The private office of the Director of Advanced Concepts Methodic might be likened to a monk’s cell in a mountainside cloister. It is a compact, windowless space relieved from stone in the fashion of his Society with a ceiling proportional to the Director’s height. What it contains that a monk’s personal space does not is a massive armoire crafted from a single monolith of exotic hardwood native to no place on Earth, and a chair that does not touch the floor. These are the only furnishings.
Between him and a passageway beyond, a heavy door fashioned from the same unfamiliar wood stands at the center of one long wall. Opposite it, a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling collage of images is in constant motion.
Remert’s feet find the floor and his joints grate as he rises. This discomfort is insufficient to alter his bearing, of course, as he straightens to his full height, a decimal over two meters.
The armoire crowds one side of the door. He palms open a panel and removes a tray. An aide assigned to support the Director’s daily routine, an individual he’s never seen nor heard, left it there for him. Remert nods in grudging approval of that one’s proper execution of fundamental duties. A handful of gel capsule supplements washes down with a catalyzing liter of liquid nutrient infused with a generous percentage of the good water.
He closes the panel and turns to scrutinize his shifting global mosaic, hands resting on the sharp projections of his hip bones. Hairless, pale skin stretched over a grim, hatchet face, Remert’s wide, lipless mouth is set in a line. Leaden gray eyes sweep the montage, a multiplex viewport of everything from two-dee footage to vee-centric feeds. The whole is continuously culled from domestic and international sources and curated for his consumption by Sonder itself.
Scenes of sporting events are discarded out of hand by Sonder’s presets unless flagged by the Director. Rare instances of pageantry, performance art, episodic or formulaic productions, either dramatic or comedic in nature, and celebrity fluff-pieces that leak through the filters, all receive similar dismissal. One such is a cursory motion from removal when recognition prompts Remert to bring focus and enhancement to the item instead.
Two women and a man arranged in a casual studio setting present just the sort of tribute to meaningless drivel the Director finds an unacceptable waste of time. One of the women, however, is a respected helioseismologist with a near-unpronounceable Nordic name. Remert’s spider-leg fingers gesture in the air and the program’s volume achieves a satisfactory level.
“… continue to collate data,” the scientist is saying. She is tall and dowdy with shapeless blond hair and penetrating sky-blue eyes. Unpretentious and plain-spoken, her manner marks her as the most intelligent person on the set.
“The upward extent and duration of these perturbations,” she says, “are hypothetical at this juncture. Unguessable. I know that’s not the answer you were seeking, Gretta, but nothing of this magnitude has ever been encountered before. We are learning, quite literally, moment by moment. It requires the concerted efforts of scientific professionals across multiple disciplines to not only decode the information we are receiving, but also to give us guidance on how to prepare for and, Gods willing, weather the potential worst-case scenario.”
The female host, her avatar looking as young and vital as she did a decade ago, nods with a sage expression. “It is a stirring tribute to how far we’ve come as a species, I think, that we are able to acquire this great depth and breadth of useable information, as we have done, to be analyzed by those who will guide us through these difficulties.”
“Shut your mouth, you stupid cow,” Remert says, “and allow the one with a modicum of actual knowledge speak.” Here is one of the prime reasons he eschews these types of programming beyond the obvious fact of their reliably insipid content: they make him disagreeable. That outburst will cost him penance later.
Gretta Carsten, the grand dame of talking heads, drawing on her years of broadcast and early three-vee experience as a newspersonality, adopts a look of deep concern—no doubt solicitude for all humankind—and says, “Would you give our audience your impression of what that worst case might look like, Doctor?”
Doctor Astrid Koninklijke appears reluctant. She fidgets, matching her words. “I am uncomfortable adding my own conjecture to the already inflammatory media furor I see taking hold among those more… excitable members of the population. This is not a time for wild presumption and unfocused alarm.”
“I understand your reticence, Doctor, but our viewership is comprised statistically of well-educated and reasonable individuals. Won’t you share with us please, at least an educated guess?”
The scientist sighs reserved acquiescence. “Worst case? If the new planet were to be expelled farther outward from what we believe to be its cradle orbit around the sun, and depending upon a host of variables too random to even consider at this point, given its significant size, orbital shifts of the inner planets is seen as possible outcomes. Such adjustments could alter every facet of the Earth’s already compromised biosphere and revise the conditions that support life as we know it.”
The male host, spray-tanned and moderately handsome, but otherwise an unremarkable generic foil, reveals an impressive battery of perfect white teeth. Ignoring the implications of his guest’s apocalyptic speculation, he grins a question at her any member of his well-educated viewership would have deemed, by now, redundant.
“The name that has achieved acceptance among so many of the scientific community, seems an unusual choice, Doctor. If I am not mistaken, the name “Vulcan” is an homage to an iconic two-dee science fiction entertainment franchise that continues to enjoy a broad cult following even today. Why has the scientific community chosen to adopt such an obvious popular-culture reference?”
“I’m afraid you are mistaken, Matthew,” the scientist says. “In the year eighteen sixty, a French mathematician named Le Verrier advanced the premise of a planet in orbit between Mercury and the Sun. He encouraged a number of astronomers to help him verify the existence of that body he named Vulcan, in accordance with accepted convention of designating astronomical bodies after figures in Roman mythology. Some of those he enlisted reported findings, other did not, and eventually, the search stagnated. The name and concept of Vulcan, however, has remained and is perhaps the foundation of the popular cultural reference you mentioned.”
Matthew’s flustered, “Oh, …” is preempted by the scientist.
“While it is generally believed that previous sightings and suppositions were based upon mistaken assumptions and the limitations of the technology of the times, today we know that within the last seven years, a body nearly three times the size of our Earth is being expressed outward from the sun. The actual mechanism of its genesis remains the focus of intense scrutiny, as you might imagine. We are watching it happen; we just don’t know how it’s happening. Or why. But, as we assemble data, we can make some informed assumptions.”
“You know what they say about assumptions.”
“Shut up, Matt,” says Gretta.
Koninklijke continues. “Vulcan is separated from the solar sphere by a mere eight thousand kilometers, and connected to its parent by a plasma stream sufficiently large Mercury would fit inside it.”
Indifferent now, Remert swipes the program into obscurity. A scene of sweeping urban devastation catches his attention, but his focus shifts to another frame. This one presents a scene from within the facility and two particular individuals who rarely interact.
Doctor Ahn Soo Rin, as stiff and intractable an individual as Remert has ever encountered—qualities that have endeared her to him—appears to be having words with the current operational lead of the single most important program in process within the whole of his downward-tall complex.
Doctor Denise McIntosh’s posture and facial expression suggest an abnormal level of emotional investment in the exchange and Remert’s interest in such a conversation is keen.
“… you abandoned the prosthetics we designed for ST-One,” McIntosh is saying with unmistakable heat, “patterned upon our unambiguous specifications, in favor of your own radical redesign at the last minute and have demanded additional modifications far beyond the mandated scope of the project. Your interference has compromised our timetable and jeopardized the ultimate viability of ST-One himself. I will not allow any further hindrance. If you have …”
“Doctor,” says Ahn in a voice as flat and hard as her face, “you enjoy the freedom to pursue your work in this facility, quite outside the restrictions of the conventional moratorium against such activity. You do so only insofar as it pleases us, I might add. ST-One is not YOUR project, Doctor. You and your staff are the tools we have selected to implement the ST project objective.”
“Without me and my staff, there would be no ST-One and you know it. I’ve cleared each phase through Ten Eyck and …”
Ahn waves a dismissive hand. “I’ve heard from Doctor Ten Eyck about your very creative contributions to ST-One’s self-image. Try to understand this. ST-One is also a tool, nothing more. The shape of its delicate self-image is meaningless. Do not make the dangerous, unprofessional mistake of attempting to attribute to it a soul.”
“Or to you, apparently. ST-One is a person, as intelligent, intuitive, and as human as you and… well as human as I am, anyway.”
“ST-One is a product. Because of your misguided attempt to imbue it with some imprudent belief that it is human—which it is not—I believe it to be too expensive and mentally fragile to be of great utility in the end. I hold you responsible for the project’s degradation and imminent failure.”
“It’s fortunate for us all, then, that yours is not the last word.”
“Wrong, Doctor. I have been given administrative responsibility for the continuance and success of this project. You have a new timetable and additional objectives to meet within that framework. You will report to me daily until I am satisfied the ST program is back on track.”
“I don’t believe this. Even with all the resources the foundation has at its disposal, no one else could have brought this project halfway to where it is today. Despite your continued attempts to retard the program and your relentless obstruction, ST-One is on schedule and performing to the specifications set by the Director himself. If you want to keep it that way, conduct your administrative tasks away from my labs, my staff, and ST-One in particular. Do you understand? If you impede this project further, I will take this to the Director and we’ll see how he feels about your deliberate efforts to sabotage my work on the one program that we both know has his singular attention.”
Doctor Ahn is without emotion. “As I have mentioned and will not do so again, you have new specifications. ST-One is only one of several options being explored to meet our needs. If another project bears fruit before yours, I will be delighted to dismiss you, your staff, and your anatomically correct, but useless tool. Try to find another facility in the world where you can work and create with such toys as these, Doctor. Either way ST-One’s life, such as it is, will be mine to direct.”
Remert observes McIntosh with a sour expression. It fails to convey his curiosity and mild amusement at her fierce, most un-Methodic attachment to the project and her defiance in the face of Doctor Ahn’s uncompromising rigidity.
McIntosh remains motionless in the corridor and appears to be projecting a volatile current of molten hatred at the retreating backside of the thick Korean woman. He hears her say something about a “sanctimonious rice-faced bastard-flavored sack of assholes” before discarding the tile.
Fresh images of the destruction noted earlier receive prominence. Splayed fingers of both hands create an expansion and a series of imbedded vorps fan out from the primary, presenting a matrix of still and moving images. Central to them is an orbital view of the northern tip of South America and Remert uses it to zoom in.
The aspect shifts to the bottleneck linking Lago de Maracaibo to the Gulf of Venezuela. A meteorite crater half a kilometer across has obliterated an area of the upper left quadrant of the scene and carnage radiates outward from it in concentric waves.
One of the views holding Remert’s interest presents scant imaging, but a wealth of plots and projections of the meteor’s path, from the point of its discovery to its starting point, accompanied by a progression of scientific notation. Remert follows this cascade of data until a specious assumption makes the results moot and his attention shifts to a nearby vee-cast he was tracking in his peripheral vision.
An artful holographic banner splashes behind the avatar of the most ubiquitous and prolific field reporter in the virtual continuum. He is just taking his mark as his veedio team pans in from the devastation all around him.
“Hello, everyone. This is Stanford Seib reporting from Maracaibo, Venezuela. I am standing at ground zero where a rogue meteorite believed to be another resultant of the astronomical phenomenon dubbed, ‘The Stir’, has struck northwest of this vibrant, thriving city.”
Seib’s tari appears to be standing, without the benefit of protective garb, at the blasted rim of the crater. His aerial cam sweeps across the city beyond.
“Where wide, tree-lined boulevards had once woven through plazas and modern high-rise intermingled with colorful traditional architecture, a bludgeoning shockwave of force and heat has leveled everything within a two-kilometer radius of the impact site and rained destruction for several kilometers beyond. Emergency services are only now able to move into the outlying areas.”
Four-vee imaging arrays digitize and parse the devastation for those gathering to gawk at it in the virtual realm and Seib provides narration. As he speaks, two enormous aircraft are on approach from the north and Remert’s eyes betray an unguarded emotion.
They appear identical, these massive ships gliding in tandem, silent. Although each sports paired, swept-back, flying wing configurations, neither looks remotely aerodynamic. They slow to a halt and hang motionless, one over the city, the other on station above the crater.
Seib’s tari looks into his second mark and says, “Presidente Medina has accepted an offer of humanitarian aid from Eric Gerzier and his CleanSweep® teams to assist with rescue, rubble removal, and recovery of the space rock itself. We have just witnessed two of Gerzier’s physics-defying motherships taking position as we speak.”
The floating behemoth over Seib’s head appears to be perhaps two hundred and fifty meters from one conjoined set of wingtips to the other with a deep-bellied fuselage slung between them. Even so, it seems to hover motionless, as if lighter than air. There is no characteristic hazy blueish disturbance beneath it from pressors. No turbulence buffets the reporter. Even if his avatar were to be excluded from the physics of the environment, which is unlikely, the surroundings are not. Remert’s scowl of vexation at the power maintaining these gargantua aloft is a bitter one, guaranteed to reoccur every time one of these craft makes an appearance.
A cascade of smaller craft spill from the aft bays of the suspended platforms like hornets chivied from their nest. Some are tiny, darting vehicles, others are small only in relation to the gigantic shapes from which they have emerged. A few of these pause among the devastation to release squads of technicians onto the rubble, then rise to hover over the operations of their teams. Others settle into the debris and begin dislodging the bones of collapsed structures with an eerie combination of care and efficacy.
Remert is about to move on from this distant calamity, the plight of yet another huddled mass of these insufferable round-worlders with their fragmented belief systems and disjointed thinking, too aggressive and habitualy confused to ever be converted without overwhelming direct motivation. A comment from the correspondent, Seib, gives Remert pause.
“… before we speak with Presidente Medina,” he says. “My producer tells me Eric Gerzier is on-site with his team and has consented to a brief interview.”
“Sonder!” Remert refrains from shouting. “Eric Gerzier has just manifested in a Community network node. Source him now.”
“Eric Gerzier is not present in the LocUS register.”
Gerzier’s tari steps into frame with Seib and they exchange a backhand bump.
“Eric,” Seib says, “previous efforts to utilize your craft for rescue purposes have left civilian emergency operations unable to function and, obviously, given the circumstances, those services are right now critical to the thousands who may be still alive and require life-saving measures to survive.”
“Unacceptable!” Remert says. He stabs a spear-like index finger. “I am looking at his avatar! The timestamp is this Gog-damned second. Run self and system diagnostics against this inconsistency.”
“Thank you for leading with that, Stanford. I’ve been able to suppress the energy damping field that’s caused such inconvenience in the past. Local emergency services are fully operational alongside my workers and their vehicles.”
Beyond the pair, Seib’s vorpcrafter weaves aerial and ground-level activity in intimate detail and Sonder’s response is without emotion. “All processes and routines relevant to the administration of Community’s access, use, and client management are operating at design parameters. There is no indication of compromise at any security level. Eric Gerzier’s ident and validation subset is both verified and unverified at the Maracaibo location.”
“… will strive to save every life possible,” Eric says. “My people are already arranging to resupply power to the city and outlying affected areas, restoring essential services. I have two teams from each of the platforms on-task providing shelter, food, and immediate critical care sites at the periphery of the current no-man’s-land.”
“What does that mean?” Remert’s pique has gained a Methodic edge. “You reported a moment ago his ident did not appear in the register.”
“It did not, D’kin. It did validate at the node, however, and, at the timestamp that validation was made, the register recorded the same.”
“How do you explain this discrepancy?”
“I cannot, D’kin.”
Seib’s tari has a let’s-get-down-to-business expression on his face and Gerzier is saying something about a tour of one of his motherships and Remert resists an impulse to whisk the frame from the virtual tableau and crumple it, if only subjectively, in a bony fist. A gesture stores the vignette for later review instead.
“I will disassemble your core with my own hands if you do not provide me with a satisfactory interpretation of this aberration and a workable solution to this annoying individual’s ability to use our proprietary version of subjective reality as if it was his private playground.”
Two things occur so closely together they seem to be part of a singular event and Sonder’s reply is lost in their passage.
A physical wave, paralytic, but painless, flows from his feet to the top of his head. It lasts but an instant and leaves him light-headed, ears ringing, his next breath a luxury.
H’seven’s face appears full screen on the world-wall, eclipsing the entire viewport, and somehow Remert has lost his balance. He recovers with a graceless two-step, hop, and shuffle.
“What the hell are you doing? Dancing?” The Deputy Director seems to be laughing. Laughing at him.
The lens has called him. Unmistakable. So many years have passed since the last one, as these chaotic Grays record time here, so many changes have taken place, he did not think to anticipate another Call. Ever.
Improbable as it seemed moments ago, everything has changed and he must answer. With haste. His uncontrollable second, however, is an unwelcome interruption at this moment.
Remert’s face communicates nothing. It is the expression all learn in early teaching, a tight-lipped, emotionless detachment and penetrating eye contact. H’seven returns the stare with a scornful twist of the lips and spreads his hands, revealing a captured vorp. In it, a mismatched trio of figures assumes sharp focus.
Remert’s life of rigid self-discipline meets open-mouthed, pop-eyed astonishment in a collision that rattles his cadaverous frame. He reaches a tentative hand to manipulate each of the images in turn.
The face of the White warrior, clad in an incongruous, indigenous culture vestment, is obscured by his nondescript mask, but the woman’s features are not. Even after all this time, her features are unmistakable. Both of them wear the trappings of the hated Fayneem Bloch. The half-blood drifter, too, is recognizable. They had traded words face to face, and that one’s lack of proper deference is memorable. He appears as Remert remembers him and, beyond all expectation, seems to have aged not at all after nearly a yonn. How that might be possible for a t’sunguc of this world, challenges Remert’s curiosity. It will be an intriguing line of inquiry when the hybrid is finally pinned down and unable to wriggle free.
“Where are they?”
“I want them here.”
“As do I. But what I don’t want is further involvement by Homeland Security.”
“I concur. I believe you have all the resources you need.”
“I’ll make do.”
H’seven’s face dissolves into the multiplex window on the world. Remert’s immediate preparation for his audience represents a level of exigency to which he has become unaccustomed. Of all the revelations received this day, not the least is the realization that he can feel fear again.
~ ~ ►