Wednesday, April 18, 2012
INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE
*****"What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school... It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see my physics students don't understand it... That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does." - Richard Feynman
Alva Sector, A.D. 2193
THE PINLIGHT WAS a frantic red pulse on the monitor. “There it is again, Murph!” Vasoovan twittered. “At one o’clock.”
Captain Murphy “Murph” Selfridge squeezed into the navigation cubicle. He was a big, formerly athletic man, gone to seed. He bent over his first officer. The light pulsed back at him. Kea Richards watched his commander’s broad features take on an oxlike look of puzzlement as he studied the winking light. “I don’t get it,” the captain finally said. “Same damn coordinates?”
“Same damn coordinates, Murph,” Vasoovan said.
“Sure you didn’t make some kinda screwup?” Murph asked. “Maybe you better run it through again.”
The Osiran sighed the martyred sigh of the constantly incompetent. “If you say so, Captain,” she twittered. Slender pink tendrils moved swiftly over the com unit. Touching sensor pads. Spinning dials.
Richards and the two scientists kept silent. Their card hands forgotten on the tiny rec table of the cramped instant-bucket-of-bolts some corporate sales veep had misnamed Destiny I. There was no Destiny II. The first model was so poorly designed and built that only the ten ships had been completed. And those had been sold for kiloweight. Richards’s skinflint company had bought two and put them into service. For the past five E-months, it had taken all of Richards’s skills as chief engineer to keep the Destiny I in one piece and headed for the mysterious signals emanating from Alva Sector.
Vasoovan rebooted. The monitor blanked, then came back on. The light was still blinking. But this time at six o’clock. “What the hell’s goin’ on, Vasoovan?” Murph demanded. “How come the sucker keeps movin’ around on us?”
“Don’t blame me,” Vasoovan protested, anger building. “I just do my job. Same as anybody else.” She turned her large oval face full on the captain. Vasoovan had the permanent grin of a carnivore. Even after five months in close proximity with the ET, Richards found the face unsettling. He watched two of Vasoovan’s eyestalks check out Murph for signs of argument. The other two craned over Murph’s head to study Richards and the scientists.
One scientist pretended not to notice. She stroked a straying dark curl from her eyes. The other—the man—turned his handsome profile away. But Kea stared back. He knew better than to give the Osiran an edge. “What’re you looking at, Richards?” Vasoovan’s twittering was shrill.
“Apparently not very much,” Kea said. “In my book, watching my captain and his first officer doing tight twirls around their backsides hardly qualifies as entertainment.”
“You’ve got no cause to gripe,” Murph said. “You’re getting triple time for this trip, with some pretty hefty bonuses all around if we come up with something.”
Richards pointed at the wandering light on the nav board. “If that’s our bonus, Captain,” he said, “I wouldn’t be making plans for any big spending when we get back. From where I sit, the company’s money is pretty damn safe.”
“Come on, Kea,” the captain urged. “Let’s not be negative. We got a good team, here. And, by god, we’re gonna take this thing all the way over the top.”
Kea shrugged. “Sure, Murph. Whatever you say.”
“It’s their fault,” Vasoovan said, indicating the scientists. ‘This whole thing was their idea. Know what I think? I’ll tell you what I think—”
Dr. Castro Fazlur—chief scientist of the expedition—broke in: “It actually believes it has a thought process, Ruth. Amusing, isn’t it?” He crooked his lips into a smile of nonamusement.
Dr. Ruth Yuen, Fazlur’s assistant and lover, ducked her pretty head. Trying to stay out of the line of fire. “Oh, come now, Ruth. Be honest,” Fazlur pressed. Handsome gray-fox features pushed forward. “Don’t you find it tragic that the only sign of allegedly intelligent life mankind has found is this tentacled thing?”
“Watch it, Fazlur,” Vasoovan hissed.
The scientist ignored the warning. “I’d say it was the eye-stalks,” Fazlur said. “What IQ exists in an Osiran is mostly consumed controlling that primitive biological function. This would explain its limited language capabilities. You will note, Ruth, dear, that it speaks the argot of a common ship rat. Obviously, its mental powers are too taxed to achieve a civilized person’s vocabulary.”
Vasoovan’s features turned from pink to parboiled. A powerfully muscled tentacle reeled out, searching for a heavy object to hurl. Then snatched back as the captain slapped at it.
“Come on, guys. Lighten up. I got enough problems without you piling on more.” Murph pleaded.
It was at this point that Kea felt a warm, shapely foot press against his calf. It rose up his leg, caressing higher… higher. Ruth’s dark eyes flashed. A red tongue tip licked an upper lip. It was that Tamara kind of look. Suddenly, the already-cramped world of Destiny I slammed around him. He tossed in his cards. “I’m going to catch up on some sleep,” he said. “When you figure out where we’re going… be sure to wake me.” He rose, avoiding Ruth’s hurt look, and stalked out. The too-familiar sound of quarreling voices faded as he made his way down the corridor.
Surprisingly, he found the fresher room unoccupied. The rest of the crew, fifteen in all, was either at work or bunked down. This was a rare opportunity to scrape off some of the grime the overtaxed atmosphere system aboard the Destiny I kept spewing out. He peeled coveralls from his greasy body, then groaned as hot spray needled his flesh. No one ever got really clean aboard Destiny I. For months, they had all been walking around in the thickening miasma of their own smells. Eating stale packets of heavily manufactured chow, since scarce water also meant a crimped supply of fresh vegetables from hydroponics.
The needle spray cut off as his hot water allotment was used up. Kea suffered zed guilt as he punched the button and the shower resumed. Crap on those company pinchcredits. A delicious fog filled the room. He spread the soap on thick and lathered up.
The expedition to the Alva Sector had been a bust from the get-go. Kea had signed on against his own good sense. Being chief engineer of a bucket of bolts had never been his idea of a life’s work. He’d had big dreams, once. Dreams that seemed to be worth achieving. Then he had thrown it all away over that inbred, high-society woman. If it had happened to somebody else, the situation would be laughable. But the memory of the other, harsh laughter on Mars would be with him for years. He was so young and dumb he didn’t ask why the first deep-space company he had hit up leaped on him as if he were solid gold.
Sure, he had aced their aptitude test. And gone through the exams in a third the allotted time. Kea had half expected to be rejected, despite his high test scores. After all, he had no experience. He had also assumed the competition would be fierce for something so exotic as career in deep space. Especially now that private companies—sniffing fat profits and guaranteed monopolies— were venturing out on the few bridges to the stars that had been built with government money.
He started getting an idea how wrong he was in his first job as a wiper aboard a cargo hauler making the jump out to Epsilon Indi. His fellow crew members were as stupid as his chief engineer. And his brain cells numbered fewer than the fingers on his mangled left hand. What the crew members lacked in intelligence, they made up for in greed and sloth. Any time the ship ported, it was all the captain could do to rouse them from the drinking and narco dens to make the next flight.
His next job—a long jump out of Arcturus—proved the first ship was no exception to the rule. If anything, the feebles making up that crew and officer staff were less competent. That journey had ended in near disaster when the captain ignored the clearly charted meteor belt and wound up hulling his ship. Four crew members had died before Kea had jockeyed a patch into position and sealed the hole. His knowledge of Yukawa drive had been tested when it was discovered the engine was damaged. And no one aboard had the skills to repair it. There had been a lot of praying for the next seventy-two E-hours as Kea jury-rigged the stardrive into some kind of working order. The jump home went without incident.
It was then he had been recruited by his present company— Galiot Inc., a division of the megagiant SpaceWays.
“Galiot’s a brand spankin’ new division, son,” the recruiter had boasted. “You’ll be seein’ places and doin’ things folks are just startin’ to dream about. Our mission’s to come up with new ways and ideas for SpaceWays to make money. They’re puttin’ big credits behind us. If you join, son, you’ll be joinin’ quality. Nothin’ but the best for Galiot Inc. Cuttin’ edge all the way.”
Kea had hired on at a two-grade jump in position. And it wasn’t long before he’d worked his way up to chief engineer.
Yeah, he thought, as the needle spray soothed tension-knotted muscles, the road might not have been long, but it sure was torturous. It wasn’t the risk that made it so. Hell, risk was spice. Here he was getting his chance to act out his boyhood dreams.
Starships bound for adventure in the beyond. But the company did its best to spoil all sense of wonder. They hired and bought cheap, making intellectual companionship minimal and turning the most routine labor into knuckle-busting frustration for lack of quality machines and tools. The company had a knack for turning any assignment into boredom—interspersed with fear of a pointless death as shoddy equipment failed at a touch.
What the bejesus are you doing here, Richards? Stuck on a one-E-year-minimum expedition. Surrounded by the sorriest, most cantankerous, ill-mannered employees of Galiot Inc. You could have stayed at Base Ten. Waited for another contract. Okay, you were bored out of your skull. So, what’s new about that when you work for Galiot Inc? You could have guessed. Hell, you knew, Richards. Knew at the time you had best tell them to put that contract where the sun doesn’t shine.
He heard the fresher door open. Through the clouds of steam he saw a lush, female form slip out of tight-fitting coveralls. The warning bells hammered. Dr. Ruth Yuen smiled through the mist, then slowly reclined on the fresher’s small changing bench. “Mmmm,” she said. “I like my men nice and clean.”
The last time she had left his bunk, Richards had sworn to himself that was it. The end. The woman was more dangerous than anything aboard the ship or outside in cold, cold space. A guaranteed knife in the back. So, tell her no, Richards.. Tell her no. Send her back to her full-time lover and boss, Dr. Castro Fazlur.
Go ahead, Richards.
But his feet were moving forward, taking him out of the shower. Ruth’s smile grew broader. She looked up at him, eyes half-closed. Her hand reached up. Caressed Kea’s stomach. Slid downward. Her left leg lifted off the deck, knee bending, and she put her foot on the bench. She let her leg fall open, then reached down and touched herself, stroking.
“What’re you waiting for, Richards? Do you need a written invitation?” As he knelt over her, her legs came up, locking around his waist.
Sure, Richards. Tell her no.
Just like you told the company no.
He had heard the rumors about Operation Alva even before he had been approached by Captain Selfridge to join the crew. Word was that a routine scan of the remote Alva Sector had come up with a strong but intermittent disturbance in the normal background radiation. The pulse came from an area no known body existed. It was not a black hole. Or any of the theoretical formations posed by twenty-second-century physicists to explain the newly unexplainable. Also, as far as anyone could tell, the blips or buzzes showing up against the radiation background charts came from a “natural” source.
Kea was oddly stirred by rumors of the unexplained phenomenon. The small-boy/adventurer in him wanted badly to see for himself. To be the first to know a thing before anyone else. To rediscover his sense of wonder. Then his hard-won cynicism reasserted itself. Unless there was proven money in it, the company would ignore the whole thing. The required government report would eventually be drawn up, filed, and forgotten in a bureaucratic black hole. So, he’d returned to the room the company provided ‘tween-contract workers and buried himself in his steadily growing collection of historical works. Then he had gotten the news of Dr. Fazlur’s arrival. The scientist was reportedly an expert on alternate-universe theory.
Kea had nearly dismissed this news outright. He had met too many of the company’s pet experts. They always proved to be nothing more than PhDs for hire, with no qualms about bending fact to meet an employer’s expectations. He had figured Fazlur was there merely to draw up the report, to maintain the company’s license requirements with the government. This guess had been reinforced when he heard about Fazlur’s gorgeous “assistant”—Dr. Ruth Yuen—and how he liked to nuzzle and paw her in public. The man was obviously more playboy than scientist. Then he’d heard about the many metric tons of equipment being unloaded from the ship that had borne Fazlur and Yuen to Base Ten.
“Company’s turned on the money machine,” an old space jock had said at one of Kea’s favorite dives. “Somethin’s gotta be up!”
A small forest of special antennas had been erected on Base Ten’s exterior skin by around-the-clock crews. Kea had seen it for himself upon his return from a quick, one-week hop. As his ship had floated toward Base Ten’s docking bay, he had noted the odd configuration Fazlur had ordered constructed: wires knitted together and strung from towers until they formed an immense gill-net receiver. The old space jock had not exaggerated when he talked about the money machine going full bore. Something was up, indeed.
Kea paced his room. Picked up Gibbon. Tossed it. Flipped through the Anabasis. Tossed it, too. Ditto Plutarch’s Lives. And Churchill. Too many hours dragged by. When he got the message from Captain Selfridge that he was putting together a crew for an expedition to the Alva Sector, he bounded to the meeting as fast as a strong young man can bound in three-quarters gravity.
“Company thinks real well of you, Richards,” Selfridge said.
“Hey, none of that captain business,” the man protested. “I like my ship loosey-goosey. Informal. Makes for a better team. That way we all pull together when you know what hits the fan… Call me Murph.”
“Sure… Murph,” Kea said, thinking then and there he ought to blow out. Only a fool would sign on a ship run by a captain who said, “Call me Murph.”
“That’s right, Richards. Loosey-goosey. And we’ll get on fine. Anyway. Company put you top of my list for the chief engineer’s slot. Now that I metcha, and we talked… I can see why.”
Kea didn’t respond He would have blown the deal. He had spoken maybe fifteen words since he had arrived at the captain’s temporary HQ. If old Murph spent an equivalent time checking out the others, they’d wind up with a crew that would give Long John Silver the heebie-jeebies. “One thing I oughta mention,” Murph continued. “I gotta an Osiran for my new first officer. Name’s Vasoovan. Any problem with that?”
Murph instantly misunderstood Kea’s raised eyebrow. “Now, I won’t blame you if you’re sorta prejudiced against Osirans. Taken a good man’s job, and all. But this Vasoovan comes highly recommended. Even if she is a bug.”
“No. I’ve got no problems with Osirans… Murph,” Kea finally said. This was no lie. He was too much a mongrel himself to be prejudiced. He had heard fine things about Osirans in general. But not as company employees. Osirans were a pretty proud group. Hated the idea of being beholden to humans because they’d been the ones to make first contact. The only ones who would work for humans, Kea knew very well, were malcontents and incompetents. Which meant Murph’s first officer was a likely loser with an attitude. Another bad sign. So, if his own name was on the recommended list, what did that make him?
“Now, this is a real ticklish mission we got here,” Murph said. “So you get hazardous-duty pay. And that’s triple time, friend. One year guaranteed.”
Kea smiled, acting pleased. So that explains it, he thought. As one of the company’s youngest chief engineers in grade, triple time would be pretty cheap. Which explained the Osiran. Rock-bottom wages mere. And good old Murph looked like the sort of guy who had to work cheap.
“Plus bonuses if we bring home the bacon,” Murph added.
“What exactly are we after?”
“You probably heard the scuttlebutt in the bars about the weird readings they’re gettin’ out of Alva Sector, right?”
“Yeah. Everybody heard.”
Laughter. “Figured that. No secrets on Base Ten. Anyway, they got the readings. Clerk drew up a filing, like we’re supposed to. Law says the company’s gotta report unexplained stuff like that. Part of the license with the Powers That Be. Public duty, and all that BS.”
Public duty, meaning pure research and intellectual development, was a sop the big companies threw the opposition when they won the right to commercialize space. Little money was actually spent. Space Ways and its fellow franchisees met only the vaguest spirit of the law.
“The report got punted forward,” Murph continued, “and everybody figured that was that. It’d get buried along with all the other jerkoff stuff. Which is where Fazlur comes into the story. The doc’s an expert on alternate-universe theory. Don’t ask me to explain it, I’m a space jockey, not a domehead.”
“I promise I won’t,” Kea said.
“So Fazlur sees the report. Gets all excited. Runs it through the computers, and bingo, it comes up three cherries. Proof there’s an alternate universe, he says. A leak in space.”
“Why is the company listening?” Kea kept his features bland. Inside, his heart was hammering. “What do they care? Unless there’s money it in for them.”
“No money,” Murph said. “Not a chance. This expedition is, and I quote, ‘purely in the interest of the advancement of science,’ end BS quote.”
Kea just stared at him—a working stiff’s Don’t Con Me stare. Murph laughed. “Yeah. Right. Actually, what’s goin’ on is that our fearless parent company—SpaceWays—has got its tit in a political wringer. Some government types say they’re skinnin’ the research credits too fine.”
“So they’re looking for a nice bone to throw to the dogs, right?” Kea guessed.
“You got it. And so did Fazlur. He may be a domehead, but he’s got a good business nose. He pulls some strings. A junior veep sees a chance to make senior. And son of a gun, all of a sudden, we got us a scientific mission.”
So, that’s all it was, Kea thought. A little cheapie non-effort to spread oil on troubled political waters. This thing was bound to be screwed from the get-go.
“So, Richards. I did my dance. Give you my best dog-and-pony show. What do you say? You with me?”
Kea rolled it over. And over again. It still didn’t look good. However… An alternate universe? The other side of God’s coin? And there was a measurable leak… A door. Into…
Richards had to know. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m with you.”
Kea watched Ruth ankle down the corridor. She paused at the door, turned, flashed that wicked grin, then the door hissed open. She disappeared inside. He waited a few moments. It wouldn’t do for them to arrive together.
Murph’s call for a meeting had caught them in the middle of another wild session of lovemaking. The voice on Kea’s room speaker had barely died away, before they were pulling on their clothes. Now he was cooling his heels to allay any suspicions Fazlur might have. Kea cursed himself for getting into the predicament. The woman had come on from the start. She had a body and look that dared you to find out what she knew. Which was a helluva lot. She’d told him Fazlur was a pig. She put up with his demands because it was the only way she could keep her job. Otherwise she would be just another scientist with a sheepskin for hire.
“I have to use what nature gave me,” she’d said, tracing a shapely finger along even more shapely naked flesh. But Kea had noted that for her the danger of getting caught—and the ensuing trouble it would cause—lent heavy spice to the sex. Again, like Tamara. Don’t point fingers, Richards, he thought. It gets to you, too. Every time she comes knocking… you open the door.
The most maddening thing about it, Kea realized, was that the situation was right out of a basic frosh psych text. An obsession directly related to his failure with Tamara. It helped that the sex was absolutely fabulous. Feeling far younger than twenty-eight and ashamed of his addiction, Kea decided enough time had passed. He paced down the corridor and entered the bridge. They were all waiting. Murph and Vasoovan and Fazlur. Behind them, Ruth threw him a kiss.
“What kept you, Richards?” came Vasoovan’s irritating twitter.
Fazlur looked at him. Did he suspect?
“A little trouble in the engine room,” Kea said.
“Leak in the seals again?” Murph misguessed.
“Yeah, Murph. Trouble in the seals again.”
Kea watched Fazlur turn away… satisfied?
“What’s going on?” Kea asked.
Murph thumbed at Fazlur. “Doc’s got some kinda answer.” He turned to Fazlur. “Why don’t you run it down?”
“Yeah, Fazlur,” Vasoovan prodded. “Tell us why you’ve had us chasing a big fat zero for five months.”
“It is not a phantom, my dimwitted companion. Of this I assure you. When we started out, the signal we were picking up from the apparent discontinuity in the Alva Sector was certainly steady and strong enough. Our dilemma came only when we grew close. The steady pulse we were receiving appeared to shatter.”
“I think your equipment is all screwed up, is what I think,” Vasoovan said. “You were seein’ something that wasn’t there.”
“Then what, you fool, do you think those blinking lights were on the monitor? That’s not my equipment.”
Vasoovan was silent. Eyestalks astir. Wandering or not, the blips on the screen did indicate some kind of presence.
Fazlur smirked at Vasoovan, then turned serious. “What I did was gather up all the recordings of Vasoovan’s sightings. Then I crunched the data. To see if there was some sort of pattern.”
“Which there was,” Kea guessed. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here talking about it.
“Which there was,” Fazlur confirmed with relish. “Viewed in isolation, it appeared the signal was wandering all over the clock. One o’clock to six o’clock. To nine… When one steps back for perspective, however, one would observe that it repeats the nine, then six, and on to one, again.” He sketched as he talked. The result looked a bit like a tilted U.
“What’s causing it?” Richards asked.
“Some of it is due to the presence of black matter,” Fazlur said. “No doubt about it. A very strong gravitational force is at work here, and I’ll be the first to admit I hadn’t considered it. But that’s not the whole answer. I think what’s really happening is that we’re viewing an alternate universe bleeding through the discontinuity. It’s well known that early in the life of our own universe, positive ions were so compressed that no light could escape. As the ions separated—we now imagine—light began to burst out of that dense ionic fog. I believe something similar is going on in our not-so-theoretical alternate universe. Dense ionic fog—or its equivalent in that universe. Light pushing to get through. And finding the path of least resistance through the discontinuity and into our own universe.”
“Good work, Doc,” Murph said. “I guess. But I’ll leave that to our bosses. Tell the truth, though, what you’re tellin’ me may be the answer. But that answer don’t have the ring of Bonus City. Hope you can punch it up better’n that when we get back to Base Ten.”
“Oh, I can do far better,” Fazlur said, preening. “I can take us there… and prove it!”
“Hey, come on, Fazlur!” Vasoovan protested, predator’s grin stretched wide on her long face. “Let’s not get stupid about this. I’ll buy your theory. I’ll even back your act with the company to earn my share of the bonus. But, we gotta face facts, here. Which is—ion fog or no ion fog—we don’t know how to get from here to there.”
“Yes we do,” Fazlur said. He drew a line straight through the tilted U. Made a circle at eleven o’clock. “This is our course for the next jump.”
Silence all around. Kea saw Ruth puzzling. The physicist in her judging. Then he saw her nod. She believed he was right.
Murph finally broke the silence. “Gee, Doc. That’s good crap, and all. But I think we got enough. The politicos will be happy we really did something. Which means the company’ll be happy. End story.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Fazlur said. “If I’m right, we’re talking about the greatest discovery since Galileo. Redefining reality itself. Forget the fame. Although every member of the crew will go down in history. Think of the fortune, man. The fortune.”
Murph turned to Kea. “What’s our status?”
“Engine’s in okay shape. Everything else is so-so. Including fuel.” Kea had no choice but to be honest.
“I don’t know,” Murph said. “I just don’t feel right making this kind of decision myself.”
“Can’t buzz the Powers That Be,” Vasoovan said “We’re way out of range.”
“If you turn back now,” Fazlur warned, “I swear I’ll see you fired and blackballed for life.”
“Come on, Doc,” Murph said. “Don’t be like that. I’m just sayin’ I feel real uncomfortable decidin’ this whole thing solo.”
“I’ll take responsibility,” Fazlur said.
“That wouldn’t be right,” Murph said. All he meant was it wouldn’t be enough to protect his big-hammed behind. “How about we vote on it? Just the officers and you two. We don’t need to ask the crew anything.”
Kea almost laughed aloud. A ship’s captain calling for a vote! Instead, he said, “Why not?” He raised a hand. “Start with me. I say we go.”
“Crap on you!” Vasoovan said. “I vote for home.”
Fazlur and Ruth joined Kea. Murph could see which way the land lay now. “Okay. I’ll go along with the majority. Sorry, Vasoovan, but I gotta keep the peace. It’s my job.”
And so the last stage of Operation Alva was launched as cynically and halfheartedly as the first. Kea didn’t care. He was determined to see the other side of God’s big coin.
An old line crawled into his brain: “This is the stuff dreams are made of.”
A fine rain of fire curtained across space. And that curtain seemed to swirl and billow against a gentle cosmic wind. It was a place where two universes touched… and bled through.
Kea peered at the image on the ship’s main screen and watched birth and death enacted instantly as small particles from one universe touched one from another and exploded in pinprick bursts of light. Pinbursts that played up and down the shuddering curtain that Fazlur called a “discontinuity.” Kea thought, Discontinuity? No. More like the Gate to Paradise... Or Hell.
Fazlur’s voice came from behind him: “Now, Richards… if you could take the sweep in a bit farther…”
Kea worked the joystick. Onscreen, the sweep he’d helped Fazlur and Ruth deploy swooped into view. It consisted of a small cylindrical unit designed for use as a ‘tween-ship short-range courier, now pushing a net made of specially treated plas wires. On a bar across the bottom of the screen, numbers jumped and played.
“Just a little more…” Fazlur’s voice coaxed. “A little more…”
Suddenly the sweep’s net was alive with pinbursts. Anti-particles colliding against true particles. A small drama being played out against the plas wires of the net. Kea kept the sweep steady on its dip-in-and-out course. It wasn’t hard. The joystick’s sensors showed no interference. Then the pinbursts stopped abruptly as the sweep completed its journey and returned to normal space.
Fazlur’s voice gloated behind him. “I’ve done it! Done it!” Kea knew Fazlur was seeing his name in history books. The first scientist to explore another universe—albeit by remote. He punched in a command putting the sweep on autoreturn and swiveled in his chair.
“Done what?” came Vasoovan’s annoying twitter. “We’re in on this same as you, buster. It’s a team. Right, Murph? We all get equal shares.”
“Uh… Gotta get back to you on that,” Murph hemmed. “See what the book says.”
Kea could tell that good old team player Murph would like the bonus cut in the rank-share system. He could see those crafty old eyes in that disarming hail-fellow- face buzz in calculation. Let’s see, now, he’d be thinking… That way me and Fazlur split fifty percent… That’d be… Uh see… what’s the biggest bonus the company ever put out?
“I don’t gotta read the book, Murph,” Vasoovan shrilled. “This is expedition rules, fella. Fazlur as team leader gets twenty. We all split the rest. Equals.”
“Will you all just stop it,” Fazlur stormed. “Who cares about the company bonus? Put it in a glass, swallow, and urinate.”
“Say…” Murph said. “If you don’t want any part of your bonus, we’ll be glad to split up your share. Won’t we, Vasoovan?”
“You got it, Murph.”
Kea broke in. “Why don’t you explain it to them, Fazlur?” This was the third time he’d taken the sweep through. And he’d watched over Fazlur’s and Ruth’s shoulders as they figured and refigured. He had a faint idea what Fazlur had discovered. But it was very faint.
Fazlur nodded. He turned his craggy, handsome face to its best profile. “It’s as simple as this,” he said. “We have just reached into another universe—and brought back evidence of its most basic material. This material—in our own universe—would become the source of unlimited power. A small flask of it, my friends, might supply all the wants and needs of a city and its inhabitants for a hundred years.”
Fazlur giggled. The giggle turned to laughter. The cabin was silent until he stopped. “So much for your damn bonus,” he said.
The faint idea bloomed to understanding in Kea’s head. Power… Fuel. Wars had been fought over it. Hundreds of thousands had died on oil fields. Power… Weapons. Hundreds of thousands more had died in the nuclear fires of the past. Power. Wealth. The greatest fortunes—and families—had been founded on its gold. He looked around the room at the others. Each in his or her own way understood. Even the lowliest grease monkey would have understood. You did not come to space… and stay… and not understand these things. Kea looked at Murph: Jock’s face. Clown face. But somehow oddly solemn. Vasoovan: Pink features paler than he’d ever seen. Big predator’s grin. Tentacle curling and uncurling. Ruth: Eyes alight. Red tongue-tip flicking out.
He wished he could see himself.
“Uh… Doc…” came Murph’s voice. Throaty. “What do you call this… uh… stuff?”
“A good question, Murph,” Fazlur said. Kea didn’t blame him for sounding so pedantic. “It’s the opposite of matter in our universe. But we can’t call it anti-matter. Because we already have anti-matter in this universe. Perhaps we should express it in its simplest terms.” He turned to Ruth. “Something commercial. Recognizable even to the ignorant. I find it always helps when I make my presentations to funding boards.”
“Easy.” She shrugged. “If it isn’t anti-matter, exactly… then it’s new anti-matter. Stress the newness, somehow.”
“How about Anti-Matter Two?” Kea suggested.
“I like it,” Ruth said. “Simple.”
“Anti-Matter Two… Yes. That’ll do. Very very well. The heading will get their attention.” Fazlur was satisfied.
“What I like,” Murph said, “is it fits real nice on the side of a building. AM2.”
He drew the symbols in the air: AM2.
“How sure are you about this, Doc?” Vasoovan twittered. “You got proof?”Fazlur rose, turned from them, and looked up on the screen at the curtain of fire. “I’m sure. Very sure. And I have the proof. But it is not absolute. And in this, my friends, we must be absolute. Otherwise…” He turned back, the fire raining on the screen behind him. “There are those who would kill to control this. You must realize this.”
Fazlur stared at them hard. One by one. He came to Kea. Richards thought of the Bargetas. The other great families—and fortunes. And the opportunity and threat they would see in AM2. The issue was control. The Haves against the Have Nots. The man was right. The Haves would attack with lawyers, writs—and assassins.
Kea nodded. He knew. As did the others.
“If we want any rights—bound-in-steel guarantee rights—to our discovery,” Fazlur said, “we must make that proof patentable. A patent so strong that no one can question our rights.”
“How do we get proof, Doc?” Murph asked.
Fazlur pointed at the screen. “We have to go in there to get it,” he said. “And come back again.”
Kea had never witnessed silence so thick. There was no argument. No heated questions: Can it be done?… Are you sure?… What if?… The struggle was within each of them. They all knew Fazlur would answer - Yes, I am. I don’t know… I’ve never been there before.
Kea swallowed. He looked at the screen. He saw the gentle fire rain, the billow and curl of space, as alluring as any woman he’d ever known.
He… Just… Had… To… See.
That line again: “The stuff dreams are made of.”
Kea cleared his throat, startling the others to life.
“I think we should go,” he said.
NEXT: INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE: PART TWO
EMPIRE DAY 2012 - A COMMEMORATIVE EDITION
Relive the fabulous four-day Stregg-laced celebration. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. New recipes from the Eternal Emperor's kitchen. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. Sten's thrill-packed exploits at the Emp's castle. How to make your own Stregg. And, did I mention, Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever?
THE STEN COOKBOOK & KILGOUR JOKEBOOK
Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.
THE COMPLETE MISADVENTURES: IT'S A BOOK!
THE VITAL LINKS:The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 115,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Amazon.com. Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!
Posted by Allan Cole at 4:09 AM