In Answer to a Very Good Question, by Faith Jones
A runaway moon span high in the cosmos. A human mind, pensive as a cat in branches, noticed a moving difference in the morning’s blackness and rose to meet it, that fractured, nameless and ancient ball, in its dark and directionless passage. A thought volunteered itself to the mind, that the chunk looked a little like a full stop that had lost its page. Oh, too random. Where’s your pattern recognition, Vitruvius? Your tracking? A simple exercise in triangulation. Scolding himself, the quaint gentleman in our focus, at least he liked to think of himself as a gentleman despite the absence of interaction out here, hung his head and reached for a nutrient capsule to correct aberrations which might be explained by a mild vitamin deficiency. The neural cortex does not live on bread alone, old explorer of books and their private universes. Look out, look in, it is the same, all poetry. He stumbled.
Thinking must be straight, must be narrow, if we are to survive the dangers of the void. At least, that was what the manual instructed, a dearth of creativity if there ever was one, but some poor fools had been forgotten out here for too long, hadn’t they? Happy, he had felt, to be left alone in the place where no one ambitious wanted to be, until just recently anyway. Sanity and ambition did not always journey together (and there he goes again, into the lair of foibles).
“Still, one must not lose one’s visible dedication to the cause”, he said aloud, “or they might have an excuse to take it away.” The job that is, not the cause, which they were welcome to. No. It simply wouldn’t do to question the forthright authority of the Federal Space Force (FSF) or their fondness for mind-set manuals. The blessing was that their strategic master plan had put him precisely where he needed to be, which was at the back of nowhere. Colloquially known as ‘The Crease’, his was a sector of space where none other lived, even now, put off by the occasional shingling of gravity. Still, he had grown accustomed to odd things, given time.
Why did it always have to be ‘Force’, he wondered? Why not benevolent guidance, friendly welcome or inspiring by example? They always spoke of defence but surely there was nothing in outer space to fight until we had brought all that nonsense with us? Undeniably, there was The Peserian Menace, human malcontents* which the Federal Space Force made such a terrific and expensive effort to defend our good people against. The FSF effort was so great and so noble that the Force had to travel out many, many thousands of light years to find the elusive Peserians and defend us all against them, after which the Peserians usually tried to move even farther away from us and the military budget had to be escalated again.
He discerned that this sort of outrageous internal commentary wouldn’t do at all and reached for another corrective capsule. Ah, a green one, a dye almost reminiscent of 21st century vegetables.
In truth, Vitruvius had agonised over submitting his initial discovery report, fourteen months ago by the old lunar calendar. If and when the FSF came straight out he would no longer be alone in this habitat, he knew that, but would he also no longer be allowed to direct his own research? He would be answerable to these people. In the debate about whether to transmit the report or sit on his findings a while longer, ultimately duty had won and, in a moment he could no longer take back, he had pinged it off and placed himself at their disposal — subject to the enormous distances involved.
*With a penchant for harmonicas. Applying for a grant to contact them and find out why is the fastest way for any social scientist to find themselves detained on Pluto.
A hairspray of light speckled the hull and then torched it. In the super-heated glow was revealed to any observer who cared the broad flank of a solitary, free-floating scientific station. No one did. ‘All expense has been spared’, Vitruvius would have liked to remind people, but there was no one to listen. ‘The Universe is impartial, perhaps the only conscious thing that truly is.’ Now where had that stray thought sprung from?
Travelling quickly, cast by an impediment of the vessel’s architecture, a sharp diagonal of shadow forked across a viewport and slithered away in submission to what was now a hardening glare. The sole occupant of the room turned in annoyance to see the protective disc of the moon at the rear of the hull sliding aside as newfound heat intruded. Every morning the same. Don’t touch the surfaces! Back of the hand only. An air conditioning panel awoke to whirr its defiance against the bake.
“No, no, no. The plants.” He was forgetting the routine.
Vitruvius moved, as best he could given the spent knee ligament that he hadn’t reported, and hopped down through two identical inter-chamber hatches. Passing into cubicle that could easily be mistaken for a shower, he engaged a control that increased air pressure in the upper side of a tube, reduced it to create a vacuum in the lower and straight down he shot in the general direction of the germination room.
Momentum arrested by a cushion of pressure, an ouch or two and the sound of a shuffle were all that stood between him and activating the manifold deflector, which he did just before the first leaf curled. The clarity of light had changed as seen through the manifold material, as if outside space had been bubble-wrapped for his pleasure.
“Excellent. Excellent. Geometry, topology.” He seemed to address three small trays of green life as he fussed over them. “Trust in Euclid, dear plants, for a surface which scatters heat and light — and unpowered too. Who’s to say I’ve got a static deflector? Ah-ha. Let them find it. Let them try to identify it if they did. Of course, you wouldn’t know about Euclid, my small ones. You need water, patient traveller. Measure you, measure you, yes. Seventeen point four across.”
The reclamator supplied the essentials, not too much, not too little, but a tiny tray marked cotton buds stood empty. “One day you’ll need a bee, my friends, but we’ll come to that problem when we reach it.” This last was said to a curious specimen that curled from silver dew-drops on leafy tubers into root and back again, making it a challenge to say whether it sat the right way at all on its precious mound of seed compost. Did it come from a place with no down or up and where light had no fixed direction? Not enough data existed to say.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I can’t spare you any more water than that but you’re happy though, aren’t you? That’s the ticket. Like me, you’re all alone. Apart from these other fellows who are coming, not yet, not yet. Please try to get along and fruit, so I don’t have to live on mustard and cresses.” Vitruvius watered them all before he unbent his good leg and left for the ladder.
Vitruvius was wrong about something. Like a good scientist, Vitruvius would tell you he usually was wrong because he happened to agree with Meno’s Paradox. He came from a species that had been wrong about nearly everything it thought it knew but as the generations passed and they had worked out a standard methodology, humans picked away at details to understand fragments of a vast and daunting puzzle that was so vast that no mortal could picture it in their head. The web of knowledge was blatantly so much greater than the mind. Even though it was difficult to add knowledge, there was something to be said about spending your life working on it even if the only progress was to rule a few possibilities out. There was no urgency to research if other generations could finish it but the phenomenon he was supposed to be studying now, as he watered those plants, could be transient and gone at any moment. This was a ticking clock that Vitruvius wasn’t used to. Although clearly capable of sustaining the imperfections he carried for time beyond patience, more specifically today he was wrong about being alone.
“Commander Brak, we’re coming up on the research station now. May I draw your attention to the fore viewing screen?”
“I’m not stupid enough to look aft, idiot.”
If you were to look at ‘Maddie’ Brak for more than a minute, which no one ever did without lowering their eyes, you might profile her as 40-ish, of average build and inelegance, probably asexual, and someone who protected her authority with a terse habit of putting other people down. In contrast to the persona she displayed, Brak was a nail-biter and had taken to hiding her brittle stumps in the gloves of an upmarket assassin.
Captain Vance, assigned to her transportation for this mission, was a capable man and wished this high-up recently thawed out of cryo-sleep wouldn’t demean him in front of his crew members again. He would have to re-double discipline and reward when she was gone, to stop anyone inspired to insubordination. It didn’t have to be like this. It really didn’t. After only a few days, Vance and the crew had independently realised they yearned to get their guest off. Approaching the station helped.
“That thing? It looks like a fucking durian. Are you sure it’s safe?” Brak was on form.
“It does look a little… under-invested”, replied Vance, “but I can confirm there are no leaking gasses, that’s according to spectroscopy. You see, this has never been a profitable zone of space and defensive instability isn’t seen in this segment, which it is empty. Minimal cost, minimum staff and low expectations, then we have allowed it to run down, slowly. It’s not as if there are many moving parts to the station. A scientific presence, no more.”
Brak shuffled in unease, or perhaps low-level anger. “Then why put it here? Brief me.”
“This is an ‘eddy graveyard’, which in layman’s terms is an effect found at the gravitational boundary of gyres in the western spiral arm. It presents as self-sustaining gravity wells within the eddies which propel themselves, interact and so on. The fluidic motion becomes visible with the addition of iron filings and then, as a matter of serendipity…” — the Captain tapped the screen — “here”.
“Do you see, Commander? Gravity completely dislocated from mass.”
“What I am looking at… is a regular starscape.”
“Ma’am, the stars move relative to our movement, the point of view as it were. Except right here, in this small circle where the stars we see remain static. This is the mouth of a wormhole. It goes to a distant place. Very distant.”
“How do you know this?”
“That pattern of stars is not in our galaxy.” Finally, he had won Brak’s interest. “The Centre has confirmed the fact that this is a wormhole. Einstein was right. This discovery is the reason why your sleep tube was forwarded straight out to us without waking you up.”
“Can we exploit it? Get a destroyer through?”
“Alas, it is an exceptionally small wormhole. The observer in residence reported it to be, initially, pencil thin.” This earned a blank expression from Brak. Vance felt more was expected of him, so added “A pencil is an ancient writing implement encasing a carbon filament, that sort of rubs off on surfaces. I understand the scientist here actually uses them. The advantage is that pencils still work in any gravitational orientation or flux… or extreme of temperature.” Brak stared ahead. Vance’s nervousness increased at this and he filled the uncomfortable silence with more and more words:
“Ma’am, the aperture is growing, again very slowly. Seventeen point four and holding today, but its location is fixed, in direct violation of wormhole theory, which would expected it to be flailing about untethered, or to close again in a fraction of a second. To be accurate, a ‘small’ wormhole isn’t a comparative statement because this is in fact the only one ever discovered but, you see…” the Captain made the mistake of blinking — an inefficient activity mostly frowned upon in federal service.
“Idiot. If we can’t bust through, it isn’t a mouth; it’s a rectum. Find some competent crew members and get this thing docked.”
Vance took his leave as gratefully as any officer this side of Orion, intending to castle himself in his quarters and try some breathing exercises. He could just as easily give orders electronically from there, orders that went unseen and should not be verbally over-ruled.
Vance knew the rumours. They’d all heard the rumours, that execs were donated to the FSF as small children, selected out of pre-school and brought up as groups of 8 in silos. Groomed for senior positions in the organisation, unbound to identity and social context, they were modified and received intensive education in FSF specialisations. Whether this was true or speculation, he didn’t know, but it had become clear over the course of his own service that none of these executives and commanders had any family or friends. If that were true, the mental health impact might be significant, but that wasn’t his worry. It did not explain why all executives in the FSF were women. Another rumour, even less founded, had it that very rarely did all 8 emerge alive from a twelve year education silo.
As he passed maintenance staff in the spinal corridor of his ship, Vance overheard their conversation and it troubled him. There was enough nervous tension about as it was.
“You did. You said she was erotic!”
“Piss off, Derek. I said she was psychotic. Watch for that crackly little muscle flicker she has around her right eye when she tells you to get out.”
“Yeah. Tell me about it.”
“Do you know what? First chance I get, I’m going to nick her gloves.”
“Is this a playing with yourself thing?”
“Sod off and die, Derek, why don’t you?”
“Only kidding. I don’t know why we defrosted her. Could have just missed our catch. Ooops — out into yonder.”
“Me neither, Dez. Takes me back though, having one of them here. When I was small, they took two boys out of my class to be modified as executives. Never saw them again. They only took boys for the programme.”
“Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die.”
“That’s very deep, Derek. Did you make that up?”
“Yeah. Who’s to say I didn’t?”
Vitruvius had expected them, although that might be the wrong word. Feared them could be more appropriate. It was not that he believed they would harm him, as they had no reason to try, but he had been out of touch for so long that it seemed likely his unguarded comments had diverged so far from FSF culture as to bring himself to their attention. A re-education candidate. He didn’t want that, not at his time of life. It was important to say the right things. He just needed to remind himself what they were.
Vitruvius summoned up the annual Space Foundation (just SF) manuals on the Vis screen. That’s what they used to call it back in the day. Nostalgia guided his eyes toward one particular cover. It had been the current copy when he signed up for off-world research some forty or more lunar years ago. Even after all this time, he recognised the opening passages of the introduction that he had read and re-read on the shuttle: “The Space Foundation: Enabling humanity to thrive in space” and “we help to get you up there”. They had been as good as their word and got him here. He’d gone up in a glow of anticipation.
Aware he hadn’t seen any of those phrases in a long while, Vitruvius called up subsequent volumes of the manual. Now, where was “Enabling humanity to thrive in space”? He couldn’t find that line from the Foundation’s charter, not exactly but…
25 years ago, it had seemingly been revised to: “SF, fostering human survival in space”. Similar but only an acronym for the Space Foundation. “The Space Force is on hand to serve us” was reassuring.
15 years ago it read: “FSF continuing humanity’s push in space”. Around the time the federal F had been added, as a meaningless honorific to acknowledge the new colonies.
10 years ago: “Federal Force must succeed against space”. That caused him a moment’s pause. Against? Clarification needed. He recalled that Foundation had been dropped in the rebranding and the call to arms tone seemed to reflect the recent addition of some naval services, to deter criminality and so on. Public broadcasts had kept on and on about the figures. Ah, yes he was correct. There were some pictures of them, all dressed like cormorants.
4 years ago: “Federal Space Force must fight against all, at the cost of any individual” — and there were those newer birefringent uniforms where you couldn’t tell the difference between civilians and troops. They’d tried to push him into one but it wouldn’t fit. “… your duty to serve the Federal Space Force” was new.
How confusing. What did it all mean, this Veni, Vidi, Vici stuff in the latest issue? Vitruvius didn’t know where it would all end, this institutionalisation of sacrifice and aggression.
Clunk. Double clunk. A hull portal’s locking frame strained and opened. After years sans company, serious faces were suddenly spilling around him, looking past him and treating his living space as theirs. Bifringency was in the air.
Vitruvius was selectively de-briefed, in the sense that they put questions at him and he could barely get a word of his own in edgeways. He felt uncomfortable when recorded observations of the wormhole were called for and promptly seized. They could at least have asked him politely. The dilation was not fast enough, they’d said. Did he know a way to widen it? A shake of the head. Had there been any communication? What did he think its purpose was? He didn’t know but location control and sustained input of energy implied intelligence, didn’t it? Oh, he didn’t know? What did he think his own purpose was? Waving aside the tangible atmosphere of unpleasantness, Vitruvius complimented this person (who hadn’t bothered to tell him their name) on their first philosophical question. They told him it was not. Then their stare became absolute. Rodin could have carved The Starer with this raw material alone.
Just then, seeing that Commander Brak was walking past and his interrogator appeared to have stopped for the moment, Vitruvius couldn’t hold it in any longer and involuntarily reached out for her forearm. “You will care for the wormhole, won’t you?”
You soon learn there are some failings and embarrassments that are cannot be mentioned in the service of the Federal Space Force, such as Art, Fiction, Poetry, Religion and now this latest horror — Compassion. He fully intended to insinuate a few of them anyway in the seconds that he had remaining, as if in hope the wing of an imagined bird might flutter beneath her ribs, but her jacket may as well have been lined with lead. Pity. The man from the staring competition a few seconds before had found a new hobby, bending Vitruvius’s errant arms behind his back and tugging them together with the sharpness of a cable tie.
Vitruvius, Vitruvius, circled and contained, negated. Brak knew this archetype of old and viewed the beast before her with furrowed suspicion. She knew in her soul that having an exceptional project was not enough. You had to stop the little hobbit from coming along to spoil it.
Look at him now, with his rough hair and undone buttons. Probably born on Earth, unmodified, a nose-wiper. Going on age, that move would have been before the mandatory changes to end inefficient decadences such as the keeping of pets, lavishing resource and effort on gardens and thousands of people wasting a day each of their lives going to huge public buildings for the purpose of looking at old objects that had been buried and inexplicably dug up again. How stupid people had been. As the manual said, the earthborn were short-sighted like moles, not precognizant like executives, who did not need imagination. Brak had never seen a mole and didn’t want to, unless the need became mission critical. She missed but one stride and kept walking, then slowed and turned around again as if she wasn’t done.
“You, lab coat”, Brak snapped in Vitruvius’s direction.
“Me? Or do you want a lab coat?”
“Yes, I’m talking to you. What would you do if something unknown came through that wormhole right now?”
“Go forward to meet it.”
“Why?”, she enquired coolly, surprised.
“Because I can’t run away.”
“Old School, huh? First to die or first to drink.” Maybe, Brak surmised, there was hope for him yet.
Vitruvius couldn’t make sense of that exchange at all. Why had she been satisfied to hear he was handicapped by a troublesome leg? Why was she now speaking to someone about Non-Oxygen Dependent (NODy) weapons authorisation? Not for himself, surely. Oh, how tiresome. Did they realise how cumbersome space suits were without extra nonsense to carry? Couldn’t she see his hands were tied?
“Vitruvian”, Brak called across the spheroid room.
“Vitruvius”, he corrected. She almost bit back in response but paused too long and held it.
“This wormhole you found; is the aperture wide enough to go through?”
“Nothing manned would fit through at present, I would say. If you would permit, I could transmit a supplies order and then build something in the next few weeks to venture around and take readings, but the budget I have now is not sufficient to cover it. Even so, it would have to be an autonomous device. Either a small sphere or shaped…” — at which she cut him off.
“… like a torpedo?” Brak looked amused.
“We don’t have anything of that shape”, Vitruvius responded.
“Yes we do. Exactly that shape. How about if I wanted to send soldiers through, like in deep-space hazard suits, with no ship?”
Vitruvius thought about this new absurdity and decided to run with it: “They would have to be extremely thin soldiers and you might not get them all back.”
Brak quizzed one of her support officers on the logistics of identifying suitably proportioned service-people. “We need them here fast — and put them on a diet — a fast diet.” The muttered response she received back was unheard, but Brak’s face as she turned veiled like gauze across thunder.
“You just tried to make a fool of me? You are un-assigned, as of now. Get off this station. The Force will handle your duties, if we find you weren’t on vacation here all along. It will be the Force that will find a way to wedge this thing open wide enough to send an military presence through. In a ship, you hear? A really wide one.”
Brak hollered across the room and over all other conversations “Captain Vance, if there is any life on the other side, it could be very dangerous.”
…and vice versa, Vitruvius couldn’t help thinking. It wasn’t a matter of self-protection but basic scientific methodology that the only things he had written in his lab notes were his data and scientifically measurable conclusions, not his speculations, instinctive feelings and hypothetical suppositions. By seizing Vitruvius’s notes, they were not getting the whole story. For that they required his mind.
As the stages of his removal were completed and no reprieve was forthcoming, Vitruvius sat in the FSF vessel, feeling like a silent echo of the emptiness of space that had for so long surrounded him. Distance opened between himself and his former home. The colours of space seemed still, mournful today, when before they had seemed always to be moving. He bade farewell to his view across the nebula, his favourite chair for watching it from, his journals which the Force had impounded and would soon attempt to understand, then lastly to his collection of seed-grown plants.
Yes, he would certainly miss the plants he had tended. On Earth, most would be common fare but this far out they were something special. A few years ago there were small flowers which had budded, blossomed and formed their own seeds, which he’d collected and grown again for three consecutive seasons. There were salad leaves and essentials that supplemented his diet. Although, most of all, he would miss the tiny nut that he had collected one year previously. He had been inspecting the miniature mouth of the newly discovered wormhole, his discovery, when it was just there, somehow, floating free in front of him. It was so cold, to even look at. Vitruvius took this prize back to the station and, with no one to ask and knowing not what to do, he resolved to plant it, tend to the object every day and see if it changed — and grew it surely did. Coiling, emerging, brightening as if responding to the attention, and gradually it coloured and blushed like a desert sunset.
For a while his time was shared between study of the gravitational phenomenon and care for the fascinating seedling. Vitruvius had measured it every day and plotted its progress in the same way that he measured change over time in the wormhole.
Without any evidence on which to base a connection, any definitive claim of causality, the diameter of the wormhole grew in tandem with the expansion and health of the exotic plant which he tended. There was no logical connection by which they could be equivalent or paired, but in the privacy of isolation he had wondered impossible things.
It was too late anyway. Tomorrow he would not be able to continue compiling his log and the sequence would assuredly be broken. Unless… It would be up to the federal representative though, that ill-mannered individual, to consider it worthwhile to send someone down the series of hatches, to shut the blinds and water the plants. He rather suspected that nothing of the sort would happen.
Back on the research station and quite unknown to Vitruvius, FSF personnel were even now entering his germination room. In their uncertainty at whether this section mattered or not, Brak’s presence was requested and she was soon heading down. Through inter-chamber hatch one, hatch two and then she faced a choice: Should she take the manual long ladder like her squad of common soldiers or arrive in style with Vitruvius’s locally built cable-less rapid descent cubicle? Brak was soon hitting the pressure bar and clenching her fist as the door curved closed and then she plummeted.
The advance party of FSF boot-boys lined up either side of the shaft to receive their commander. In their raised, tinted-visored helmets they were formal, strict, disciplined and impervious to shock. Something was moving in the gloom above as the pressure pulled from the device, something coming down at an unexpected velocity, to the accompaniment of a tinny, reedy scream.
“Visors over your faces immediately.”
Back on the swiftly retreating support ship, Vitruvius suffered from doubt. He could unfasten himself from his seat (straps were pointless anyway as acceleration was not apparent in a vacuum, but the manual said strapping) then be told to sit down, ignore that and enter the Bridge. He could ask them to communicate his concern that the plants needed to be protected from glare and moistened each morning. He could then be told to get lost. Anyway, one should never interfere in an active scientific experiment.
Now where had that thought come from? What experiment? Vitruvius wondered whether this free-thinking had been truly random as it sounded to him like some pattern recognition may have taken place in his subconscious mind. After all the experiments he had designed over the years, no one would sense better when an experiment by another was running, but if it hadn’t been set up by him…?
They were really moving quite fast now and the opening blitz of Faster Than Light (FTL) travel was yet to come. His unemployed mind welcomed the time to puzzle down this line of enquiry, but perhaps he already knew the answer and had been too timid to infer a conscious conclusion. A plausible explanation of events behind events felt so close and he found himself reasoning this way:
What then, what if, an intelligence far away cautiously reached out and had found lifeforms elsewhere in the Universe. It seems reasonable that they would want to know if the living beings encountered were civilised, kindly, caring, respectful and worthy to be allowed to enter another’s domain. Obviously they would wish to avoid the fatal mistake of broadcasting their existence to a exploitative or hostile race, so there would have to be safeguards added. The decision to open the gate should also be strictly fair and unbiassed, part of the parameters of the experiment. In fact, he tacked onto his guesswork, for the advanced intelligence to find contact to be completely ethical, they would delegate full ability to open the gate to us. Now that was a thought.
What if, Vitruvius continued to speculate, the width of the gate expanded in direct proportion to freely given love, perhaps of a test sample or lifeform for which we would have no incentive to care?
“Vitruvius, you are a nut.”
Vitruvius knew he was reaching the end as a career scientist and guessed his tenure at the FSF was strained. The hypothetical alien mind, once extrapolated, bore much in common with his own but conversely he had to concede that this could be because there was no alien mind at all and the influences had been from his own. Doubts returned.
Perhaps his position wasn’t so ridiculous after all. When he retired to Earth and bought himself a potting shed, that would end their leverage. On the whole, not a bad thing and he would no longer have to live a lie of being part of whatever it was these senior people were up to. There was a smell of wrongness to the great design. If the long-term plan was good, surely they would be open about it.
His thoughts drifted to the outcome of the experiment. If, tomorrow, the plants in his trays back on the station burnt up and died, there would be evidence for the connection to the wormhole if the sensory feed reported a change. If it did not change, his idea would be false and disproven. Brak’s eyes might turn to the wormhole in time to see it lost, wink out — or she might see nothing. The outcome could still be affected if the Federal Space Force showed themselves capable of selfless care.
Tomorrow, with the fate of a single plant, Vitruvius would have his answer; but whoever existed at the other side would have their answer too. Whichever way tomorrow went, Vitruvius was forced to agree, the outcome would be correct and just. He sailed on and said nothing. It wasn’t up to him.
Meanwhile, on the Bridge and just as everything was going so well, Captain Vance was caught off guard by a new message, one that called upon his strength of discipline (the FSF disapproved of groaning).
“Okay. Turn us around. We’re going back to the station and let’s get there before lunar morning.”
“The nightmare has forgotten her gloves.”
Vitruvius did enjoy a good ethical quandary.