fundamental force episode one

FUNDAMENTAL
FORCE

episode one

 

by

Albert
Sartison

Published by
Albert Sartison at Smashwords

Copyright 2016
Albert Sartison

1.00

 

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Contents

Prologue

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

Prologue

The bright beam
of a projector cut through the darkness of the lecture theater.
Thousands of dust particles floated lazily in the air, dancing on
the almost tangible draught in the room. They jumped upwards then
fell gently back down, the shaft of light illuminating them like a
galaxy of microscopic stars as they continued to cavort in the air,
skipping in every direction.

“Gravity is a
great mystery of nature. From a physical point of view it is just a
force, one of the modes of interaction. It is the weakest that we
know of, but it is dominant in space and is the only one that
changes space-time itself...”

The lecturer’s
voice gradually softened as it became tinged with emotion. He
walked slowly around the podium, his head occasionally illuminated
by the beam of the projector aimed at a large canvas screen. At
such moments, his eyes were lit up by the reflected light. He could
not conceal his passion for the subject and nor did he try to.

“What’s so
special about that, you may ask? Gravity is the only force capable
of slowing down, stopping, and even turning back time...”

The noise of
someone getting to their feet broke the silence in the hall like a
clap of thunder, cutting the lecturer off mid-sentence. Out of
sight of the podium, a tall lanky figure stood up in the
semi-darkness of the back row. Clearly not considering it necessary
to apologize for such a noisy departure, he turned around and
headed for the exit.

The lecturer
sighed disappointedly at such tactlessness and turned to face the
screen onto which his slides were being projected, gathering his
thoughts for a few seconds so he could continue from where he had
been so rudely interrupted. It’s just sacrilege to make so much
noise, breaking the magical atmosphere of a lecture theater holding
its breath. Especially when the subject is the most cryptic, the
most powerful property of the Universe. Some people just don’t
appreciate the fascinating mystique of Nature. They don’t even know
how much they’re missing...

Meanwhile, the
tall man was hurrying up the stairs toward the exit, a phone in one
hand and his other covering the microphone. Opening the huge door,
he stepped out into an empty corridor and the lecturer’s voice and
the silence of the dark hall were left behind, as if in another
world. He removed his hand from the microphone.

“Half a
second?” he asked, pressing the phone to his ear.

“Yes, sir! 480
milliseconds, to be exact. It’s even visible to the normal
eye!”

“And when will
I be able to see it first hand?”

“Whenever you
like, sir.”

The man glanced
at his watch, looked around for the nearest door and moved quickly
toward it. With his long thin legs and awkward gait, he looked like
he was walking on stilts.

“I’ll be there
in three minutes.”

“Oh... so
soon?”

“Is there a
problem?”

“No, sir. It’s
just...”

“I’ll see you
shortly.”

Outside, the
weather was already heating up. The morning air of the emerging
summer’s day was still heavy with dew not yet evaporated by the hot
rays of the rising sun. A cobbled path snaked through leafy trees,
their sprawling branches creating a canopy that offered dense shade
to the people walking beneath.

The path was
too narrow for the crowd of students streaming towards the man, but
he did not slow his pace. He walked purposefully with rapid steps,
but there was nothing hurried in his manner and the crowd heading
towards him parted instinctively to make way. It seemed that even a
brick wall would have been incapable of stopping such a
force...

Turning onto a
deserted path leading downhill, he found himself alone. Unlike the
crowded cobbled path he had just left, there was not a soul here.
He quickly looked behind him to check he had not been followed then
stopped, took out a cigarette and stuck it in the corner of his
mouth. He flicked the lighter he was holding, but did not raise the
flickering flame to the end of his cigarette.

After waiting a
few seconds and still not having lit up, he took a few steps back,
slowly this time, and rang a bell next to a door made of cracked
wood.

“Yes?” came a
voice from the entry phone. “Who is it?”

A camera above
the door came to life and diodes lit up around the lens. Rather
than turn his face towards it, the man lowered his head and
examined the shadow of his silhouette on the building’s stone
façade.

“It’s you,
sir... Please, come in!”

The
contemporary interior was in sharp contrast to the building’s
decaying exterior, the walls and ceilings a dazzling white.
Flickering paths of LEDs embedded in the floor showed guests the
right way to go and on either side of the corridor were small rooms
crammed with scientific equipment. People in white coats bustled
around him, paying no attention to the tall man walking by.

At the end of
the corridor, one of the doors was open and in the doorway stood a
man in a white coat thrown over a crumpled shirt that had been
hastily tucked into jeans. The collar was buttoned all the way to
the top, where a clumsily knotted tie was visible.

The tall man
entered without bothering with a greeting and the man in the white
coat moved to let him in then closed the door quickly. The glass it
was made of darkened immediately, cutting them off from the goings
on outside.

The scientist
shrugged his shoulders uncertainly and, after taking a huge breath,
he froze, clearly not knowing where to start. Unlike the scientist,
the visitor was completely at ease. He took off his jacket and
threw it carelessly over the back of the nearest rolling chair.

“You said the
results were visible to the normal eye...” he said.

The man in the
white coat came back to life.

“Oh... yes!
Here’s the microscope, sir. Take a look...”

The tall man
sat down and bent over the eyepiece. His jaw muscles could be seen
moving under the skin of his cheeks, which were covered with deep
pockmarks, either as a result of teenage acne or smallpox. With his
left hand he held onto his black tie to stop it hanging loose. The
focused light from the microscope’s lenses, compressed into two
circular beams, fell directly onto his pupils. He froze, examining
the image.

“Is this it?”
he asked after a few seconds.

“That is just
where the anomaly occurs. Now pay attention to the laser light
spot...”

The man’s
pupils moved upwards slightly and froze.

“I’m going to
shift the angle and move the beam, but you, sir, will see it before
I do it...” The man in the white coat touched a lever carefully and
moved it upwards. “See?”

The tall man
pulled away from the lens slightly and threw the scientist a quick
glance.

“Again,” he
said. Even an ordinary request sounded like an order from his
lips.

“Of course,
sir.”

The man in the
white coat touched the level again, this time pushing it
downwards.

The tall man
smiled.

“Let me
try...”

The scientist
took a step back, clasping his hands behind his back
self-consciously. The feigned enthusiasm in his voice was unable to
hide the relief with which he moved away from his guest, who held
out a long skinny hand and took hold of the lever with bony
fingers. He moved it carefully upwards. Then downwards. And then
upwards again. Letting go of the lever, he continued looking into
the eyepiece. He then took hold of the lever again.

“Your light
spot is hard to deceive,” he said, moving it in all directions.

The man in the
white coat smiled, adjusting his glasses.

“No, sir. It is
impossible to deceive...”

“Are you
sure?”

The man pulled
away from the microscope lens and turned to the scientist. There
was a look of interest on his face. The scientist fiddled with his
collar. It was clearly too tight and was digging into his neck, the
shirt itself being slightly too small. But people of science can be
forgiven such things...

“The threads
you passed on to us are forming a local anomaly, folding space-time
into a microscopic tunnel. It is through this tunnel that we pass
the laser beam. You saw its tiny spot... But the beam leaves the
tunnel before it enters it at the other end...” The scientist
paused to take a deep breath. “The image in the microscope precedes
what is happening in our Universe by 480 milliseconds...”

1

How do you know
which moment in life is the most important? It’s hard to say, there
are so many... At the time they happen they do so without fanfare,
quietly, unremarkably... They just happen, that’s it! Nothing
special.

The true value
of such a moment can only be realized after some time has elapsed,
after they have been absorbed in the mind, after they have ripened,
after they have sunk to the bottom of your memory and been covered
with a deposit of recollections. And then, in retrospect, maybe 20
years later, you can say with absolute confidence that that moment
was really the most important moment of your life.

The president’s
limousine, surrounded by an escort of honor with various colored
lights winking, drove swiftly away from the crowd and the
light-flooded platform. Outside, engines were roaring and sirens
were howling, but inside silence reigned, apart from some soft
light jazz and the barely noticeable rustle of the cool breeze from
the air conditioner.

Now he could
relax. The president removed his jacket, threw it onto the opposite
seat, took off his shoes, loosened his tie and stretched out to his
full length. His part of the work on this, the greatest project of
his life, had finished. He had done all he could, now it was just a
technical matter, boring routine. And that part of it he could
delegate to others, people below him in rank. He opened the bar and
took out a glass. After putting in three ice cubes, he splashed in
a generous amount of bourbon, not worried about overdoing it. When
such an important project went into the fulfilment stage, it was a
good excuse for a drink, even if he was on his own. The president
only had a few friends with whom he could discuss important
matters, and none of them were around at the moment. And he needed
to rest. Thinking the drink must be cool enough by now, he took a
large gulp.

So, back to the
important moment. The most important in his life. Had it only
happened just ten minutes ago? Or had it been the greatest mistake
of his career? Time would tell. It was funny how bad he was at
recognizing such moments when they occurred. But there was no doubt
that this was one of them. The completion of such an important
project would be a turning point in the life of any politician,
whether a president or someone lower down the scale. You could say
that life had existed before it, but everything after it was
another world, another man, another universe. Well, in the
political sense at least.

It had all
begun five years ago, when aliens had suddenly arrived from space
and, in doing so, had turned the normal course of life in the Solar
System upside down. Unfortunately, the first attempt at
interstellar diplomacy had not been altogether successful and soon
afterwards, the uninvited guests disappeared. But it got really
interesting when they returned a few months later, bringing with
them the idea of a very exciting joint project. And what a project!
The terraforming of the Solar System’s inner planets and the
creation of a gigantic Dyson sphere around the Sun, capable of
giving people more energy than they had ever imagined possible.

Even according
to modest estimates, the economic benefits and scale exceeded all
previous projects since the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza.
People had received a huge amount of top-class living space. Not
like on Mars, where, with Earth’s technology, life was possible
only inside hermetically sealed premises and special cunning
medical tricks were required to alleviate the problem of its low
force of gravity, but the same living space quality as on Earth!
And, in addition to this, half of all the energy radiated by the
Sun! Just think, the power of a whole star!

When mankind
mastered thermonuclear energy a century earlier, there was so much
of it that it easily covered the energy requirements back then, but
it seemed there was no way of expanding further – until the aliens
flew in and offered their help to take the next step: in this case,
controlling the energy of an entire star.

And this had
happened just when he was sitting in the president’s chair. Not a
bad gift from fate, eh?

Altogether, the
proposal was so tempting that it could not be refused. In spite of
the warnings, risks and a million other counter-arguments, the
project was accepted. And now it had begun...

It was not
reliably known how far these aliens from another planet had
advanced with regard to morals, but, to give them their due, they
were thousands of years ahead of Earthlings in organizing global
projects. The project had been approved by the parliament of the
Union of World States and the aliens had begun the construction
work that very night. We could sure envy that!

The preceding
debates had been a real nightmare. There turned out to be so many
moaners and pessimists in the world! During the debates, enough
counter-arguments had been put forward to suffice for the next
thousand presidential terms. And God knows how many other worries
had been expressed.

Among all this
was one simple question, to which there had been no obvious answer
back then. What were they getting out of it all? At first glance
the reason was unclear. Why do we build bridges, roads, orbital
stations? Because they are infrastructure. Without it, there would
be no modern life, no development, no economy. That was clear
enough. But in the case of the aliens, it was a serious objection.
Indeed, why should such a developed civilization create joint
projects with those who were, from the aliens’ point of view,
savages? What interest was being pursued by a mega-civilization
that had colonized the entire Milky Way in setting up a project in
the galactic outback with primitive tribes whose achievements in
science and technology were barely sufficient to assimilate even
their neighboring planet, Mars? And ‘assimilate’ was a huge
overstatement. We had simply flown in and built a few towns and
industrial clusters. That had not prevented us from multiplying
considerably there, but was that anything worth talking about?
Black beetles also multiply well, even in the most adverse
conditions... Anyway, we ‘Earthlings’, as we call ourselves, were
not even clever enough to terraform Mars.

It had been a
hundred and fifty years before we had laid the first brick on the
planet, a planet that was not really suitable for our form of life
with an atmosphere that was not fit for us to breathe and which had
been left as it was. And even if there was a possibility of us
developing the technology to change the atmosphere somewhere in the
distant future, we hadn’t the faintest idea how to change gravity.
And this created serious problems for the full colonization of
Mars.

Yet it was with
such ignorant creatures that the most advanced civilization in the
galaxy had wanted to engage in a joint project. Huh! Such offers
should usually ring warning bells in the ears of any right-thinking
person. No, the advantages for us were easily understood, but what
could be the interest for the aliens? There was something underhand
about it and everyone knew it – the intelligence agencies, the
military, the scientists... There were even many politicians who
felt the same. But the bait offered was too big and juicy to be
refused simply because “I have an uneasy feeling about this.”

Furthermore,
the aliens were polite, but their proposal was one that could not
be refused in any case. Either we agreed to the project and, by
giving our consent, would obtain dividends from it, or the aliens
would go ahead with it anyway against our will and then instead of
dividends, humankind would only get a rude gesture, along with a
potential conflict against the overwhelming force of the enemy.
When put like that, there was really no choice at all. Well, if
events could not be changed, one could only change one’s attitude
towards them...

The aliens’
plan was revealed sooner than anyone had expected. As soon as the
sphere constructed around the Sun began to generate energy, it was
not hard to work out where the aliens were sending their share of
it. And knowing where, one could guess why. That was when the
aliens’ true motive became clear.

Having achieved
everything they could in their own galaxy, they decided it was too
crowded for them. The next logical step took them beyond the bounds
of the Milky Way to its nearest neighbor, a galaxy called
Andromeda. But that was when the aliens’ plan to colonize the
entire Universe beyond the limits of their own galaxy suddenly went
awry.

It gradually
became clear that the aliens had started work on their plans for a
jump from the Milky Way a very long time ago. By comparing
astronomical observation data and the study of recently discovered
templates of gravity waves emanating from the interstellar travel
portals, scientists managed to date the construction of the first
unit to some 200,000 years ago.

At that time,
humankind had only just begun to emerge from the rest of the animal
world, discovering and making use of primitive tools, but the
aliens’ civilization had already sailed the limitless expanses of
space, setting up transport portals throughout the galaxy. This
made it all the more surprising that such an advanced civilization
should commit such a grave and foolish error.

There was
nothing foolish about the idea of colonizing space beyond the
galaxy per se, only in the way they set about it. After all, before
setting off for another galaxy that could surpass our own in every
way, they should have taken safety precautions. When it became
clear that intelligent life was not just a random mistake but
occurs all over the place, they should have started from the
assumption that Andromeda was already populated. And not only
populated, but, considering its characteristics, that the
alpha-civilization there would be a much older and more powerful
race that would hardly rejoice at the appearance of uninvited
guests and competitors.

This perfectly
obvious conclusion was apparent to our terrestrial scientists as
soon as the aliens’ main plan was revealed. Was it possible that an
alien civilization that had colonized the Milky Way so successfully
was too stupid to work this out themselves? However self-satisfied
and blinded by their own success they might be, it was criminally
negligent to ignore such risks!

The answer to
this question remained a complete mystery, however. For whatever
reason, the aliens decided on a jump to Andromeda without bothering
to ask the permission of those who lived there. The reaction was
not long in coming. One of the reasons why the aliens had managed
to colonize the Milky Way so successfully was its powerful
transport infrastructure, which covered the whole galaxy like a
gigantic spider’s web. It appeared that the aliens had realized
long ago that they would not succeed without rapid communication
between stars. How could two star systems be combined to form a
single integrated economic entity if they were hundreds of light
years apart? Therefore, 200,000 years ago, they had built portals
enabling interstellar distances to be covered in a reasonable
time.

And even then
they were thinking one step ahead. More than one step, in fact;
dozens, maybe hundreds of steps! When they laid the foundation of
their first transportation portal, they already knew where, and
more importantly when, they were going. That’s what you call
efficient planning – two hundred thousand years ahead! We on Earth
have yet to learn how to plan even as little as fifty years into
the future.

Yet it turned
out that the most developed, the most cunning, the quickest and
most capable civilization in the whole Milky Way had been guilty of
such stupidity!

The very day
the aliens began construction, events developed exactly according
to the scenario predicted by the astrophysicist Professor Shelby,
the chairman of the academic council that had been monitoring the
aliens’ actions. When the sphere constructed around our Sun began
operating, the aliens had brought their portals into action,
including the one not far from the Solar System.

Combined into
one vast whole, they concentrated sufficient energy to project a
ship not only to an adjacent star system, but to another galaxy.
The array of portals had been charged with tremendous energy,
opened – and disappeared.

After spending
some time crouched intently over its astronomical apparatus, the
academic council had come to the conclusion that the reason for the
disappearance was not a technical failure, but simply a black
operation. Apparently, the Andromedan civilization had been
prepared for the appearance of uninvited guests and it seemed that
hospitality was not something they particularly valued. The
reaction had been rapid, decisive, and had had the maximum
effect.

The jump to
Andromeda had been intended to be a huge epoch-making step by the
aliens on the way to colonizing space beyond the limits of their
own galaxy. Instead of that, however, it had been their doom.

It was not
known on Earth whether the aliens’ ship had reached its
destination, or if it had been destroyed halfway there. All that
was known for sure was that certain minor, almost completely
insignificant, changes had been made to the set of fundamental
constants of our Universe. As a result, the aliens’ entire
transport infrastructure had collapsed within an hour. The portals
had died and their wonder ships, capable of such enormous speeds
and untouchable by the most powerful of Earth’s weapons, had simply
evaporated. This was because all of their technology had been based
on the same principles of hyperspace manipulation...

Their best ace
had been trumped. Their ability to travel between stars had
perished in an instant. Their entire 200,000-year-long project had
been turned into a mist to be evaporated by the heat from the
bright summer sun.

So, the mighty
aliens had just fallen from their pedestal. The sacrosanct place at
the apex of the pyramid of power in the galaxy had suddenly become
vacant. The former ruler was lying alongside, writhing in agony,
and the question was – what should a competitor do in such
circumstances?

The idea of
taking the initiative into their own hands did not cause rejoicing
in political circles. Warnings were heard once again. History is
changed not by gallant gestures, however, but by hard and decisive
actions. Capricious Lady Luck rarely offers such opportunities, but
when she does, she doesn’t give you long to think about it.

What hellish
efforts it had cost him to convince the others that his idea was a
sound one! How much moaning and small-minded criticism he had had
to listen to! Time after time, an endless number of times, the very
same fears and cowardly speculation as to why the project was
doomed to failure. He had remained polite and patient, but even
that hadn’t helped with some of them, so he had had to unpack his
goody bag full of various promises of favors and when those hadn’t
worked either, threats were all that were left. Yes, the lord of
the political Olympus had claws too, something many people
forgot...

And now, this
evening, the fruit of this hellish work had finally ripened and the
official ceremony marking the start of the project had ended about
half an hour ago. The unthinkable project. This evening, Earth’s
civilization had been brave enough to grasp its historic
opportunity. At the same time, it had entered a new era, the era of
deep space colonization, the space beyond the bounds of the Solar
System, on the way to ruling its entire home galaxy...

“Mr. President,
Mr. LeRoy is on the line. Will you take it?” called the
secretary.

On one of the
screens appeared the face of the president’s public communications
assistant. The man was a slick opportunist, always smiling even
when bearing bad tidings, to the intense irritation of all those
around him. Had it not been for his inspired capacity for pulling
the wool over the voters’ eyes, it would hardly have been possible
to work with him. But it was better to have such a man in his own
team rather than the enemy’s. Particularly when great matters are
being accomplished.

“Hello?”

“Good evening,
Mr. President.”

“Good evening.
How was I?”

“Not bad on the
whole, but when you cut the ribbon, you were standing with your
back to the photographers. I’m looking at the photos now, not one
of them captures the most important moment successfully.”

The president
took a gulp from his glass and screwed up his face, perhaps from
the taste of the alcohol, perhaps from what he had just heard.

“What
else?”

“Well, in
general, the ratings are going up. A positive reaction prevails.
This is what I would propose. You’ve been criticized all this time
for not wanting to discuss the project openly with those seriously
against it. Now the wheels are turning, why don’t you make up for
lost time by meeting with them and talking?”

“Who
exactly?”

“I’ve just been
told that Gates and McAllister went off to the bar together after
your speech, probably to cry into their beers.”

“Gates and
McAllister? Together?”

“It’s
incredible, isn’t it?”

“Are they
really suffering that much?”

“Judging from
appearances, yes. Considering their spectacular failure, they
intend to drink a great deal, so tomorrow they won’t exactly be on
top form. They will make a striking contrast to the healthy face of
the president and they will have thick heads, too. I think that
would be the perfect time to discuss what they find so painful.
I’ll get in touch with them first thing in the morning and propose
a joint discussion on primetime TV.”

“They won’t
agree so quickly, it’s too soon.”

“Oh, but they
will! They need publicity on any pretext right now. And it’s such a
hot topic, the first time with you on such a show... They’ll take
the bait and you’ll knock them out of the election campaign once
and for all. So what about it? Unless you yourself do not intend to
celebrate the event as it deserves...”

The plan
sounded tempting. Knowing that LeRoy had a nose for such things, he
could be sure that it would work out just as he had said. He would
be killing two birds with one stone, taking out his two most
dangerous political rivals. And if the project went as planned, the
chances of those two competing successfully in the forthcoming
elections would be zero. The president sighed heavily and set his
unfinished glass aside.

“Not in my
wildest dreams...”

2

“Close the
door, please,” said Shelby.

There were only
two circumstances when Professor Shelby, the dean of his
astrophysics faculty, kept his door closed when he was inside: when
he was on the phone to his wife and when something extremely
important was going on.

Steve
obediently closed the door behind him.

“I told you
about our meeting with the president in Canada, didn’t I? Directly
after the aliens screwed up in Andromeda?” asked Shelby, settling
in his chair and motioning to Steve to sit in the chair
opposite.

“I believe so,
yes...”

“I thought at
the time that he was joking.”

“Who?”

“The
president.”

“I thought he
never joked, even if he was being witty.”

“You got that
right... The day the aliens tried to go on an excursion to
Andromeda, MacQueen and I immediately flew to the president. To
inform him at first hand, so to speak, and to receive further
instructions.”

“Interesting...”

“As soon as he
learned what had happened, his eyes lit up. Really twinkled. ‘If
they’ve left a vacancy,’ he said, ‘it would be foolish not to fill
it.’”

“Just the
reaction you might expect from a professional politician...”

“It now seems
to me too that it was to be expected, very much so. A reflex, you
might say. But at the time, I was rather surprised. Yes... And what
do you think of the idea?”

“Of what idea?
A confrontation with the aliens?”

“No, no-one’s
talking about a war. Let’s just say of establishing diplomatic
relations with our galactic neighbors. Thanks to the aliens, we now
know where to look for them.”

“You mean the
Gliese system?”

Shelby
nodded.

“I don’t know,”
replied Steve. “I’m not a diplomat. After all, we have already
established some sort of relations with the aliens...”

“So we have,
but now they have left us without even saying goodbye.”

“Yes, but there
is a reason for that.”

“But that
doesn’t bind us to anything. What, are we not allowed to fly
anywhere now?”

“Why shouldn’t
we fly anywhere? I’ve nothing against making contact with our
neighbors, but in the case of Gliese, they are not just our
neighbors, but part of their civilization. Who knows how jealous
the parent state might be, if there is one? I reckon it would be a
dangerous move. I wouldn’t provoke them. Who knows how they’d take
it?”

“I completely
agree with you. But that isn’t what those up there” – Shelby
pointed upwards – “want to hear from you.”

“So what would
they like me to say?”

“They would
like to know how to check that.”

“How should I
know?”

“Well, you are
running a project involving the monitoring of communications in the
gravity band, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I
am.”

“So that makes
you the master in electronic intelligence concerning the aliens.
All other methods of communication are limited to the speed of
light, consequently we can only extract up-to-date information from
gravity communications. After all, it takes hundreds of thousands
of years for a signal to reach the other edge of the galaxy, so
that makes you the possessor of vary rare information. That’s why
your opinion is important.”

“I do have an
opinion, but they reject it as unsuitable. As a scientist...”

“Steve, here in
the university you are a scientist living in the world of science,
but if they involve you in this project, you will be in another
universe. The universe of politics. They have their own laws of
nature, unlike normal people.”

“Do you mean
no-one is going to ask me if I want to become involved?”

“That brings me
to another question: do you want to leave the military to face the
aliens one-to-one?”

Instead of
replying, Steve pressed his lips together in a sign of
disapproval.

“All right,
let’s get back to our observations. On their basis, what can you
say about the state of their civilization?”

“After that
Andromeda fiasco, their activity fell sharply and has remained at
the same low level ever since. The portals, in the form in which we
saw them near the Solar System, no longer exist. On the whole, I
think the theory about their collapse is correct. There can’t be
any other explanation.”

“Concerning the
spheres around the stars from which they obtain their energy. Like
the one they wanted to build around us...”

“The problem of
the speed of light arises here. The spheres are only visible in the
electromagnetic band and these waves need time to reach us. So in
that respect, there are no changes yet. Of course I am referring to
a distance of no more than five light years – after all, this
happened five years ago, didn’t it? And we don’t know if the
spheres still exist at such a distance.”

“By the way,
how many spheres have we detected so far? Eight, did you say?”

“About
ten.”

“And now remind
me where exactly...”

Shelby gestured
to the computer. The window glass darkened, plunging the room into
semi-shadow. A huge hologram of the Milky Way appeared in the
center of the office. Billions of shining stars floated slowly past
the bookcases, rotating around the bright center of the galaxy, and
the room was instantly transformed, the vivid, amazingly lifelike
hologram filling it with an incredible beauty.

Steve stood up
and, without taking long to think about it, pressed on several
points with his finger.

“Here, here,
here, here... And here too. Interesting that there is an
accumulation of spheres appearing in this region. It looks as if
the mother planet of their civilization must be somewhere in this
sector... They clearly began their expansion from this point in the
galaxy.”

Shelby suddenly
started up from his chair to get a better view of the place in the
hologram to which Steve’s finger was pointing.

“Interesting...
We always assumed that life was born in other sectors of the Milky
Way...”

“Yes, in
quieter ones. But this does not mean that they colonized the galaxy
from their cradle. Something similar took place here on Earth. Life
was born in Africa, but the greatest expansions of civilization
took place elsewhere: Mongolia, Europe, China... Anywhere you like,
in fact, but not Africa.”

Steve fell
silent, mulling over a thought that had unexpectedly come into his
head.

“By the way,
are there already volunteers for this mission?”

“What do you
mean?”

“Well, to
become heroic voyagers... That’s a one-way ticket. It’s 20 light
years to the Gliese system, after all...”

“But would you
not like to be one of them?”

“Me? Not for
the world! I have things to do here on Earth. I couldn’t even get
used to Mars, let alone another star system. Or even worse to open
space, inside a tin can...”

“And if it were
not a one-way journey?”

“That’s another
matter... although it still depends on how long the flight would
take. I could maybe stand a year or two, but no longer. Anyway,
that’s all fantasy, the portals are not possible any more, thanks
to the magicians from Andromeda.”

Steve returned
silently to his seat without taking his eyes off Shelby.

“Professor, I
feel there is something you are not telling me...”

Shelby gave a
sign to make the windows transparent. The hologram faded at once
and the room became a normal office again. Voices from outside,
which had been heard only in muffled form, suddenly became sharper,
filling the room with animated sound.

“Maybe, maybe.
The future will show.”

Steve stood up
and picked up his jacket.

“Then we’ll
wait.”

“By the way,
have you heard what this new project is called?” asked Shelby,
holding out his hand in farewell.

“It looks as if
I’m always the last to know. No, I haven’t heard.”

“Supremacy.”

“Supremacy...
As the name of a project to establish diplomatic relations...”
Steve shook his head in disapproval. “That’s not a good sign, not
good at all...”

3

There was an
incredible crush in the corridors. By tradition, this was Open
Doors Day in the university, allowing the professors and their
assistants to praise their faculties to school pupils.

Forcing his way
through the crowd of future students, Steve looked for Auditorium
A3, which was where Clive usually performed this function. He was a
creature of habit and always selected the same auditorium for his
lectures, which made it much less difficult to find him.

The door to the
packed auditorium was open and Clive’s voice, amplified by
microphones, could be heard from within. There were so many wanting
to listen to what he had to say that there were not enough seats
for them. The school pupils were sitting and standing in passages
and on steps, some even within the doorways. Among the young faces,
sporting fluff instead of moustaches and beards and some still with
child-like rounded cheeks, were some a little older. They differed
from the younger ones in that they were carefully taking notes of
what was being said.

To the sound of
muffled whispers, Steve forced his way through the crowd. Gently
pushing through the mass of people, he proceeded deeper into the
hall.

“Let me pass
please, excuse me, sorry,” he kept on repeating, stepping over the
many legs, arms and satchels of those sitting on the floor. The
school pupils shyly moved out of the way to let him through. There
was only a difference of a few years between them and the students,
but what a difference in behavior... If he’d tried to force his way
so unceremoniously into a hall full of students, he would have been
eaten alive!

Clive suddenly
stopped speaking when he noticed the annoying motion being caused
by Steve as he pressed forward through the tangled undergrowth of
people’s bodies. Steve waved to Clive in greeting. The irritated
expression on Clive’s face was instantly replaced by one of
pleasant surprise. He nodded in reply, then turned back to his
presentation display on an enormous screen.

“Here on Earth,
the speed of light may seem incredibly fast, even instantaneous,
but in space, everything is quite different. Even the distances
within our own star system, however negligible they may be on the
scale of the Universe, are so great that photons of light need
minutes and even hours to traverse them...”

Steve moved on
without stopping, getting closer to the stage, half-listening to
Clive’s speech as he went. Today, his voice sounded strange in the
auditorium somehow, unusual. For him, an assistant professor in a
complex technical discipline, this was quite remarkable. Yes, the
appearance of the aliens had meant that their specialty was the one
most in demand in the entire university, but the difficult
technical subject matter unceremoniously separated the true space
romantics from those simply following the current fashion, who
could barely last one semester. The lecture halls, packed to
bursting at the beginning of the year, rapidly thinned out after
the first exams.

“The finite
speed of light gives us astrophysicists more trouble than anything
else,” continued Clive. “It is something which restricts our
frontier of knowledge in the Universe. When we turn our telescope
lenses to the limitless expanses of space, we catch the light of
remote stars and galaxies. That is how we learn about the Universe.
Unfortunately, the only light available for observation is that
which has had time to reach our Solar System.

“As you know,
our Universe was formed fourteen billion years ago. Over this
period only the light from those galaxies at a distance of not more
than fourteen billion light years has had time to reach us. It is
this distance which is the horizon of our knowledge in the
limitless sea of stars.”

Steve
eventually stopped, deciding he was now sufficiently close to the
podium. With his back resting against the nearest wall, he began
paying more attention to what Clive was saying as he waited for the
event to end. They usually ended at eight, so he could wait fifteen
minutes, even in this uncomfortable position.

Clive stopped
talking and pointed to somewhere in the hall where a hand had gone
up requesting permission to speak.

“But the aliens
could travel faster than the speed of light, couldn’t they?”

Clive, who
could not abide questions about the aliens, threw a quick glance at
Steve. Clive was just like a colleague of theirs who had been born
in Transylvania and hated questions about vampires. But the
situation obliged him to explain patiently.

“During our
observations, they moved at sub-light speed. They never once
exceeded the speed of light.”

“Even so, they
were able to move from one star to another through their portals.
Is that not exceeding the speed of light?”

“In order to
understand the concept of the finite speed of light, we must go
into the details. Our everyday experience tells us that speed
cannot be finite and physicists long accepted this falsely obvious
concept, taking it as axiomatic. To their dismay, the better our
instruments became, the more precise our experiments were and the
more obvious it was that there was something wrong with their idea
of speed. It took many centuries for scientists to finally resolve
this riddle.