Not much surprised Walter Parnell. Not much dismayed, him intimidated him, made him lose confidence. It wasn't necessarily so much a strength of character that kept him on such a straight path, but sheer determination. No place for waffling in the rise to the top and, if nothing else ever, Walter was determined he would rise to the top.
The way up the ladder came from two forces, those beneath you propelling you up and those above you raising you. In the end, it was the ones above whose influence was greater, so it was for those that Parnell tailored his attitude. They liked to see strength, they liked to see confidence, they liked accomplishment, drive, initiative. But most of all, they liked reliability. They wanted to know they could set their schedules by you. And their schedules meant a lot to them.
Steadiness, certainty had been watchwords for Parnell.
And they had paid off. He was already further along than he would have expected. Yes, nowhere near where he aimed for, but, if he wasn't in the catbird seat he sought, he could see it clearly.
Step by step, determined to achieve, he worked his way up.
It's not what you know, it's not always who you know, it's if they know you can benefit them.
First, make sure they know you're there. He spent every minute available, insinuating himself among the heads of departments. Attending departmental meetings that weren't mandatory. Meeting, grreting those in charge. Always asking if there was something he could do to assist them.
That was the most important, to see if there was anything he could do to assist them. Anything he could do to help. That would establish him as a valued asset. He would work from there.
And it succeeded. He began getting assignments. Small, simple ones at first. Almost innocuous. But he threw himself into getting them done in time, under budget and always up to expectations.
Then the next step in success. They began to take him for granted. Not in a diffident, disinterested way, but, rather, as someone who could be relied upon, someone who didn't need complicated instructions, someone who was always ready to carry out a task. Those in charge began to factor his presence and abilities into their schedules and budgets for projects.
They gave him what was considered a plum job, examination of reports, papers and proposals for experiments to see where to invest department grants. Whatever he felt had a good chance of panning out, whatever seemed reasonable enough to pop for, he sent up to Appropriations. A simple enough project. No one looking over his shoulder, given a good degree of latitude. No crush of responsibility. Most proposals weren't expected to work out, so they could be chosen by the toss of dice as far as the Administration of the Institute cared. And any that didn't make the cut went to the "Reject" pile, but that only meant they could be reconsidered at a later time.
Not a department in itself, per se, more an innocuous step in the overall procedure. But it was a step that was required to be made. Not that they'd stumble if he failed to provide enough candidates, but it would be noticed. The important part was that what the directors did before was now being done by Parnell. They might disagree with all his choices and even push their own. But it was a position where the higher ups listened to him, and appreciated his taking work off their shoulders.
That was when things got tricky.
Among other things, the danger of a prominent position on the climb up. The peril that that position will entail so much work that you may never get the chance to resume the climb. It was already evident in Walter Parnell's situation. He found himself deluged from the start in theories, preliminary results, more advanced results, recommendations for definitive series of experiments.
A system to monitor known deep space objects in the solar system in their movements to ascertain the presence of other objects, among the most ambitious projects that came his way. A report entitled, "Counter Intuitive Stochastic Re-Alignments In Cases Of Strong, Driven Phase Variations", which, the best he could figure, had to do with inherent probability structures changing when systems were sufficiently powerfully impacted. A report on "Sub Atomic Plasma Stream Variations In A Matrix Of High Density Crystalline Condensate", which sounded a little too dangerous to go into. A suggested scheme for characterizing research reports almost down to the last letter with a series of taxonomic defining qualities. At least that didn't sound like it could catch fire or blow up. They wanted recommendations and he had to report.
It was almost like a trap laid there that he had willingly stepped into. Like those who had come before had arranged it to thwart even the more ambitious in their climb up.
And it would be too easy to stall here. To settle into a comfortable position as the "Johnny on the spot" to get the job done. A good salary. A small office. The siren song of job security that came from doing what no one else wanted to do. The gratitude of the higher ups.
He didn't want gratitude, he wanted respect.
This was a really dangerous point. To proceed, he would have to make it obvious he was enough of a go getter that he could easily take any of the department heads' positions, that he had enough initiative to do it, but also to make them feel secure.
First, make then feel secure. He studied up on the heads of the department, found their interests and expressed his own curiosity about them. Then he accompanied them. Duck hunting with Professor Walsh. Furniture building with Doctor Carlysle. Fencing with Professor Lawton.
At the same time, nothing wrong with making do with what you have, while not exactly cherishing what admiration he had from underlings, he didn't avoid letting the fact slip, every now and then. Assistant equipment manager Ed Breck, laboratory assistants Jack Sewell and Mike Duralt. If he had managed to reach a position of greater prominence , he had also made himself more of a target. Best to have as much protection, and as many friends, as possible. He facilitated minor funding to several projects, he asked the underlings their opinions, even if he didn't intend to use them. Yes, not necessarily a stairway to the stars, but, as much as the higher ups wanted the loyalty of those further down, if being on a chummy basis with someone who marshaled the good will of the underlings helped spread the wealth around, so be it. Parnell found himself invited to more upper department functions.
Then the higher ups began doing their part in Parnell's rise, what is termed "grooming him". Apprising him of policy and, more important, custom in the department. Making sure he was able to tell who was the real power in the department. Clandestinely assessing his ability to keep quiet about...things.
Talk began to filter about concerning Parnell being recommended for a position in the appropriations committee, the body that actually decided the distribution of foundation funds. Parnell made recommendations, but the committee could focus on reports he blackballed or didn't even know about. They could veto every recommendation he or someone in his position could make. He would be only an assistant, but the position still had power.
Time to swing for the fences.
To gain a greater position, take a greater gamble.
Dr. Carlysle's daughter, Alice. Good enough looking, the light of her father's eyes, very impressionable. Currently away in Europe, but coming home soon. A coy reference to Carlysle about his daughter. Some light conversation about the progress of her studies. Helping Carlysle build a blanket chest for his daughter. Then, a couple of dinners at Carlysle's house for "valued member of staff". It was practically all over except for actually meeting Alice and proposing.
Reports, research papers, proposals continued to filter in. Parnell continued his work in that area, although slightly trailed back. He wasn't going to be here for long and he didn't want to be in the middle of something big when the call came to change to a bigger office. Seeing him bogged down in something major could threaten his even being offered something bigger, at least for now. He threw some of the work to some of the lower staff, under the pretext of getting their "input". Sewell was especially willing to help out.
Finally, the day came for Alice to return home. As fine friends now with Carlysle and his wife, Parnell was invited along. Never too soon to be introduced to the woman he was going to marry!
Alice was obvious the moment she entered the terminal. Exquisitely fitted out in the latest of European fashions, tall, confident, ecstatic. She flew into her parents' arms.
"Mom, Dad, I'm getting married!"
"What?", asked Carlysle.
"Who?", asked his wife.
"I've been keeping in touch with him for over a year now! And it's the funniest thing, her works at the foundation! He heard about me being in Europe and started writing me. It was great, he didn't feel like he had to go through you to get permission to contact me! He treated me like a person! We wrote letters, we exchanged phone calls, I sent him pictures of my time over there. Do you know, he has family just a few miles from where I was? I even visited them once! He said he'd meet me here when I...oh, there he is!"
All three turning their heads at the moment would have been comical if not so grim for Parnell. But he had to know who...
"Mom, Dad, this is Jack."
What followed was a dizzying whirlwind of events. And the result was obvious.
"Walt, I don't like lording it over you."
"Yes, Mr. Sewell."
"But as the director of the newly established Department of Proposals, I have the double duty of seeing to it that it runs well, but also that it runs so well that no one questions the wisdom of setting it up."
"Yes, Mr. Sewell."
"And having an office piled high with material, each representing a request for grant money isn't the hallmark of a functioning department, is it?"
"No, Mr. Sewell."
"Good. I'm glad you agree. Now there's a stack of material on your desk that has been accumulating for the last six months. I think you should start there. I'm having lunch with the Board of Directors of the Institute, so you won't be able to check with me until, oh, about 3. I want you to have a list of candidates ready for me by then."
"Yes, Mr. Sewell."
"Keep up the good work and you might make it to assistant. Someday."
"Thank you, Mr. Sewell."
The humiliation! The indignity! The tragedy!
All that work. All that scheming. All that planning. All those expectations. And no real alternatives, either in terms of objectives or ways to slither around to them.
But, then, not much surprised Walter Parnell, or dismayed him, intimidated him or made him lose confidence. His strength of character. But things could aggravate him a great deal. He didn't like this situation and he would do something about it. As soon as an opening presented itself. But, until then, the work hgad to be done. He picked up a pile of material from his earliest days in the position, from the "Reject" pile, and riffled through them. These would be among the first that they would want gone through for re-examination. And, even though Sewell was now his superior, he was stoll the one who would feel the heat if the scehedule got too far behind. "Theoretical Metallurgical Qualities of Alloys of Superheavy Series Metals". It was his fault for working too much "within the system". "Variations In Opimized Packing Constructs Of Quantum Controlled Charged Particles In A Strong Magnetic Flux". Who would have thought? Sewell! "Counter Intuitive Stochastic Re-Alignments In Cases Of Strong, Driven Phase Variations". It wasn't Parnell's fault for being so careful. When you get in a position, the first thing you do is make sure you don't do anything to threaten what you've attained. Sewell didn't have anything to lose, he could fly free. "Manifestations Of Thermodynamic Inhomogeneities In Stratifying Solutions". This was unfair! He'd put so much into his climb and now to be outdone by that runt!
Parnell was going to reconcile the situation, make things equitable for himself again, but, until then, share the pain. He took a report at random from the stack and, without looking, iserted it at the bottom of the "Reject" pile. Good luck it ever being found there. In turning away, he casually noticed only the first few words, "Counter Intuitive".
He was determined. He was going to be back where he deserved in no time!
"Why do you have to turn this into a contest?", said Ted Carew, straightening, with a small clutch of documents in his hands.
"You know that's not the way it is", replied Karen Carew from the other room.
"That's not how you declared it openly, no", Ted argued, "but that's what it is, nonetheless."
"How could it even be a contest?", came from the other side of the doorway, "What am I trying to win? What are we competing at?"
"That's the worst side of it", Ted answered, "You didn't start portraying it as a contest until after everything was all said and done and you were already the winner."
"Do you really think I am that conniving? That I have that kind of animosity towards you?"
"It's not animosity", Ted replied with a portion of defensiveness, "It's just that you can't see yourself in second place, even in your own mind, so you have to whip up something to give you panache."
Karen came to the doorway. She stood with a kind of casualness, holding several small ledgers. If she had something truly to dispute, she would stand with her hands on the door jamb, ready to launch herself at Ted.
"How long have you been thinking like this?"
That could be taken as confrontational or concerned. Karen's posture indicated it was more a matter of concern for her than the seeds of a threat or accusation.
Ted gathered himself, considered the possible outcomes of any of his answers, weighed his willingness to face the consequences.
"Not very long", he lied.
"What made you start thinking like this?"
"Come on, Karen, you know how it's been. You came into this relationship with the better credentials, the better, background, the better contacts."
"Have I ever rubbed that in your face?"
"It's the way you don't rub it in my face that aggra...that upsets me. In everything, you always assume you have the better ideas and you expect me to feel the same. Even if it's something neither you nor I saw before. And if I don't think the way you do, suddenly, I'm the obstacle!"
"This...place...is...a...mess!", she replied, using pauses to accentuate the situation, "You know what it was like when we started. And it hasn't gotten much better even after a week! They ran this place like a stockyard!"
"I know...", he tried to begin.
"I don't know much about what all is involved here", she went on apace, "No one could. Not with all the subjects and topics that went through here. But I think I have good ideas how to clear out detritus."
"But what about what doesn't deserve to be cleared out?"
"You've been saying that from the start", Karen retorted, "But that doesn't make it the case."
"What's what I mean about you making this a competition", Ted replied, "You can't give up a piece of control. You have to have the last say about everything!"
"I'm not turning this into a competition, you're turning it into an accusation."
"It's the truth" Ted answered defensively, "You just toss everything that isn't applicable to the new design for the department. There are a lot of significant things here!"
"To begin with, I'm not just 'tossing things'. What ever isn't usable for the new format for the department is being put in a file for later analysis."
"It's just a box that's going to be put in the back of a closet and you know it", Ted replied, "How likely is it that anyone will even get to see any of it?"
"That's their business. It's not supposed to be our responsibility in redesigning operations here."
"But we're not just redesigning operations, we want to make sure something comes out of this department."
"There are going to be research papers, reports, proposals, whatever you want, coming in here. You think we won't find something in all that?"
"We probably will, but what about the material that came in before?"
"What you do mean?"
"Couldn't there have been something there, too, that could be worth forwarding on?"
"We'll have our hands full with what everybody is going to be sending in when were up and running. Why bother with items that are years old?"
"Because it's not supposed to just be about volume, how much of what we get in we can forward on to the Appropriations group. It's about the value of the items we send in, and there could be some important items here." He riffled almost frantically through a collection of papers on the desk before him. "Here", he read, "'Causal Breakdown Over Sufficiently Short Time Intervals In High Energy Strongly Interacting Systems'".
He made the mistake of waiting, as if for approval. It only gave Karen the opportunity to say, "Is that the only example you're going to use to justify..."
Realizing his mistake, he grabbed several off the top. "No, wait, here's a design for a satellite monitoring network that could minimize connections with outside transmitters and keep distant stations updated more economically." More stony silence led him to read, "'Counter Intuitive Stochastic Re-Alignments In Cases Of Strong, Driven Phase Variations".
"You sound like you're reading your autobiography."
The response took him aback. "How do you mean?"
"You sound like you're recounting your own life. The one time promising up and comer who fell short in a sudden tidal wave of competition and now is trying to prove themselves again."
"Well, maybe it's given me a soft spot for all the also rans who never get further than..."
"Are you going to predict your life by what happened to them?
"How different is it?"
"Have you lost? Are you out of the running? You're down now, but are you going to let that defeat you? You won't like it, but it sounds like self pity to me."
"Maybe I could use a little pity."
"Because you don't get any from me?"
She let the question hang unaddressed in the air for a moment. This was a sore point with Ted. He never felt Karen had been "there enough" for him. Always ready with support, but rarely with anything beyond the basics. No encouragement. When that became so constant and obvious a thing as to start to wear thin, Ted resented her lack of sympathy. Now he was down to her not having enough pity for him.
"Picking up the argument herself, she said, "Did you think it's because I see you as worth more than a pile of pity, that maybe I see you as the kind of man who is lessened by having people feel sorry for you, that you're the kind who thrives in people expecting you to rise above your situation? Do you think I'd marry anyone less"
Non plussed, Ted searched for words. There weren't any in the repertoire he used to describe his string of mistakes, so he turned to the research papers, again.
"Well, I think a lot of these should be given a look. They should be given the opportunity to form the basis of a program or a project."
Karen's expression softened. "Then you're probably right. I having been giving them enough credence. And if I seem that I gave you short shrift, as well, then I'm sorry."
"Don't blame yourself. I have to move ahead, not let this keep me down." He handed the papers he had been examining to Karen, and left the room.
Karen stood in the quiet of the room, holding the material Ted had handed her.
Poor Ted, she thought, Poor Ted and Poor Ted. How many times had she thought this in the past? Always with a good nose for a train wreck, always a reliable indicator of a disaster. She felt for him, she cared for him, she even had pity for him, but she couldn't let his losing contaminate her plans.
She walked to the box that was going to sit untended in some closet for years until someone decided to come along and do something with the contents and dropped the papers in.
He'll be onto something else in a day, she thought, another catastrophe. Can't have a lot of fruitless waste compounding the situation.
She turned and walked to join Ted in the other room.
Accountant. Record keeper. Bookkeeper. Custodian.
But only one salary. And no prestige. Just the order to get it done as soon as possible.
At least Bob was free to go about it as he wished.
Given that the thing was in a shambles, just about any direction you took handling it was as good as any other.
It was still a massive undertaking.
And Bob was doing it alone.
The entire massed contents of the Department of Allocations, now little more than a collection of dead ends and false starts. File cabinets of proposals, budget sheets, requisitions, delivery notices, progress updates. Hard drives full of data. Materials for presentations. Final reports. And a handful of news clippings, full of promise and bright hope. About things that were never heard of again.
And he was here to tally it all up.
He was prepared to be scrupulous. There was overtime in it if he could show the results.
The results were whatever could justify the expense the Institute had put into the department. Funding for everything the department called for. The constant staff to read, assess and analyze proposals, pass them on, then evaluate the results of any that were accepted, the extra staff they called in, from time to time, the presentations, the models, the demonstrations. And the number of projects they had recommended for funding.
That number was going to be very important. It would justify further allocations of funds for the Institute in general, it could validate reinstating or even extending the operations of the office. It could be used as a convenient camouflage for the slightly less than palatable diverting of funds various of the upper ranking members engaged in, now and then.
A lot was riding on this so, even if they did work to impress on him the necessity of completing it as soon as possible, they didn't mind giving him leeway in how he intended to carry it out.
He didn't mind being thorough, It meant more time, more overtime, and a modest expense account, which he could use to camouflage some of his own questionable diversions of cash.
But he made sure to provide. Photographs of models and mock-ups. Films of various presentation materials. And meticulously maintained lists of every project that came through the department's doors. Every desk, every file, every cabinet.
And the closet.
With a huge box in it.
He dragged it out and found it filled to the rim with more papers.
More invoices. More records. More reports.
All at once it added significantly to the work he had to do, the work he could impress by doing.
Not that it would be so difficult. Access which of the records were still on the computer, transfer the numbers to accounting forms, keep the titles of the research papers and proposals that came through the office.
Going through the material, though, he noticed that he didn't recognize a lot of what was mentioned. In fact, he didn't know of any of the items in the papers that had made it past the assessment stage.
Another category to include in his report, the value of the department in weeding out the useless and non-forthcoming. The effectiveness in preventing the Institute from spending good money on what would come to be boondoggles.
The proposal for landing a sequence of seismic detectors independently on a comet or asteroid and linking them by satellites in orbit. The paper on "The Patterned Coalescing Of Nanometer Scale Particles From Superheated Vapor Under The Influence of Tuned Lasers". The paper entitled "Counter Intuitive Stochastic Re-alignments In Cases Of Strong, Driven Phase Variations".
All losers, All failures. All junk or they wouldn't be stuffed in this box.
An Institute was known by its ability to ascertain what was worth following up on and what was just hogwash.
The department served the purpose of eliminating the garbage.
One by one, he removed the titles of each report with a razor blade, attached them with glue to the pages of a special section he set aside in his ledger, and threw the remainder of each report away.
"What are you saying", Fred asked, almost annoyed, "that you're getting signs of cycling?"
"No", Alice replied firmly, "At least, not consistently, They're intermittent, sporadic."
A chance blip extending above an inscribed line of the screen illustrated her point.
"You see?", Alice said, "I can't predict them, but they keep coming."
"That looks like the signature of cycling", Paul sitting at the console next to Alice said.
"How many have you counted, so far?", Fred asked.
"Only a couple a minute. Sometimes not even that. But' it's been going on since the last resonance."
"What's the status of the system overall?"
Arthur, to the other side of Alice, said, "Stable. No sign of any kind of runaway reaction."
"What's it stabilized at?"
"2 billion TeV", Paul said.
Another unexpected blip.
"How long was it since the other one?", Fred inquired.
"Can't have been more than a few seconds", Alice replied.
Bad. Bad. Very bad.
They weren't supposed to get anything like this.
Something was happening that they weren't prepared for. That nothing was prepared for. That the theories said shouldn't be happening.
By themselves, actually, quite minor variations in the energy output spectrum. And few and far between, relatively speaking.
But they were dealing with a particularly touchy situation. A system consisting of thousands pf highly energized elementary particles forced together into a region no larger than a hydrogen atom and being subjected to forces compacting them further. More than 2 quintillion electron volts of energy, maintaining a collection of particles desperately trying to flee each other's company, incapable of coalescing into stabler particles, tortured lines of electromagnetic, weak and strong force winding tighter and tighter, tangling into unresolvable knots, physical space being ripped apart savagely and unremittingly for more than an hour now. The Prentice Configuration, named after its designer.
Even a minor incident could mean a serious situation.
"We weren't supposed to get anything like this." Whiningly objecting about the nature of things was not a strategy that worked often for Fred, but it gave him a sense of comfort.
"I know", said Alice, "We went through all the simulations and this never came up."
"Could there be dome kind of destabilizing effect coming in, changing the parameters at the atomic level?"
"The environment is controlled all the way down", said Paul, "The system is almost isolated."
Another blip showed on the screen. This was going beyond serious.
"Is there any way to cool the system?", Fred asked. But he knew the answer.
"We'd have to bring the energy flow into the test region slowly enough to keep it from exploding, establish a new equilibrium at each step", Arthur informed him, "It'd take at least an hour."
"Is there any way, at the system's current level of operation, that we try to establish a new equilibrium?"
"What's happening now shouldn't be happening", replied Alice, "There's no way of telling what a different configuration would do in the test area."
"Is there any way to run a quick simulation?"
"I'm not sure what to put into a simulation", Alice said, "It's like the statistics of particle and field interactions are completely different from what they should be."
"Well, what could cause that?"
"Nothing should", Alice answered.
Another strange blip and another one right after it.
"I'm going to call an emergency shutdown", Fred announced, "Even if it wrecks the mechanism."
"The way it's behaving", Alice said, "I'm not sure even a conventional shutdown would..."
"I'm not going take any chances", Fred replied, "I'm going to..."
A sudden frantic staccato of blips broken by a brilliant flash signalling the vaporizing of the site.
"I don't think there's anything to be funny about here, Doctor", Senator David Madsen said.
Perhaps this wasn't the time to dance around on the Senator's record. The Institute's reputation, perhaps its existence, were on the line.
"A number of fine, promising people, some of them from you own institution", Senator Madsen said reprovingly, "perished in the incident. A multi billion dollar installation was wrecked beyond recovery. Numerous nearby buildings were burned or flattened by the explosion. And a hole the size of several football fields was opened in the ground. I'm interested in finding out what happened and why it happened."
With an attitude of feeling appropriately chastened, Albert Mayhew, Executive Director of the Institute said, "The Senator is correct. This is a time for answers. I assure everyone on the Committee that I didn't intend to create an atmosphere either of recrimination or levity." The Senator had tried to paint Mayhew's comment as humorous, and he succeeded. Mayhew added a shade of recrimination to his comment, casting a subtle light of aspersion on the Senator's past record in such affairs. Maybe it would help, maybe not.
"Doctor", began Congresswoman Amelia Sayles, "we're coming up on the fifth anniversary of the incident at you high energy nuclear interactions site. You've had four years of your people poring over every square inch of that place looking for answers as to what went wrong, and, officially, you haven't come to any conclusions."
"The Congresswoman is correct", Mayhew offered, "But it is still early in the examination of all the possible evidence. We could come to the answer in a matter of days."
"Doctor", put in Congressman Donald Kinney, working to keep up the attack and keep Mayhew off balance, "not to toot my own horn, but I've examined material on the type of experiment your Institute was carrying out somewhat more in depth than a number of my colleagues have. From what I see. The interactions that are being blamed were, essentially, impossible."
"The literature considered them outside the realm of consideration", Kinney persisted.
"Then how could they have occurred?", asked Congresswoman Sayles, "Something that wasn't supposed to even be possible and, before the fusillade of occurrences of that impossible event, which occasioned the vaporization of the laboratory, you counted no less than seventy such occurrences, spanning a half an hour."
"So far, we still have no clear answer."
"You knew what was going on during the duration of the experiment, correct?" That from Congressman Kinney.
"Yes, sir, there was a real time feed from the installation, both verbal and instrumental recordings."
"So you knew the unusual situation of these, what are they, 'cyclings', were taking place, and yet you did nothing?", asked Senator Wyckes.
"Initially, there were only a few of them", replied Mayhew, "And, strictly speaking, they are a phenomenon that could occur on the periphery of the region we were testing."
"But", Congressman Kinney cut in, "from what I read, even those should have been far fewer in number than what was seen, even at the beginning."
"Yes, it was catching us all very much by surprise."
"Why didn't you order the test shut down until you could figure out what was happening?", asked Congresswoman Sayles.
"It would be a complicated process starting the process up again, wouldn't it?", supplied Congressman Kinney.
"And it wouldn't look good for the Institute to admit it went in half cocked", Senator Madsen offered.
"That's actually being a little unfair", Mayhew protested.
But Congresswoman Sayles intruded, "Is that what happened, that you were afraid the appearance of not being fully prepared when you started a dangerous, high power experiment like this, so you decided to just take your chances and see what happened?"
"That's not really..."
"What's this I read in the transcript of comments near the time of the explosion, one lab operator saying it was like the statistics of particle reactions were changing? Did you have any idea what that was referring to?"
"It seems I read something about a paper crossing the Institute's desk, something to the effect of stochastic processes changing under particularly high power forced reactions?", asked Congressman Kinney, "That sounds a lot like what that technician mentioned."
"Oh, well, there, I can assure you, Congressman, that had absolutely nothing to do with it."
"How do you know?", asked Senator Wyckes.
"Yes, that paper was forwarded to us for an appropriation for further study."
"And did it get an appropriation?", asked Congressman Wyckes.
"Why not?", asked Congressman Wyckes.
"Because the theory was completely invalid."
"How do you know that?", asked the Congresswoman, "Did you read it?"
"No, but I saw that it had been docketed in the ledger as one of a multitude of similar proposals, research programs, theoretical studies that are forwarded to us constantly that are discarded for having no merit."
"But you never actually saw the paper yourself to see if it had merit?", asked Congresswoman Sayles.
"No, but I don't have to."
"Why is that?", asked Congressman Kinney.
"Because I trust my staff. I trust them because I know them, I know what they will do. And they would not just throw something away just to make space on a desk or make it look like they are carrying out their responsibility to examine so many papers a month. We operate with the highest level of scrupulousness at the Institute. We know how much depends on what we do. The very future of human achievement rests with us. We aren't going to treat that like it's negotiable or optional. If the material on stochastic processes was discarded, it's because it had no legitimacy"
"So you're certain it wasn't a variation in stochastic processes that led to the runaway process in the apparatus?", asked Congressman Kinney.
"Then what do you think did cause the reaction?", asked Congresswoman Sayles.
"We are discussing the possibility of a new particle."
The wanted a superhero. They got a superhero.
With the wreck that the Institute became in the wake of the accident, the Prentice Disaster, many had sunk in a pit of despair.
The Institute had failed to explain the incident, they had failed to provide a guarantee it wouldn't happen again. Opinion turned against it, appropriations trailed off, fewer and fewer proposals crossed their desks. Eventually, it was judged not to be serving its purpose.
If an organization as professionally designed and operated as the Institute could fail so disastrously, what hope was there for human advancement? Could it ever be rebuilt? Could ever be trusted again?
Betting the Institute back into business was imperative. It was a matter of utmost import, it was an issue of global significance, it was a cause of intense concern and a goal of unsurpassed value.
And, because of all that, it was something no one wanted to touch.
Success could mean heroic status, failure could annihilate a career. And failure was more likely than success.
That was true for those without a plan, but he had a plan.
He had volunteered for the project, and that gained him an amount of support and latitude; there was a mandate overall to reinvigorate the organization, which also provided him options and guarantees. He could take off at a running start.
His path was laid open before him like a road map.
Award himself a handsome salary for the work he hadn't yet performed.
Assign an exemplary staff of assistants. Even if some of them were relatives and friends. Even if some of them didn't exist.
Most important, re-establishment confidence. Begin aggressively promoting projects and research. Act as if failure was impossible.
In fact, make failure impossible.
Not that they were going to have success. Not if he could help it.
Success was a siren song. It looked bright, it beckoned, it inspired, it quickened the pace and instilled excitement.
But when it came, he saw it as bringing more benefits than good.
In his vision of things, the organization would be tied to it, dependent on it. It would not be mentioned except as an addendum to the story of the achievement. It would lose its presence, and be only the place where the accomplishment was realized.
The Institute would continue to receive appropriations, but almost as a duty. And so often, they try to shirk their duties.
He wanted an image that was always lustrous, always calling, always exciting. Not the experience of a pleasantry whose memory faded away and was placed fondly in storage, but the crackling exuberance of a pleasure on its way, not yet here, but promising untold excitement when it did arrive. He never experienced anything that was as good when he obtained it as when he longed for it. It was impossible for anything to live up to that image, he felt. And he entered that in the list of tenets he lived by. He didn't even expect this to pay off exactly as he hoped, so he made sure not to hope. He knew he had a good chance of getting pretty close to his goal, though.
The trick was to make sure success never arrived.
To keep the people waiting, expecting, certain it was just around the corner, uncaring if it wasn't there when they turned the corner because it was surely still on its way. But to make sure they never reached it or it never reached them.
And by the time they found out it was all a fraud, he would be outside of jurisdictional borders, with his earnings and those of his non existent relatives.
The plan called for stoking excitement, issuing promises, building expectation, never coming through, but keeping interest, nonetheless.
This would be accomplished, among other things, by not depicting them as a failures. Rather, he would tout each as "another step along the way", "a lesson learned", "something that brought us that much closer to our goal".
Each dead end a triumph.
They would be shelling out in record amounts for the promises he wove, but would never deliver.
And they would be made to think each failure was an achievement. They would be thankful for them, they would welcome them.
They would entertain the idea that, someday, the Institute would find the answer.
And the money would keep rolling in.
And the first item on the agenda was obvious.
The cause of the explosion that had destroyed the Institute.
Making good, making it all right once again.
But as hard as deciding what might pan out, choosing what was practically doomed from the start.
Fortunately, there had been a lot of false starts and trials since the explosion. None of them would get anywhere, even if expanded into a multi-million dollar boondoggle. They were perfect. He could keep the fraud going on them alone for years.
And, among them, the approach with the least success, the idea of an exotic new particle forming in the middle of the high energy region.
Even if it didn't turn out the way he hoped, this was going to be great.
"I can't do it", Harry Burke said, "I just can't do it."
"What do you mean?", Ed Wallace, asked.
"It just keeps falling apart."
"Among other things, I can't get rid of singularities."
"Do you try scalar renormalization?"
"A number of the singularities are essential singularities."
"You could break them into Laurent expansions and redistribute terms", offered Karen Welch.
"There are still infinities."
"I don't think any will be essential."
"You could forgo direct energy analyses altogether and treat it in terms of total energy of the system", Arthur Wilkes put in, "You can treat the singularities as formal Dirac function differentials that way."
"It can be easier than trying to treat this as a compendium of individual energy asymptotes", Wallace said.
"But do we know what kind of boundaries to impose on aggregate energy for the system?", Karen Welch asked.
"That's what we're working toward", said Harry Burke, "I'd be defining the system in terms of itself."
"An eigenstate, then", Wilkes suggested.
"I'm not sure this is going to work", Burke said, glumly.
"So what are you suggesting?", Ed Wallace asked almost suspiciously.
"Aware what Ed Wallace was dancing around, Burke opined, "It's just that the system of particles is so cumbersome. And any new complication is answered by splitting fields or creating new particles."
"Forget it!", Wallace said, seeing Harry Burke wasn't going to bring it up, "We're not going there!"
"But it might provide..."
"Have you forgotten? They discarded it! That means it's discredited! The project will be a laughingstock if it got out that we were going back to that!"
"I could draw up a basic scenario...", began Harry Burke.
"I could help", said Karen Welch.
"That only makes sense if you were in a position to have the material forwarded to Appropriations", Ed Wallace said sternly, "But only I am in that position, and I'm not going to!"
"Then what do you suggest?", Harry Burke asked.
"If 42 particles doesn't do it", announced Wallace, "try more. I hear where another group is looking into a collection of 68 particles. And five additional field separations. You could check into that."
Dejectedly, Burke exited the room.
"Do you think that'll work?", asked Wilkes.
"I think it can work. And, if it doesn't, we'll just try something else. Another level of particles probably."
"They added new particles to the accepted catalog before the explosion. They added new ones after the explosion. We're still not getting anything useful. Isn't it a defeatist practice to keep doing something if it failed to work before?"
"Only, before, they added new particles", Wallace said decisively, "Now, we're adding even more new particles!"
He was a lot of things, but a fool he wasn't. If there was anyone who knew where the wind was blowing, and how hard, it was him.
They wanted the files purged, he would purge them. Out with the unwanted, the inconvenient, the unpopular.
Over the years, the department had certainly accumulated more than its share of those. All sorts of research papers, project proposals, reports. On every subject. They had literally piled up. He was given the mandate to clear it up, make the files more manageable again.
That he was going to come through on, better than anybody expected.
"Anharmonic Oscillation Characteristics of Germanium Doped Two Dimensional Polymer Molecules". Nobody needed that. He tossed it into the wastebasket.
"Using Strong Magnetic Fields To Flatten Laser Beams To Less Than The Thickness Of An Atom". Forget it. Also into the wastebasket.
"Efficiency of Carnot Cycle Engines Built Around Fluids With Properties Strongly Affected By Temperature". No.
"Counter Intuitive Stochastic Re-Alignment In Cases Of Strong, Driven Phase Variations". Nothing there.
He was a lot of things, but a fool wasn't one of them.
A century of work has to count for something. A century of trying new ideas, testing them, developing them, perfecting them. A century of work can't be wrong.
Dan Howell watched as the sensor dials crept upward to test level. A few more minutes and an experiment that hadn't been performed for more than a hundred years would be re enacted.
Only under far different circumstances. More power, first of all, particle beam energies hundreds of times what they were before. The benefit of working with a particle accelerator bigger than the circumference of the earth and in permanent orbit above it. With containment fields provided by dozens of reactors working together, compared to the fraction of output of a single reactor used before. Computers of speed and computational strength undreamed of when the disaster took place.
And with a far greater understanding of the systems involved than back then.
They had been foolish enough to try to represent everything in the context of the accepted stable or semi stable particles known then. They hadn't considered expanding the number of particles to thousands, the number of fields and temporary fields to the hundreds.
And they didn't have the confidence of testing in the time since that now went into this test.
Nothing as energetic and complex as the experiment that caused the disaster, but along the same lines.
And they had worked. Yes, they were hundreds of times less powerful than the notorious experiment, yes they employed hundreds of times fewer particles and for periods only a tiny fraction of the time that the catastrophe had lasted. But they succeeded in keeping them contained. Uncontrolled spikes averaged less than one during each of the tests. Nothing like what was observed in the disaster.
And, yes, now, they were performing a version of the experiment, the Prentice Configuration, millions of times more powerful than that original experiment, but, even though it included particle beams thousands of times more populous, though they intended to run it many times the length of the original experiment, well, even a trillion trillion times zero is still zero!
They knew what was involved, they knew what to expect. The model was well understood now. To think, at one time they actually thought conditions in the test region was controlled by varying statistical structures. But, fortunately, that was proved invalid and disposed of. If using the right model caused a catastrophe like that, imagine if they had used the statistical analysis!
"Coming up on desired particle beam density", Sheila Anderson, manning the system control console, informed him.
"Beam energy?", Howell asked.
"Attained", Jack Lawton, also working the control console added.
"Field strength?", Howell asked.
"Maximum strength", Sheila Anderson said.
"Field lines coalescing at optimum density", Lawton said.
"Monitors all operational?"
"Operational and recording", Anderson said.
"Beam densities at optimal level", Lawton declared.
"Engage", Howell ordered.
Several controls manipulated, several switches thrown.
"Particles interacting in test region", Sheila Anderson said.
Three energy blips appeared on the monitor screen. Seven blips appeared. Twenty nine blips appeared.
A thousand years has to count for something.
Kendrick enjoyed his regular tours of the ship. Habitation and Food Production, both built within a massive spinning torus, providing a semblance of gravity for the residents and normal growth for plant and animal life; Life Support; Engineering; Storage containing every natural resource they could obtain, from water to radioactive ores; Power Plant, consisting of a hundred conventional fission reactors and a collection of powerful storage batteries bigger than an office building, all to supplement the solar power they harvested; Propulsion and Navigation. The opportunity to speak with the people, to be seen by them, to observe what projects the residents were engaging in and, most especially, how they were doing it. As Captain, Kendrick's visits to the various sections were very good for morale among the residents, breeding confidence and initiative. And equally appreciated by him.
To see the ship was to experience a seminal experience in the history of humanity. A time of great strife, a plan of great audacity, an investment of vast energy and initiative, a spirit of great optimism and determination.
Those first days after the accelerator ring had fallen from the sky. When the experiment failed. Huge expanses of land set afire, vast areas bathed is dangerous radiation, whole swaths pummeled to dust by pieces of the device falling to earth at meteor speed. It had taken weeks for the fires to subside, months for the radiation to be tolerable, years to begin to try to reclaim the areas ground to a powder by the shrapnel of the explosion.
But the damage was significant. A large portion of humanity had perished, much of the world's foliage had been consumed, huge amounts of wildlife were destroyed. The air still polluted, the skies still filled with smoke and dust. A consensus was reached that the earth no longer represented a viable endeavor.
The decision was reached to leave entirely.
Preparing was not difficult, plans for advanced types of long ranging spacecraft had already been drawn up. Not for this purpose, but it was possible to expand upon the original idea and tailor it for the goal at hand.
And the expansion was monumental. The resulting craft was immense, more than 30 miles in length, more than 5 miles wide. Enough space for the remaining few tens of thousands of humans, viable systems of plant life and populations of food animals; the power source necessary to maintain them all, consisting of the massed collections of nuclear fuel on earth; resources for use on the craft, from water to air to metals; and massive stockpiles of fuel that had been intended for far less ambitious spacecraft. And voyages.
Materials transported to space from earth and mined from asteroids provided the raw materials for the vessel. The almost crusading zeal of the people supplied the energy to build it.
It was less than a century from initial concept to finalizing of the project. It was less than a decade to finish the final transporting of people, crops, animals and supplies to the ship. A couple of years finalizing operations. Then the firing of the giant engines. The voyage outward.
They had decided that earth was no longer viable as a habitation. It might recover, but that would be far in the future, and there was no telling whether the new version of the planet would welcome those who had murdered its predecessor. The unanimous opinion was that the best choice was to venture outward, to leave not only earth, but the solar system entirely. The ship would support them, it had been designed well, they felt the best use for it would be to free them to roam the universe as they wished.
A few years to the edge of the solar system, scavenging asteroids, comets, small moons along the way for additional raw materials. Then, outside the orbit of Pluto, bringing the engines up to full power, accelerating the ship to maximum speed, a sizable fraction of the velocity of light. In short order, the Kuiper Belt was breached, the heliopause was passed, the bowshock surpassed and left behind and, finally, the outermost limits of the Oort Cloud transcended.
And they were in open space.
It was a powerful emotional and philosophical moment. No longer were they bound by the results of the catastrophic effects of a failed experiment.
They were deciding for themselves now what futures they wanted, they were not condemned to suffering the conditions of a wracked planet.
They were free of the penalty of responsibility.
There's was now only the horizon, devoid of obligations. They had surmounted the bane of the past, living with the results of your actions or avoiding doing that which portended disaster. What madness to live in the circumscribed conditions of a planet! Where there was nowhere to avoid reminders of failings and faults. No error could threaten to fill the boundaries of their world now! Theirs was now the ability to leave behind any fell outcomes of their actions.
They named their ship "Validation".
Course was set for Alpha Centauri. It took a little over six years. Arriving, they found no habitable worlds. Not that they expected any. Not that they wanted any. They were not going to be put in the position of having to do what was prescribed for them by some imaginary ideal. Aimless whim was their guide now and they were not going to give that up.
They remained in orbit long enough to refuel and then some, to
re-energize and then some, to restock and then some. They actually obtained enough supplies and raw materials to require the construction of an extra section to the storage unit.
Then they set course for Sirius, Alpha Canis Majoris.
Sirius was the same as Alpha Centauri, several planets, but none habitable, none inhabited. It was a place for re-supply, but little else. But they were able to expand the storage area yet again. And, now, make an addition for Habitation.
Then Procyon. Then 61 Cygni. Then Gliese 15. Then Kruger 60. Now entering the system of Groombridge 1618.
They were moving outward into the universe.
That was only a couple of years ago that they first approached Groombridge 1618. Earth and the reminders of failure were more than a century and a half in the past. Kendrick was the fifth already to fill the captain's role.
There were writing a new future. They were writing a new present. What had been failure they were turning into triumph.
Despite their devotion to freeing themselves of the societal stain of the catastrophe, unsurprisingly, a major point of interest among the residents of the ship was the events which had brought about their evacuation of the solar system. They pored over the records of the great disaster since the day they left their home planet. Examining all the information, the readings, the analyses, the theories. And they arrived at the solution, the reason for the system failing as it had.
There was nothing else that could have happened.
The system they sought simply could not be constructed.
It wasn't something that got out of control.
It was something that, by its very inherent nature, was incompatible with the nature of reality.
The system collapsed because it could not exist.
It was obvious.
They didn't know why. There was no incisive model of what was going on inside the reaction area. And none of the attempts at describing it were usable. There had been a very early stab at the idea of stochastic structures realigning, reorienting, redistributing reaction parameters and probabilities. But that was discarded, which meant it provided nothing of value. The experimenters themselves envisioned complex systems of entirely new particles and fields. But that had failed.
The conclusion was that there was no description, like there is no description of each moment turning into the next moment. Description, analysis, interpretation lost all meaning under those conditions. What happened is that the system simply did not coalesce because it couldn't coalesce. Like no line of negative length could ever be constructed, so this configuration was impossible.
The hidden, secret parameters of the universe absolutely precluded something like this ever arising.
And they then redefined reality. The description of the universe now included the fact that this situation could not be attained. That there were similar conditions that, likewise, would not be permitted and would catastrophically fight being produced.
And, from that, a new triumph.
Since the condition was so inherently unstable, so prone to explosive breakdown, it represented an eminently likely weapon. A device guaranteed to unleash unimaginable force. And something that could not be defused. Someone would literally have to rewrite the laws of reality to stop it from exploding.
They recognized that and made use of it.
Using an example they had memorized a thousand times, they constructed apparatus after apparatus. Each bigger than the original installation that had detonated but designed specifically to fail. Hundreds of these they built, supplied with powerful engines and navigation controls to target anything they wished. They practiced annihilating asteroids, to harvest raw materials, until they developed a skill in employing the devices.
That seemed the final touch to mark their escapade, the ironic act to validate their actions. The past reconciled, an ignominious failure made a key to the future.
No wonder touring the ship gave Hendrick such a feeling of...
Something was wrong.
No, not wrong. Familiar, but unexpected.
A commonplace within stellar systems, traveling here and there to replenish supplies. But mild, since the velocity between planets was never very great. Gentle and prolonged on the ponderous approach to a new star system. They would be slowing down from near light speed, but they would take a month to accomplish it. And almost never experienced in open space. But never as pronounced as this.
"Captain to the control room", the voice blared over the ship's notification system, "Captain to the control room."
Amy Walsh. A lieutenant. Ambitious, eager, but, unlike many competitors, cautious.
Which made what Hendrick heard in the announcement unusual.
Residents watched in concern and puzzlement as Hendrick made swiftly for the transport tube to the control room.
"Captain to the control room, please."
If it was said calmly, with caution, he would have stopped first to notify them he was coming. He didn't stop for that now. Let them know he heard when he got there.
The trip was infuriating. It only took a few seconds, but each passing moment made whatever had summoned him seem all the more important, even critical.
It didn't help that Lt. Walsh summoned him one more time on his way there.
In an almost unprecedentedly keyed up condition he finally stepped into the control area.
Lt. Walsh was waiting for him.
"Captain, there's a problem."
"What kind of problem?"
"We think we have a contact."
A century of travel, a handful of star systems already, back and forth across the region of galaxy immediately adjacent to the sun, and nothing.
It wasn't that large an area to cover, but there was always the expectation that, eventually, they would find something.
But there was no intelligent life on any of the planets they observed, or their moons. In fact, no life whatsoever. They had intercepted no transmissions. They had spotted no traffic intercepting their path. There were no indications that intelligence had visited or developed and maybe disappeared anywhere, no monuments, no artifacts, no devices, no ruins. Not even a depression in the soil. In fact, every planet they visited was a rock. Some had extremely active surface chemistries, but none had what constituted life. It was too early to panic, but they were beginning at least not to expect meeting other living things much less intelligent living things. Ever.
But...they "think" it's contact?
"What do you mean, you think it's contact?"
"It's not acting like what we would expect intelligence would."
"How's it acting?"
"We keep sending out signals", explained Jack Lowery, a technician, at one of the consoles, "but they come back...strange."
"How are they strange?"
"We keep sending out standard packets of binary coded sequences over a range of frequencies, from radio to microwave to long infrared to visible yellow to gamma pulses", Lt. Walsh replied.
"They're coming back garbled", said Donna Mullins, another technician.
"Scrambled", Lt. Walsh explained, "The same signals, but...displaced, rearranged."
"Initially, we got only the gamma signals back from the first two transmissions, but in reverse order", Lowery said.
"Then we got some reflections of the visible yellow from the second transmission, and infrared from the first", Mullins added.
"After that, the microwave from the second transmission, but not the first, then the long radio from the first transmission", said Walsh.
"How long has this been going on?"
"Only a few minutes", said Walsh, "We wanted to make sure we weren't making a mistake before we called you."
"Where is it? Are we approaching it?"
"That's another thing that's strange", said Mullins, "There's no sign of frequency shift."
"As if they're paralleling our course and matching our speed exactly", said Lowery.
"We fist picked up signs of an object ahead of us", Walsh said, "with standard radio reflection. One second there were no echoes, the next second there were reflections. They showed only a few seconds difference which meant we were almost right on it. We didn't even have time to order the ship to slow to avoid crashing into it."
"Automatic wide spectrum sensing came on immediately", Mullins explained.
"We were actually waiting to see what we were going to hit into", said Walsh, "But, then, several seconds passed, then several more."
"It was like whatever was out there was retreating from us or moving with us", said Lowery.
"Then we noticed that the signals were coming back scrambled", Mullins added, "and the returns showed no sign of frequency shift indicating relative motion."
"We finally got emergency deceleration:, said Walsh, "But, even as we decelerated, the signals showed no sign of frequency change."
"What's ship's velocity now?", asked Kendrick.
"One percent decrease in speed", said Lowery, "It'll take us some time to come to full stop."
"And whatever was out there is still managing to avoid hitting us?"
"Still moving with us", said Walsh.
"What kind of distance?"
"About four seconds signal time", Mullins replied.
In the background, Kendrick could just make out the sound of calls from every part of the ship, some asking instructions, most asking questions.
Any reading on what exactly is out there?", he called to the rest of the control room staff.
A young male technician whose uniform plate read "Collins" said, "There were no indications of anything in our path or approaching. We're not getting anything definite about size or shape. Signals keep bouncing back but from different directions."
"Have we communicated with it? Has it communicated back?"
"We haven't had time to try to start communication", Walsh answered.
"We're not getting any transmissions from whatever it is", said a young female lieutenant named Brady, "Not even residuals like heat signature or radiation leakage. Just the reflections of our own signals back."
"We probably have no choice but to wait until we're stopped to take a good look at this thing", said Kendrick.
It took more than 15 hours to bring "Validation" to a full stop. The manifestation matched it every step of the way. As a test, they even arranged uneven acceleration at several spots. No change. It was like they were looking in a mirror. A distorted mirror.
But, finally, they were at zero velocity. Perhaps whatever it was would try to communicate more directly now.
The televised view of the space beyond was utter blackness, broken only by the intermittent light of distant stars. If anything was present that didn't give off its own light, it would be next to impossible to see, but nothing seemed to be blocking any stars.
They waited an hour to see if the thing would take the initiative in dealing with them. Nothing. It continued to return their probing signals, consistently and, apparently, entirely randomly out of order, but nothing beyond that. Everyone aboard, by now, knew what was happening and were eagerly awaiting the next development.
If there was one.
But there wasn't.
At first, it was puzzling. Then almost anticipatory, as if knowing something could happen any moment. Then it became embarrassing, as if they were being judged by someone far greater than the object and they were just sitting there, twiddling their thumbs.
They tried communicating, sending out a wide variety of signals. Numerical progressions. Two dimensional star maps. Ordinary speech.
A hurried council was called of all the executive figures on the ship, to discuss what to do next. The fact that they were in what could be called an outlandish situation, that things were proceeding, if that was the word that could be used, in an awkward manner, all but demanded that something definitive and decidedly unconventional be tried.
There was a consensus that what they were looking at may be some kind of reactive entity, but it didn't seem intelligent, at least, not in a way that would be forthcoming for them. If a representative of some alien intelligence, it may even be their equivalent of an idiot. Or a maniac.
They would start up the ship again, at half acceleration, to give the thing a chance to move out of the way, then "Validation" would continue on its course.
It took twenty minutes just to warm the systems up, again. Probing continued all the while. It was felt certain whatever it was would be aware that they...
"Captain!", that from Brady.
"What is it?"
"Problems in the propulsion unit!"
"What kind of problems?"
"Aberrant signals from the reaction chambers", reported a male midshipman with the name plate "Carlson".
"What do you mean 'aberrant signals'?"
"Verified", said Walsh, "Energy levels not stable, Varying erratically."
"What's causing it?"
"Reading an energy increase in the area of the thing out there", Mullins supplied.
"Verified", said Carlson, "Energy levels in the region of...whatever it is...sharply higher."
"What's it doing?", Kendrick demanded.
"No change in position", replied Carlson.
"It must be doing something!"
"Reading increase in long wave radiation", reported Mullins.
"Verified", Brady said.
"Extremely long wave", said Mullins, "Further out than our communication frequencies. And extremely high magnitude and energy density."
"Do you think it's affecting our propulsion systems?"
"It seems likely."
"How? Is it interfering with control settings?"
"Negative", reported Brady, "Controls operating normally."
"Then what's happening?"
"It appears to be affecting the process of ignition in the reaction chambers itself", said Collins.
"In what way?"
"Unknown, but it's preventing overall ignition reaction from proceeding beyond initial stages."
"But, you say, the controls, the ignition sequence, aren't being interfered with?"
"So the reaction itself must somehow be being manipulated."
"It appears so."
"But how can it be doing that?"
"Unknown. We're getting strange readings from the chambers."
"What kind of readings?"
"Bizarre", said Mullins, "A whole spectrum of outputs. The reaction is proceeding all the way, but only to a minor degree, there are indications of the ignition process occurring only part of the way to completion, as well. There isn't a uniform ignition throughout the contents of the chamber."
"The reaction is probabilitstic in nature, but levels out in very short order", said Walsh, "It's almost like whatever's out there has found a way to alter..."
"I don't want to hear any of that!", Kendrick demanded, "That's impossible, It was proved impossible. I want realistic assessments, not fairy tales!"
"Could we be getting false signals from the instruments?", Collins asked.
"We would've seen ancillary readings that the reaction was completed", said Lt. Walsh, "We would've seen indications that the drive was operative. We would've at least registered a sensation of acceleration if the drive was operating."
"Orders, Captain?", asked Walsh.
"Can we try to interfere with whatever the thing out there is doing", Kendrick inquired, "Change the reaction process to override the effects from that thing?"
"Not possible", said Mullins, "The reaction is precisely defined and timed. It can't occur in any other pattern. Our controls are not designed to try to interfere."
"That thing is interfering pretty well!", Kendrick said impatiently, "Is there any way we can try damping its signal, send our own transmission out to counter what it's doing?"
"We don't have the power for something like that", said Brady, "or the equipment that could handle that kind of load."
"There's only one thing our systems are designed to do that can interfere with this object's actions", Walsh offered,
Kendrick thought sourly about what Walsh said, then, "Shut down the engines."
A few contacts thrown and, in the distance, the high whistle that signaled the propulsion system in action faded away.
"Energy readings in the intruder dropping to zero", said Brady, "Electromagnetic emissions decreasing, too."
"This thing wants us to stay here", Walsh concluded.
"If that's what it wants, that's probably not what we should let happen", said Kendrick.
"What can we do?", asked Walsh.
"We don't have a choice. We have the most powerful explosive device our planet came up with. If it wants to interfere with us, we can interfere with it!"
"Do you think that's wise?", asked Walsh.
"The purpose of this ship is to claim a new future for ourselves, and we're not going to let anything stand in our way!", said Kendrick, "We're going to make a statement of principle right here and now. This is going to be setting our course as much as building and launching this vessel."
"What do you intend?"
Kendrick spoke loudly, a command for the entire control room. "Two torpedoes, set them to home in on the sensor signals being reflected back."
"Are we certain the torpedoes will disable whatever it is?", asked Walsh, "And not just...anger it?"
"They've angered us", said Kendrick with finality, "If we have to, we'll just keep firing at it."
"Will that do any good?", asked Walsh.
"At least as much good as sitting out here."
"Maybe there's another..."
"There probably is, but it's not what this ship is about. We're making our own way, we're doing it our own way. We're not subject to the dangers of being forced to live in a planetary environment, we're not going to trade that for being bossed around by something we can't even see! We can't afford to doubt ourselves. We live for that or we might as well end it all!"
"Torpedoes readied, armed and programmed to follow the reflected sensor signals", Collins announced.
"Fire, maximum velocity", Kendrick ordered.
For what they were doing, there was relatively little noise. A thin hum and then nothing.
But they were visible on the screen, represented by the tracking lights on them.
Almost a ridiculous sight, moving at high speed, angling away to the starboard side of the ship, aiming themselves at something they couldn't even see.
"Five seconds to detonation", Collins said.
Kendrick continued the count from there. Four seconds he thought, three seconds, two seconds, one,...
No flash. No spike of radiation. The tracking lights still visible, but seeming to be...standing still?
It took seconds for the import of the scene to filter across the control room. Each took the time to frame how they would respond to the situation, although none of them was anywhere near coordinated or comprehending.
What happened?", Walsh asked stunned.
"What happened?", Kendrick echoed annoyed, "Nothing happened!"
"Communications still established with the torpedoes", said Brady, "They're still intact."
"You said they were programmed to detonate on schedule!"
"They were" answered Collins, "They should have detonated!"
"They deactivated them!", Walsh said incredulously.
"That's impossible!", Kendrick demanded, "That process is inevitable! It can't be stopped!" He was beginning to wish it was another lieutenant on duty now.
"Well, what kept them from detonating?
Kendrick wasn't here to be the font of all knowledge, the answer to all questions. He just gave orders to follow standard protocol. This was a new experience.
But he sensed it was necessary to make a good stand under the conditions.
"The torpedoes can't have been working normally! It must have interfered with the controls, just like it interfered with the propulsion system!"
"We were getting normal readings from the torpedoes", Mullins ventured, slightly fearfully.
"If it can interfere with our controls, it can influence our sensor readings, as well."
"So maybe we actually did some damage with the torpedoes", Walsh offered.
"We're going to find out", Kendrick declared, "We're going to fire two more torpedoes."
He gave the order to load and activate the torpedoes, it was acknowledged, it was obeyed, it was confirmed.
"I hope this words", said Walsh.
"Why shouldn't it work?"
"I know it'll give us some result, I just hope it's one we want."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, think about it. If they really meant us harm, they could have interfered with the launching of the torpedoes and let the torpedoes detonate still on board!"
"That's still second guessing our decisions", Kendrick said, "That's not our purpose here. If we stand for anything it has to be trusting that our decisions are..."
Then the lights went out.
"I come here pretty often", Jack Wessel said. Until about seven years ago, he was a midshipman on the "Validation". Now he was a colonist or resident or detainee, whatever it was they all were.
"Me, too", said Art Crowley. Until about seven years ago, he had been one of the senior staff of the engineering crew of "Validation".
"It always makes me miserable", Wessel said.
"Me, too", Crowley agreed.
"It just seems so wrong to me", Wessel revealed.
"Mr, too". That from Crowley.
A string of pylons, a hundred feet tall, stretching off in the distance in both directions, disappearing over the horizon, as if they split the world. In a real way, they did.
They marked the border.
Beyond, a huge, barren surface of some kind of white stone, the same material from which the pylons were fashioned, also stretching beyond the horizon, both left and right and forward.
In the distance, taking up a large portion of the horizon, the "Validation", powerless, now, resting on specially designed pylons, constructed to be able to support its weight, while not appearing intimidatingly massive. No lights, no sounds of activity, the immense torus up forward, the Habitation section, no longer rotating to provide artificial gravity.
Miles away and "Validation" still seemed immense.
It was certainly a draw for the eyes.
Even more so for those evicted and longing to return.
"It seems so close", Wessel began.
"We can't let it eat at us", said Crowley, "We did the best we could."
"I don't know", said Wessel.
"What else could we have done?"
"Maybe if we hadn't stopped, whatever it was wouldn't have been able to take control and interfere with ship's operation."
"If we hadn't stopped, we would have hit into them", said Crowley, "One second it wasn't there the other second, it was."
"What could behave like that?"
"Whatever kind of science they have acts like that."
Wessel's next question encapsulated a primary issue inherent to the narrative of the entire incident.
"Then why don't their actions make any sense?"
A sudden appearance, prompting the panic application of the ship's propulsion units to decelerate. No visible image, but apparently something that could return signals, although enigmatically erratically. A refusal to communicate. Exercising apparent control over their propulsion systems when they tried to re-activate them. Permitting the launching of two torpedoes, but managing to prevent them from detonating. Then suddenly shutting off all power on "Validation"; taking it in tow with some kind of force field; maneuvering it to a planet with an earth-like atmosphere, flora and fauna; bringing it down slowly to rest on the giant pylons that supported it now; arranging for all external entry points to open. They couldn't overcome the influence to open the entry ways, and, even if they could, "Validation" was not constructed for ascent to orbit from a prone position.
The implication seemed obvious. Whoever they were, they wanted the passengers to disembark. Willingness to comply was low at first, but, with time, it became obvious that the conditions of the ship were not designed for an environment with planet-like gravity. Especially with the livestock maintained for food. Descent to the planet's surface was slow, but, finally, it was completed. Humans, livestock, plants, machines, tools, everything.
Once there, they found themselves in the immense stone plain that now housed only their ship. The setting contained nothing that seemed intended to allow communication with the aliens and suspicions began to grow that their purpose for the humans was as inhabitants of the planet. Engineers of its environment. Sentiment ran high to refuse.
Plans were being drawn up for setting up some kind of temporary community on the stone surfaced area housing the ship. While they were doing that, several members explored a bit past the edge, onto the actual surface of the planet.
And couldn't get back.
Whoever was in charge had erected a field that allowed passage through only one way.
It was accepted that remaining on the "landing pad" or whatever it was was unreasonable. They would need actual soil for plant growth at least, so the plants could feed the people and the cattle, and flowing water for the stocks of fish they carried. The answer was obvious.
The stripped everything that could be stripped from "Validation" and transported it outside the range of the force field. They had no choice but to remain, for now, so they had to settle for creating a community.
"What does it all mean?", Wessel asked plaintively, "What do they want?"
"They want us to form a colony", Crowley answered.
"But why? Why do it this way?"
"That's part of their secrets that they aren't sharing."
"Did they just wait for the first who came to the star, then waylaid them? But they didn't waylay us. They intercepted our path, but they didn't stop us! They didn't even stop us! We stopped the ship! They didn't allow us to restart the engines, but they didn't seize the ship in their field and just haul it here! We fired the Prentice torpedoes at it and it deactivated them. Then we prepared to fire more torpedoes, and then it interrupted out power flow and brought us here!" Wessel stared at the sight, the pylons, the landing area, the "Validation", with almost a frantic desperation. "What's the reason? Why do this? Why do this this way? What do they want?"
"We have to wait until they decide to share their purposes with us."
"That bothers me."
"That accepting attitude about all this."
"There's not much more that we can do. And it's not all that satisfying for me to have that attitude. It's something that we have to get used to."
"What's just too contented a point of view."
"Too contented for what?"
"That's how someone who expected this to happen would behave."
The response was more than unexpected. It took a while for Crowley to regroup.
"Are you trying to say I had something to do with all this?"
"I don't know."
"How can I have anything to do with it? Do you think I control some kind of force field that I used to move the ship here? Do you think I built this landing field here before we even got here? And how did I deactivate the propulsion system and especially the torpedoes?"
"I'm not saying you did everything. I'm not saying there isn't some other force behind all this." A pause for Wessel to gather up his strength, which added to the suspense of the moment. "But you had to have been working with them!"
"Where do you get something like that?"
"You worked in the engineering department."
"A lot of people did!"
"You were one of the engineering chiefs."
"One among a group! What are you trying to say?"
"It would be easy for an officer in the engineering crew to foul up systems enough for everything we were seeing. Send out false signals. Indicate something was there while the real intruder was approaching from another direction. Shutting down the ship's power."
"Make sense. A lot of people, and not just the chiefs, worked directly on all the ship's systems."
"The novices knew how to keep the systems from acting wrong. But only the experienced had enough familiarity to make the systems misbehave the way they wanted."
"And I checked, only one individual had worked on the sensors, the propulsion chambers, the torpedoes and the central controls less than seventy two hours before the intruder!"
"This is crazy! It's just circumstantial! There's no way you can argue I had anything to do with that!"
"How did they contact you? What did they promise you?"
"What makes you think I had to have interfered with the equipment?"
"The torpedoes deactivated! And nothing can stop the Prentice Effect once it's begun!"
"Do you know what you're..."
"They had to have been tampered with! There's nothing that could have stopped the torpedoes detonating! It's a constant of the universe!"
"I think you had better think twice..."
"You had to shut the power down before the second set of torpedoes were fired! You couldn't have spent enough time with the torpedoes to sabotage four of them! It would arouse suspicion!"
What had been a sense of indignation for Crowley now turned into tense fascination.
"And the propulsion system worked on a variant of the Prentice Effect. That can't be halted any more than the torpedoes!"
"They could only have been deactivated by someone who tampered with the mechanisms!"
"If you have a charge to make, why don't you bring it to the Council?"
"They won't listen! They don't want to believe anyone could betray the ship! They keep telling themselves that old joke about there being a way around the Prentice Effect!"
Crowley was pretty sure he knew the answer, but he asked, "So what are you planning to..."
Wessel knew Crowley was prepared, so he struck suddenly. Before the engineer could finish, Wessel grabbed him by the hair on the back of his skull. It was an odd move, so Crowley was initially unsure how to respond. The hesitation gave Wessel enough time for the next step. A screwdriver sharpened to razor thinness shoved through the throat, under neath the jaw. Where it almost couldn't fail to cause serious harm.
The man's body, at first,, grabbed for Wessel, then stiffened, a shiver ran through it and it fell to the ground.
There was a feeling of completeness for Wessel, looking at the body of the downed traitor. He wasn't sure what to do next, he never gave that much thought. It wasn't obvious how the community would react. Many would certainly approve of his action, but the Council wasn't so predictable. Of course, he could try to run, hide out in one of the smaller...
A whisper from behind him. Soft as a nuance of breeze, but obvious in the otherwise penetrating stillness.
Wessel wheeled about.
Am orifice, One the side of the pylon along the border of the landing field, an orifice! No, not an orifice. Observing it further, Wessel could see it was a glass like surface, bounded by a raised border of the material of the pylons and the landing field. And, beyond the glass, blackness.
No. Not completely. Becoming visible, as if swimming into view,...letters!
"S" first, then, next to it, "U". Toward the right "N", then "T", then "Y". Below, "W", and ,next to it, "H". Now "C" on the top row, an "A" further to the right. "S", S", "U", "R", "E"...
BUT WHAT CERTAINTY
Wessel stood staring at the message. The aliens, they were trying to make contact!
After years of absolute silence, they were communicating!
They were responding to his executing Crowley!
They were watching! Why were they watching? How much did they know?
Were they watching because Crowley was their agent?
Were they going to retaliate?
What was there Wessel could do with the aliens aware of his actions? Where could he go?
Spinning on his heels, he loped away into the night.
It took 43000 years to produce such anger.
Or maybe it took 43000 years to breed a man like Rahar Krit.
The resolve. The determination. The dedication.
The utter absolute devotion to a principle.
Born of absolute assuredness in its complete rightness.
Like everyone who lived here, he knew the legend of the "Validation". The benefit it provided and the promise it represented for mankind. The rescue from a world poisoned by the action of an unchangeable facet of the universe. The writing of a new history across the heavens. The opportunity to convert the source of great sorrow and misery into a fundamental part of humanity's deliverance.
It was validation for humanity.
If not for the interception, the interference, the disrupting. Overpowering them, conquering them, incarcerating them. Building on successful infiltration, suborning treason, breeding conspiracy, initiating acts of betrayal and sabotage.
It was a kernel of anger and resentment within everyone who heard of it, even more for those who actually saw "Validation", maintained for viewing, but forever withheld from those who were its makers. Rahar had heard of it, Rahar had seen it. But Rahar had responded the way no others had.
He reacted to it. He remembered it. And he incorporated it. He made it a deep and abiding piece in the mosaic of his personal sense of principle. He defined his understanding of the world around it, he fashioned his sense of right and wrong upon it. It was more than a goal for him, freeing the ship became synonymous with life for him.
It motivated his every move. His constant sloganeering. His arranging of protests. His gaining popularity. His allying with political figures. His growth beyond being just a prominent figure to becoming a defining figure.
He sought to demonstrate indignation, defiance, anger.
Not wanting to ask others to do what he wouldn't himself, he took sledgehammer to the huge pylons circling the landing field. Nothing happened, no damage to the stone like material at all.
The message bubble that had provided what communication there was with the force behind their presence here for thousands of years now only spelled
YOU SEEK AN ANSWER
YET DO NOT PURSUE IT
That was not surprising. In fact, that was to be expected.
Throughout most of mankind's stay on the planet, the bubble had replied to questions or responded on its own to actions. Many cryptic or enigmatic.
Many had asked the captors why they were being held there.
THERE IS NO PRISON, ONLY THE INABILITY TO ESCAPE
was the reply.
What is was the captors wanted of mankind was asked, to which the bubble replied
HAVE YOU ASKED ENOUGH OF YOURSELVES?
Some asked if, when mankind had done what the captors wanted, would the captors release humanity. The bubble replied
CAN YOU DO THE SAME?
Others approached with more pragmatic matters such as how many were there of the jailers of humanity.
THOSE THAT ARE ENOUGH ARE ENOUGH
And there were questions about what kind of technology the captors had utilized to overcome the inevitable detonation of the Prentice Configuration torpedoes.
IF YOU CANNOT SEE THE ROAD,
HOW WILL YOU KNOW THE GOAL?
Had they done this to other races?
THE CAUSE BREEDS THE RESPONSE
The consensus arrived at, after decades of questioning was that the captors were claiming to have never found reason to imprison any other species. That the captors took credit for deactivating the Prentice torpedoes themselves, without the need for a saboteur. That humanity had it within its grasp to derive the same technology the captors possessed, that they had derived the beginnings already, but didn't realize it.
The conclusion was that, in reality, the captors' technology was sophisticated, but not beyond humanity's abilities to achieve, and they were trying to lead humanity astray. That, in fact, mankind could surpass the captors, which is why they were being imprisoned and fed untruths. And that this was all because humans were supremely unique among all the beings in the cosmos.
That, in short, the jailers had lied in everything. That they could proceed no further in their science and so looked to humans to provide new ideas. But would not allow humans to benefit by them.
And that fed the anger and resentment that would lead to Rahar Krit.
That contempt for humanity had made Rahar Krit resolve to break the jailers' control.
That and the answer that came after his first attempt against the pylons only heightened Rahar's desire to breach the boundaries placed around the "Validation".
He assaulted the force field directly, with everything from physical assault to explosives to electric current, magnetism and radiation.
The response was
WHERE IS YOUR ENEMY
He encouraged technicians and scientists to try to challenge the restriction placed upon them not to construct anything, plane, jet, rocket, that left the ground. It resulted, each time, in operating systems deactivating, propulsion systems shutting down and messages like
SO MUCH SIMPLER,
THE WAY TO YOUR GOAL
appearing on the communications orb.
Each failure only emboldened Rahar, spurred him on to following his desire and increased public approval of his actions.
Ceaselessly, he circulated about the habitations of men, toured the many communities, cities, commonwealths, provinces, aggregates that grew during mankind's forced residence in this prison.
And everywhere condemned the actions taken against humanity. The interruption of man's voyage. The theft of man's property. The imprisoning of mankind on the planet.
And, worst of all, the preventing of mankind's personal validation.
And for what purpose? What did it gain those behind this atrocity? What did it benefit mankind to be treated this way? Nothing but cryptic, enigmatic messages.
Thousands rallied to his messages where he visited. Hundreds would follow from each place as he traveled to others.
All eager to share in and cheer his call to be freed.
It invigorated crowds to see Rahar's devotees. It delighted Rahar to see the initiative to fight for release.
But there remained the one troubling note.
How would that be accomplished?
This was critical.
Not just for the strength of his movement, certainly not for his own popularity.
If no way was found to actually pursue escape from the world, from the grip of their captors, the movement would eventually die. Most decisively so. Not only would it cease to be an active interest, the passion would cool, the call quiet, and, likely, even the desire disappear. The initiative would cool, dwindle, evaporate. And no vestige would remain to reignite the flame.
That was the worst possible fate.
Not a temporary defeat or setback, but an absolute and utter surrendering of all hope.
And that troubled Rahar deeply.
He was a torch, a vanguard. He represented the raw will and intent. He had to provide something, something that would work.
To fail would not be just a lapse, but to lose the will to flee. For another 43,000 years? Perhaps forever?
There had been acts of defiance against the captors of mankind before. Mankind had not been solely without a sense of self. And 43,000 years allowed for many such assaults on humanity's jailers. Many were similar to Rahar's direct attacks on the pylons, his attempts to breach the force field. Some had even tried to reproduce the Prentice Incident that had caused the huge explosion on earth so many centuries past. But the jailers simply deactivated the system before it got very far. Many had displayed indignance. It's just that no one before had demonstrated such an overpowering and all encompassing desire to break the bonds.
None of the attempts before had rated anything more than a rejoinder from the communications bubble and none brought about even a lowering of the field to permit the approach to the ship.
Rahar's problems. The installation of those holding man captive were impregnable. They could control man's machines. Their purpose was definitive, to keep mankind an inmate on the planet. No negotiating. No possible assault on the captors. Nothing they cared about enough to forgo their obsession with humanity's captivity. All conventional means of ending such situations useless. He needed something else.
And it came to him. The answer. The means of directly challenging the influence of the jailers, of countering their control.
But implementing it would be difficult.
He did not think those who held humanity captive would be able to interfere with this move. At least with the planning of it. At least he hoped so.
He tested the security of the project out. He revealed the plan, in secret, and only by spoken word, with Aril, one of the first of Rahar's followers.
"If we can assemble this", Rahar said, "I'm all but certain the captors cannot prevent us from carrying it out. They've shown no proclivity to use any means that would be able to stop us from carrying this out."
"That's true", Aril replied,
"And once we have carried this out" Rahar continued, "I am certain our captors cannot willingly continue the forced incarceration of mankind."
"I believe you", said Aril, "But this will be a major undertaking. The preparation, the communicating. Many will have to be involved just to arrange it. How will we know there are no traitors? Remember, it was a traitor who caused mankind to be disarmed and brought here."
"The threat of being revealed will always be there", Rahar replied, "And certainly, once the plan began to be set in motion, I'm certain our jailers will know about it. We will have to be careful."
"I'm not sure there's any way to be too careful putting this together", Aril warned. A thought occurred to him then. "Do we know our jailers don't already know about this plan?"
"I'm not sure", replied Rahar, "But they don't seem to interact except through sophisticated electronic equipment. We won't be using that. I'm not sure even if they knew they would be able to act."
"Doesn't it seem strange that they would leave loopholes like that? That they wouldn't exercise more control? It's like they want us to make a move to escape."
"Or maybe they're limited. Maybe they can't act except through electronics."
"Maybe they were waiting for someone like Rahar to arise."
"The compliment is appreciated, but we must all be careful not to be misled. I'm not sure their purpose, I only feel this plan of action has a good chance of succeeding"
They parted at that point. Each to begin communicating selectively with others who had demonstrated loyalty to Rahat's movement. It would take time. They set the date for when they would begin to assemble at the landing field, when they would bring the crowds in to surround the field, when they would carry out Rahar's plan.
The day finally arrived. Almost the entire human population of the planet had gathered in the communities nearest the site where "Validation" was kept. They crowded hotels and boarding houses. Many even lived with other families for the short time before the plan was to take shape. Others set up tents or other temporary lodgings in the fields around the captured spaceship. Rahar made certain to abide in a tent until the moment arrived.
When the time came, he emerged from his tent with something of a flourish and approached the landing field. Carrying the sledgehammer he had used to try to smash the pylons. The assembled company of the human population of the planet that had decided to join followed him. He had arranged the order. Parallel bands of men and, between them, women and children, oriented toward the landing field. Rahar at the front. All marching forward, toward the edge of the field. All the men carrying sledgehammers.
They moved steadily forward, all following Rahar. He made his way to the communications bubble.
"We demand that you release our ship and allow us to leave!"
WILL YOU DEMAND THAT WHICH IS NOT THERE TO GIVE?
"Are you telling us the ship is not there? That what we see is an illusion?"
WHAT YOU NEED AND WHAT YOU DEMAND
ARE NOT ALWAYS THE SAME
"We will not demand again. You will release the ship and permit us to leave."
TO ONE WHO CANNOT USE IT
THE GREATEST TREASURE IS DROSS
Not surprising. Not unexpected. Rahar was prepared.
He turned on his heels and approached the crowd. He could see the word he had sent out had been received. The men in the crowd were stiffening their muscles, tensing up.
He reached the crowd. In a swift, smooth move, he raised the sledgehammer above his head and brought it down on the woman nearest him.
She had no time to think to make a response. Her body crumpled to the ground as the little boy next to her stared, wondering what to make of it. Those near them, women and children stared, also, but then some started screaming. Behind and to both sides, the same was happening. Rahar's fellows, following his command, were using their sledgehammers to kill the women or children nearest them.
Shrieks, wails, pleas, moans, crying.
Rahar raised his hammer again and waded forward.
The next in line, younger than the first, fell as quickly.
The one past her turned and tried to run, but there were too many in the crowd and many could not understand what was happening and so stood rooted there.
Rahar swung again. A young girl died. Again, a small boy. Again, another young girl.
He felt the message had been sent. He was certain the jailers knew what his intentions were. He turned back toward the communication device.
"You can't control our minds or non electronic devices!", he roared, "You want us around to do something, but will you get what you want after the last of the women and children die and there is nothing left but men and they then die?"
There was not a moment's hesitation, as if the captors were startled, taken aback, aghast and unable to decide what to think.
PITY THOSE WHO CANNOT BENEFIT ANY MORE FROM THE UNIVERSE
THAN FROM A SINGLE PIECE OF LAND
Rahar had an inspiration of what they meant.
Screams and sobbing filling the air behind him, he strode purposefully up to the edge of the landing field. In a single move, he crossed the edge, onto the stone like surface. The force field was gone. He was a man of caution, though. He crossed back, from the field onto the grass. Again, no interruption. Once more, from the ground onto the landing area. There was no force field.
"Get everything you can", he ordered proudly, "We're going aboard!"
Willfully or desperately, the price that had been paid for this moment was forgotten. The people cheered and scrambled back to the nearest town. From there, those who had arrived from elsewhere would take transportation to their respective communities, gather what they wanted to take and return.
They found that the condition of the ship was exactly as it was those centuries ago. Whatever their captors' plan, part of it seemed to involve maintaining the ship with no sign of wear.
The project to prepare it for space once more was carried out with gusto. Everyone cooperated. Even at that, it took over a year for all the preparations, the refitting of the ship and the boarding by the entire human population. Part of the refitting of "Validation" involved converting the massive storage areas into living quarters. Once they were in space, though, they would return to the practice of adding on new living areas as needed and gathering up resources from the star systems they would visit. They would begin by harvesting from this solar system's smaller bodies.
Finally, every preparation had been completed. Rahar was the last to enter. Once inside and ensconced in the control room, because he was now the Captain, he spoke into the long unused communication system, now connected to a loudspeaker recently installed on the outer hull, for one particular purpose.
"Now, employ what you used to bring us here to return us to space!"
There was no hesitation, there was no delay. Immediately, there was the sensation that the ship was being elevated. Smoothly and steadily, the ship rose from its long perch. The population watched eagerly the images on the view screens, showing they were leaving the planet's surface, they were rising through the atmosphere, they were in space.
When they had reached enough of an altitude that they could depart with minor effort, they fired the engines once more. Ponderously, the huge ship moved out of its orbit, into the trajectory of a free body.
On the planet's surface, unseen by all, the letters of a message floated into sight in the communication bubble.
A single word.
A'an Killat raised her hand before the gossamer display and instantly, the contents vanished. What hung in the air before her would look like empty air, unless a close look were taken, or unless she placed more material on the screen. An impressive example of molecular scale engineering, all to keep telling her the same unencouraging news.
The sound of footsteps in the outer office. A tall, lanky figure entered A'an's office and stood before her desk.
"Hello, Iric", A'an said.
"News", Iric replied.
"What is it?", A'an inquired.
"We just got the word at Central", Iric Wollton replied, "'Validation VII' is returning."
A'an made a quick calculation.
"They've been out about 43 years", she announced, "They're last stop was a K type star, if I remember correctly."
"They've finished their survey and they're heading back."
"Well, it'll be interesting to see what they have to report." A'an hesitated slightly before asking the next, almost inevitable, question. "Did they say..."
"Nothing", Iric replied definitively.
Repetition time and again before this made accepting the answer easier.
"Three more N's on the file", A'an replied.
The "N's" were for the most crucial aspects of any of the "Validations'" voyages. Did they find any signs of life? Did they find any intelligent life? Did they find any trace of the jailers?
A'an called up a file she had been working on. It floated in the air beside her. With a gesture, the appropriate spaces were filled with indications of "Validation VII's" failure.
Iric sensed A'an's reception of the news. "Sorry", he said.
"100,000 planets, so far", A'an said, "and not one sign of life. Not even intelligent life, just life."
"We're not so far behind the odds", Iric said, "The home system had, what, nine planets, and only one of those had life. We're still far from a statistical sample."
"When you have no success in try after try after try, eventually, you forget that each event is just one out of so many, many possibilities. Eventually, each failure starts weighing more and more and more."
"There are a number of ships that are approaching their destinations", Iric said hopefully, "'Validations' XII, XV and XXXII to name just a few. Something encouraging could be coming in any time now." A moment's reflection, then, in an even more energetic tone, "Who knows, maybe somebody else out traveling will find us! There are certainly enough of us out here now!"
"Always nice to think about", A'an said, "but, in the face of how things have gone", an almost ominous moment of reflection, then, "it makes you start to think about things."
"There's been talk of beginning a more in depth examination of our relationship with the jailers."
"There's always been a lot of talk", Iric countered, "What more is there to say?"
"A lot of what they said was in the form of nebulous promises and uncertain claims", A'an said, "We had little to use to judge their words by, back then. We know more now."
"We were always sure they were lying to us. There's not much more to be learned about that."
"Except to realize where exactly they lied and to what degree." Another ominous pause, then, "And why."
"What do you see differently now than before?"
"Remember, one of the things they always suggested was that their technology was so much more sophisticated than ours, but that we could reach where they were,"
"Well, we have", Iric argued, "We've mastered electromagnetic and strong force field projection. We could capture and control ships many times the size of the original 'Validation'."
"We haven't managed yet to duplicate the jailers' ability to prevent effective scanning."
"But we've come close. And we can disrupt electrical systems the way they did ours."
A'an displayed a slight hesitation, then she broached the crucial point, "And we know they didn't deactivate the Prentice torpedoes, they couldn't. They had traitors on board. And they may even have accounted for the problems with scans."
"What new have you managed to come up with?"
"When we were first released, we had assumed that the jailors' technology was entire realms apart from out own. So we set about trying to derive it. Faster than light speeds, the ability to completely evade sensor scans. The probes we sent back to Groombridge 1618, the stellar system humanity was held captive, several centuries after we were released, revealed no life at all, so they appear to have been able to create entire living systems. We haven't even been able to duplicate the stone they used to build the landing field."
"What do you get from that?"
"Well, we know they could control powerful fields, we know they could fabricate stone harder than diamond, we know they can seed entire planets with life then remove it. One feat we've matched, the others appear only matters of scale for technology in our grasp now."
"Where's the problem?"
"Among other things, faster than light drive. We never achieved anything like that, and our best science still tells us it's impossible."
"Meaning, since the jailers always lied to us, they had to have been lying there, as well. It's not possible to travel faster than light! It's just a fool's mission to try!"
"When they were towing 'Validation' to the planet they imprisoned us on, I remember, it was faster than our own traveling speed, but still took as long as something moving slower than light."
"So that is a lie. We can't travel faster than light. They can't travel faster than light."
"That only reinforces what we've known all along", Iric countered, "What do you get from that?"
A'an leaned forward almost as if to share a conspiratorial secret.
"How did they encounter us on our way outward from earth?"
Iric wasn't quite certain what she was getting at.
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"What are the chances of them running into us?" Another pause, as if to emphasize the significance of what she way saying. "The universe is big. The galaxy is big. Traveling faster than light, you can almost be everywhere at once. Traveling slower than light, it's the furthest stretch to accidentally intercept another craft!"
Iric was beginning to see her point.
"It's not impossible, though."
"No, but, like I said, the less likely something is, the more it can weigh on you. It seems unreasonable in the extreme that it was by accident."
"Maybe they've been looking out for other races. Maybe there are a lot more of the jailers than we thought."
"Then where are they? Thousands of years now and we haven't come across them again. We haven't had contact with their ships." Another pause for emphasis, then, "And we haven't seen other life. Where are all these alien races the jailers were supposedly traveling everywhere to study? We haven't found any planets incarcerating other species."
"Then what's your conclusion?"
"That it wasn't by accident that they intercepted us."
"They knew we were coming?"
"Maybe more than that."
"What do you mean?"
"They were far older than humanity, or else they wouldn't have been so advanced. And they couldn't have just met us by accident. They knew about us and were prepared for a long time."
"They had to be prepared to wait a long time, since there was no guarantee we would even go to Groombridge", Iric countered, "For that matter, there was no reason to assume we would built "Validation" and strike out to leave the solar system, or even any reason to believe we would have an accident like the overloading of the Prentice Configuration that destroyed the surface of the earth."
A'an was silent, with a silence that made the previous ominous pauses seem forgettable.
Iric caught onto her sentiments.
"Are you saying the jailers infiltrated us as long ago as that? Made us destroy the earth, then leave it?"
Maybe even further back than that", another pause which only added to the effect then, "Maybe we're some kind of special project to them. If they and we are the only life in the universe, it makes sense they would fixate on us."
Another pause, which, by now, was adding to the feeling of tension more even than lending emphasis.
"And if we are the only two forms of life in the universe, how likely is it they came from the same galaxy as us? They must come from somewhere unimaginably far away, were traveling for an unbelievable length of time. Which would make them all the more powerful and make it all the more questionable why they would engage in these kind of actions?"
"Maybe they're keeping us from finding what life exists out here now", Iric suggested, "If they've infiltrated humanity, there's no limit to how much of our history they manipulated. They could have controlled our voyages, directed our explorations they way they want."
"Or maybe they destroyed all the other forms of life", A'an said somberly, "And are planning the same for us. Maybe they're leading us down a path they already used who knows how many times on who knows how many other races? Maybe that's the essence of what they are, jealousy of all other life, a driving will to annihilate them all."
The plausibility of what she was saying was extreme, if the palatability was awful. Iric felt a need to clear the air.
"We may be going too far off on a tangent", Iric said, "If the jailers were controlling humanity that far back, maybe they prevented discoveries that would have enhanced our science. There are so many things we take for granted that we don't even double check them. There were many theories floating around, even in the early days, but they were dismissed or ignored. Maybe we could find something in one of them that could open entire new areas of research, maybe even overturning what we believe ourselves bound by."
"That's only playing into the jailers' hands", A'an almost snapped back, "Those were dedicated, earnest individuals who weeded out those false leads and useless guesses! The jailers weren't everywhere, that's how man managed to develop as he did. We can't give them credit for things they didn't do. If they had been weeding out the useful, man wouldn't have the technology we have today. They would have sent us in all different directions. No, the decisions of those people was sound and decisive. It's only a mistake to think otherwise!"
A'an was certainly convinced, Iric was sensing wisdom in extricating himself from the situation.
"Well, maybe one of the other ships will have something different. You never know", Iric said, hoping to use the comment as a signal to leave the room.
A'an watched him as he left.
Poor Iric, always hoping, unwilling to adopt the absolute certainties before them.
Ko nestled contentedly into the combination fabric and energy matrix that formed the cushion of his chair. Instinctively, the substance conformed to the contours of his body and matched his temperature. Ti did likewise next to him. Together, they gazed for awhile silently across the landscape before them. The flat desert stretching to the horizon, broken by errant giant cracks from ages of dehydration. To their left, the north, the mountain range, black against the light of the massive sun just under the horizon. Overhead, the sky varying softly from the yellow of the hidden sun to, the rosy mauve at the zenith to the inky navy blue opposite the sun.
There was a somber serenity to the scene. In this place between the frightening extremes of the half of the planet that never turned away from the sun, and the half in eternal dark. The side where air itself almost caught fire and the side where it was only a few degrees away from becoming ice. Ko never regretted he and Ti choosing this spot for a home. Their home was equipped with the stable matrix electromagnetic discharge screen that could add enough illumination, at least where they sat, to brighten the surroundings to match planets that actually experienced real day and real night, but they preferred the scenery as it was.
"It will be good to see Ilt again", Ti said.
"He'll have dozens of stories from the Conclave", Ko offered.
"Ilt always manages to have observations that no one else mentions."
"You know why, don't you?", Ko asked, and when Ti looked him for explanation, he offered, "That's because he always gets himself in on the most innermost of inner circles. He's very experienced at that."
"I wonder what he will have", Ti wondered.
"Something interesting, I'm sure", Ko said, "Imagine what they can have seen."
"They left the Local Group, didn't they?"
"To the Virgo Cluster. Messier 86, about 50 million light years."
"Hundreds of ships, weren't they?", asked Ti.
"From the 'Validation 17000' series", Ko explained, "Each of them hundreds of times the size of the original 'Validation'! Enough people, equipment, plant and animal life to colonize an entire planet each."
"Maybe, finally, they'll find life."
"They'll certainly leave the galaxies with life in them."
A mental signal from Ko and a robot exited the house with beverages.
"Wasn't there word from a number of ships that they actually had found artifacts, buildings, tools?"
"Some. But, in each case, that's all that was found. No living creatures, no plant life, no intelligent beings, no attempts at communication. It's useless to think to follow that train of thought."
"How could something like that have happened? To have artifacts but no life?"
"They couldn't have just decided to leave where they were, go somewhere else?"
"And taken every animal, every plant, every microbe with them?"
"Maybe they found a way."
"There is no way."
"Maybe they found something that did that automatically, Where taking every last living thing was an inherent part of the process. Then they could move everything and leave no trace except their artifacts."
"We've conquered all the science there is to conquer. We've isolated every possible interaction, manifestation, phenomenon. Nowhere is there anything like that."
"Maybe we've been wrong. Maybe there are other things to discover, other laws..."
"That's crazy. That means that we haven;t been thorough. It's always been a matter of extreme care and caution, the discovering of the rules of reality. No one would ever let anything slip." A pause, and then, "Besides, think about it. What if any of these life forms found a way to leave, move somewhere else, and take everything with them. Where would they move? Where did they move? We found no signs, anywhere. Even if they did move every last biological entity with them, we would have found them where they moved! But we didn't!"
"Maybe they found somewhere else to move."
"Maybe another universe. Maybe another dimension. Maybe...somewhere else.:
"That still assumes they discovered laws of nature that we haven't. And we found them all."
"Then where are all the artifacts coming from?"
"The jailers, of course. We've always known they were liars. We always were aware that they sought to deceive mankind."
"Why would they do that?"
"For their own reasons. We don't know. We only know that they are liars, that they are enemies. They always seek to control our path as a race."
"Do you really think they are still controlling our fate?"
"We have assume they're trying, we have to guard against it. They infiltrated us before, they will again, if they can. It may be that they've been guiding us all along, subtly directing our movement. Maybe they've been doing it since long before the first 'Validation". Even leading us to go out and explore the cosmos. They may be the reason we find no other life. Maybe they've been around for a lot longer than we thought. Maybe they've been destroying other races, left and right."
"Then why not destroy us, too?"
"Maybe they're trying. Maybe this is the only way they can do it so completely."
"Do you think they've been leading us to think we've learned everything there is to know, to destroy us? Maybe there is more, but they don't want us to know."
"No. That was obvious since the captivity. There is nothing more. They wanted us to think the Prentice Configuration could be controlled. But we knew all along it couldn't be. That was only another one of their deceptions. There is no way to control the Prentice Configuration, there's no way to travel faster than light, it's impossibly to nullify gravity. We know all these things. We know everything. There is nothing more to learn. If they are working still to destroy us, it's probably through sending us on these expeditions."
"But, if it's possible even our exploring might be the jailers trying to control us, why do we do it?"
"What will we do, just sit?"
"As much as this act of discovery is what humankind desires, it seems strange to think it might be the jailers' will."
"They're liars. They were always liars. The impression that they wanted mankind contained was just another deceit. They wanted humanity to expand to the stars. Why, I don't know, but this is in their plan."
"Why did it take so drastic an act to arrange the freedom of man, then?"
"All part of their deceit. They wanted us to think they wouldn't release us any other way."
"If they truly want this for some sinister purpose, if they really do have something unpleasant planned and this is facilitating it, maybe we are truly foolish in going through with it."
"Imagine what they would do to mankind if we refused what they wanted from us. Maybe that's why there is no life elsewhere, they all refused the jailers' demands."
"It only makes us sound like cowards to go along with it."
"There aren't many alternatives."
"Maybe we need another drastic display like the one that freed us before."
Ko and Ti turned to view the landscape before them again.
"It will be good to see Ilt again", Ti said.
A major act for a major goal.
Planned years and years ago, put into action by scores and scores of robotic teams. To avoid the possibility of infiltration.
A repudiation of the jailers and their clandestine plans with respect to humanity.
Coming down to the last seconds now. He watched the dials carefully.
The full effect wouldn't be obvious for centuries, for millions of years, but the event would be simultaneous.
Across the many, many galaxies visited by man, Prentice torpedoes, hundreds of miles wide rested on planetary surfaces waiting for the moment.
Silence, stillness, cold.
The darkness of a universe in which all matter had receded past the horizon, the horizon of observability, the horizon of existence. Combinations of atoms broken into molecules, molecules eventually dissolved, atoms torn into elementary particles, particles, all by the inexorable expansion of space. Little more than a thin soup of elementary particles, random photons with wavelengths almost as big as the expanding boundaries of the universe.
And, winding their way between them, bands of cohesive electromagnetic force patterned to correlate to the patterns of the last thinking beings.
Would wonders never cease, a message from Kirilli. Hundreds of millions of years old, indicating she had spoken with Onoto. Onoto had expressed his decision to invert. He probably had done so by now. Well, that's his way of dealing with things. Of course, if you asked Atanit,...
The message was only a few hundred thousand years old. Nilkano passing by in his wanderings.
"Greetings, Nilkano. News. I have just heard from Kirilli."
"I thought she was all the way on the other side of reality."
"She is. Apparently Onoto is there, too."
"Maybe I could go visit."
"Only Kirilli. Onoto has inverted."
"When did that happen?"
"A few million years before she sent her message."
"I didn't expect Onoto to invert, at least, not yet. Not that it surprises me that he chose to."
"Why do you say that?"
"He had been complaining for some time now."
"Did something happen?" That was from Ilini. She and Utu had drifted into range in the past few million years.
"Onoto inverted", Nilkano offered.
"Oh, I knew I hadn't heard from him for some time", said Ilini.
"Who told you?", asked Utu.
"Kirili", said Atanit, "She and Onoto were far to the other side of the universe when he decided."
"I wish him well", Utu said with a slight trace of reproving, "He wants to submerge himself into an endless replay of memories, that's his decision. There's no way out of it, but he must have known what he was doing, or felt he did."
"That must have attracted him more than this", said Ilini.
"I don't really appreciate what Onoto did, either", Atanit said, "Just reliving old dreams and thoughts."
"Well, it might appeal to some", Nilkano said.
"Any that it appealed to, I don't want to do with", said Utu, distaste showing through more clearly now.
"Oh, I don't know", Ilini said, "I've been thinking about it for awhile now."
"When did this start?", Utu almost demanded.
"I've been thinking about it for some time."
"What would lead you to consider that?", Atanit said, mirroring Utu's reproachfulness.
"I don't see the point in the way we have been handling things", Ilini said.
"What is wrong?", asked Atanit.
"What is right?", Ilini retorted, "We remain here, drifting, doing nothing except remembering, going over the past in our consciousnesses, doing little more than making nonforthcoming remarks about what we already know and swapping gossip about who inverted and why we think they did."
"Do you find it taxing?", Utu asked vexed.
"In a way, yes."
"Why does it displease you?", Atanit asked with more than a little resentment.
"What is there to it?", Ilini asked, "Ask about any who have inverted. You'll hear that they were complaining about the pointlessness of being here."
"Now that's enough of that!", Atanit almost roared.
"Do you think you're making a point with that outburst?", Nilkano challenged.
"We're doing the most valuable thing that could be imagined!", Atanit retorted, "We are standing as the embodiment of human destiny!"
"I think they looked for more than merely sitting and coddling the past", that from Ilini.
"Because they knew no better! As time went on, it became obvious what could be expected and what couldn't! They dreamed about all sorts of powers and sciences. With time, they realized the limits of the world and lived with it! They finessed everything that could be out of the nature of the universe. And we are the end result. Consciousness, comprising every memory of humanity, existing in a condition of self contained fields. We are the legacy of humanity's long struggle with the science of the universe! It's out duty to remain if only to hold forth and say, This is what humans did!'"
"Say it to whom?', Ilini answered, "The jailers?"
"They are nowhere to be found! We made it, they didn't! We are the superior!"
"And what of other life?"
"We concluded that other life was impossible! Just like the Prentice Effect couldn't be controlled. Something that the universe simply could not abide! Just like travel faster than light, just like other realities, energy from nothing. We are the only beings in the only cosmos. We are the essence of the universe expressing itself!"
"They used to say other life forms used other science to overcome the rules of the cosmos, take themselves somewhere else, and that's why we can't find them. We're like intellectual beetles living on the skin of a vast globe of knowledge, thinking that flat surface is all there is to know."
"And that's why those who invert do so!", Atanit bellowed, "that defeatist attitude! There was only so much to conquer and we conquered it! And now we must be content in mankind's achievement!"
"We're a tribute to the accomplishments of mankind", Utu said, starting to drift away from the group, "It's in appreciation of all who went before that we remain. It's just weakness to refuse to be the reminder of humanity's triumphs."
Ilini was silent as Utu moved further and further away, then, "I'm happy for you that you can find reason to enjoy this condition. For myself, maybe I'll find something worthwhile in it, but I'm not sure I can."
Quietly, Ilini also moved away, in the direction opposite Utu.
"You need the sense of pride to adopt the appropriate appreciation for this", Atanit said finally, "I'm sorry for those who can't find it."
"I'm not sure there is so much to appreciate in this", said Nilkano.
"What do you mean?", Atanit asked.
"Think about what this means", replied Nilkano, "Others will begin to become disappointed with this. Inversions will occur more and more. Even I have begun to think of it."
"A few times."
"Think about it. More and more inverting. Fewer and fewer to speak to, to listen to. The number of human presences dwindling, dwindling. Eventually, only one being will be left in the entire cosmos for the only eternity. Alone, unable to contact anyone. Left only the prospect of staring into the silent emptiness and just content themselves with the fact that they're there." A silence, emphasizing the significance of what he said, then, "I'm telling you right now, I'm not going to let that be me. I won't let it get to the point where I'm the last registering mentality in all infinity. I don't know when or if I'll invert, but, I'll tell you, I won't wait until I'm the only one left!'
Nilkano drifted off in the general direction of Ilini and Kirili. Atanit monitored his retreat for a few million years, then returned to his reflections.
This was an honor. The distinction of representing the accomplishments of mankind, mankind's conquering all there was to conquer. In a way, it was advantageous that there were only so many laws, only so many possibilities, not an unlimited realm of alternate realities. It's possible to climb a finite mountain, standing as the symbol of ultimate achievement is at best unlikely if one tackles ever larger mountain after ever larger mountain. They were the beneficiaries of a universe of bounded size and only limited possibilities. They were the apex, the only ones to make it. The only ones that remained. And that was a powerful thing. And deserved to be acknowledged. If others found it not to their liking, they could go their way, sink into a state of constant reminiscence. He would remain to hold forth, to show what humanity had achieved.
In the distance, he made out the thin reverberations of "Goodbye", as Kirili inverted. A short time later, the well wishes as Ilini and Nilkano inverted.
It didn't matter to Atanit. He would remain, and remain, and remain.
A personal appearance. That was unexpected. It was also very encouraging. Lttqti had been nervous about the judgment on his project. He had had great hopes, but, likewise carefully measured expectations. A good review of his project could mean practically guaranteed success. To be notified in person by one of the deans could be a very hopeful sign.
One that didn't have to be awaited long, as Qrrlkl transitted before Lttqti.
"Dean", said Lttqti, "a pleasure to see you."
"Even more of a pleasure when I tell you what I have to say", Qrrlkl said, "Your project has been accepted. Accepted with some very high commendations, I should add."
Lttqti knew his relief was obvious.
"In fact, the Board says it's one of the most accomplished projects they've ever seen.
"I put a lot of time and thought into it."
"It's apparent. They are especially struck by the scope of it. A borderline obsessive, destructive compulsion toward self deception. And all accomplished with an absolute minimum of precursor events. And only two direct interdictions."
"I could have done it with one."
"The Board was aware of that. Even with two, it still is far ahead of most other similar efforts." A short pause, then, "Why did you decide to introduce the beings called "the jailers"."
"Basically to assess just how strong the strain was. If it could be broken, then it wasn't that ingrained, if it wasn't broken by something like the jailers actions, then nothing would break it."
"The Board considers this one of the most dramatic demonstrations of deliberate, self induced societal destruction they have seen."
"I'm very appreciative."
"Tell me, though. I haven't had that much of an opportunity to examine the structure of your demonstration. I know you only had two interdictions which brought about this final result, and I know the jailers was one. What was the other?"
"It was an individual toward the beginning."
"What was their name?"