[Editor’s note: if you missed any of Mark Laporta’s serialized astrophysics science fiction epic, you can still read the entire story from the beginning.]
Zach’s throat went dry. A call from a murdered Crelenk was the last thing he expected.
“You’re supposed to be … be dead,” he said.
“They don’t want me to speak about what we saw,” said Loor.
Zach tried to ask her location, but she cut him off.
“No time,” she said. “Find the equation. My captors … speak of an equation and … must stop.”
Zach’s comstreamer went dead. He had to assume that Loor had an implanted device similar to his own. All but the most sophisticated models were traceable from ten meters away, and only the highest government operatives were given those.
Must have come back for her, he thought.
But what could he make of her request? Like the average non-mathematician, Loor probably had no idea what an equation actually was. Or had she meant “make the equation,” that curious phrase in plain language that meant “find the connection?”
Despite Zach’s confusion, the fact that Loor was alive took a weight off his mind. Otherwise, the information was useless; no one would believe that he’d heard from her. Even if he allowed the authorities to scan his internal comstreamer log — a painful process involving a mental probe — some might still question its authenticity.
In Zach’s world, everything electronic could be faked. All it took was evil intent and a morbid degree of obsessive perfectionism. And according to Altov, even the University President was willing to believe he couldn’t be trusted. An alert tone from his computer array distracted him from this gloomy line of thought. His heart raced. Only data could save him — and the fabric of space-time.
By now it was just past sundown and he hadn’t eaten since the meagre breakfast he’d barely kept down. Yet his appetite still had a long way to travel before it would reach his consciousness. While that didn’t stop him from feeling dizzy and spastic, fear drove him to ignore everything except his frantic search for exoneration.
Yet what was he thinking? Even if he established a connection between the Extrasol incidents and the granular effect, he could still be convicted of murder, if a powerful interest wanted it badly enough. He must also prove that … somewhere … there was a connection between a third party’s actions, the granular effect and, by extension, the two-hundred-seventy-five Extrasol explosions. The data: what could it tell him?
It took only a few clicks on his gray, ovoid handheld to compile a significant cross section of the available data into a convenient holographic display. From that point on he worked rapidly, with hand signals that were as second nature to him as “touch typing” was to his distant ancestors.
Within three hours, which passed for Zach as if Time had no meaning, correlations began to appear. It was not, thankfully, the tentative kind so beloved by peer-reviewed journals or politicians splitting hairs to scrounge up votes. This was solid evidence.
Each of the explosions on Extrasol-built colonies had occurred within forty-eight hours of a routine inspection tour. Each inspection tour had been preceded and followed by the transmat of massive repair and monitoring equipment. Zach, eyelids drooping, pressed on.
The white paper he thought, said something about exponential latency increases … there!
His eyes came to rest on the sentence he’d been searching for.
As indicated in Figure 1, the growth rate of the latency effect increases exponentially with the mass and weight of the object subsumed by the Ultramat quantum signature field.
The white paper went on to say that the simultaneous use of transmat equipment by anyone else in the vicinity of the transfer:
could create pockets of dense gravity commonly associated with an event horizon, but contained in a volume no larger than the physical dimensions of the affected object.
Zach nodded, as he thought back to his conversation with Craig Rynerson.
“Overlapping latency zones,” he said. The pieces were beginning to fit together. Haliak colony had been built by Extrasol, whose inspection crews had been on its lunar surface only the day before Loor TreVal’s unexpected late night call to Zach’s hotel room. And Loor, he now remembered, had shown him the sapphire-encrusted shoes that she’d just received by transmat ─ as a birthday present from her daughter. The following day, boom.
It was the sort of correlation he’d been hoping for but, as he quickly realized, it wasn’t enough. So far, all he’d proven was the likelihood that Ultramat’s transmat process was behind the explosions. Yet, despite his unscientific survey of one blast survivor on Haliak, he’d found no quantifiable cause and effect relationship between Ultramat and the granular effect. There was still the nagging possibility that the occurrence of the granular effect at the blast site had been a bizarre coincidence.
Still, Zach’s discovery counted as progress. For the first time since he arrived at the Physics Department Annex twelve hours earlier, his mind cleared and he realized how ravenous he was. Nothing would have pleased him more than to shower and capsule into New Copenhagen. There was, after all, an undeniable charm to that prim college town, whose yearning to be a major cosmopolitan city surrounded the University like a dense fog. But that, he knew, might only draw ill-advised public attention.
It was the Faculty Club Dining Hall for him, where his pariah status would at least gain him the solitude to ponder his next move. He picked up his jacket from a wobbly hook on his office door and headed down the Annex staircase. Something about the building’s maglev lift still filled him with dread.
Looks like the rodents got to It again, he told himself.
Yet he soon found his decision to take the stairs had consequences of its own. One flight down, he could swear his steps had acquired a suspicious echo. The farther he went, the more distinct it became and, by the time he’d reached the second floor, it was clear the echo was not only more out of sync with his shoes, but was gaining speed. Too late, he followed its lead and raced ahead to the main floor landing — only to feel a powerful tug on his right bicep from behind.
He spun around and caught a glimpse of a menacing blood-red android. He struggled to tear his arm away and opened his mouth to yell, but his effort was cut short by a silencing blow that sent his limp body to the floor. In his remaining seconds of consciousness, he thought he heard … he thought … he.…
Whether it was hours or days later, Zach felt a trickle of warm water run over his eyes and down his cheeks. Eyelids still clamped shut, he tried to breathe deep and was met with waves of discouraging pain. His effort to talk out of a desert-dry mouth met with even more resistance.
“Don’t, Hon,” said a soft female voice. “You’re not up to it. You’ll find out everything you need to know when Dalamacras is ready to tell you. Want my advice? Do what everybody else with a brain does. Listen. You’re a smart guy, right? Sure you are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. Now. Don’t go nowhere. I’ll be back with a nice IV unit for you. Fix you up in no time.”
Zach heard a pair of soft-soled shoes scrape their way out of the room and decided his only option was to give up any thought of escape.
Dalamacras, he thought. Sounds like an Alegarli name.
What, he wondered, would an Alegarli Khalarnoch want with him? Alegarli society being what it was, only someone from the top caste would have the resources to hijack him on secure University grounds and then fly him out, undetected.
Or had this particular hive-based mentality found human allies to facilitate Zach’s kidnapping? It was hard to see why. The Alegarli had been the one species among the advanced civilizations that had challenged human dominance. In the last few years, competition had been stiff and now they’d surpassed the humans in some areas. Creatures not too far removed from terrestrial honey bees, they were endowed, en masse with a composite world mentality of undeniable strength and versatility.
When their unique group consciousness had first emerged from the miasma of natural selection, they made slow strides. Eventually, they learned to manipulate the simpler minds of their homeworld’s lower life forms. Then, through a long-range program of selective breeding, they produced several different domesticated species capable of building what their own anatomy would not allow.
Through these remotely controlled servants, they created their culture’s first monumental architecture. Ever restless, they set about to master the rudiments of science and technology. After centuries of slow, steady rise, their command of microelectronics set them on the path they strode in Zach’s time. With the construction of their first robotic shells, the Alegarli had entered a new phase in their history. When Zach finally did have his first meeting with Dalamacras, he’d actually encounter a roughly humanoid figure that was home to a minimum of a thousand tiny insectoids, working in concert.
Intriguing as that thought was to someone still new to the diversity of life in the universe, Zach knew it told him nothing about why he’d been captured. It also offered no clue as to the unsavory bargain he might need to strike to regain his freedom. For the moment, however, he was in no shape to meet with anyone, let alone wheedle their motives out of them. Every muscle in his body ached and, if he had to guess, at least one rib was badly in need of reconstruction.
So it was with a strange sense of relief that he heard the same shuffling walk re-enter his room, presumably with the promised IV unit.
“Did you think I forgot you?” asked the now-familiar voice. “Forget it, Hon, I’m here for you, OK? Lie still so I can get this needle in you real quick. Whoa, look at you: all skinny. Don’t you never get no exercise?”
Even if Zach could’ve mustered the energy to speak, he had the distinct impression it would’ve served no purpose. Nurse X, it seemed, needed no prompting to hold up both ends of any conversation.
After a skillful pinch from an IV needle stuck into the crook of his arm , Zach was on the receiving end of who-knew-what kind of therapy. Was it intended, he wondered, to heal him, make him more cooperative — or more dead? Somehow, he made his dry throat croak out a question.
“What?” he asked.
“Nanobots, Hon,” said Nurse X. “Fix you up real good. But no talking! Not ‘til you’re better.”
Zach heard her shuffle out again and promptly fell asleep. When he awoke, the relief that washed over every part of his body was almost too much to bear. Gradually, the bizarre sensations passed and his head cleared.
So hungry, he thought.
He was even tempted to sit up, though the thought of ripping a suture or snapping an incompletely healed bone made him keep still. The most he was willing to risk was opening his eyes, a decision that granted him a mixed blessing. He was, by the look of things, in a hospital bed, but not in a hospital per se. His surroundings resembled news footage he’d seen of a military sickbay. He’d also seen this kind of setting mocked up in high-budget holovids about life on a battle cruiser. Its pristine, pastel colors were bathed in soft lighting and stocked with an array of monitoring equipment, some of which took the trouble to beep from time to time.
So there was reason to believe he might be on an Alegarli ship, either orbiting Central Colony Four or parked out in deep space. Before long, his speculations were cut short, as two nearly identical androids walked into his room. They resembled a pair of ancient shop mannequins, cast in a shiny, lavender composite material. They were distinguished only by the insignia emblazoned on their chests: a double helix for one and a standard pulse rifle for the other.
The one with a double helix insignia carried a device Zach recognized as a handheld medical scanner. Its ethereally calm voice took him by surprise.
“Hold out your hand,” it said.
In spite of himself, Zach complied.
“Internal repairs ninety-two-point-seven percent complete,” it said. “Residual scarring, contusions and hematomas within the scope of palliative care. Patient is cleared for transport.”
Zach knew better than to ask the medical android what “transport” meant. Its companion, which Zach assumed was a security specialist, acknowledged Zach’s diagnosis with a nod.
“Informing Dalamacras,” it said. The two androids turned and filed out of the room with comic precision. Zach’s hope for a moment of peace was dashed as a tall, slender Alegarli stepped in from a side door he hadn’t noticed before. Unlike the true androids that had just stalked out, the shell that housed this particular subset of the hive mind was disturbingly lifelike. From its jet-black, shoulder-length hair to its natty, up-to-the-minute sportswear, it might even have been mistaken for a holovid celebrity.
At times, its simulation of humanoid mannerisms and tics bordered on parody ─ as if the Alegarli were making a statement about humanoid failings. So, too, when Dalamacras spoke, “his” unctuous inflection was both pitch perfect and unintentionally satirical.
“Dr. Griffin,” he said. “You’ve shown a remarkable ability to make a mess out of your life.”
“So this was my doing?” asked Zach. “Does that include the beating?”
“What beating?” said the Alegarli. “In less than a rotation-and-a-half, you will have no medically detectable signs of any so-called beating. But let me be clear. What you think you received was merely a ‘wake-up call.’ Curious expression, considering you were wide awake at the time.”
“Don’t tell me you brought me to this … luxury hotel,” said Zach, “to give me a lecture on comparative linguistics.”
“So typical,” said Dalamacras. “Your flat-footed insistence on linear logic will be the undoing of your entire species ─ and you in particular. There is always time for learned observation, regardless of the narrow context. In your case, one might observe that you’ve deluded yourself. On the basis of a casual encounter on a second-rate colony, you want to draw cosmos-spanning conclusions.”
“My data isn’t casual,” said Zach. “And neither, I’m beginning to think, is your relationship with the Ultramat Corporation. When did you purchase a controlling interest? I’d guess five cycles ago, when it announced its last major innovation.”
The Alegarli shook his head.
“Such a magnificent intellect,” he said, “wasted on the most tawdry trivia. Wouldn’t you rather get back to your temporal experiments?”
“No point in that,” said Zach. “Not with the universe crumbling. But I’ll tell you what. If you admit your mistake to the Cosmic Consortium, I’ll get right on revamping your process so it doesn’t generate so much latency.”
“Your innocence is phenomenal,” said Dalamacras. “If it weren’t so dangerous, it would be charming. But time is short, so I’ll make myself as clear as I can for one so … what is the phrase … ‘reality challenged’? There’s a lot more to this universe than the tiny slice defined by your notions of truth and fairness. You’ll understand that someday. For now, I’m going to give you a simple ultimatum.”
In a series of terse statements, the Alegarli laid out a stark choice and left Zach no time to ponder his decision. He must sign a binding agreement never to reveal what he’d seen on Haliak and turn over every scrap of data he’d obtained on the subject. It he refused, he’d face extradition to Haliak, where his sentencing would be swift and irrevocable: imprisonment, followed by the “rehabilitative reconstruction” of his murderous mind.
“Not everyone agrees with the use of AI adjudicators, Dr. Griffin,” said Dalamacras. “What a shame to lose such a talented scientist to the rehabilitation process.”
“Can’t be a scientist if I deny the data,” said Zach. “So, to use another curious human expression, feel free to shove your ultimatum up your rear access panel.”
The Alegarli shook his head, and sent waves of simulated hair cascading across his face.
“You are such a disappointment,” he said. “You will be escorted to a Crelenk transport within the hour, after your medical needs have finally been met. I’d say ‘farewell,’ but I can’t, considering how absurd that statement would be in this context.”
Dalamacras stormed out of the room, this time through the main doors. A moment later, Nurse X entered, wheeling a pile of clothing and other supplies in a small cart. After a bit of perfunctory wound care, she told Zach to get dressed and, minutes later, he was escorted out of his hospital room by two securitybots, who led him into a mid-sized launch bay. At a signal from one of the bots, a four-passenger short-range starship fired up its engines.
“You’ll arrive at Haliak in three rotations,” said Dalamacras through the ship’s comsystem. “If at any time you regret your decision, a member of the crew can get word to me. Otherwise … well, you know the rest.”
With the Alegarli’s resonant voice still echoing in his ears, Zach allowed a securitybot to strap him into the nearest launch chair, and handcuff both wrists to its arms. The contrast to Dalamacras or even the medical android he’d seen earlier couldn’t have been more stark, especially when it spoke.
“You will be fed as needed,” it said.
Zach felt a slight inertial tug as the compact ship lurched forward on its way to the launch bay doors. As his transport zoomed out into interstellar space, he couldn’t help wondering what his parents back on Pasterol 3 would think of their ‘genius boy’ now.
“I will be fed, as needed,” he said, and silently wept.
Mark Laporta is the acclaimed author of the Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series and the new novel, Probability Shadow, published by Chickadee Prince Books, available now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.
Design by Steven S. Drachman, from an original image by Pixel2013/Pixabay.