Project Lightpath:

In the 1950s the invention of satellite-mounted cameras made it possible to examine the Rift remotely for the first time since its formation. (Previous attempts at observation by magical scrying proved useless, as the Rift energies produced so much interference that nothing could be seen.) It became clear from the satellite photos that life was quickly and abundantly regenerating in the Rift preserve.

Intrigued and excited by this news, scientists petitioned the Empire for permission to enter the preserve in order to monitor the stages of succession and the effects of the Rift's energies on the flora and fauna. Kyia and her Cabinet were uneasy about allowing humans to be exposed to the region, so the research proceeded slowly and cautiously. Initial investigations around the peripheries of the region showed that the local biota had adapted to withstand remarkable degrees of mana saturation. The physical changes induced in these organisms were varied and complex; some specimens appeared nearly unchanged except for a remarkable degree of magic resistance, while others had been so completely altered that it was impossible to tell what species they had been derived from.

Both spurred on and troubled by these early findings, the Empire commissioned the development of magic-resistant environmental suits (MRES, or "Meer-suits") before investigations proceeded deeper into the preserve. The Meer-suits were ready by 1974 CR, and in a highly publicized expedition called Project Lightpath, a team of scientists and technical support personnel made their way into the forest to give the world its first view of the plants and animals of the so-called "Inner Rift Zone".

Lightpath One, as the field team was called, got off to an excellent start, or so it seemed at the time. Researchers discovered dozens of new species every day, and they found remarkable alterations in the basic ecology of the forest as a result of the high mana flow -- plants that converted mana into energy for growth instead of light, organisms that used spell-like abilities for hunting or defense, bizarre symbiotic mergings of different kinds of creatures, and some things so strange that the scientists didn't have the ability to even analyze them properly in the field. All of the field data collected were transmitted back to base, along with vid-cam footage that kept people everywhere glued to their TV sets.

The expedition went on for weeks. Samples were brought back to base for further study, and supplies were airlifted in to allow the research to continue. On Day 43 of the expedition, having already gone more than 30 miles into the Inner Rift Zone, the research team set out early in the morning for its first exploration of the Rift itself.

The team was within 1 mile of the Rift edge when problems began. Heavy interference began disrupting the live video footage, which had heretofore been unaffected by the high mana flow. Radio contact was maintained, but the transmissions were heavy with static. By the time they came within a quarter-mile of the Rift, the researchers' voices could barely be made out above the noise. Doctor Cynthia Raines, assistant field director of the Lightpath team, finally reported: "It's no good, Base. ... we get any ... --er to ... Rift, you're not ... --ing to be ... hear ...thing. We'll take the cameras ... try ... record some footage ... --ack to you later. I hope the cam-- ... --ork when we ... out there, bec-- ... --ooks incredible. ... can see what looks ... bright glow down ... Rift, but ...--ow what's causing it. ... --all you tonight. Raines out."

That was the last transmission received from Lightpath One. The day was October 25th, 1974 CR.
Lightpath Base, and the rest of the world, waited for 36 hours for some news from the field team, but the radios were filled with nothing but static. Resupply craft were sent in to fly over their last known position, but they could see nothing through the dense forest canopy. After 65 hours of radio silence, the order was given to form a rescue team.

Lightpath Two was equipped with stronger Meer-suits, which had been rejected by the Lightpath One team because they were too bulky to allow for effective field research. The team was also equipped with an assault skimmer that had been layered with heavy amounts of magic shielding, and an emergency medical team that was trained in treating the effects of heavy mana exposure.

The second team flew into the Inner Rift Zone five days after contact with Lightpath One had been lost. They found the equipment left by the first team, most of it sitting assembled and unattended within a few hundred feet of the Rift, but no sign of the researchers themselves -- nothing, that is, except for empty Meer-suits. A few of them had small flaws in the seams or gashes in the material, but most of them seemed undamaged. Just what might have caused the members of Lightpath One to remove their suits was unknown.

For two days and nights Lightpath Two searched the area to no avail. Two team members found the tethers that the Lightpath One researchers had used to rappel down into the Rift itself; they climbed down to investigate, but they found only a few more empty Meer-suits hanging at the end of the line.
Shortly before dawn on the third day, the rescue team reluctantly gave up its efforts. They were in the process of packing up the abandoned equipment when the steady glow they had seen at the bottom of the Rift suddenly flared up in a bright flash of light.

The four rescuers who had been standing closest to the Rift vanished instantly, apparently dissolved into the light, leaving their empty Meer-suits behind. Of those that survived, the effects were varied.
Those who had been inside the assault skimmer were only mildly affected: one woman's skin turned blue, a man sprouted thick hair all over his body, another grew a foot taller and grew a three-foot long fleshy tail. Those on the ground were affected more strongly:

* A woman grew a third eye in her forehead, which had what we would call X-ray vision.
* A man and woman who had been standing close together were fused into a single being, with the ability to switch back and forth between their two forms.
* Over the next several days, one man grew an extra pair of arms and a large set of batlike wings.
* A woman's skin and eyes turned rich emerald green, and her hair turned into a mass of long, thin appendages covered with leaves. Later examinations showed that her cells had some similarities to those of plants, including the ability to produce food through photosynthesis.
* Perhaps strangest of all, one man was changed into a golden-skinned, hairless creature with large black eyes, small ears and nose, elongated hands and feet and the ability to shape-shift into almost any form at will.

In addition to the physical changes, all surviving members of the team developed some degree of psionic ability. These psi-talents varied in strength and ranged from telepathy through telekinesis and clairvoyance to pyrokinesis. Most of the team members had to be hospitalized for months or years while they learned to cope with their new forms and talents. A few of them developed severe psychological disorders and had to be institutionalized indefinitely, but most have successfully re-integrated into society.

The results of Project Lightpath left scientists, government officials and the general citizenry alike both fascinated and horrified. Subsequent investigation has determined that a "surge" from the Rift was almost certainly what caused the disappearance of Lightpath One, and it was only because of their heavier shielding that most of the members of Lightpath Two did not share their fate. It is still not known what causes the surges, or how the plants and animals that live along the edge of the Rift can apparently withstand it without any difficulty. The project has revealed a great deal about the effects of high mana flow on living organisms, but many questions remain unanswered -- and Kyia and the Imperial Cabinet are not about to let any more researchers get near the Rift to try to answer them.

Today access to the preserve is strictly regulated, since both the timing of the surges and the effects of the Rift energies on humans are so unpredictable. (Some people periodically try to break into the preserve in hopes that the Rift energies will give them psionic powers, but most of these are apprehended before they get very far; of those who have made it to the Rift, only a handful have ever returned -- and invariably, those survivors needed to be institutionalized for extended periods of time because of their new "gifts".) Attempts are currently being made to investigate the Rift remotely through the use of robotic drones, and while these expeditions have been informative (and widely televised) there are limits to the amount and kinds of data that they can collect. Much of what happens in the Rift Zone seems destined to remain a mystery.

Author's Note: The people who were "vaporized" by the Rift were not actually killed, but were instead transmuted into a completely different state of being, becoming magical creatures. In the decades since Project Lightpath these individuals have managed to pull themselves together into something akin to human form, and they have formed a society that lives in secret in and around the Rift. All of them are extremely powerful psis. They apparently haven't found a way yet to survive apart from the Rift's energies, but they might do so someday.

STORY IDEA: A group of wannabe-psionic whack jobs breaks through the quarantine and manages to get to the Rift. They're lucky, in that they don't get hit by a mana surge, but while they're there they catch the attention of the Rift-dwellers, who have figured out that they should be able to survive outside the Rift by merging with a human host. They do so with the wackos, and with the security detail sent in to apprehend them -- and the result is a group of people who have all the memories of both host and Rift-dweller, but in which the Rift-dweller's personality completely dominates because they're such powerful psis. These "infected" people then leave the preserve and blend seamlessly back into human society, apparently unharmed by the absence of the Rift energies.

There's a problem, though: the Rift-dwellers are burning out their host bodies, draining their life-energy, and after a few months they have to jump to new hosts in order to survive. The Rift-dwellers realize the problem, but they can't get back to the Rift because of tightened security measures and they're afraid to come forward and admit what's happening for fear of being branded as murderers. Kate and David can get clued in to what's happening when a series of discarded host-bodies shows up in Metamor City. Eventually they'll track down the Rift-dwellers and work out a deal to get them back to the Rift, where they can rejoin their own kind until a way can be found to let them safely rejoin human society. As for the hosts who died, each of them lives on (in a way) as part of the merged beings that the Rift-dwellers have become, which makes their deaths seem a bit less tragic.