Sure, travelling three months to Endomis Station just to savor Mort’s pumperpretzels is a tiny bit of crazy, but it’s the kind of thing I’d do even if humanity didn’t have its upcoming arm-wrestle with God. Until recently, the only thing that marked this spinning kazoo on the planetary charts was Mort’s use of a unique bioengineered yeast strain, one that produces the best pumpernickel this side of the Venusian Ovens. Of course, there’s also the fact that it sits smack dab in no-man’s space, between the Terran Hegemony, the Martian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the controlled chaos that is the Asteroid Anarchy. I suspect it’s this, rather than Mort’s loafy lusciousness, that made it the ideal place to fool the Godstar.
“Better store up some hot air, Gordon,” Mati said, tapping her foot and pointing to Endomis’ rotating oblong tube on the big screen. Set against the starry black, the gently turning metal tube glinted sharply in the distant sun, its upper bioyeast labs fully lit. Media shuttles extended from Endomis’ airlocks like thorns, giving it the appearance of some bizarre space-succulent.
I shook my head. “Disagree. Compared to you, I bet I’ll get as much attention as broccoli in a cat kennel. It’s not every day that humanity’s most famous superstar mathematician flits out of her garden.”
“Yes, but you’re the first member of the Omnite clergy to arrive, and it’s your God they’re going to disprove.” Her left hand, which had been slapping her hip absently, suddenly froze. “Or prove.”
I scowled. Mati was as opinionated as you’d expect for a lady smart enough to decode gazilobytes of information from what everyone else thought was white light. She often reminded me of an intense gray-haired hummingbird, darting from idea to idea–a tiny slip of a woman whose brain-to-body mass must’ve exceeded anything in the known universe.
“God?” I said. “I’m just here for the dark loaf.”
She pursed her lips. “What kind of priest are you, anyway?”
“A hungry one.”
Mati’s been my friend for twenty-five years, ever since I first interviewed her over the differential equations that had spawned a religion. Which meant I could give her hell whenever I wanted.
“Can’t believe we’re here, Dr. Antoretti,” said Cullen O’Shaunessy, hobbling up to Mati on his walker. “Feels like it’s been a year.”
“It feels exactly like three months,” Mati said sharply. Her hand began smacking her hip again, like she was preparing for some African juba dance. “But I can certainly see how it could appear longer, as the brain tends to overcompensate for boredom and lack of activity. Yes, maybe it felt like a year.”
Cullen and I exchanged knowing looks. Mati was to idle chit-chat what quantum physics was to nematodes, but this habit of following up her acerbic observations with a minute of back-stepping was fairly new. Cullen had put up with it good naturedly the entire trip; he was a decent kid. Too bad his continued existence owed more to the vagaries of some grand physics experiment than normal human benevolence.
There was a slight jolt as the ship hit the docking tube, and the first circular airlock opened. Smells of WD-40 and bleach assaulted me, the latter ensuring no viruses wormed their way from ship to station.
I patted down my robe, suddenly forgetting about everything else. Omnos knows, I’m no specimen of abdominal flexing. I’m a foodie, and yes, it shows. I ran fingers through my thinning blond hair and plastered a beatific smile on my face.
A whoosh of equalizing air pressure as the second airlock opened, and I felt the tug of dueling gravity generators. Trying not to buckle in the suddenly heavy pull, I walked toward the mass of hand-waving reporters on the other side of the airlock.
“Mr. Everly, what do you think this event will mean for the Omnite view of the universe?” shouted a crimson-haired man as I stepped aboard the station. A forest of hands shoved into my face, as if I was supposed to execute some massive high-five.
Mati was right, as usual. To my chagrin, that cluster of red wigs (why do all reporters have to have red hair these days?) had bypassed her and had made a beeline straight for me. Their hands fought for air time in my face, and I found myself wishing a pox on the guy who’d invented hand-mikes. Then I remembered I was on mindbeam, and re-inserted my best happy-person smile.
“Well, that’s what we’ll find out, isn’t it?” I said brightly. “I expect when the first information is received from the Magellan, it’ll show that Omnos has predicted the future.”
“What if it doesn’t?” shouted a petite woman, her red wig and black magneto-boots invoking visions of some naughty elfin prison guard. “What does that mean for Omnite doctrine?”
“It means that God works in mysterious ways,” I said carefully. “Even without foreknowledge, what human process could weave the DNA of every single living person into light from a faraway star and in the process include a massive amount of incomprehensible information that is slowly being revealed over time?”
“I see you’re still spouting the same tired doctrine, Gordon,” said a familiar female voice. “Even if the data shows Omnos did predict the future, it doesn’t prove divinity, only that we missed something in physics 101.”
I turned to my lovely nemesis Jonasa Wagner, leader of the Venus chapter of CLEAR–Citizen’s League of Enlightenment and Reason. Just as in all our holo debate shows, she wore a no-nonsense pantsuit and dark top, making sure we all understood her Seriousness. A tall, powerful woman, she had jet-black hair and intense blue eyes that could cow any man not raised by Amazons.
“Well, Jonasa, at what point does human hubris allow us to stop pretending that everything is quantifiable, and start recognizing that there are some things we may never explain?”
She watched me from beneath a cascade of luscious black hair. Her high cheekbones radiated purple, the mood-cream translating her confidence into a violet glow. “Yet your God offers no moral dictates, and the only hope that’ll happen is if the army of decoders managed by the Omnite church finally deciphers all the side-band information. Doesn’t that make your religion more of a science?”
Every reporter huddled inward, shoving their hands between our faces. Oh how they loved our little debates.
I clasped my hands together. “We believe Omnos will guide our evolution as a species, and said guidance will include rules of morality and growth. We don’t know that’s what’s in Omnos’ ancillary information, but we have faith. And isn’t every religion based on faith?”
Her eyes gleamed. “Yes, but–“
“Excuse me, but I suspect Mr. Everly is tired from the three month journey and might like to see his room,” said a short man to my right. He was wearing a brown-white uniform that resembled the vanilla-chocolate swirl I’d had yesterday, and I pegged him for the Endomis station representative.
I nodded brightly at him. “Yes, that would be lovely.”
I followed him amid a cacophony of shouted questions from the reporters, which I happily stifled by waving my hand in their faces as we walked away. Just before we rounded the bend in the steel hallway, I turned to look at Jonasa, who was watching me with a slight scowl.
“I’m Gunnet Bradley, Endomis Mayor,” said the short man, extending his hand. We shook, and his voice went into tour-guide mode as we escaped the red-haired gaggle. “Endomis has over six hundred residents, a few of whom work in the bioyeast labs. Still, most are independent souls, some with–ah–a few minor legal issues. As you may know, Endomis station isn’t subject to the laws of any of the three major powers…”
I listened with half an ear. Much as I hated to admit it, the debates with Jonasa always ruffled my feathers. And this time, her sniping had burrowed even further under my skin than usual.
Mati’s first presentation to the journal of Astrophysics back in 2210, the horribly mundanely titled “Photonic Anomalies in HD29641”, had electrified humanity from day one. Using mathematical disciplines odder than an Antarctic amusement park, she’d shown that light from a particular star in the constellation Orion was transmitting actual information, rather than the spectra of its component elements like every other self-respecting sun. But it got even weirder–a small portion of this celestial telegraph consisted of DNA sequences from every living human being in the solar system. Individual sequences disappeared a few months after someone died, and appeared a few months after they were born, like some cosmic check register. Since it took six hundred years for Omnos’ light to reach us, this implied the impossible: long before two randy college students left the party on a hormonally-hyped ride in the aircar, Omnos could predict not only the event of their coupling, but the new baby’s DNA as well.
Or so believed by some, and enough to start the religion I have the honor of representing. Do I really believe Omnos is God? Officially, yes. In reality, I heartily subscribe to the notion that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So to me the question is immaterial; let’s just say I believe that whatever’s in the other 99 percent of that sinewave salad is likely to turn civilization on its head.
Others aren’t so sure. Some think there’s no prescience involved, we just missed an easier explanation. Others believe that even if foreknowledge exists, those predictions could be altered. After all, if you had access to an earlier copy of Omnos’ light, proving the Godstar was fallible is as easy as keeping someone alive beyond his DNA expiration date on Earth. And God isn’t supposed to be fallible.
To end this debate, twenty years ago the three big powers launched a viper-class starship at 0.15c in the direction of Omnos with mankind’s latest invention–a D-tube teleporter. Five days hence, the Magellan would instantaneously transmit data to Endomis Station from three light-years closer to Omnos, light that would contain DNA sequences of people not only as yet unborn, but for whom the wine that led to their conception had not fully aged. From that light I’d learn whether my son Aaron would live long enough to let me back into his life. And Cullen O’Shaunessy would find out if he was supposed to be breathing.
“And over here is–“
“Why do I feel heavier here than ten steps in the other direction?” I interrupted. Gunnet stopped and looked up at me sheepishly. “We have an old gravity generator; its wave mixer has slowed down.” He seemed genuinely distraught, and I realized I’d just burst his bubble a little.
“A tiny hair on the cherry sundae that is Endomis,” I proclaimed. He smiled again, and we continued with our tour.
My room was quite nice, and I could tell I’d been given the VIP suite. It had an eighteen-flavor nitro-paste dispenser, for those too asocial to tolerate even a distant dining room view of their fellow humans. It had a bubble bed set in a clear circular dome reached by ladder, to provide the feeling of floating amongst the stars. And there was a modern holo station, with multiple angled cameras so anyone I talked to could see my posterior.
Gunnet left with a wave, and I saw that the holo station message button was blinking. I pushed it and watched Archprelate Horatio Adams fill my room.
“Gordon, I trust the journey to Endomis has treated you well,” said the hologram. “I’m sending this message from mid-journey, as we’ve had mechanical problems on-ship. Unfortunately, therefore, I won’t be able to attend the ceremony.”
Unfortunately therefore? Who says that? I heard the hiss of my deflating ego. Here I thought my role as the only Omnite representative at the most important ceremony since–ever–was based on my rising status within the church. Turns out I was wrong; my boss had been planning to steal the show the whole time. Which meant I was here to do the only thing they knew I excelled at: solving a problem.
“Gordon, I’ll be honest, we need you to solve a problem,” Horatio said. “We believe someone, probably the Zacharites, have infiltrated the station with a self-assembling beaker-bomb and are planning to stop the transfer of information from the Magellan by ‘any means possible.’” He made air quotes around the last three words, and I stood up straight. The Zacharites were an extreme branch of Omnism, one disavowed by the official church. They believed our little experiment was a poke in God’s eye, and that this blasphemy would bring retribution down upon the human race. Given some of the hateful spewings of their leader, Zachary Collins, I could believe that little inconveniences like ethics wouldn’t stop them.
“This project is extremely important to the church,” continued the Archprelate. “Once it’s been proven God has a plan for everyone, humanity will inevitably flock to Omnism–therefore, it’s vitally important that nothing be allowed to sabotage the Magellan’s information. Gordon, bringing this to closure will have a very positive impact on your standing within the church. We are counting on you.”
With that he signed off, and I stood for a long minute, biting my lip. Because of the light delay, there was no way this could be anything but a recorded message. No way for me to call the Archprelate and scream in his ear. Probably a good thing, as that would have a decidedly negative impact on my standing within the church.
In the dining room the next morning, I piled my tray high with Mort’s pumperpretzels while pretending not to snoop in on Cullen’s outrageous flirtation with the omelet lady. I had to smile watching him, this kid whose terminal disease had been a death sentence until two years ago. That’s when Mati’s lottery chose to rebuild the nervous system of five out of eight million terminal patients, all selected through fundamentally random processes like thermal noise and radioactive decay. And all of whom would otherwise be far too poor to ever consider neuro-reconstruction.
Yes, Cullen’s rescue had ulterior motives. Soon the science world would know if Omnos deserved its name, for the random variables that selected Cullen were completely unpredictable–not only practically, but even in theory. If the Magellan detected the DNA sequences of the lucky five in Omnos’ future light while the other eight million terminals had disappeared, it meant that Omnos had foreordained something that simply could not be predicted. The Godstar would be provable as a phenomenon truly outside science–a grand goal, even if it was hard to watch a good kid like Cullen being used that way.
I abandoned my shameless eavesdropping and walked toward Mati with my Everest of pumpernickel, dismayed at the surrounding crowd. I pushed through the throngs and forced my way to the bench on her right. Chewing slowly, I watched residents and reporters swarm around Mati, always starting with the same platitudes: “Dr. Antoretti, I’ve always wanted to meet you,” “I’ve been following your work for years,” and so on. Only after the throat-clearing was done did they finally ask their questions: “What do you think is encoded in the rest of the information?”, “Do the DNA sequences stop when someone is in a coma?” and other queries of the ilk.
Amused, I watched Mati rip their questions into component parts, then offer some back-stepping apologetic nonsense when their faces fell. Her right hand slapped the table constantly, sending their eyes darting between her sharp face and her pounding hand. This combination of passive-aggressive exasperation and freakishly loud drumming sent them away one by one, until finally, only we two remained.
I sat back. “You should write a song to that. We could call it ‘Ode to Impatience’.”
She blinked, and her hand stopped. “Don’t be absurd.”
“I have a problem,” I whispered, searching the surrounding tables for anyone within earshot. “Apparently, someone wants to sabotage our mission. I got this message last night…” I described the Archprelate’s holomail while Mati chewed her labmeatte slowly, giving no sign she was listening. “The beaker-bomb has to be targeted at the D-tube-receiver,” I said finally, “because once the information makes it to the receiver, it’ll beam to every station, planet, and asteroid in human-occupied space. But I checked the ships’ manifests, and the only cargo delivery I see is some bread-making equipment that came in yesterday.”
Mati put her fork down. The fingers of her right hand began drumming the table. “You know, beaker-bombs look a lot like bioyeast manufacturing equipment.”
I stared. She was right. Beaker bombs were so named for their two beakers–one filled with nanoteria, the other with instructo-gel, a translucent jello glopped around the nanoteria to provide those tiny CPUs their instruction code. Mixing the two spawned an army of tiny demon creatures, programmable to destroy anything, from anywhere. And no doubt Mort manufactured his bioyeast in similar containers.
“That’s it!” I grabbed her arm, knocking pumperpretzels off my tray. “They must have hidden the bomb in the bioyeast labs. Mati, you’re a genius!”
She shrugged, and I realized that was like calling Picasso an artist. I extracted my lightpad to jot this down, but stopped at the sight of Jonasa Wagner charging toward my table like an angry rhinoceros, long black hair feathering outward.
I pointed to Mati as Jonasa stopped at our table. “She’s almost done eating, you can ask your questions.”
“I’ve come to talk to you.” With that, Jonasa slammed her tray down and took her seat.
She stabbed her eggs like they were about to fly away, and I popped a piece of pumpernickel in my mouth.
“So, nice trip?” I asked, voice muffled behind my cud. “Six months for you, wasn’t it?”
Jonasa squinted, then dabbed her mouth. “Tell me, do you really believe what you said yesterday, or were you just spouting the party line? I could never decide whether you’re a true believer or just a career churchman. And I don’t know which is worse.”
I folded my hands on the table. “Apparently Venusian conversations are to the point. Understandable, as your lives could be snuffed out any time a sulfuric-acid cloud leaks into one of those floating cities.”
She smiled briefly. “I’m going with career churchman.”
I shrugged. “Any way you slice it, Omnos is an unexplained phenomenon. Not just unexplained, but unexplainable. In the end, what is God, if not that? Maybe we’re saying the same thing but in different ways–like when you use the term ‘career churchman’ to mean ‘devoted to faith’.”
“Uh huh. Doesn’t ‘devoted to faith’ just mean someone who’s sure what they believe? If so, do I get smiley-faces for being absolutely sure Omnos isn’t God?”
“Depends. Does your faith in the lack of faith lead you to good works?”
“No, but it also doesn’t lead me to holy wars or proselytizing.”
We continued this tit-for-tat for most of an hour, while Mati sat back and listened without a word. Eventually, a reporter noticed our conversation, and soon we were surrounded by a forest of hands and red wigs. Jonasa scowled at them, and a few minutes later, she’d made her departure with what could be the first polite goodbye I’d ever heard from her mouth. I watched that tall shapely frame stride across the dining room, and reflected how attractive she’d be without the whole crazy intensity thing. But that was akin to admiring the tiger’s pretty fur before it ripped your throat out.
“She likes you,” Mati said, as the reporters drifted away.
I stared. “Are you crazy? She’s just scoring points with the militant atheist brigade back home.”
Mati began tapping her foot. “My mental state hasn’t changed. And I’m quite sure she just wanted to talk to you.”
“Well, it’s exhausting.”
“She’s smart. Women like that need someone who can match their intellect, spar word for word. Don’t say anything stupid.”
I gave her a pained look and concentrated on my breakfast.
Still. When a smart woman gives you advice on another smart woman, you have to listen.
An hour later, I found myself striding through the yeast lab’s gleaming metal hallways as a stooped, white-haired gentleman shuffled quickly ahead of me. I was on the top floor, and the hall’s transparent ceiling displayed a brilliant band of stars, its walls covered by pictures of asteroid miners staring heroically into space.
“Ah–“ I shouted, raising a finger, but Mort had turned into the next hallway. I cursed as I almost twisted my foot in the uneven gravity and hurried to the corner, only to see him racing away again. I reflected that either Mort was my bread-crazed Zacharite, or he’d suddenly remembered something very important. I couldn’t think of any other reason he’d be running. I followed him through an open door, smiling broadly as I saw him backed against a corner.
“Mort, at last!” I exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to meet you! I’ve followed your work for years, tried every strain of pumpernickel that-—“
I stopped as I noticed him pressed against the wall, shivering like I was about to stuff him into a pumpernickel pita.
I sighed and stepped back. “Excuse me. I do love your work, but that’s not why I’m here.” I coughed. “Have you received any new ‘bread-making’ equipment in the last few days?”
Mort’s eyes lit with relief. He nodded and pointed to a contraption on his left, a wheeled tray with two giant beakers and a small metal box. “Got here yesterday,” he said, in a raspy voice I doubted got much use. “Darndest yeast beakers I’ve ever seen.”
If there’s one thing I excel at, it’s detecting liars through body language. I watched Mort’s hands carefully, and instantly knew he was clean. So why was he running? All I could think of is that like many of the other crusties on Endomis station, Mort was such a loner that he viewed conversing with another life-form akin to space-walking without a suit.
“That, sir, is a beaker-bomb,” I said, striding to the tray. I picked up the metal box and removed the battery from the self-assembling AI. “Useless now. What time did it arrive?”
Mort scratched his chin. “Bout 9am, station time.”
I jotted this down on my lightpad then configured my headtrode to alert me upon any changes to the final ceremony roster list. Now that our Zacharite zero was deprived of his weapon, maybe he’d try to do the job manually. It was a long shot, but didn’t hurt to try.
I twisted to take in the assorted beakers, yeast ovens, and biotic equipment in the room, making sure no one had ordered another one of these doodads. Everything looked normal, though the wall was studded with metal supports to ensure the equipment stayed level.
“Must be quite a hassle dealing with this uneven gravity,” I said, turning back to Mort. Something in his eyes instantly seized my attention, and I smiled.
“I have a suspicion. This bizarre dual gravity, where things are heavier depending on which angle you’re facing. That’s the secret, isn’t it? That’s why your yeast strains are so good?”
“Eh,” Mort said helpfully.
“I knew it!” I slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I’ve always wondered how the economics of space-station bread making could ever work. This dual gravity, it makes the yeast grow in unique configurations, doesn’t it?”
We discussed bread-making for quite a while as Mort warmed up to me, and I became so engrossed that I forgot I was supposed to zap a Zacharite. When the lunchtime bell rang, I snapped my fingers, bid Mort adieu, and raced back to my room. There I immediately began researching ship arrival times, and discovered two very interesting facts: First, the only ships that had docked yesterday were mine and Jonasa’s, and both had unloaded cargo. Second, Jonasa’s had docked at 0800, whereas we’d arrived around 1500, station time. Mort had said the new ‘equipment’ had shown up at 0900.
Could Jonasa be my culprit? Well, she was the only passenger on her ship, so actually, the evidence left me no other explanation. And there was motive. It was clear what would happen to her merry band of skeptics once the Magellan finally proved the Godstar was predicting things impossible to foresee under any interpretation of quantum physics. I thought that the Archprelate was right: The outcome of this experiment could well be a mass conversion to Omnism. And that wouldn’t be good for CLEAR.
I sent Jonasa a headtrode-mail, and two hours later we were sitting across from each other in the conference room, Jonasa’s slender legs crossed, her blue eyes studying me.
“What, no reporters, Gordon? Is this a social call, or are we actually going to debate without sound-bites?”
“Just a couple questions,” I said, glancing at her hands. “Jonasa, do you think this whole experiment is worth all the expense?”
She frowned. “OK, so this isn’t a social call. Clearly I’m a suspect in some sort of investigation.” Her shoulders slumped, and for the first time, I noticed she’d substituted old-fashioned rouge for her normal mood-cream. She was also wearing lipstick, as foreign to that face as a koi pond on Mercury.
Feeling low, I shook my head vigorously. “Not so much ‘suspect’ as–“
“–You want to know what I think? This whole experiment is a giant waste of time.” Her eyes grew cold; the old Jonasa was back. “I think people believe in spooky sky-gods simply to cover deficiencies in their own lives. After all, didn’t you become an Omnite after a messy divorce and estrangement from your son?”
I sat, frozen, as Jonasa bit her lip. After a tense silence, she reached out and grabbed my arm.
“I’m sorry, Gordon, that was completely out of line. I’m not proud that CLEAR investigated you, but my bosses don’t like to lose debates. If it helps, I never planned to use it on holo.”
I nodded, forcing myself to smile. “Well, you do have a point. My own mistakes and my ex-wife have turned Aaron away from me since he was fifteen, and I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to get him back. Last year we had our first conversation in twenty years, just before he left for the Kuiper belt expedition, with a trip-survival rate of thirty percent. So yes, I have a personal stake in getting access to Magellan’s database to see if he’ll be alive three years from now. Still, I believe it’s possible to meet God without asking him for favors.”
She said nothing, but her eyes had transformed from warrior Jonasa into something more human. It did wonders for her face.
“But,” I said, “it was pretty dastardly for CLEAR to dig that up. It would be like us discovering that your daughter had died two years ago and could’ve been saved by Mati’s random lotto. And then claiming that the subsequent belief in a godless universe is what led you to CLEAR.”
She stiffened, and this time I reached out and touched her hand. “Apparently, we Omnites aren’t so pure either. We’re not above the occasional inappropriate investigation of our own.”
We discussed our kids the rest of the afternoon, and soon afternoon turned into evening, where we found ourselves in the lounge talking animatedly over glasses of wine.
That night was a strange one. It culminated in both of us stumbling to my room with a dark red bottle of wine in tow, followed by the happy discovery that having sex with someone you’ve been publicly slapfighting for two years is actually quite liberating.
The next morning, we lay in my bubble chamber, surrounded by stars as if floating in space. I remained motionless for a long while, pondering how this wonderful thing had happened, and what my first words should be this morning to keep us in the moment. Finally I opened with: “Somehow, this seems wrong.”
She propped up on an elbow, the blanket partially falling away to reveal one perfectly-shaped breast. “So wrong. Like mustard and ketchup in the same jar. And even worse than sleeping with the enemy, you’re sleeping with the subject of an investigation. What’s going on with that, anyway?”
I watched her relaxed, playful face, thinking how different she looked from our holo mash-ups. Having the woman with whom I’d publicly exchanged so many barbed words lying naked beside me revved my motor anew, and I leaned into her.
“Since I’m already sinning…”
She pushed me back lightly. “Nope. My curiosity is going full steam.”
I sighed. And against all reasonable judgment, I told her about the Archprelate’s holomail, how I’d tracked the beaker bomb shipment to conclude that she was my main suspect. I said this knowing very well that I’d probably regret it later.
She stared at me for a long moment after I’d finished. “OK, first off, I can’t believe you got the time from ‘Missing Minute Mort’. You are familiar with his tendency to show up for lunch at dinnertime? Second, I’m as far from Zacharism as I am from spontaneous combustion. People like me don’t set up beaker bombs; we leave that to the religious fanatics. Though Omnism is such a scant faith, I can’t believe any branch of it cares enough about anything to use violence.”
I squinted. “Did you just accuse us of being too tolerant to use violence? In any case, Omnism is not ‘scant’.”
“But it’s such an odd belief system–you have no rituals, no commandments, I doubt you even pray. Your whole faith is based on waiting for someone to decode a bunch of information that may be gibberish.”
“We do pray,” I said, “but it’s true we eschew most rituals because we find they distract us from doing good works. I’ve probably headed more relief agencies than you own jars of mood-cream. And until we find out differently, what’s wrong with assuming Omnos’ un-deciphered information contains moral instructions?”
“What if it’s just a recipe for pound cake? Doesn’t that obviate your whole religion?”
“Well, if it’s heavenly pound cake–“
My headtrode beeped and I stopped, touching my ear. And felt my blood chill as the alert wormed its way through my audio cortex. The final ceremony roster had just bumped from six to seven people, with the new attendee labeled only as ‘Mati’s Guest’.
I shot up in bed. “Uh. I think I know who our Zacharite is…”
She sat up, draping the blanket around her body as I nearly fell out of bed. I hurriedly put on my pants, then turned to her just before crawling down the ladder. “The fact that I’m leaving doesn’t mean–doesn’t mean–”
“I know. Go do your job.”
Mati answered my continually ringing buzzer with a pinched face and garden-themed pajamas. “I was just about to take a shower.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, pushing past her to the sofa. “Tell me about Cullen. Have you noticed anything strange lately?”
Frowning, she sat in the opposing chair, her short gray hair spiked on one side of her head. “Two months before we left, his mannerisms seemed to change.”
“Yep. Change they did.” I threw a few papers on the coffee table. “I ran a retinal scan this morning, using the Phobos server. Your Cullen is actually Alex Piedmont, a well-known Zacharite. He must have gotten doppelganger reconstruction and replaced the original Cullen sometime after surgery. Who knows what happened to the original.”
Mati’s foot began tapping so hard, I thought she’d wear a hole in the floor. A very cold feeling spread through my gut.
“Mati, I’m going to ask something, and it’s very important you answer me truthfully. Were you aware that the guy on our ship wasn’t the real Cullen?”
“No,” she said, “but I suspected something.”
I exhaled with relief. “Why in Omnos’ name didn’t you tell me?”
She watched me with a pained expression that I couldn’t pin down. “Because–because…Gordon, what we’re about to do could destroy this station.”
“Better explain that.”
Mati’s grandmother face scrunched tight, her foot tapping furiously. “These D-tube teleporters drag their own reference frame with them, thereby avoiding causality violations. But they’re inherently unstable. Demodulating Omnos’ carrier wave three years in the future could cause the D-tubes to de-cohere, possibly releasing millions of joules of energy.”
“Make it so an idiot can understand.”
She sighed. “People used to think that instantaneous communication would cause time-travel type paradoxes. We got around that using some tricks that–“ she stopped and smoothed her hair down. “Anyway, what we’re about to do here could reintroduce paradox to the mix.”
“And the implications are…?”
“Gordon, all my equations sum to infinity. These are well-established models for Omnos’ information multiplex, not incomplete theories. But when I extrapolate them to describe light three years closer to Omnos entering our reference frame, none of my numbers make sense. Because D-tubes are so unstable, any unknown variables could indicate a collapse–and if that happens, we’ll see a massive explosion.”
I stared, and for a long moment, the only motion in the room was the perpetual tapping of Mati’s foot.
“I get it, Mati.” I rubbed my forehead. “So even though you thought Cullen might sabotage our party, part of you wanted him to succeed.”
Her face fell, and I saw that pained expression again.
Then it hit me. That look in Mati’s eyes, the way she’d been so eager lately to soften her famously harsh opinions: she was beyond lonely. A lifetime spent pushing humanity away had left the specter of isolation to shadow her sixties. Now she was worried she’d lose one of her true, close friends.
I sighed. “I’m not mad, Mati. Well, maybe a little.”
She wiped one eye. “Thank you. If it’s any help, I have a much likelier theory that doesn’t involve D-tube de-coherence.”
“But you can’t guarantee there won’t be an explosion?”
I sighed, wondering what in Omnos’ name I was going to do.
I spent the whole day thinking, and that night I lay still in my starry dome, facing the direction of Omnos and wondering whether God could truly be so cruel. I couldn’t believe Omnos would punish us for the simple act of trying to get closer.
Sleep finally overtook me, and I awoke a few hours later with the absolute surety of two convictions: First, no two-bit fanatic was going to decide things for the rest of us. And second, it had to be Mati who reported Cullen. She’d brought this nimrod along, and the only way to avoid tarnishing a lifetime of incredible achievements was for her to make the “discovery” herself.
So it was that the next morning I stood in the central airlock hallway, examining a piece of Cullen’s walker, while Alex Piedmont cursed and kicked in the hands of two beefy security guys.
“What you are doing is wrong!” Alex shouted, trying to jerk his arm away from his captor’s grip.
“How does this thing work?” I muttered, examining the inner tube of the walker’s support. It had been coated with graphene circuitry, and was probably a weapon of some sort.
Alex focused on me. “You’re the worst! A follower who questions the God he’s sworn to serve. Traitor to Omnos!”
I raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know Omnos was at war. Gosh, I hope I get a blue uniform; I look great in teal.”
Alex stared for a long moment. Then he began thrashing violently, and this time managed to free an arm. He grabbed his captor’s lightning gun, knocked him back, and pointed the gun at me. “You. Omnite circus clown. You’re going to let me into the receiver room.”
I tried to remember which way the gravity shifted, and then dove to my left. Alex swung around, and his pivoting knee buckled in Endomis’ uneven gravity. Wincing, I watched his head slam to the floor as the lightning gun clattered down the hallway.
“I’m–I’m so sorry,” Mati said to the crowd of reporters and representatives in the hallway with us, as the security guys pulled Alex to his feet and hauled him through the airlock.
I got up, dusted my knees, and squeezed her shoulder. “You can’t be sorry! If it wasn’t for you, he’d have sabotaged the whole event!” Others muttered agreement, and Mati shot me a quick look of gratitude.
“Well, shall we proceed with the call?” I said.
Earlier, I’d asked Gunnet to set up a video call with everyone on the station. The long-time residents were such hermits, most couldn’t be bothered to stumble down to the central assembly hall if their lives depended on it (which they actually did). Since I needed everyone to weigh in on this decision, we’d set up giant screens broken into hundreds of little squares, so we could see everyone’s face. The hundred or so that decided to attend in person, mostly reporters and representatives, sat around the giant round table as Mati began describing our conundrum.
Mati isn’t the best at explaining science to primitives, but she did a passable job. And the questions were about what you’d expect. “What are the chances those infinities will collapse the D-tubes?” asked the ebony-skinned representative from the Asteroid Anarchy, her hair quaffed up in a giant pyramid. “How could a simple transmission of information lead to an explosion?” Mort rasped, apparently on hiatus from pumpernickel duties.
Mati answered precisely, as was her style, slapping her hip and doing absolutely zilch to give anyone the hot cocoa and cookies they were looking for. And I found something out that day: No matter what belief system a person subscribes to, in matters of survival, people look to a moral center. Numbers and statistics only go so far. So it was that after the Terran representative asked me for my opinion, I saw every single person and video square staring at me, desperate for someone to tell them what to do.
I leaned forward and folded my hands on the table. “I have absolute faith that Omnos would never kill us for asking questions. This experiment is the right thing to do. If someone trains me how to use the receiver and AI, I’ll happily remain on this station to monitor Magellan’s information, while everyone else takes a brief cruise.”
The meeting went quickly from there, culminating with a unanimous vote to proceed–which was the only way we could do this thing.
Two days later, I stood in the ceremony chamber with seven other people: Mati, representatives from each of the three major powers, Endomis mayor Gunnet Bradley, Jonasa Wagner, and the AI technician, who’d be interpreting the receiver output based on Magellan’s data.
It was a slick setup. The D-tube receiver was married to a very powerful AI server containing known DNA sequences of everyone in the solar system. The server would scan the information received from Omnos three light-years out, and compare it against the existing database, with any new DNA sequences likely belonging to people as yet unborn. OK, this wasn’t guaranteed, because the database wasn’t totally accurate, and it was impossible to monitor every birth in real time across the solar system. But if there were more than a small number of new sequences, it meant that Omnos was telling us about people who didn’t yet exist–proof positive that the future was knowable. And somewhere in that jumble of data, God would tell me if my boy was going to live long enough to hear his dad apologize for a childhood of neglect.
The transporter-receiver room settled into nervous silence, all of us alone with our thoughts as we waited for the countdown. I wondered whether an explosion would be noticeable at all, or if it’d be a sudden baseball bat to the head. I guess my faith wasn’t strong enough to squash the occasional doubt.
“We’re receiving first transmission from the Magellan,” came the AI tech’s voice, high-pitched with excitement. The electricity in the air was palpable, and I saw Mati’s foot begin its perpetual motion.
We all waited, frozen, as the tech pushed buttons on his helmet, interpreting the AI computer’s analysis of the data. After a long moment in which I’m sure no one breathed, he swiveled to face us, his expression perplexed.
“The–the AI is unable to interpret the data as DNA sequences. It has successfully matched some of the patterns to a system of sixteen base nucleotides, but the descriptions of those bases don’t match anything in human DNA.”
A loud buzz filled the room. “What do you mean, ‘can’t interpret as DNA’?,” snapped the Asteroid representative.
The tech shook his head, then turned around again, hunching over and pushing more buttons. Silently, we waited an eternity while he worked and muttered to himself. Finally he turned around again, his eyes wide.
“It appears–it appears that the Magellan is not where it should be.
The room erupted into shouts, until I held up my hand for silence. “Please explain.”
“It looks like the Magellan’s initial heading was two degrees off, and now she’s .105 light-year away from her intended destination. These photons would never be seen from our solar system. And when I sent the command to shift course, I got a message that the fusion reactor had ceased operation. Then the whole link went down.”
Now the entire room truly erupted, with shouts and accusations flying in every direction. The Terran representative sprayed bits of spittle as he hurled recriminations at the Martian ambassador for the Martian work on the fusion reactor, and the AI tech cowered before a blast of expletives issuing from the Asteroid representative. But the loudest sounds came from Mati, who was clapping her hands and hopping about madly. “Yes! I knew it!”
This counterpoint cut through the roar like a knife, until finally everyone stopped to stare at this short elfin-grandmother, hopping around like a kangaroo on fire.
“Mati, you’re scaring the normals,” I said.
She ran to me. “Don’t you see, Gordon? It’s Cruts-Helmsfeld! That’s the explanation!”
“No, Mati, I don’t see. As you’ll recall, the rest of us elected not to pursue our physics Ph.Ds.”
She stopped to swallow. “Back in the twentieth century, people knew Einstein’s theories didn’t strictly disallow time travel, but no one understood how to resolve the resulting paradoxes. Then, fifty years ago, Cruts and Helmsfeld proposed a method to enforce self-consistent timelines, based on work previously done in the twenty-first century. They posited that the universe would never allow someone to kill his grandmother before she gave birth, because random events would always throw up roadblocks to prevent the paradox. Those events would get stranger and stranger the harder you tried to force the matter.” She stopped to breathe. “Think about it Gordon. We launch ships all the time–how often do we get the heading wrong? And how often does the propulsion system and communication link fail right when we need them?”
I stared. The room settled into utter silence, pierced only by the low hum of the receiver.
“So,” I said slowly, “you’re saying that the initial heading error was a not-so-coincidental coincidence, and that no matter what we do, we can’t look at light before it reaches us?”
“We can, but only if we use sub-C return speeds, so the information is old when it reaches Earth. We can never retrieve information in a way that allows us to alter a predicted event.”
I folded my arms. “So the ‘universe’ is preventing us from doing this experiment. How is that different from God decreeing ‘thou shalt not doubt me’?”
Mati looked disgusted. “We don’t need superstitious claptrap right now; I have to prove this.” She froze, turning a pained look my way. “I mean–“
“Never mind, Mati. Go prove it.”
With that, she raced from the room and through the mass of reporters on the other side of the door.
Everyone stood shocked for a long moment, watching Mati’s back like they’d been zapped by a Venusian electrical storm.
“So we’re back to where we started,” I said. “Everyone’s right, and no one knows a thing.” I looked around, but the room was quiet as a graveyard. Sighing, I smoothed down my robe, then walked through the door to spread the news to the rest of the solar system.
The next two weeks were fascinating, heady, and bittersweet. Fascinating because as our limited Magellan data was processed, Mati and others became increasingly confident that it represented the DNA of a sentient alien species. Based on the ship’s position, they even pinpointed a star cluster where the alien world had to exist. And within days, Mati and other scientists throughout the solar system had shown strong evidence for the Cruts-Helmsfeld explanation.
It was personally heady, because I found myself sucked into endless interviews and commentary about what all this meant for Omnism, and philosophy in general. Whatever the Archprelate’s opinion of me, I was pretty sure this could only be good for my career.
Yet it was bittersweet. I’d gotten used to the idea of not knowing whether I’d ever have a normal relationship with my son; I could accept that God would give me no shortcuts there. But I was also unable to see Jonasa, and for some reason, that hurt. Granted, she was as busy as I was, but my few pitiful attempts to grab her attention always seemed stymied by her presence at some interview or other engagement. Finally, I gave up, and tried to look at the bright side: no matter what, I’d always have the memory. I ignored the part of my brain screaming that this was something only a loser would say.
On the day of our departure, I was walking with Mati toward our airlock when we turned a corner and saw Jonasa talking to a reporter.
I quickened my pace, but not before catching an expression that might have been disappointment. What was this? I glanced in her direction, but she’d gone back to conversing with the newsman.
I noticed Mati had stopped, and I turned to a very angry Dr. Antoretti. “Gordon, you are being an idiot. If you don’t talk to her, I’m going to punch your ear.”
Now, compared to Mati, everyone actually is an idiot. But I suspected in this case, she had a point. I was debating what to do when Jonasa’s loud voice rang through the hallway.
“I sure am glad they didn’t prove Omnos was God,” she declared. “At least now I won’t have self-righteous Omnite priests knocking on my door.”
I faced her directly. “Well, Venus is close enough to hell that I doubt I’d make much traction anyway. Still, my charter is to spread the word, so I may have to pay it a visit.”
She touched the headtrode button on her ear. “Well don’t come around my neck of the woods. I just sent you my address so you know what area to avoid.”
“Actually, I’ve found that those who reject the message usually need it most. I’ll have to visit that exact location to convince the locals that Omnos is God.”
She folded her arms. “If you do, I’ll meet you there, just so I can prove you wrong.”
I looked to my left to see the reporter staring at us, one hand upward in a high-five salute and the other one touching his headtrode, mindbeaming our little conversation out to every habitable rock in the solar system.
Great. This was going to take the punch out of our holo debates.
Jonasa smiled briefly, gave me a pinky wave, and then whipped around and strode toward the airlock. I watched those shapely legs retreat from us until they disappeared around the corner.
The reporter rushed off, and I exhaled. “See what I mean, Mati? Exhausting.”
Her eyes had taken on a dreamy glaze. “But what if you’ve found the one?”
I looked at her. A lifelong singleton, it appeared that the sixty-two year old Mati was finally taking an interest in love. “Well, then. Why don’t you describe your perfect man, Mati? I might know a few on Earth that would love to meet you.”
We continued a very slow walk toward the airlock while Mati listed her uber-homme requirements, slapping her hip the whole time. And by the time we stepped onto the ship, my next year had been fully planned out: First, a brief stint on Earth to play matchmaker for Mati.
Then, a trip to Venus to convert the natives.