Work in Progress

Robot Story (Colony) #4

Fiat Lux

    Roughly four and a half billion years ago a relatively quiet part of nowhere experienced an event badly described as symmetry breaking. Like sugar or salt crystals sedimenting out of an oversaturated solution, the symmetry breaking spread like a bad rash across the face of the nowhere for an extremely short amount of time. Then it exploded.

    The universe cooled and clumped. Anti-matter paired up with matter. Some returned to their original symmetric relationship annihilating each other in the occasion. But a tiny amount of matter remained.

    Clumps became some of the brightest stars ever known, pushing the variated matter into new arrangements only possible in the new cooling temperatures. These stars burned bright and quickly, flashing out of existence in only a few thousand years. And the universe continued to cool.

    A second generation of stars fed on the remains of the first. These burned less brightly, but longer. Like their predecessors, these left in their wake heavier concentrations of more unique matter.

    The universe cooled sufficiently that leptons could catch up with the now slowing-down hadrons. The pairing between the elemental forms of matter created stable, or mostly stable, arrangements. The universe became transparent as the new order snapped into place almost as quickly as the big bang itself. Novel, more complicated, structures became possible. Entropy was encoding itself in increasing variations.

    The universe developed increasingly complex reaction between chemicals in baths around settled bodies of heavy matter orbiting the third generation of stars, now organized in larger organizations of galaxies.

    A particular bright star, no more than a few million years old, breathed its last. It was too small to burn any more, but too big to go away quietly. Heavy matter imploded, becoming something very like that primitive non-transparent universe for a moment as an enormous iron core became too heavy, and too cool, to exist as normal atoms.

    The implosion rocketed away debris that spread away into the dust. The leftover pieces were more than massive enough to draw the dust around itself. The largest pieces of debris became the seeds of a new generation of stars that would burn at least a hundred times longer than their parents. Around them floated almost undetectably small debris, also made of the same heavy-matter stuff at the core of the parent star. It cooled and then… Well, you actually know what happens next on the surface. What you don’t know is what happens below it.

    Fred Tighe enjoyed the party. His brother, Wayne, had worked hard to organize the event. Wayne knew Fred enjoyed popular science. Wayne had heard Fred mention their speaker in the past. Fred enjoyed canapes and spent time catching up with his business partners. Although most of them lived almost next door to one another, it was hard to make a sufficient excuse to come together.

    Today was Fred’s birthday and Wayne had been able to rent out a lecture hall and some of the staff for his event. Knowing that Fred would have it no other way, Wayne arranged with the university to permit a select group of the rabble students to attend the lecture.

    The better guests left the reception area with their drinks, snacks, and entertainment. With the help of ushers, they found seats. Further up, another set of ushers was conducting rabble to their seats in the balcony. Newton Gisborne had impressed crowds with feats of showmanship that some claimed were occult in nature.

    Fred admired that Wayne had paid a little bit extra to hire a band. They were softly playing some of the more popular songs. Fred wasn’t certain where the band had been cleverly secreted.

    On the stage was a small table. A cloth was draped over it. A pair tube or wires ran discreetly under the cloth and to the back of the stage. Newton Gisborne appeared from the right curtain. The audience clapped politely as the speaker took center stage. Newton stood beside the table awkwardly, Fred thought, while the clapping subsided.

    Nonchalantly, Mr. Gisborne removed the cloth from the table uncovering a strange looking device about the size and depth of a breadbox. Mr. Gisborne gently pushed a lever, and the music instantly ceased. Newton looked at crowd, gauging the crowd’s reaction. Seemingly satisfied, the man of science picked up something that looked like a stick connected to one of the wires. Gisborne tapped the top of the stick, and it sounded as if the whole room had been beaten with thunder. Gisborne then gently spoke, and could be heard clearly from every part of the room.

    “Tonight,” Gisborne said softly, “I am going to show you some of the most amazing new trends in galvanics and voltaics. I promise you nothing you are about to see is occult, or any other form of magical trickery. If the university will,” a stage hand rolled out a chalkboard on cue, “I am happy to discuss the principles and mathematics involved. Now,” Gisborne put his hands together. “Could I get a member of the audience as a volunteer?” he asked.

    Fred watched with amazement. Some of these inventions he had seen at the World’s Fair. Fred was almost certain that the breadbox was a phonograph, and he guessed the stick something like a phonautograph. And what he was hearing must only come from a harmonic telegraphic. Fred had never seen the devices connected together in such a way for display. Fred’s business was paper products. Not that he thought his business unimportant. But it was not fascinating in the way Mr. Gisborne’s innovations were.

    One of the ladies had accepted the invitation to come onstage. Gisborne passed the stick to her, pulling some slack for the wire. “Now, please,” Gisborne invited, “say something for our guests.”

    “Oh please don’t let this thing kill me,” the volunteer said. She was keeping the cable and the stick at a distance, and had intended the words for herself. Nevertheless, the stick faithfully amplified her worries for the whole crowd. The people erupted in laughter. The woman, suddenly deeply embarrassed, returned the stick to Gisborne and retreated quickly from the stage.

    “We are entering a brave new world of nearly limitless possibilities,” Gisborne continued. “We have discovered techniques to record our thoughts perfectly into wax for permanent preservation,” he pointed at the phonograph, “and we have uncovered materials that convert the very pressure quakes of our speech into galvanic signals, allowing us to communicate with each other from far away.”

    “Moreover,” Gisborne pulled at the bottom of the stick, and the wire connecting the phonautograph to the amplifiers fell to the ground with a clap. Gisborne put the stick to his mouth and spoke, still amplified, “we have discovered couplings between galvanism and voltaics that make it possible to pass signals without wires at all.” He smiled.

    Some of the crowd applauded. Gisborne held up his hand politely for permission to continue. “Like ice,” he said, “what I have shown you so far is only a tiny fraction of what lies beneath.” Almost unnoticed, a pair of stage hands had rolled out a large cylinder with a tiny ball held above it. A third stage hand held a long pole that Mr. Gisborne relieved him of. “Coupling of sounds and wires may seem to plain for mighty folk such as yourselves. What would you say to a display of power like the gods?”

    The crowd applauded. Fred had seen this one before, but tried not to spoil the experience for his neighbors. With some fanfare, Gisborne brought the pole down near the cylinder. The lecture hall was rocked by a mighty thunderclap and lightning flash. Most of the audience, once they recovered from the shock, were on their feet applauding and hollering. Fred slowly rose as well.    

    Gisborne certainly appeared to be having fun with it. Gisborne parried the stick with a flourish, although Fred thought he detected an element of caution in the handling. For the sake of the crowd, he pretended to approach the jar of lightning again. The crowd cringed, and Gisborne relented.

    A third device, the size of a tall armoire, was being wheeled onto the other side of the stage as Gisborne handed the long pole to the stage hand that had given it to him. Others surrounded the lightning jar and wheeled it out of site. Gisborne approached the table and touched a metal sheet several times before again picking up the phonautograph. Fred knew that the showman risked electrocuting himself with the performance, and that the sheet was to remove any lingering charge.

    “It’s said that neither words, nor strength are true power,” Gisborne continued, “but that true power is found in knowing. And this,” Gisborne introduced the armoire with a wave, “is how we are expanding what it is possible to calculate and understand. Please,” he asked the audience, “give me three numbers.”

   “Ten,” called out someone near Fred.

   “Fifteen!” cried out another.

   “Three,” said yet another, barely loudly enough to be heard.

   Gisborne slouched over the machine, arranging controls. He read something, and then took up again the phonautograph. “Would you say the product of these three numbers is four hundred and fifty?” he asked. “Please? Anyone?”

    Fred did the math in his head. That sounded right. A member of the audience held up a hand confirming the result.

   Gisborne grinned. “But maybe I cheated,” he said slyly. “Maybe I planted three members of the audience with a number I already knew. That is what a magician might do. Let’s try people from the balcony! Something harder!” There was a vague murmur. “Speak up,” Gisborne said into the phonautograph.

  “Six thousand!” one of the students yelled from the balcony. Or, the loudest student, because others had spoken as well.

  “Eighty-one!” yelled another clearly enough to be heard.

  “Three hundred and two!” yelled another.

   Gisborne grinned. “Now, I can barely remember those three numbers. That’s a challenge!” He dialed the three numbers in. “Now do you even know,” he called up to the balcony, “what the product of those three amounts is?” There was some muttering above. Fred would have to guess. Wayne handed Fred a pad and pen.

    “What would you tell me if I were to say the product was,” Gisborne leaned in towards the armoire to read. “One hundred forty six million seven hundred and seventy-two thousand?”

    Fred finished the math. That was correct. The machine had, without human assistance, solved a complex problem. The possibilities were difficult to imagine.

    Gisborne resumed center stage. Stage hands were rolling back out the other displayed. “So,” Gisborne pointed behind him at the blackboard. “That isn’t just for show.” Gisborne put down the wireless phonautograph on the table and rolled up his sleeves. Once finished, he picked up the phonautograph again. “Ask me anything,” Gisborne challenged the audience. “I want you to understand the amazing future just coming into view.”

    The reception afterward was a private affair for Fred, Wayne, and his neighbors. Fred found Wayne and patted him on the back. “You did well,” Fred told his brother. Wayne smiled.

    Newton Gisborne was the center of attention. Although this was Fred’s birthday party, Fred politely hung back on the periphery of the crowd to listen. Gisborne had brought to the reception a small case of curiosities, and he happily showed seemingly random items to illustrate a point on some topic of conversation. He had a smaller phonograph, which he allowed guests to record messages with and play them back for their amusement. He also had the phonautograph. Gisborne took the top wire mesh off the thing to demonstrate the crystal beneath the generated a voltaic response to acoustic pressure, that he further demonstrated by connecting the device to some sort of measuring equipment.

    The crowd eventually grew bored and dispersed to mingle with their own kind, giving Fred an opportunity to speak with Newton Gisborne.

    “I’ve seen many of these devices at the World’s Fair,” Fred began, “but never connected together in such a novel way.”

    Gisborne wasn’t sure how to take the comment. He seemed to choose to receive it as a compliment. “Thank you,” Newton replied. Gisborne thought a second. Gisborne opened the back of the case. “This is called an aetherphone,” Gisborne explained as he assembled the instrument.

    Gisborne offered the machine to Fred. “Go ahead,” he encouraged. Fred put his hand next to what appeared to be a metal loop and a single vertical pole.  The device began to make a strange noise. Fred quickly figured out the pitch and volume were adjusted by where Fred placed his hands next to the device.

    Newton indicated some nearby chairs. “May we?”

   “Of course,” Fred agreed. Newton brought his small case over. Fred carried the aetherphone carefully. Gisborne collected a drink before relaxing into the chair. He seemed relieved to finally be off his feet and not speaking while Fred examined the aetherphone.

    “Is it responding to the resistance in my hands?” Fred asked. Gisborne reached into the back side of the case, the same side he had produced the aetherphone from, and recovered a thin collection of papers and a small phonograph recording cylinder. Gisborne placed the cylinder on the table while he perused the papers, enjoying the occasional sip of his drink.

    “No,” Newton answered. “Muscles have a certain galvanic characteristic that seems to correlate to the vital force. It’s this galvanic property that the aetherphone responds to. It’s funny, actually.” Gisborne leaned in. “There’s a pair of researchers in your country attempting to disprove the existence of aether entirely.”

   “I think I had read about that,” Fred recollected. “Not necessarily disproving it. Just measuring it.” Gisborne agreed. Fred continued his examination of the aetherphone, but could not help his curiosity. “If you’ll pardon my asking,” Fred excused himself, “what kind of material occupies the attention of such a learned person?” Fred asked about Newton’s papers.

    “Oh, this?” Gisborne clarified. “A friend sent this to me. It’s why I purchased the aetherphone on my way here.” He flipped through a few of the pages. “Someone from my home country has been thinking about Universal Music. It’s actually a bit convoluted, and very poorly written,” Gisborne said, sharing the first few pages with Fred. Gisborne continued, “he’s surmised that there seems to be a certain vital energy in all things living and not living. And that this energy ebbs and flows with certain frequency. The author is conjecturing that there might be some kind of music that is characteristic of the universe. He even goes on to calculate what he thinks the frequency is and his results attempting to prove it.”

    “It doesn’t sound unreasonable,” Fred thought.

    “Not unreasonable at all,” Newton agreed. “And not terribly interesting either,” he concluded. “What is interesting is what he heard when he attempted to filter out the noise and amplify the signal.” Newton pointed to the small cylinder he had lain on the table. “Would you like to hear it with me?” Gisborne asked Fred.

   “Please,” Fred answered excitedly.

   Gisborne retrieved the phonograph and replaced the cylinder already installed with the small one. He lowered the needle and wound the mechanism to play it. Fred and Gisborne heard nothing, then a two pops in close succession. After a long pause, they heard three more pops in close succession. Then a long pause, followed by five beats.

    “What is it?” Fred asked.

    Gisborne pointed to the part of the papers he had kept. “He thinks they are prime numbers,” Newton said, indicating the author of the papers. “Numbers that are only divisible by themselves or one. They’re a mathematical curiosity. Not something with any practical purpose. However, you don’t see mathematical curiosities often expressed in nature.” Newton handed to Fred a tintype photograph. On it, Fred saw what he imagined was experimental equipment. “The author has taken impressive measures to eliminate any kind of outside noise. He even went so far as to contact friends in other parts of the world to replicate his findings, and eliminate the possibility of some sort of strange noise where he lived.” Gisborne flipped a few pages deeper and tapped at a page. “They were not only able to hear the same signal. Between them, they attempted to triangulate the origin of the signal: three thousand kilometers straight down.”

    “Straight down?” Fred asked, pointing at the floor.

    “Not exactly,” Newton amended. Newton looked at the paper, attempted to do some math in his head, and pointed in a direction. “Over there.”

    “That’s very strange,” Fred concluded. “I still don’t understand what it all means,” Fred admitted.

    “My part is simple,” Newton answered. “My friend has asked me, as a favor, to use my difference engine to verify that some of the larger numbers in the complete recording are also prime, which will just become another data point in whatever argument they are constructing. But, this is amusing.” Newton turned to the last page in the bundle. “The author believes it might be a communication from a Lost Civilization.”

The Fellowship

    Carrie Malz sat at the university cafe and looked out the window. In the early morning, the commons was desolate. It felt self-reflective in the moment. She had brought with her a copy of rubbings from a stele found inside a remote jungle cavern. It suggested that there had been literate societies underground - or that something had happened underground worth commemorating - if only she could read it. But honestly, she just didn’t have the heart for it. Professor Harry Abbad’s funeral had been only two days ago. Carrie felt nothing. The graduate student helped the university by providing Abbad’s lecture. However, it was more like someone else had been going through the motions in Carrie’s body while she observed silently.

    “Ms. Malz?” a man in a suit asked. Carrie had been so absorbed in the window that she flinched in surprise. Carrie nodded shallowly, answering the stranger’s question.

    “My name is Wayne Tighe,” the man continued. “I am very sorry for your loss.” Carrie gave a weak smile. She offered the chair opposite her. Wayne Tighe thanked her and sat.

    “Tighe..” Carrie dimly recalled. “Why does that name sound familiar?” she asked.

    “My brother is Fred Tighe,” Wayne offered.

    “Oh!” Carrie remembered. “The huge tunnel to nowhere that collapsed! Isn’t he being investigated for securities fraud?”

    “That’s the one,” Wayne agreed. “And, actually, it was three tunnels. Only the first one collapsed. I was hoping to offer you a job Ms. Malz.”

    “Doing what?” Carrie asked.

    “Using your linguistic skills to help us solve a mystery.” Wayne answered. “Harry and I had a relationship through my brother Fred, who has had an insatiable curiosity for the science of communication for the last two decades. Harry consulted for us from time-to-time, and I liaised between him and my brother. We had time to talk. Professor Abbad had mentioned you, more than once, as his best student. What are your plans now?” Wayne asked.

    “I’m hoping the university might hire me on as a teacher,” Carrie said. Carrie had conveyed that sentiment in person to the dean. But, no one had approached her.

    “That sounds like a fine plan,” Wayne said. “But, if you ask me, it would be a terrible misuse of your skill.”

    “How is that?” Carrie prickled.

   “How much are you going to learn behind a lecturn, begging for grant money?” Wayne said. “And how much of your life is going to be spent filling out applications, making appeals to committees, working the university staff for space, time, and resources? Life is short. We are offering you something that has never been seen before. Something lesser students will write books about. And I’m offering to give you a front row seat and clearing all the barriers in-between.”

    “What is this mystery?” Carrie asked.

    “I can’t give you the details, but the general area is ancient languages,” Wayne answered.

    “Will I be able to publish my work?” Carrie negotiated.

    “Not immediately,” Wayne cautioned. “But, eventually, yes.”

    “Alright then,” Carrie gave her answer. “What do I need to bring?”

    “We will have everything you need,” Wayne said. “And if we do miss something, tell me and I will get it for you.”

    “When do I start?” Carrie wondered.

    “How does tomorrow morning sound?” Wayne checked.

    “That would be fine,” she said.

    Wayne got up from the table. “A car will be waiting for you outside your home then. Thank you, Ms. Malz. I’m looking forward to working with you.”

    Carrie sat at the table in the quiet. By lunchtime, she wondered if she the whole conversation had really happened at all. She packed some things. She hadn’t asked how long she would be gone? Where they would be going?

    In the morning as the tide carried away the silt, Carrie looked out the window. There really was a car outside. A man waited beside the door. Waiting for her. Still only half believing, she opened the door slowly and stepped outside.

    “Ms. Malz?” the driver asked.

    “Yes. Yes!” Carrie said. She repeated her answer a third time. Realizing she had almost forgotten her bag, she turned back, then returned to the car. The door was open. Climbing into the car, Carrie saw that Wayne Tighe was inside. Wayne placed several papers into a leather satchel. “Good morning Ms. Malz. I hope you don’t mind me working while we waited.”

    “Honestly, I thought you were a hallucination,” Carrie admitted. The driver closed the door and, a moment later, the vehicle began to move.

    Wayne Tighe removed some papers from his satchel and handed them over to Carrie. “We didn’t talk about a lot of the details. I’ll need you to sign the privacy covenant before we get to the worksite.”

    Carrie skimmed over the document. “Wow,” she said. “That’s a generous annual budget.”

    Wayne frowned. “The annual budget is on the last page. That should be your salary.”

    Carrie realized that what Wayne said was true. She read the rest of the document more carefully. “Thank you,” she said finally.

    “We want you to know we’re serious,” Wayne said. Seeing that Carrie did not have a pen, he offered his own. Carrie signed the last page and provided it to Wayne. Wayne removed a device from the satchel. “Do you mind listening to something for me?” Wayne asked.

    Carrie agreed. Wayne pressed a button. They both heard a tap, then after a pause, a pair of taps. Wayne placed the device on the seat beside him. Carrie listened carefully. Wayne watched the new employee’s face.

    “It’s the Pembrooke Message,” Carrie said, recognizing it finally. “It’s supposed to be from a Lost Civilization deep underground. I did an analysis on it for Harry once.”

    “What did you find?” Wayne asked.

    “Well, a lot of people think it was a hoax. Lost Civilizations three thousand kilometers below the surface and all that. It didn’t help that the message was only sent for one hundred days before it was cut off. Just about the time that other researchers were starting to scrutinize it. But there are elements of the Pembrooke Message that seem plausible.”

    “Such as?”

    “The numbers. They don’t have to be mathematical curiosities like prime numbers. It could have been just plain integers: one, two, three, four, five… the point is to get someone’s attention with something that is both simple and very clearly artificial. More than half of the prime numbers in the Pembrooke Message header hadn’t even been discovered yet. Which meant it would have taken a real savant to fake it. That’s not all,” Carrie continued. “After the numbers is long span of noise.”

    “I’ve been told by many that it is just receiver noise,” Wayne explained.

    “Maybe. But the rest of the Message is so clear of noise. Some people say it’s a flaw made whoever forged the message, but I listened to it and wondered if it was speech. It sounds organized. I made a chart of phonemes, and some of the words for the paper.” Carrie saw that Wayne had a slight grin. “Was this a test?” she asked.

    “It was,” Wayne admitted, shutting off the playback.

    They slowed down outside of a guarded gate. A guard looked into the car before they were allowed to pass through. Inside the fence looked like a shipping facility. Freight containers were stacked everywhere. They approached a large platform that must have been at least twice as tall as the car. The driver stopped the vehicle and came around to let Wayne and Carrie out. Stepping out, she saw a second platform - almost the size of the first - a few hundred meters away.

    “My brother and his investors drilled four tunnels actually. He and I started in the paper business. Fred has a passion for technology, and he soaked up everything our consultants from the hydrocarbon industry taught us about exploratory drilling. What do you know about hydrocarbons Ms. Malz?”

    “Not much,” she admitted. “I just pay the power bill.”

    “Fair enough,” Wayne smiled. “In early days people found them on the surface. Rocks and liquids that burned well. With the advent of the engines and demand rising, some companies started searching further from those rifts where hydrocarbons appeared on the surface. Below the ground is mostly a frosty slushy muck, and it continues that way for hundreds of kilometers. Our first drilling attempt set a record for depth, achieving just over three hundred kilometers to hit a large hydrocarbon deposit predicted to lay at that depth.”

    “Well #2, like you have clearly heard about, failed. The muck tends to shift and move. The tunnel collapsed a little over halfway to our target depth. We learned our lesson, though, and now we drop flexible supporting reinforcement as we dig.”

    “And what is your target depth?” Carrie asked.

    “Three thousand kilometers,” Wayne answered.

    “That’s further down than the sun is up,” Carrie commented.

    “It is,” Wayne agreed. He opened the door, and the two of them stepped in. “Well #3, which you probably saw outside made it to our target depth, but did not yield the results we had been hoping for. After some analysis, we realized that our tunnel had curved on the way down and we missed our target location by something like five hundred kilometers. And that is why we have,” Wayne tapped on a sign that read merely “4”. “I hope you don’t mind the stairs,” Wayne said as they climbed.

    They arrived in a white room. In the center was a white cylinder ten meters across. There was a wide door along the side facing them, that was closed. Several bulky suits, that Carrie imagined were for emergencies, hung on racks. Nine other people were getting ready. They appeared to be putting on the suits. Carrie smiled at the others.

    “What are they doing?” she asked Wayne.

    “The pressure and temperature drop the further down we go,” Wayne said. “The research facility is comfortable, and so is the descent elevator, but we wear pressure suits as a safety precaution.” Wayne Tighe sized up the new employee. “You look like a small.” Wayne immediately found a semi-rigid suit. “Please. Sit over here,” Wayne instructed Carrie. He helped her don the boots, breeches, vest, gloves, and helmet. By the time Wayne had finished with Carrie, every other person in the room was similarly attired. Wayne Tighe put his own suit on with the speed of someone well practiced.

    “Leonard,” one of the nine greeted Carrie while Wayne got dressed. “My friends call me Len.”

    “Carrie,” she returned. “I’m the new linguist.”

    “I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Len said. “I’m just a lawyer.”

    “And who are you?” Carrie called out to the others.

    “We’re with the government, ma’am,” answered one of the eight on behalf of them all.

    “You’ve got to remember, this whole thing is practically in receivership,” Len told to Carrie, although she had no idea what any of that meant. Wayne smiled weakly from inside his helmet and waved for Carrie to follow him. The large door on the white thirty-meter cylinder in the center of the room swung open. It was already loaded with crates and raw construction materials. They found seats beside the wall.

    Wayne held up a hose attached to the side of his suit. Carrie looked and found hers. Wayne took Carrie’s hose and connected it to an outlet in the wall. Wayne opened a valve and Carrie felt a little uncomfortable as the suit stiffened a bit further. Wayne pointed to a gauge connected to the hose. “It should say 360 gigapascals - GPa. And be in the green.” Carrie confirmed that was what the gauge read.

    Wayne sat down and connected himself, then checked the readings. “I should have reminded you to take nausea medicine. It’s not a very comfortable first ride.”

    “Nausea?”

    “The force of gravity pulling you up towards the sun is at its highest here on the surface. As we descend, that force of gravity is going to drop and the buoyant force that holds you in your chair is going to increase. The suit should try to minimize that effect. You’ll feel heavier for a bit, and maybe a little faint. The best way to ride it is to close your eyes and not move your head much during the ride,” Wayne advised.

    “How long is the ride?” Carrie asked.

    “Ten hours,” Wayne answered. “The tube is fully evacuated, so we can get up to some high speeds.”

    By the time the trip was over Carrie had acclimated enough to the strange situation to be hungry and angry.

    “Where are we going?” Carrie asked Wayne during the trip.

    “We are going to the origin of the Pembrooke Message,” Wayne answered. “We call it the Pembrooke Site. Several very influential people shared your impression of the Message,” Wayne confided. “It seemed genuine, and just by the header of the Message we could tell that whatever civilization sent it must be at least decades, maybe centuries, ahead of us technologically. And it sounded to us like an invitation.”

    “So, why aren’t you trading technology with these Pembrooke People now?” Carrie asked.

    Wayne answered. “When we got there, there was no one to talk to.”

    The elevator came to a stop. “This part is going to be a bit strange,” Wayne warned. “Follow my lead.” Wayne stood up and floated away from the chair. He held on with a single hand and moved over Carrie to disconnect her umbilical from the wall. Wayne showed her folding the umbilical over one arm. “When you get up,” he cautioned, “keep a hand holding something.”

    “What is this?”

    “Microbuoyancy,” Wayne explained without needing to be asked. “The forces of gravity pulling you up and buoyancy attempting to hold you down are almost perfectly balanced in this low pressure environment. The elevator carriage is now in a lock that will soon be filled with fluid. If you remember your high school physics, sound particles - phonons - can not penetrate a vacuum. So we’ll disembark the elevator where we can still see. Then it’s a short walk in the dark to the research center.”

    The government people floated effectively. They opened the lift door and exited. The lawyer, Len, followed closely behind. Carrie and Wayne departed last. There were others outside, also in pressure suits, who looked ready to unload the equipment. Up and down had changed, unless the workers were standing on the roof. Carrie was glad to have been drifting horizontally out of the elevator, because the experience was disorienting. About ten meters above them the surface of a black pool reflected some of the sound shining off its surface like a mirrored void. Carrie saw a set of stairs leading up to the surface.

    Wayne placed Carrie’s hand on a rail that followed the stair. Carrie ascended through the surface. She paused with her head halfway through. On the other side of the surface was perfect darkness. She could see nothing but the inside of the helmet. Wayne placed a reassuring hand on her back and squeezed Carrie’s hand on the rail. Carrie walked up and into the darkness, clutching to the rail for guidance. She reached the top and the rail continued forward. Wayne provided a hand to reassure her. After a few hundred steps she felt the stair descending again. Claire could see again.

   Claire turned around to see Wayne following down the stair. “There are two pools?”

   “There’s a lot of pressure difference between the surface and here,” Wayne explained. “If a pressure seal was to fail, we’d like not to blast the research center into whatever that is.”

   “Why is your research center out in this at all?”

    “The rock is frozen solid by the extreme cold,” Wayne answered. “It could be cut, and is a possible Phase 2 of the program, if we continue it.”     

    “There is no way anything living out there sent a message,” Claire said as they walked together through a pressure door. Wayne closed the door and sealed it. “Not any kind of life I know of,” Claire continued.

   “We realized the same thing when Well #2 broke the surface,” Wayne agreed. “Not any kind of life we know of.”

    “So where did they go?” Claire asked.

    “I’m hoping you’ll help us answer that,” Wayne responded.

Mystery In the Sand

    Jean Martin enjoyed the sun and sand in Nouakchott. When friends visited, and he was surprised that some did, the tour was sure to include the western edge of the Sahara desert.  His salary, which came partly from Medicins Sans Frontieres and partly from the Red Crescent was contingent on him providing clinic duties three days a week at a city without regular medical staff.

    And thus, three times a week, Jean loaded up a beat up old buggy with whatever supplies he could scrounge and made the ninety minute trip down the N2 into Benichab. After exiting, he followed the single power line stretching in to town. The town was a collection of low structures that appeared out of the desert. Jean waved at one of the residents struggling with his donkey in the morning twilight.

    Jean stopped the buggy outside the building owned by the Nouakchott Regional Medical Center. There were no curbs or streets. Jean simply picked a place where he’d like to park. He got out and unlocked the clinic. Then he collected the supplies and brought them inside. There were two beds, a desk, and two chairs. That was it.

    Jean went back to the buggy for the satchel that contained all of the medical records and paperwork. Jean spied his neighbor, Mauri coming over with a cup in hand. Jean went back inside and had the paperwork under the desk just in time.

    “I hear Amajegh fighting with that animal,” Mauri said in French conspiratorially as he walked in the open door. “You know, if that donkey bites him, you may just have some excitement today.” Jean had been lucky to have a neighbor who spoke French, because he was still having trouble with Arabic. Mauri handed the cup and saucer to Jean. The aromatic mint tea was a welcome part of their morning tradition.

    “Thank you, Mauri,” Jean said. “Let’s take a look at that cyst, if you want.” Last week, Jean had lanced and drained a large cyst on the neighbor’s arm. Jean put the tea on the desk and had Mauri sit on the bed. Jean removed and discarded the old wrappings. “Looks like it’s healing nicely,” he informed the neighbor, before putting fresh stuffing and wrap on. Afterward, Mauri got off the bed and took the second of the two chairs.

    “What have I missed?” Jean asked.

    “Chickens,” Mauri said. “My wife wants me to build a chicken coop.”

    “Good men never rest,” Jean said.

    “Perhaps I can teach you some Arabic today?” Mauri offered.

    “I would be grateful,” Jean accepted. They sat and watched as the sky brightened and the air warmed. When something interesting passed by, Mauri told Jean what it was in Arabic. Jean did his best to memorize.

    Before the heat had grown too great, two women arrived at the clinic with a young boy. The women spoke only Arabic, so Mauri translated. The younger of the two women complained of a sore throat.

    Jean took a look. “It’s red,” he said, “but I don’t see any infection.” Jean looked through his supplies and found a small plastic bag of lozenges. “You could try one of these to see if it eases the pain,” Jean said. Mauri translated Jean’s instructions. The women thanked them both and left.

    Jean watched the thermometer climb to thirty-three degrees celsius. In the sun, it was probably easily five degrees hotter. He heard the sound of a distant car approaching. Moments later, a pickup truck with the word POLICE on the side slide to a halt outside the clinic. The driver, a man in a tan police uniform, jumped out of the cab.

    “Help me!” he shouted in French, and again in Arabic, as he walked to the bed of the truck and lowered the gate. Inside the bed of the officers truck was another human being almost burned beyond recognition.

    Despite the second man’s terrifying appearance, he appeared alert and calm. His partner had thrown a blanket over to protect him from the sun and sand, which he now pulled off. The more badly injured policeman attempted to talk to his partner in Arabic.

    “We need the stretcher,” Jean said to Mauri. Jean had an old orange sled stretcher in the buggy. Jean and Mauri placed it next to the man and worked together to move him as carefully as they could indoors. Jean saw that the driver, while in better shape than his partner, also was covered in ash and showed severe burns as well.

    Jean began opening bottles of water to wet cloth compresses that Jean instructed Mauri how to help apply. Both men were covered by an oily white dust. Jean did his best to carefully remove burnt clothing. “Can he tell me what happened?” Jean asked Mauri, who re-phrased the question to the officer in Arabic. The driver thought about it, then shook his head silently.  “How about this one?” Jean said to Mauri indicating the more badly wounded of the two. The younger officer looked at the older one, who shook his head again. The more junior officer followed the lead of the senior one, shaking his head in silence. “Can you at say where you are from?” Benichab did not have a police department.

    “Akjoujt,” the younger officer said, before realizing that he probably should not have spoken.

    The older officer said something to Mauri, who asked Jean, “will he live?”

    “Oh, now he speaks,” Jean complained. “I don’t know. He has a lot of burns. He should get some IV fluids, I would think, and some rest in a clean hospital, like the hospital in Nouakchott.”

    The elder officer said something to Mauri. “He says they will go there, then,” Mauri translated. The senior officer helped the first to his feet.

    “I don’t know how good it is to move him,” Jean said. Mauri translated. The two police officers appeared to ignore them. The older officer helped his partner into the passenger side of the cab, then crossed over to the driver side. In a moment, the truck was speeding down the road to the east.

    That evening Jean had dinner with David Boyd. David was a reporter and, as an American, one of only a few non-Africans in Jean’s social circle since he moved to Nouakchott. They had a standing dinner date at one of the better street cafes in the capitol on Mondays.

    Jean practically could not wait to tell David about the strange encounter earlier in the day with the police men. “They both drove off, saying they were going to Nouakchott Regional, but they never arrived. I checked when my shift was over. I didn’t see them along the way.”

    “That is strange,” David agreed over bites of yassa stew. “The National Police Center has a medical facility,” David posited.

    “They both were covered in this oily white powder,” Jean recollected.

    “Do you think it was chemical weapons?” David asked.

    “I hadn’t thought about that,” Jean answered. He looked around the street to see who was near them. “Is that possible?”

    “It’s possible,” David confirmed. “And it wouldn’t be the first time local cops are unaware of something the national police is doing.”

    David went home cautiously excited. If the Mauritanian government was testing chemical weapons, that might be a big story. Jean had mentioned that the policemen had come from Akjoujt. David did not have any friends in the police force there, but he did have a friend who might have some contacts. He placed a call and asked if there were any officers called out to the west yesterday.

    He got a call back two hours later. “There was a call that two locals answered a lunatic call from a herder forty kilometers west of town. The herder complained that the devil came out of hell and killed his camels. That’s normally a little outside Akjoujt’s jurisdiction, but they are the closest police station. They sent a car out to take a report. The officers are overdue.”

    David pulled up a map. Forty kilometers west of Akjoujt was over halfway between Akjoujt and Benichab, making Benichab the closest town. That might explain why the police went there, instead of going back home. “Do you have the exact location where the officers were supposed to meet this herder?”

    “On to something?” his contact asked.

    “Probably only a drunk camel herder,” David said, keeping his suspicions to himself. If the National Police were testing chemical weapons, surrounded by nothing in the middle of the Sahara would not be a bad spot for it. The contact sent where the police were to meet the local. It would only take him maybe an hour to check it out, so he decided to do it tonight.

    David packed a small bag with bottled water, snacks, and emergency supplies then locked the room and went downstairs. David had access to a car that belonged to the owner of the hostel. For a small monthly fee and a pledge to keep the tank full, David had a key and understanding that he could borrow the car from time-to-time.

    David took the N1 east towards Akjoujt. He caught himself mentally rehearsing the interviews and acceptance speeches he’d have to give if this was something big. Especially if David’s reporting helped nip some attempted ethnic cleansing before it bore fruit. Another part of his brain tried to stay grounded and reviewed all of the perfectly natural explanations for the evidence he knew.

    At a particular spot, he parked the car on the side of the road. He’d have to walk about five kilometers north from here. He put on the emergency pack, lit a flashlight, and started walking. The officers probably just took their truck offroad, but David had a relationship with his landlord to worry about, and damaging his car would not look good.

    In about an hour he had reached the spot. He checked his GPS to confirm. There was nothing. No truck tracks. No panicked camel herder. The desert wind had already hidden any traces.  

    It was difficult to tell in the dark, but up ahead the air shimmered. David stayed low as he looked over the next dune. Up ahead was a circular structure. The structure itself was a metallic ring. He’d guess it was over twenty meters from one side to the other. The ring was alone in the sand. There were no other structures or signs of life beside it.

    The air over it reminded David of Darvaza gas crater in Turkmenistan. This looked rough, but manufactured. There was a ring of white powder and black dust around the ring. David moved closer for a better look and realized there was a yellow glow from something that looked like molten iron inside.

    David checked his data signal strength. He started recording what he was seeing, publishing it to a shared spot where his friends could review it, in case he was taken prisoner by National Police.  

    David guessed the ring was some sort of smelter, but where are the casts and other equipment? What was powering it? He got closer to the ring to explore. The molten liquid began to stir. Not far from David, something silver bubbled partly out of the liquid. The silver bubble grew. More than a bubble, it looked like a head!

    The head emitted a terrible scream. David fell back. The silver figure continued to rise, almost as if it were climbing steps. The figure turned around and stepped partly back into the molten rock, disappearing below the surface. The screaming stopped. David took this opportunity to put the sand dune between him and the structure.

    The screaming began again, telling David that the thing was again on the surface. David looked over the ridge. There were two of them this time. They looked like humans in hazardous materials suits - and David could have easily mistaken them for such. The pair of suited figures hoisted a box to the edge of the circular structure.

    The noise was making him nauseated. David tried putting his hands over his ears. He didn’t want to risk deafness, but he didn’t want to miss this either. The pair of workers was joined by a third and fourth. It looked like they were assembling temporary structures.

    David was completely surprised when a pair of hands from National Policemen pulled him back from the dune edge to arrest him.

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