The landscape flickered once and then became solid, more real than reality. Blue took three steps forward and felt her feet sinking into the sand, felt a breeze blowing in from the body of water before her. Was it an ocean? A large lake? Blue couldn’t be sure. But the sand was lovely, warm and soft against her bare feet.
She walked out to the edge of the water and dipped in her toes. It was shockingly cold, given the warmth of the sand and the apparent sunlight blazing above her. She stepped back and turned to walk down the line of the water. It had happened somewhere around here, and if she kept her eyes open, she should be able to see some sign of it.
A breeze blew against her skin, colder than she’d expect for this sunny day. Goosebumps popped up on her exposed arms, and she hugged them tight across her chest. It was an odd disconnect that served to remind her of where she really was.
The beach was wide and empty before her, but back a few dozen meters from the water a dense wall of scrubby trees seemed to scowl at her. Somewhere in there, it must have been.
Yes, as she drew near, she spotted a narrow path that led into the trees. She could see murky green light inside — sunlight, or something that might as well be sunlight, filtered through a thick layer of trees.
The path wasn’t terribly inviting — low bushes clustered close, and their branches were crowded with long, narrow thorns. Heavy tree limbs hung low enough that even Blue, who was rather on the short side, would need to crouch down while on the path. The ground here shifted from fine sand to sharp gravel. “Shoes,” Blue said, and sturdy hiking shoes appeared on her feet, with soft socks nestled inside.
She entered the path, doing her best to avoid touching any of the branches. Nothing here could mortally wound her, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t pick up minor scrapes and bruises. She considered donning thicker clothing that covered more of her body, but the was warmer and stuffy back among the trees, and she didn’t want to be even more uncomfortable. She inched her way deeper into the trees, dodging branches that seemed to reach out for her.
After walking the path for several minutes, she heard a distant, musical sound. She could almost have mistaken it for birdsong, but it was too mechanical to be natural. The sound was repetitive, a simple four-note melody, and it was accompanied by the faintest whirring noise. As she walked, the sound swiftly grew louder, and after just a few more steps, the path abruptly opened into a small clearing. If Blue had been able to stand in the middle of the clearing, the surrounding trees would be just barely out of reach of her fingertips. But she couldn’t stand in the middle, because that space was occupied.
A shining metal object stood in the middle of the clearing. It was a narrow oval, about as tall as Blue and a bit wider than her shoulders. The surface was an iridescent silver, gleaming in the green light. As soon as Blue entered the clearing, the sound stopped, and the object began to glow a pulsing, otherworldly aquamarine. A voice that came from everywhere and nowhere said, “Welcome. Please step inside.” And then the oval split in half, revealing a dark and vast interior.
Blue felt a chill that had nothing to do with the breezes. This Robin’s Egg should never have made its way past the High-Atmosphere Defense Shield. There hadn’t been one on the surface of the planet in decades, precisely because HADS had been put in place to keep them out. How had this one slipped through? Would others? Had others slipped through already, undetected?
Blue stepped close, and the pod began to vibrate in anticipation. She leaned in to look inside, but the interior was nothing but the deepest void, endless and empty all at once.
“Well,” she said to no one, “let’s give this a try.” And she stepped into the blackness.
Everything Blue could see shifted and splintered and spun around her, and Blue fought down a wave of motion sickness. Then all went black — not the blackness of the interior of the egg, but a simpler, flatter, more mundane darkness. A dark room, the lights unexpectedly switched off. Nothing supernatural about it.
And then a voice in her ear: “What the hell just happened, Blue? Did you break the simulation?”
“Sorry,” Blue replied, and then flinched as harsh bluish-white lights flickered on, revealing the boxy room she’d been in all along. “That simulation was amazing, Dot. The new upgrade makes a huge difference. I could actually feel the sand on my feet.”
A door opened to Blue’s right, and someone joined her in the now-barren room. “Don’t try to change the subject. What did you do to my simulation?”
“I found the Robin’s Egg,” Blue replied. “Dot, how did it get here?”
“That shouldn’t have broken the simulation,” Dot replied.
Blue gave a sheepish chuckle. “Well, I entered it.”
“You what?!” Dot stared at her in horror.
“I wanted to see what would happen! The simulation is safe, right? It couldn’t whisk me away or anything.” Blue put a hand on Dot’s arm and took on an apologetic tone. “I’m sorry, Dot. I’ve just never been that close to a Robin’s Egg before. Not even in a simulation. I was curious.”
“Curious? Well, that’s lovely. I think you fried my newly upgraded system with your curiosity.” Dot shook her head. “I should have known something like that would happen.”
“How could you? We’ve never used the simulator to find a Robin’s Egg before. This is uncharted territory. Is it really ruined?” Blue started to feel a bit embarrassed. She hadn’t even considered the affect her actions might have on the delicate interworkings of the simulator’s machinery.
“Maybe. I’m going to have to tinker with it and see what I can fix. Regardless, we won’t be simulating anything for a few days, at least.”
“Damn,” Blue replied. “I’d like another look at that Egg.”
“Are you crazy?” Dot exclaimed. “Why would you want to get anywhere near one?”
“It’s just a simulation! It’s safe in there.” Blue thought it was safe, anyway. You never could tell, when it came to Robin’s Eggs.
Dot snorted in response. “Safe. Sure. Well, your curiosity is going to have to live without the Egg or my simulator, at least for now. At least you figured it where it is, right?”
“I think so,” Blue replied. “It was definitely North America, and the body of water looked like a Great Lake. Michigan, maybe? I’m going to triangulate a few things, but I think I can narrow it down.”
Dot got a suspicious look on her face. “Blue. Tell me you’re not going to try to find in for real. Because that would be a terrible idea.”
All innocence, Blue said, “What? I wouldn’t dream of it!”
Unconvinced, Dot continued, “You need to leave that to the professionals. Just tell the team where you think it is, so they can create the quarantine zone.” Dot caught Blue’s eyes and held them. “Seriously, Dot. Promise me.”
Blue couldn’t look away, and found it terribly hard to lie to Dot while making eye contact. “Come on, Dot! What do you take me for?”
Dot raised an eyebrow, but let the matter drop. “I’ll be in my office. For many, many hours. While I clean up the mess you just made for me. Please keep out of trouble.” And then Dot exited to the hallway.
Blue watched her go, and then checked her watch. She’d been in the simulator for about an hour, only half the time she and Dot had scheduled for this exercise. So the team wouldn’t come looking for her assessment, and her guess about the location of the Egg, for at least another hour. If she was quick, she could home in on the location and hop on a flight before anyone knew what she was doing.
Blue stepped to the door and checked the hallway before entering it — empty. Good. Dot had probably forgotten all about her by now and was elbows deep in her simulator repairs. Blue darted down the hall and into her own office, staying just long enough to grab her computer and notepad. Then, back into the hall and to a side door that let her out into the grassy mall. The Department of Planetary Defense building was just one of a cluster of ugly office buildings that crouched around a bland expanse of manicured grass and evenly spaced shrubs. Benches were placed at regular intervals with military precision. But just past the end of the mall was an unruly tangle of trees that hadn’t yet been tamed by the groundskeeper. Blue headed for the trees in search of a sheltered spot to sit and work. There would be no witness in the little copse, and the team was unlikely to come looking for her here.