was completely surrounded by starfish. Yellow starfish everywhere.
"Pfeh." Harry shivered. Most of the jaundiced monsters had six arms, though some had five or seven. They didn't appear to be moving. That, at least, was a relief. Harry hated ambulatory allaphors.
"Pilot mode!" he commanded.
With a faint crackling, the floating helvetica M was replaced by a jaunty, cursive P.
"Aye aye, o' Person-Commander. Where to now, Henry?"
"Name's Harry," he grunted. The perky tones used by pilot mode might have been cheery and friendly in Anglic, but they came across as just plain silly in Galactic Seven. Yet the only available alternative meant substituting a voice chip programmed in whistle-clicking GalTwo. A Gubru dialect, even. He wasn't desperate enough to try that yet.
"Prepare to ease us along a perceived-flat course trajectory of two forty degrees, ship centered," he told the program. "Dead slow."
"Whatever you say, Boss-Sentient. Adapting interface parameters now."
Harry went back to the window, watching the station grow four huge wheels, bearing giant balloon tires with thick treads. Soon they began to turn. A squeaky whine, like rubbing your hand on a soapy countertop, penetrated the thick crystal panes.
As he had feared, the tires found little traction on the slick brown surface. Still, he held back from overruling the pilot's choice of countermeasures. Better see what happened first.
Momentum built gradually. The station approached the nearest yellow "starfish."
Doubt spread in Harry's mind.
"Maybe I should try looking this up first. They might have the image listed somewhere."
Once upon a time, back when he was inducted as Earth's first volunteer-recruit in the Navigation Institute survey department--full of tape-training and idealism--he used to consult the records every time E Space threw another weird symbolism at him. After all, the Galactic civilization of oxygen-breathing races had been exploring, cataloging, and surveying this bizarre continuum for half a billion years. The amount of information contained in even his own tiny shipboard Library unit exceeded the sum of all human knowledge before contact was made with extraterrestrials.