Granular, Episode 4: Latently Corrosive, Blatantly Explosive

[Editor’s note: read the entire story from the beginning.]

After a week of lying low at the Bohr University Faculty Club, Zach was eager to get back to work. His Department Chair was less enthusiastic.

“I’m glad you still want to make a contribution,” said Semyon Altov. “But if I let you back into your lab, you’ll dig right into that Haliak business.”

Zach’s face flushed.

“It’s not ‘business,’” he said. “I saw evidence of a major disruption of physical laws.”

“Right,” said Semyon. “And I believe you. The trouble is, nobody else does. If you access that data, against President Delaney’s direct orders, you’ll be out on your quantum derrière. You’d be lucky to land a job teaching high school Math in the Tycho system.”

Zach shuddered. The recent admission of the Tycho system into the Cosmic Consortium had meant an influx of sentient insectoids, who barely counted as a space-faring species. His promising career, which used to have Max Planck Medal written all over it, would devolve into a down-market scramble to keep up with the latest scientific developments. Zach’s answer was a hoarse whisper.

“OK, I get it,” he said. “But you’ve got to give me something.”

The fifty-ish Altov sat back in his exquisitely ergonomic chair and stared at Zach through his placid gray eyes. Though the young genius might eventually prove a liability, he was too valuable to lose unnecessarily. Fortunately for Altov, the universe has an infinite supply of banality — and had delivered the perfect solution to his inbox a few hours earlier. The older man’s face lit up with the same gracious, on-demand smile that successful administrators have cultivated since the dawn of civilization.

“Well, you know,” he said, “there is a small project I could put you on, while the lawyers build your case. Requires some detective work, really, so you might even enjoy it. I still can’t let you back into your lab. But there’s plenty of office space in the Annex. You can set it up any way you like.”

Zach saw through Altov’s phony cheer, but the project was a straw he was only too eager to grasp. The defense attorneys in the growing class action suit against the Extrasol corporation had called for an expert witness. Could Zach be that witness? He’d just need to establish that the recent spate of explosions at Extrasol-built space colonies had an external cause.

Zach’s spirits rose slightly as he remembered the human he’d accosted on Haliak, near the site of the blast that rocked the Time Lapse Café. The heavyset man had described the same granular effect he’d seen for himself in Loor TreVal’s living room. Two unheard-of violations of physical laws in such close proximity were an unlikely coincidence. There had to be a connection, he told himself ─ and he was sure to find it.

The first step was to build a comparative analysis of every accident that had occurred on an Extrasol colony. Between the pure data-crunching of a few quantum computers, linked in series, and the interpretive prowess of state-of the-art artificial intelligence, Zach believed a causal pattern would emerge.

There was just one problem. If his suspicions were confirmed, and he did discover a connection between the explosions and the granular effect, he dared not tip his hand. That is, until the evidence was so overwhelming that he could predict the next incident. Still, he had to act fast. So far, none of the explosions had been fatal. But how long could that last?

“Hold for the data,” he whispered.

The alternative was to spin into hysteria. His jaw clenched, he packed up a few essentials and set out for the Annex. But if he’d hoped that a change of environs would lighten his mood, he was disappointed. Tucked back behind the main building complex, the Annex was a dismal shambles. No wonder a search of the Office Services database turned up no security code for its front door. There was, apparently, nothing inside worth stealing.

One look at the maglev lift at the back of the Annex’s main entryway confirmed that impression. Though its doors whooshed open on command as expected, the foul smell that wafted out of it suggested that vermin had nested there fairly recently. His heart heavy, Zach found the door to the stairwell and began a dispirited upward trudge.

As he soon discovered, the parts of the archaic structure that weren’t used for storage, served as temporary classroom space or as an emergency dispensary during rare outbreaks of infectious disease. That the Annex was also a favorite spot for late-night coupling was evident from the deflated air mattress propped up against one wall of the corridor leading to his temporary fourth-floor office.

“Paula,” Zach whispered into the musty hallway.

Here was another reminder of how much he’d sacrificed for his groundbreaking work in anomalous temporal phenomena — which now he might never have a chance to complete. But this was no time to add another depressing thought to his load of worries. He knew he should focus on setting up his so-called research center. Step One was to contact the University’s automated custodial service and order two teams of servicebots. One team would give his floor a thorough cleaning and a second would unpack the ungainly array of equipment he’d just transmatted over from the main building.

So instead of making travel plans, as he’d expected, to attend the annual interstellar astrophysics conference on New Dublin, he’d be rubbing shoulders with servicebots and, by the look of things, the occasional extraterrestrial rodent. So there was plenty to brood over. But he knew that whatever he discovered now would determine the rest of his life. The moment the servicebots arrived, he gave them precise instructions and set them on an aggressive time table.

Zach took the servicebots’ arrival for granted, oblivious to the contentious war that Altov had waged with a conservative faction of the University’s administration. If it had been up to that bloc, the young professor would have been banned from campus altogether until he was cleared of all charges.

But thanks to Altov, Zach was free to let his powerful mind roam free and consider the strange case of the Extrasol accidents from every angle. If only, that is, he had any of the facts at hand. Unfortunately, until his computer array had collated the data from the two-hundred-seventy-five affected colonies, all he had to work with was his memory of his visit to Haliak and the deadening spaceflight home. Were there any correlations he could draw from that?

“Saw what I saw,” he mumbled.

No way he’d let anyone talk him out of his own eyewitness account. But what had he seen? Was it possible that this “granular dispersion of space-time” had been created with a holojector? Yet, if the fuss that Loor TreVal made to the Crelenk government were merely a prank, why had someone bothered to silence her? Of course, there was also the possibility that this same “someone” had wanted her dead for an unrelated reason.

As plausible as that sounded in one sense, it required Zach to believe in a long chain of coincidences, culminating in Loor’s murder. That theory of the case suggested that Loor knew her life was threatened and had staged an eerie performance in her living room as a way to get government protection. She might also have thought that an off-world presence might scare off her assassin.

Except it hadn’t. Loor had been murdered overnight, according to Altov. For all Zach knew, whoever killed her might have been waiting right outside her home ─ or already hiding inside. But now that he thought of it, he hadn’t relied solely on his eyes to assess the situation. The few measurements he’d taken at his hotel room had revealed several low level anomalies. They’d turned up in Loor’s neighborhood and at the site of the explosion, less than a hundred meters from the Time Lapse Café. And to think that a moment before the blast, he was chatting breezily with … with….

It was too frustrating to think about Paula, and about the way he’d neglected to get her contact data, if only at the Sidereal Chronicle. “You know, in case something turns up,” he imagined himself saying, days too late. But speaking of her, what was it Preston Carter had said on Zach’s return spaceflight? His heart raced as he recalled Preston’s summary of Paula’s exposé of the Extrasol case.

What stood out from the article now were the reactions she’d captured from high-level Extrasol executives. Instead of the usual stonewalling happy talk — interspersed with flat disavowals of responsibility — they’d expressed genuine shock and horror. According to Paula, a company-wide investigation had been conducted after the very first incident. A few operatives were even fired. But the explosions continued, sometimes only hours after a detailed colony inspection.

That last point caught Zach’s attention. Was there some aspect of the inspection process that could trigger an explosion? Paula had captured a few details of the process from an Extrasol field operative. Once the inspection team arrived, it transmatted its large-scale scanning and sending equipment from the nearest regional headquarters.

“Those machines are huge,” the operative had said. “We save millions of credits a cycle by avoiding commercial freight liners.”

Zach’s eyebrows shot up. He’d found his first correlation. At least a few of the explosions were preceded by a large-scale transmat shipment. Something about that made him think of his conversation with Loor TreVal. But what?

Zach’s comstreamer broke in on his thoughts.

“Zach. Altov here,” said his superior. “I need a favor.”

It turned out that the Physics Department had lately been plagued by an insistent caller. A former WorldGov regulator for the Transportation Industry, his attempt to attain whistleblower status five years earlier had gone horribly wrong. He not only lost his case, but was forced to pay the exorbitant legal fees it entailed. Shortly thereafter, according to one version of the story, the Transportation officials that Craig had accused of accepting bribes had planted damning evidence of money laundering into his credit account.

Though he was eventually acquitted, the damage was done. He now made his living designing mass transit systems for Level 3 worlds in the Hulnaz galaxy ─ where the word “computer” was still spoken with a touch of awe. His name was Craig Rynerson and Altov was just hoping Zach could placate him.

“Make him feel important,” said Altov, “you know, needed. Then maybe he’ll leave us alone.”

Babysitting, thought Zach.

How much farther, he wondered, could he fall? But considering he still didn’t have the data he needed for his Extrasol study, he decided that talking to Craig might be a welcome break from obsessing over Paula.

A few minutes after acquiescing to Altov, Zach heard an odd clomping sound echo in the corridor leading to his new ramshackle office space. A whoosh of nylon later, Zach saw a rumpled figure leaning against his doorjamb. From the look of it, the newcomer suffered from a rare case of anorexia, a condition more or less wiped out, with a combination of genetic engineering and advanced psychotropics.

The way his loose-fitting nylon pants and rough canvas shirt hung on him, it was obvious that he was one resident of the Consortium who’d slipped through the cracks. Combined with a purplish pair of heavily creased vinyl ankle boots, his clothes conjured an image of borderline destitution. Before Zach could speak the man clomped right in, tore a dusty brimmed cap off his cropped, blue-tinted hair and held out his hand.

“Doc Griffin?” he said. “Craig Rynerson. Pleased to meet ya.”

Zach stood to greet his guest and his stiff legs reminded him that he’d barely moved in the last hour. As for the ancient custom of clasping hands, Zach simply ignored it. He was astonished to think that, after centuries of space travel, anyone was still ignorant of the multidimensional risk involved. Even among the human population, people carried wildly divergent arrays of viruses, microbes and other disease vectors unheard of in the deep past. In light of that, in Zach’s mind, the idea of touching another human hand at random was simply insane.

So rather than “shaking,” Zach gestured toward the closest of his two office side chairs with a graceful sweep of his arm.

“Mr. Rynerson,” he said. “Doctor Altov tells me you have an urgent message that the University has been ignoring.”

Craig snorted and plopped himself down in the chair with a dull thud. Whatever his upbringing, it was clear his fall from grace had taken its toll on his social skills.

“Don’t know how he thinks he knows what all I got to say,” said Craig. “Guy couldn’t wait to throw me out of his office. And that was back five cycles ago when I still had a little of that, what ya call, your personal dignity.”

Zach’s eyebrows shot up.

“You’ve been trying to contact us for … for five cycles?” he asked.

“Funny isn’t it?” asked Craig. “At first I thought Altov would take a purely scientific interest. Boy was I wrong. But this time, maybe my story kind of strikes a nerve. You know, now that Ultramat practically owns this university. Do you realize that the number of Extrasol explosions has tripled in the last month? Seems to me a couple of University big shots outta get anxious about that.”

Zach walked over to a small beverage replicator on the far side of his office, which he was surprised to see still worked.

“Caffedren?” he asked. Craig’s raucous guffaw took Zach by surprise.

“Sure, why not?” he said. “Haven’t had so much as a glass of water today, so I guess I could stand a little energy boost.”

Zach counted to ten. He was, he realized, in the presence of an outsized personality. Yet for some reason, he couldn’t escape his hunch that Rynerson’s appearance, just at this time, wasn’t completely coincidental. Yet whatever he might learn from Craig would have to be winnowed out slowly. With as little fuss as possible, he captured his guest’s serving preference and brought two hot cups back with him.

“Decent of you, Doc,” said Craig.

Zach gave himself time to settle back at his desk and sip his drink, then leaned forward.

“So what can I do for you?” he asked. For a second time, Craig’s painfully thin frame shook with laughter.

“That’s rich,” said Craig. “The whole reason I’m here, is to help you. I’m losing credits in the deal.”

“I’m listening,” said Zach.

“Are ya?” asked Craig. “That’s good. Now, my message is kinda complicated and I know I don’t have much of your time. So I’ll just skip over the details and tell you this: The Ultramat Corporation has a big secret and they don’t care how many people have to die as long as they can keep coverin’ it up.”

Zach squeezed his eyes shut and tried to steady his breathing.

“And you think this has something to do with Bohr University?” asked Zach.

“Naw,” said Craig. “You’re just gonna get swept up in it, is all. The damage, the crime and the cover-up happened five cycles ago. That’s what I’m trying to tell ya. They kept me quiet for five cycles, but now with this Extrasol scandal happenin’, I figure I finally have a shot of convincin’ somebody. Maybe even you.”

“You really think there’s a connection?” asked Zach. “I wasn’t aware Extrasol had anything to do with Ultramat.”

Craig shook his head.

“Oh Man,” he said. “You see, this is what happens when smart fellas like you get all tied up in knots with Math and such. I know you. You’re the Time guy. Trouble is, the only thing you don’t know about Time is when it’s time to wake up.”

“That’s a … that’s a funny thought,” said Zach.

“It’s not funny!” yelled Craig. A second later, the strange visitor held up his hands, palm forward. “Sorry, Doc, my nerves are shot. But listen now. You said you’d listen.”

Hours later after Craig had clomped away and Zach was alone again with his computers, he tried to make sense of what he’d heard. As was widely known, Ultramat had revolutionized the transmat business five years earlier by introducing a new, more energy-efficient way to generate the necessary quantum-signature-field patterns. Now, regardless of weight, volume or inertia, Ultramat devices could transfer any object for the same amount of energy. That saved credits in power consumption. It also broadened the use of transmat tech to industries that routinely shipped heavier cargo. Now, instead of relying on considerably slower space-freighters to deliver their goods and equipment, they could use Ultramat tech instead.

From the beginning, however, a significant minority of specialists questioned the data that the Ultramat Corporation submitted to the WorldGov Patent Office. Ultramat’s new “latency zone,” a measure of the lag between dematerialization and rematerialization, appeared unreasonably low. What’s more, any request for more detailed reporting was met with fierce resistance.

According to the galaxy-spanning company, revealing more detail would be tantamount to placing Ultramat’s proprietary transmat process in the public domain. After a two-year legal battle, a Sector Council judge ruled in Ultramat’s favor. But while the legal dispute was settled, behind closed doors, the issue was still hotly debated. Technicians from AssureTrans, a top competitor, even published a white paper outlining the potentially harmful effects that could result from continued use of the Ultramat process.

That afternoon and into the night, Zach reviewed the copy of the white paper that Craig had transmitted to him on his way out.

“It’s all there, Doc,” Craig had said. “All of it. I’ve been puzzling over it for more rotations than I wanna tell ya. But a smart guy like you outta get it in a snap.”

Hours later, the ‘snap’ had not yet occurred, but the general outlines of the white paper’s thesis were clear. Over time, the more Ultramat pods were in operation, the larger their combined latency quotient could grow. And if at some point, the latency zones of two or more devices, used within hours of each other, were to overlap….

“Sparkly air,” whispered Zach.

It had taken some time, as the white paper predicted, before the toxic effects of the new Ultramat process had built up enough to be detectable. But as the recent exponential increase in the number of explosions confirmed, Ultramat’s hidden latency zone problem had finally manifested itself. A quick check of the data archives confirmed that this corresponded exactly with a steep uptick in Ultramat’s market share. According to the latest figures, Ultramat now controlled seventy-five percent of the transmat market, across the Cosmic Consortium.

Adds up to billions of units in use, thought Zach.

By now it was near midnight on Central Colony Four and the first results from Zach’s data compiling process had started to trickle in. While the data were preliminary, it was clear that the first spate of explosions at Extrasol colonies began approximately six months after the company signed its first contract with Ultramat. Suddenly, the anecdotal evidence from Paula’s reporting took on new meaning. The construction firm, the largest in interstellar civilization, used transmat tech frequently and for major projects.

He had to find out if he could learn more from Paula’s reporting. If he’d been reluctant to call her, reluctant to seem like a teenager afflicted with puppy love, he knew now this was nothing of the kind. Though standardized interstellar time zones were a flat-out impossibility ─ even with folded-space transmission protocols ─ Zach knew that the sooner he got his call into the pipeline, the sooner she could respond.

And so, nervous from exhaustion and exhausted from nervousness, he placed a call to the Editorial Desk of the Sidereal Chronicle and decided to call it a night. But as he stood up to close down his office, he felt the unmistakable twinge of his comstreamer, signaling an incoming call. Though he was expecting the pleasant surprise of an early response from Paula Altenberg, the voice on the other side was surprising in a completely different way.

“Hello, Griffin Zach?” said the voice. “Here is TreVal Loor.”

(To be continued: read the next episode here.)



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.