David Siegel Bernstein
June 14, 1629 AD
Johannes Kepler trailed the housemaid through the Austrian manor to the grand salon. As the servant backed away, the dim light in the room glinted off a small object dangling in the hollow of her throat. It was a silver crucifix, chased with twisted bands of gold and silver at Christ's hands and feet. Kepler found it hard to imagine there was a place for religion in this house.
Marius Ogden, his patron, gestured for Kepler to take a seat near him. The man was unremarkable in appearance, a cipher, except for his eyes. They were saucer-shaped and the color of an emerald of the highest order.
Kepler sank into a leather chair. "Galileo has sent me correspondence that he fears condemnation for heresy. He fears La Compagnia della Fed." The Company of Faith.
A crooked smile appeared on Marius' face. "He need not worry about carrying out his experiments. I have resources within the Vatican that I can rely on to watch over him. I shall also correspond with an associate that is very useful in matters of protection."
Kepler avoided his host's eyes. He was aware of Marius' associate, possibly the only man more intimidating that his patron. They were two of the three leaders of the Chronos Society, a fraternity of natural philosophers that Kepler advised. "Should I fear the Compagnia?"
"I should think not. From all I've learned of them, their membership is still mostly in Italy. And if predictions from your last report are true, we are but a generation from a time when men of reason no longer need dread the Church."
"I regret that I will not be here to see that day."
"To each their own time," Marius said wistfully, staring at the dying embers in the fireplace. "I assume this is not the sole reason for your visit."
Kepler pulled an envelope from the breast pocket of his jacket. "Here, as I promised."
Marius accepted the offering. "It has your personal seal. Very risky if this is what I think it is. If the Church got their hands on this—"
Kepler held up an arthritic hand. "I will trust your discretion in its handling. You are already guarding all my other unpublished writings. I have only one new matter for you."
"Only one? How unlike you."
"I'm an old man, so don't worry. This will be my last one. I have convinced myself that the Society needs to devote a portion of its resources to a new idea—one different from the mechanical and celestial mysteries we've been working on."
Marius tapped the envelope. "Is that the point of this? I was expecting something else."
"Partially. But don't worry; it also contains the test I promised."
Marius gaze did not waver. "And this idea?"
"I've been in discussion with that Frenchman you introduced me to, Étienne Pascal, concerning Descartes' speculations on the human mind. Together we devised a plan that will guide the Society into the future. And Herr Ogden, it is the future that concerns you most."
Marius leaned forward. "What do you know of my concerns?"
"I'm very good at observation. It is the reason you came to me in the first place. I think I know who you are."
"Take care, my friend," Ogden warned. "Starting rumors can be dangerous."
Kepler did not flinch at the threat. "And here I thought you promised my safety. There is no need for you to worry about my speculations. In fact, Pascal and I both support your cause. He has already begun training his son Blaise with the fundamentals so he can assist the next generation of the Society."
"Support or not, I am concerned that you've set plans in motion without my consent."
Kepler interlaced his fingers and leaned back in his chair. He enjoyed seeing Marius uncomfortable. "Once you understand, you will see that I'm right. Philosophy and tradition both change more slowly than technical progression. Continuing the way you are is similar to giving a child a knife and then sending him out to play. This additional path will blunt the sword and perhaps produce a more sophisticated child."
"You have seen more deeply than any of my other advisors, so I will consider the matter—but I will make the final decision. Now, what about the test?"
Yes, the test. It was the only other way for Kepler to slow Marius' machinations until the world was ready, a riddle that should take at least a generation before anyone would be motivated enough to solve it. "The man who can answer the enclosed question will be my replacement as the Society's advisor."
Kepler pushed himself up and limped out, leaving the man to his thoughts. He was through here—forever.
November 26, 1687 AD
Robert Hooke sat tapping his fingers at his table at the café Marylebone in London. He stiffened when Christopher Wren and Edmund Halley joined him.
"Wren!" Hooke growled. "I told you to come alone!"
Wren shrugged. "I thought Halley would be useful."
Hooke stared at the two. Fools, both of them. "A rumor has reached my ear. I depend on you gentlemen to ease my mind. Please tell me Newton is not going to be invited to join the Society."
Wren smirked. "Then I shall say nothing."
"He is a genius," Halley said. "He solved Kepler's puzzle."
"Bah! The man is insufferable!" Hooke snorted. "He has dared take credit for my work." Hooke leaned toward Wren and said more quietly, "This is lunacy. Your choices spring from a woman's fluttering eyelashes and damned emerald gaze. You endanger the Chronos Society."
Wren pressed his hands on the table. "The Lady Tess is the Society. Speak with respect—"
"Tess may be a patron, but she is only a woman," Hooke said, enjoying Wren's indignation. "We cannot know her motive. And now Newton?"
"You, Sir, forced our hand in his regard. You have claimed to know the answer to Kepler's mystery, but have denied us the courtesy of your knowledge. Therefore, our Lady dispatched Edmund to examine Newton. It is your motive that is in question."
Hooke crossed his arms over his chest. "I would not play her game."
Wren and Halley glanced at each other and smiled. "Nonetheless," Wren said. "Edmund has agreed to finance the publication of Newton's Principia Mathematica. Lady Tess has called him the future."
Hooke rose from his seat. "I have heard enough nonsense!" He stormed out of the café. He didn't get far before a cane poked out from an alley, barring his way. "Who's there?"
A man emerged from the shadows. "Surely you have some time to speak with an old friend?"
"Of course, Herr Ogden." He gestured with his head toward the café. "Shall I get my companions?"
Marius' lips curled into a smile. "No, I have a special task for you. I'm sure I can trust your understanding for secrecy."
Hooke straightened his back. "Of course."
"I want you work with someone who shares your opinion of Newton."
"I believe you are familiar with Gottfried Leibniz."
"Well, yes. He is—"
"He has an interesting belief in a calculus of reasoning and he thinks it can be applied to a deciding machine." He handed Hooke a leather portfolio. "Enclosed is a copy of the Kepler papers. You will find them enlightening. I've also left a gift for you at your apartment—a calculating apparatus created by Blaise Pascal. Please show Leibniz the device. Good day." He doffed his hat as he faded into the darkness of the alley.
Hooke tucked the portfolio under his arm and continued on his way. He crossed the road and spied a tall burly man in a black cloak. The sunlight glimmered off a small object clasping the cloak together. It was a silver crucifix, chased with twisted bands of gold and silver at Christ's hands and feet.
Hooke lost interest in the stranger when he saw the striking woman step from her carriage. He knew that if she looked in his direction, he would see emerald eyes. It was the Lady Tess.
He watched Wren exit the café alone and offer the lady his arm. Shaking his head, he turned to walk in the opposite direction.
Had he stayed a moment longer, he would have seen the man in the black cloak turn to follow the couple.
April 17, 1926 AD
It was a crisp, cloudless afternoon in Zurich Switzerland when Alric Bryant finally cornered his adversary in an alley. The fight had already lasted longer than it should have. The man was matching Alric blow for blow, a precision that he'd never encountered before in solo combat. His bulk and intimidation usually won the day. But not against this man—he was too well trained.
The stranger flung open his jacket, revealing a knife. Alric focused on the man's breathing. Then, as expected, on the exhale, the man charged. Alric advanced before the knife had completed the top of its arc and thrust the palm of his hand into the stranger's throat.
The knife clanged on cobbled bricks as the man collapsed, blood bubbling from his mouth.
Alric knelt and unbuttoned the top of the man's shirt. A cruel smile appeared on his face as he yanked the crucifix with twisted bands of gold and silver from the dead man's neck. He pocketed the trinket and stood, then lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and pulled a silver fob from his vest pocket to check the time. He was late. He took a final drag and flicked the butt on his victim.
He strolled out of the alley and down the boulevard to the hotel Baur au Lac, known for its discretion. At a small table near the rear of the hotel lounge sat his two companions: Marius Ogden and Tess Archer.
The three of them formed the leadership of the Chronos Society.
Tess was a socialite, universally liked and admired. She kept the members of the Society together and on track. Marius was the opposite; he preferred manipulating people from a distance to promote the Society's agenda. The only Society members with whom he dealt directly were the advisors who kept his precious Kepler papers updated. Alric himself, a tactician, worked outside the Society, protecting it.
Marius and Tess eyed him warily as he took the empty seat at the table. He tossed the crucifix on the table and closed his eyes. The other two closed theirs also. A moment later they opened them and Marius and Tess nodded their understanding. They had shared their thoughts, something they did less and less over the years. Alric, like the other two, had learned to enjoy his independence. They quickly returned to conversation.
"I'm not sure that that was necessary," Tess said. "The Inquisition is over... well, more or less."
Marius shook his head. "Alric's actions were correct, albeit violent. The particulars of what we do must not get back to the Compagnia. They aren't ready to understand."
"It's getting more difficult to avoid their scrutiny," Alric said. "They shadow the world's leading scientists. And I believe they've identified me as someone worth watching. What are they after?"
Marius nodded. "From the scraps of information I've acquired, they seem to predate the Inquisition by quite a bit. So I don't think their raison d'etre is our little society. We only formed it a few centuries ago. Also, that twined cross represents something other than Christ to them. My people have encountered Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim Compagnia agents."
Alric frowned. "But how could they organize so thoroughly without us knowing? There was a time when—"
"Those times are over," Tess said. "Man advances, Gods decline."
"It appears that the children are finally growing up," Marius said. "They've wielded superstition much better than we ever did. It was brilliant the way they used the Inquisition to swell their ranks."
Alric drained his wine glass. "Superstition was never good for us. The world will be better without it."
A waiter arrived to deliver another a bottle of wine. After he left, Marius filled and raised his glass. "To the future."
"To the future," the other two said.
The next morning Alric left the hotel to board a boat to the United States, where he planned to work his way into a position of power.
From a pier, watching the receding ship, a man in a sailor's jacket reached into his pocket to rub his fingers along his silver and gold crucifix. Yesterday he'd witnessed the death of his fellow. He had not interfered, hoping Alric would be satisfied that the Brother was the only observer: a small deception so that the other observers would go unnoticed. He sighed. How easy it would be for him to hoist his rifle and shoot him. But the Compagnia wouldn't permit it.
He wondered where the abomination would lead him next.
January 7, 1942 AD
The first time Walter Pitts had seen the woman, she'd been sitting in the back row of a calculus lecture at the University of Chicago. Calculus? She must be the most attractive woman on campus. Given, there weren't all that many female students, but she would dazzle anywhere.
During the entire lecture, he believed he could feel her emerald eyes gazing at him. It didn't do much for his concentration on math. Afterward he looked for her, but her seat was empty.
The next time he saw her, she was standing beside a parked car a block from campus, wearing only a light pale-green jacket to protect her against the crisp Chicago winter. Maybe she's following me, he thought. A guy can imagine can't he?
He had to get to his friend's apartment early if he wanted to sack out there tonight. He rubbed his frozen fingers together and crossed to the bus stop. Normally he'd walk, but today he had enough coins for a warm bus ride. As he stood waiting, bracing himself against the wind, he heard, "Where are you going, Walter?"
He turned in the direction of the voice. Sitting on the bench was his mystery girl. So maybe it isn't fantasy; maybe she is following me—and she knows my name! "Why are you here?"
"I'm doing someone a favor."
He couldn't place her accent but it sounded faintly English. "A favor for whom?"
He shook his head. "The name means nothing to me."
"No, it wouldn't." She leaned forward, her green eyes darting side-to-side, and said in a low voice, "But that doesn't mean he's not around... watching... listening."
"Listen, Lady, I have to go. You're talking crazy."
She laughed. "Sorry. It's a joke. I have friends who always laugh when I do that." She took a deep breath to regain her composure. "However, when Marius takes an interest in someone, I listen."
She rose gracefully from the bench. "Will you allow me to buy you lunch?"
It had been a while since he'd eaten. The promise of free food in the company of a beautiful woman warred with his principles against letting a woman pay for lunch. His stomach grumbled, but she was already walking away, correctly anticipating his response.
She led him to the greasy spoon diner across the street where he ordered the two-egg special with extra bacon and four slices of toast. Her only request was a cup of tea. For a time she sat silently, staring at him as if judging his worthiness. It made him feel both uncomfortable and a little excited.
Mercifully, she finally spoke. "I have you at a disadvantage. My name is Tess Archer."
"You already know my name."
"Yes... thanks to Marius, I know very much about you. He would have come himself but he thought I would be more appropriate. He has a way of sometimes... putting people off."
His stomached clinched. "Who is this guy? What does he want with me? Is he some kind of Fed? Because I haven't done anything wrong."
She smiled broadly. "No, you haven't done anything wrong. You have done everything right. He found out about you from Bertrand Russell."
The mention of that name impressed Walter. "So he knows Dr. Russell?"
Tess nodded. "They travel in the same social circle, one Marius hopes you will join. He showed me a copy of an interesting letter you wrote to Bertrand. The letter impressed Bertrand, but you declined the good doctor's offer to study with him. Why?"
"I was twelve when I sent that letter. I was in no position to take up his offer." He paused for a moment, and then mumbled, "I'm still in no position."
"The letter contained corrections to Newton's Principia."
"Back then I thought I knew everything. I don't think that anymore."
"I'll let you in on a little secret: I once knew everything too."
"I'm sure everyone thinks that, but then they grow up."
"Out of the mouth of babes," she said, more to herself than to him. Then she smiled politely. "Why do you sneak into logic and math lectures?"
He shrugged. "It's something to do."
"Yes, I suppose it is. But don't you think it a bit odd that someone without a home or job or basic necessities would find such an activity 'something to do'?"
Insulted and ashamed, Walter began pushing himself out of the booth. "I get by just fine."
She placed her hand on his. "Wait until you hear what I have to offer." The heat radiating from her fingers melted his resolve and he relaxed back into the booth.
Walter's food arrived. "It's your dime. What's the offer?"
"First tell me, have you seen any religious symbols that have twisted bands of gold and silver, such as this?" She held up a small crucifix. "It doesn't have to be a cross. It could be any religious symbol, like a sickle or a star. It's the twisted bands that I'm interested in."
He nodded. "Yeah, I noticed a group in the student union handing out brochures. They wore pins like that. Just a twisted circle with a double cross inside it."
"Did you talk to any of them?"
He grinned. "Do I look all that religious?"
"These people represent something... different." She leaned back in contemplation. "Brochures? I'll have to get one of them."
"I'll get one for you."
"No. It's better that you stay away from them. If you want to do something for me, consider joining a different type of group—a society that values logic and science."
"Ah, the reason this Marius sent you."
"He sent me, but I've judged you. I believe you will very much enjoy being a member."
"Have you heard about Gottfried Leibniz?"
"Of course. He developed the calculus we use."
"As a member of our group you will have access to his notes. Some were published, but I think you'll find the unpublished material much more interesting, including a description of a computing device. Leibniz and Robert Hooke created a sort of thinking machine."
"What do you want me for?"
"I would like to arrange an introduction between you and Dr. Warren McCulloch. He's someone with whom I hope you will be able to collaborate. With your math skills and his medical experience—"
"I have no interest in medicine."
"I can make it more interesting. You see, Dr. McCulloch thinks that a Leibniz-Hooke blueprint resembles an animal's nervous system."
Walter was interested.
July 16, 1945 AD
They felt the reaction a nanosecond before the mushroom cloud exploded into the New Mexico sky. In that instant, the three of them felt drunk with contentment.
Afterward, Marius said, "So it's come to this: nuclear weaponry." He turned to Tess. "I suppose that means that there will be no need for a repeat of what happened in Rome."
Tess stuck her tongue out him. "That's ancient history. We agreed progress had ground to a halt and the Roman Empire was doomed, so I shook things up. It took only a few whispers, a little nudge, to cause the collapse. If it couldn't stand up to that, it got what it deserved. And before you comment on anything else, Troy was not my fault. I was caught by surprise and taken completely against my will. Now, simply enjoy this moment without worrying about tomorrow."
"Worrying is my job," Marius said. "I do it for all of us."
Tess wrapped her arms around the other two as they watched the nuclear cloud disperse. "I haven't felt that type of reaction since... well, forever. Remind me to thank Fermi; he's done well for the Society."
Alric spoke what was on all their minds. "Soon we will be going our separate ways."
"Separate projects, not separate ways," Tess said. "Including getting humanity off this planet—getting some of the eggs out of the basket."
Alric smiled. "But we will be together at the end."
They all nodded.
"First we have to get through this century without blowing up the world," Marius said.
October 12, 2018 AD
Alric woke suddenly, totally alert. But he didn't move; instead he tried to get a sense of his surroundings. He felt the warm metal of the chair to which his arms and legs were cuffed.
And he wasn't alone.
The impact to Alric's face whipped his head back. "Don't test us!" a man growled in Italian. "I know you're awake. That drug can only last so long, even for you."
Alric open his eyes. Leaning over him, Alric's blood dripping from his knuckles, was a large man with short-cropped hair. He smiled at Alric and stepped back to reveal another man, with tan skin and salt and pepper hair, sitting in a similar metallic chair. Alric would have guessed him to be Greek, but there were no pure lines anymore. Pinned to the lapel of his jacket was the Compagnia's insignia.
"My name is Gustavo Vittorio." He gestured toward Alric's tormentor. "I abhor violence, but Eric here doesn't take his commands from me."
Eric grinned as he wiped the blood from his hand with a handkerchief. Beside him stood an equally large man.
Gustavo continued. "I joined them here for the opportunity to meet you, but only under the condition that I do not interfere with their plans."
"I'm an American citizen," Alric protested in English. "You can't just drug and kidnap me!"
"American?" Gustavo laughed and then continued in English. "Come now, we know your ability to deceive. Is that your best? There are records of you from long before that country existed."
Alric smirked; no point in acting. "Thank you for the information. When we're through here, I'll have to take care of those records."
Eric slapped Alric again, hard. "I don't think you understand your situation."
"I've been in this situation before."
"Not for a very long time, and not with someone like me."
"You'd be surprised at who has tested me. And it's always the same with you religious fanatics. You think violence is always a solution."
Gustavo gestured for Eric to back off. "Do you think I'm a fanatic?"
"You wear the mark."
"Ah, I see. You misunderstand us. Don't judge the Compagnia by its extremes. Me, I'm a Buddhist and we aren't particularly known for fanaticism." He pointed a finger at Alric. "Before I learned about you, I was content in my beliefs and thought I knew my place in the universe."
"Now, all is in flux. I'm grateful to the Compagnia for their guidance during this time of confusion. They've reaffirmed my belief that what is truly important is faith, not a god. Faith is our spiritual ability to transcend the concept of God. Faith in our souls is what connects us to the universe."
Suddenly, Alric knew what to expect. This was going to get very interesting. To kill time while waiting for the inevitable, he lectured Gustavo. "Faith is evolution's way of protecting sanity. Your kind uses it to shroud yourself from the truth. Wiser people believe in science because it accepts and conforms to each new discovery—unlike unchanging faith."
"The Compagnia is not a religion as you describe; it is not a liturgy. We embrace science. Our faith is our belief that there is something larger than us in the universe." Gustavo shook his head. "But what is your role in all this? To what ends are all your machinations? Or is that a better question for the mysterious Marius Ogden, or whatever he's calling himself now?"
Alric smiled wide. "I doubt you will ever be able to ask him."
"I know. That's why there is so much speculation. No offense to you, but I would have really preferred a conversation with him. Believe it or not, he's the reason there is a Compagnia. You have to appreciate the irony. You see, there was once a time when he wasn't so discrete. Of course, I have no doubt that most of his actions as Merlin have come down through the millennia as mythological shadows of their true selves. Still, it was during Merlin's time that the Compagnia first formed. A small group of our ancestors watched him in secret, trying to decide whether he was demon or divine. And before you say observing him in secret is impossible, remember his ego. How could he believe that a group that he didn't control could know him?"
"So which is he? Demon or divine?"
"We'll let you know when we know. Many have argued that you three should be imprisoned until wiser heads can make the determination. However, the majority of my brothers have decided to see where your path leads. Misguided or not, we are all on the same journey."
"And what journey is that?"
Alric sneered. "You? Enlightened? A cat is enlightened. You're just embarrassing. And you know you won't get any enlightenment from me, so why am I here?"
Gustavo sighed. "Not for interrogation or even killing." He frowned at Eric. "And hopefully not for torture. None of that would be successful. What would be the point? Señore, we know it's only your flesh that dies. Your... shall we say, spirit... goes on to be born somewhere else. This resurrection is another fascinating aspect that has drawn us to you. Even now there are a few of us who are ready to fall at your feet in prayer. But as I've said, we are not simpletons who worship the unknown. So you won't be killed; it would make finding you again difficult."
Eric placed a hand on Gustavo's shoulder. "Sir, it is time. The package has arrived. You must leave."
Gustavo stood up and bowed to Alric. "I have some influence, but I'm not in control. I'm sorry for what is about to happen." He shook his head, leaving Alric alone with Eric and his companion.
"He's right. We ain't going to kill or question you," Eric spat. "We're going to use you as a messenger."
"What's the message?"
Eric leaned close to Alric and whispered, "I want you to bear witness." Then he backed away and clapped. A third man pushed a woman into the room.
It was Tess. Alric had been expecting her. They'd begun exchanging experiences as soon as he'd felt her approach. Her clothes were torn and hair disheveled, but she looked as serene as ever. He was surprised at how eager he was to see her in action.
"We won't kill you, but this woman is another matter. We've had her under surveillance since our agents found her skulking around CERN. She is becoming too influential; a balance must be maintained. We can't let you get what you want until we're in a position to decide whether it's worthy. So what we do to her is the message to you, Ogden, and whatever followers you still have who—"
Alric locked eyes with Tess.
She nodded an instant before the ridge of her hand struck the larynx of the closest of her handlers. She crouched and spun, sweeping the feet from under the second man. As he fell to the concrete floor, she slammed his head forward, crushing the bones of his face into his brain, a quick kill. Then she approached a startled Eric. "I think what they find here will be our message to your Compagnia."
Afterwards she smiled at Alric. "Why am I the one they always underestimate?"
He shook his head. "I was the undervalued one in this instance."
She looked around a final time. "Thank you for sharing your skills; you can leave my head now."
Aquarian Post Settlement Date 78 (2175 AD Earth Relative Standard)
The cratered, pocked image of the planet Silhouette hovered above Shan Yui's workstation. The hologram served no purpose other than, as her ancestors would have said, to keep her eye on the prize. Her team had recently completed construction of the orbital accelerator that now encircled it. This accomplishment would bring much honor to her family name back on Earth.
Too bad I'm not there, she thought. Instead, thanks to the inscrutable wisdom of her grandparents and parents to springboard from colony to colony—ever outward in the galaxy—she was stuck 15 light years away living in the Aquarian colonies.
A throat-clearing sound erupted from the workstation, followed by a pleasant tenor. "I don't mean to disturb your daydreaming, but Mr. Gareth Zin is approaching."
The warning came from Phineas, the pseudo-AI who lived in her computer system. It had been quantum-synced from Earth as a gift from a friend—a very close friend.
She flipped off the hologram and presented herself before the door. She bowed as it dilated. Her parents had taught her to respect authority. She hated the Confucian philosophy, but she couldn't beat the indoctrination. The obnoxious little man breezed past her while tracing intricate patterns in the air with his finger. It was Gareth Zin, her boss. His eye filters were down, so she knew he was viewing the lab's virtual data. He had access to everything, with the exception of the Phineas system. That system was off his grid.
He said crisply, "I assume you'll be able to generate 50 Peta electron volts."
She knew he could view the answer with his filters. The man asked only to hear his own voice. "Easily," she said. "With the natural vacuum of space."
"Good. How soon before we can proceed from theory to experiment?"
"Is tomorrow acceptable?"
"It will have to do. I want the detectors to—"
Slipping into the room was Bria Soto, a tall woman of Earth Latino descent who kept her long, brunette hair cut in an asymmetric style that emphasized her chestnut-brown eyes. She was Shan's chief lab technician and one of the few people on the orbiter who didn't feel the need to wear an insignia with twisted bands of silver and gold on her tunic. Like Shan, she hadn't been buried in the crap the Faithful shoveled.
Bria took a seat at the simulation terminal behind Gareth and began crossing her eyes and making fish lips. Shan's face remained relaxed as her parents had taught—she would always project tranquility when with a superior—but that didn't stop her from plotting revenge against Bria.
An eternity later, Gareth finally completed his inspection and left to harass some other researcher. As soon as the door shut, Shan clasped her neck and pantomimed strangling herself.
It took a while, but Bria finally stopped laughing. "So how's your other project going?"
Shan walked up to her and wrapped her arm around Bria's waist. "You mean your blemish?"
Bria returned the embrace. "You always say the kindest things."
"I'm only telling you what you want to hear," Shan whispered before releasing her. There would be time for playful distractions later. "I've isolated the cold spot in the cosmic microwave background energy." She commanded Phineas to project a holographic star chart in the center of the lab. She approached the chart and poked a finger through a cluster of stars. "The stellar blemish is here, within the Eridonus Constellation. The variations were subtle, but with Phineas' help I was able to chart the exact location."
"I'm glad my gift could help."
"The program is amazing."
"Yes, we are very proud of him."
There it was—another hint of emotional entanglement between Bria and the system. "I know how you like to think of it as a him, but it's not self-actualized, not a true AI. I'm not planning on giving it back, but I am willing to share," she teased. "I'm getting worried that you're getting overly attached to it."
"He's a him because that is how he likes to portray himself, for now. From time to time he's also been known to be a she."
Phineas interrupted. "It is not polite to gossip about me while I'm in the room."
Shan managed to suppress a giggle, almost successfully. "I'll admit I don't know the current state of computer science, but I thought they never got further than the pseudo-AIs we use out here in the colonies."
"Well, like those archaic expressions you love to—"
"You love them too! Hell, I've even learned a few from you."
"Here's another—like Alice, I want you to try to believe three impossible things before breakfast."
"I already ate."
Bria ignored the comment. "First I want you to believe that Phineas is a sentient being."
"I will agree to keep an open mind. That's it. But true AI or not, whoever developed him was genius."
"A group actually. The greatest computer scientists since Pascal, including Phineas himself."
"The original Phineas T. Barnum?"
"No, not the man—the AI. That silly name was chosen by one of my family who perversely believed the original P.T. Barnum was a good role model. Isn't that correct, Phineas?"
"Yes Ma'am," Phineas answered. "The irony has not escaped me."
Shan rolled her eyes and Bria said, "Aw, look Phineas, we've confused our poor Shan."
"Please don't concern yourself, Dr. Yui," Phineas said. "It is a personal joke at my expense."
"Humph. Bria, what's up with you and my computer?"
Bria's face hardened slightly, like she wanted to say something but was holding back. Then she turned away from Shan. "He's the closest thing I have to family out here."
Shan started to reach out to Bria, but intuition stayed her hand. "I understand."
Bria turned abruptly and glared into Shan's eyes. "Do you? Do you really?"
Shan stepped back, startled by the sudden change in personality. "I... I'm sorry I didn't mean to offend."
Bria's anger quickly faded. "No, I'm the one who needs to apologize. I know you're also lonely; it's one of the reasons I'm attracted to you... besides your scientific acumen, of course. But trust me, there are levels of isolation that you can't imagine." She hesitated as if to keep her emotions in check. "Most of all I miss Tess."
Shan felt a tinge of jealously. "Were the two of you close?"
"Very close." Bria approached her and lowered her face to Shan as if to impart a kiss. Bria gazed into the woman's eyes and began blinking rapidly. An overlaid image on her eyes faded as brown tones lightened to a crystal emerald. Then she backed away, giving Shan a better view of her skin lightening.
Shan gasped. "Bria, what... what are you doing?"
She ran her hands down her sides. "This is Tess, and I can't give her up. This is another one of the impossible things that I need you to accept."
"You're Anglo!" She regretted the words as soon as she said them.
"There was a time when that was an advantage."
"Why the disguise? Sure, you'd stick out, but Anglos aren't treated poorly here. The Faithful don't tolerate racism in the colonies."
"It isn't just my race that would stick out. It's Tess. She's a walking alarm."
"Is she... are you... in some kind of trouble?"
"I am the trouble. At least the Faithful think so." She paused for a moment. "But much less so than in the past. In a lot of ways they've outgrown me."
Shan held up her hand when Tess took a step toward her. "What else have you lied to me about?"
"Shan, I only lied to protect my identity, an identity that I'm sharing with you now. It's the most personal thing I have to offer. You mustn't tell anyone."
Shan nodded slowly; regardless of the deception, she couldn't bear it if anything bad happened to Bria. Tess. "Why tell all this to me now?"
"I've wanted to tell you for a long time, but the time was never right. I'm seldom wrong about these things, but at this moment I've judged that you would be the most responsive to what I had to say. And if you're willing, I have some papers I'd like you to read. It's the history of the Chronos Society. Many of your ancestors have belonged. In fact, your grandparents held very high positions. I know they would have wanted you to at least read what I have to show you."
Is that why they'd left Earth so quickly? Then she realized something. "Did you say papers?"
"It's safer that way. You can't hack into a book. Besides, its ridiculously retro; just how you like things."
"And why do you need me? To do the heavy lifting on your projects? Or perhaps for the personal benefits you've been receiving from me?"
Tess smiled. "Both, of course. And I know that neither has been a great burden to you. Don't forget the other bond that connects us: you're almost as interested in the universe as I am."
Shan noted that Tess was as good at dishing out the truth as she was deception. And damn if it didn't make her more exciting. Even more infuriating, Shan was accepting what she was being told; the power this woman had over her was astonishing.
Shan said, "If that's true, then you'll be happy to know I've finished working out another of your puzzles. I've completed a theory to stabilize a wormhole tunnel, at least for a short time, by using a shell of exotic matter. But there can be done in only certain locations."
Tess' eyes widened and she clapped her hands. "I knew you could do it! Can you map a way to the anomaly?"
"With Phineas' help, probably. Since you're being so honest, how about you tell me what this anomaly is?"
"In the papers I'll give you, you'll find a lot of predictions and commentary about it. The consensus is that it is an exit out of this universe."
And there it was! The third impossibility. "Explain."
"Consider a geometric structure with 298 dimensions, where every fundamental particle of this universe is nothing more than a prediction."
Shan held up a hand. She knew of the theory. It had been worked out in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. "I'll need to see those papers. I think I understand."
"In that case, as our good friend Mr. Gareth Zin said, it's time to move from theory to experiment and then, hopefully, to the practical. I plan on traveling there someday."
Shan shook her head. "It can't be done in your lifetime."
Tess remained silent.
Date unknown (Current Earth date unknown for reference)
To the relief of the captain of the explorer starship Feynman, the vessel had finally reached its destination in the Eridonus system. Even using the wormhole, a prohibitively expensive indulgence, it had been a painfully long flight. And that was saying a lot for an AI captain who didn't have to ride it out in real time.
The captain accelerated his perception to a standing 500-millisecond bit rate and absorbed the ship's information on their relative location. Once satisfied that the ship was safely outside the anomaly's gravitation horizon, he materialized an avatar version of himself outside the ship's infosphere. Today he modeled his appearance on an ancient Caucasian male hero of the early cybernetic age. He chose the middle-aged version: a nostalgic choice in human-ware.
Standing beside him on the observation deck, staring out at the anomaly, was the only organic aboard the starship. He had spent very little time in any of the ship's hibernation shells during the long voyage. Sometimes the captain wondered about his sanity. Then again, Alric was no ordinary man.
"We made good time since our departure from Mars Base."
Alric turned to him and smiled. "Phineas, my friend, we made the exact time you predicted."
"And I predicted good time."
"Are we alone?"
"If you are referring to the ship approaching top-spin, then no, we are not alone. The captain of the X'thal is almost as competent as I. If she says she will be somewhere at a particular time, she will."
A message was flashed to Phineas from the infosphere that made the avatar reflexively stiffened. "That was unexpected."
Alric cocked an eyebrow. "What?"
"Our navigator reports there is an additional ship on the far side of the anomaly. A Delta-class ship equipped with a much earlier version of the Shan Yui drive."
"No, you are wrong; this was expected."
Phineas looked deeply at Alric—not only with the avatar's eyes, but with every sensor he had available on the ship. "We can not stand against a Delta-class ship."
"Don't worry, my friend. Everything comes to an end."
Phineas noted the absence of the smile that Alric usually offered with sarcastic statements.
Alric asked, "How long until the X'thal docks?"
"And our mysterious guest?"
Alric rubbed his hands together. "This is going to be interesting. We'd better prepare for company."
Phineas didn't like interesting; he'd take predictable any day. He trailed Alric to the docking bay while the Feynman performed docking maneuvers. Upon arrival, one of the AI crew reported that the uninvited starship had identified itself as the Majid al Din—Glory of the Faith. It was backing off to allow the X'thal to dock first.
"Of course it is," Alric said. Then he shook his head and mumbled a reference about eggs and baskets as he waited, tapping his foot.
Phineas allowed his avatar to frown. A nervous Alric was never good.
It was a short wait before the docking hatch slid open and a tall woman stepped onto the Feynman and presented herself to Phineas. "I assume I have permission to board."
"Of course, Mother."
Tess poked a finger in his direction. "I wish you'd stop calling me that."
"I know. That's why I do it."
"Oh, how I did not miss that humor. I see you've dressed up as Walter Pitts for the occasion. He would have been proud. I never liked you in your Robert Hooke—you were always too nice to carry it off. If time permits we'll catch up later. Right now the captain of the Feynman needs to remain here to greet our visitors. My ship has been ordered to disengage upon my entry. Alric and I will meet you on the bridge."
She reached out to Alric. "It's been a while."
Alric's smile widened as he held her hands. "Yes, it has. Come... let's prepare."
As they left the bay, Phineas heard him say, "It's nearly time. I can feel it."
Phineas, curious about the meaning of Alric's words, did what any sentient would do: he monitored them with the ship's sensors. Once on the bridge, they faced each other in silent contemplation, an intimate gesture beyond Phineas' experience, or as Phineas suspected, human experience.
It was not long until the Majid al Din docked and a skeletal thin man marched through the docking hatch. He wore the ceremonial pale-blue garb of the Compagnia, embellished with a twisted circle with bands of gold on each sleeve to indicate his high rank. The outfit had been least 50 years obsolete before the Feynman had even been created. Following close behind him were a muscular woman with dark skin and fierce eyes and a stocky man with a puckered face and a cleanly shaven head. Both wore similar uniforms of the Compagnia, sans heavy embroidery.
The three swept past on their way to the bridge. Phineas suppressed a mix of anxiety and anger at being ignored. As he followed them, the navigator flashed an alert. The ship's systems were under attack. Foreign AIs had entered with the humans. Phineas didn't want to divide his attention yet, so he ordered the AI to stay the attack as long as it could, that he'd be there soon.
As the party arrived on the bridge, Alric said, "Greetings, El Rez."
"You know me?"
"I've studied the historic leaders of Compagnia," Alric said. "I've been expecting to meet someone like you out here for sometime."
"Of course you have."
"My captain has informed me that you arrived using a prototype of the Shan Yui drive. With technology like that, for this meeting to occur, you must've left on your journey decades before we did. You're a man whose time has passed. How long were you in hibernation? A hundred... two hundred years? Do you suppose there's a La Compagnia della Fed anymore?"
El Rez shrugged. "Is there a Chronos Society? Neither matter anymore; they both served their purpose of getting us to this moment, away from human-occupied space. We've known your destination ever since this one—" He waved a hand at Tess. "Was on the Aquarian Colony. You've left humanity behind."
"Does it matter?" Tess asked.
"That is what I'm here to judge. When the three of you gather together it's always an historic turning point. And here you are." In a fluid motion, El Rez slid a silver wand from his sleeve and pointed it at the bald man who'd accompanied him onto the Feynman. His target locked in mid-motion. "This one has always been more willing to change appearances than the two of you." He turned to the statue and sighed. "Did you really think I would be fooled, Ahmed my old friend? Or shall I call you by your preferred name—Marius?"
Phineas suspected that he had been the only one duped. El Rez was correct. When his parents were all together, things got interesting. He shifted focus along varying spectrums, but he couldn't detect the source of the stasis field. The wand was merely the trigger, not the source. El Rez' female companion held a similar wand, alternating her aim between Alric and Tess.
"I happily gave Marius a ride," El Rez said. "Despite any rumors to the contrary, I've found him quite pleasant. In fact, we've had many enjoyable discussions over the years. It pains me to see him this way, but he will remain in stasis until all my questions are answered. I'm also confident that your Captain Barnum will soon be too occupied to interfere with us. No doubt he's aware of the hunter AIs infiltrating his ship as we speak. If he isn't already occupied, he soon will be as the Feynman's infosphere deteriorates."
"I'm impressed," Tess said, while staring at Marius. "You appear to be in control of the situation."
"We've planned for everything. Like you, we've also had some success in creating a manageable future. When I left, my ship was the first that had the range. During my journey, my brothers closely monitored the all the shipyards capable of similar ships. I have faith that my successors in the Compagnia have programmed this ship to explode on my command."
Tess sighed. "So it comes to violence. For what purpose?"
"To prevent you from entering—"
Phineas transferred his attention into the Feynman's infosphere. He sped up his cyberform's processing speed to the point where the humans (if he were still monitoring them) on the bridge would have appeared as stiff as Marius. He was moving between seconds. He flowed through the ship's systems, observing cyber wolves slowly chewing their way through his AI crew's ad hoc defenses.
He stretched his consciousness deeper into the ship, crippling all invaders in his path. It didn't take him long to find an incendiary device lying within a tertiary system. It was a stand-alone device with a single dedicated link to the infosphere. Phineas could not access the link; his best guess was that El Rez could.
He abandoned the bomb to search for a way to free Marius. He worked his way through the ship's coding until he found a blank, unprocessed area in the infosphere, an area below his standard operating perception. Without reason, he never would have noticed it.
A pack of wolves leapt at him, claws extended, reaching out to shred his coded identity. He raised a barrier and they bounced back. They circled him, drooling. He sped his perception even faster—effectively time-freezing the wolves as he had the humans on the bridge—except now he was moving between nanoseconds. He couldn't maintain such speed for long without burning himself out. He dropped the barrier and approached the predators. They were simple constructs encased inside non-intelligent code that bound them to a user's command. He allowed himself sympathy for these slave creatures as he erased them.
After they faded, the façade of a blank space fell and coding for a stasis generator was revealed. He might not be able to save the ship, but at least he could free one of his parents. He erased the code, then synced his speed with his avatar and heard El Rez finish his statement: "—the anomaly."
An indicator light began flashing on El Rez' wand. Confused, he looked around until he saw Phineas. "Why is that thing smiling?"
Marius stepped forward, free of containment. "Because he gets smug when he's underestimated. Tess thinks he gets that from me, but his quick responses are all Alric."
El Rez' female companion stumbled back, giving Alric the opportunity to easily disarm her.
Tess motioned both Alric and Marius to back away. "El Rez, we won't stop you from your task. We want to explain ourselves." She turned toward the avatar. "Phineas, I assume you've found the explosive device?"
"Of course, my Lady," he said.
"Good. Then do nothing to disturb it," she said.
"I wouldn't think of it." Not that he could have even if he'd wanted to, but he doubted El Rez knew that.
She gestured to El Rez. "Please ask your questions."
El Rez took a deep breath. "How did you come to be?"
Tess paced a slow circle around El Rez, allowing Alric to answer. "I've been here since the beginning of everything you know. I'm from before this universe. I leaked in when gravity did."
Marius continued. "When I arrived, I had no concept of time or position. These were forced upon me. My information, what I am, was added to a strange stew of solidifying constants."
Alric went on. "When this happened I changed the universe into something that allowed the potential of your existence."
Tess stopped pacing when she was in front of El Rez. "So you see, my existence changed the universe just as the universe changed me. Have I satisfied your question?"
Phineas knew from the man's posture and breathing that he was far from satisfied. Phineas wasn't either. The fact that their speech flowed as if coming from a single person made everything even more unsettling. "I have a question," he said to Tess. "Did you and Marius leak in at the same time as Alric?"
She began pacing around El Rez again. "Phineas, I am Alric."
"So am I," Marius added. "And they are both me."
The cryptic answer left Phineas less than satisfied. However, El Rez appeared pleased; he was nodding in excitement as if what he'd heard conformed to some personal reality. To no one in particular Phineas said, "A single being possessing three bodies...."
Marius smiled at Tess and Alric. "That is isn't exactly true. I'm not in possession of three bodies. I'm three different tendencies of the same entity."
"You see," Alric said. "This universe hasn't decided which tendency to go with yet. She's left us in superposition; we're nothing more than possibilities."
"Exciting, isn't it?" Tess said.
"I prefer mundane," Phineas answered. "You're describing yourself as a nearly 14 billion year old standing probability wave."
"That's macro quantum mechanics at a godlike level," El Rez said enthusiastically. "But why only three? There could have any number of possibilities."
"We believe that it is the minimum number of us to get us to this point," Marius said. "The universe considered us the best of all possibilities."
Tess said, "Before Heisenberg and Schrödinger worked it out, I believed the three of us were different strangers to this universe."
"A revelation," El Rez said. "So you needed your Society to discover yourself. You needed humans to work things out."
"Exactly!" Tess said. "Quite a few brilliant people have gotten us here. That's the reason we chose to evolve with humanity. We recognized the human potential early, so we hitched a ride."
The excitement left El Rez' face and his shoulders slumped. "If I believe what you say, that you created the potential of life in this universe, that Godlike creatures created us to simply to get them home—No, I cannot. There has to be more to our creation."
"And my creation," Phineas added.
Marius laughed. "El Rez, you must have an interesting definition of godlike if that's what you think I am. What godlike creature creates humanity to just get home?"
Not a very knowledgeable one, Phineas thought, but would never say.
"Change your question," Marius said. "Is it possible that the universe took us in order to create you? We are the tools; you are the finished project."
Tess said, "We three, through different routes, have concluded that life in this universe is an evolutionary stepping stone to the universe trying to understand itself. She is waking up through you."
Alric smiled his approval. "You see, it wasn't you; it was me that was used."
Phineas witnessed a shudder pass over El Rez. No human could process all of this at once. Neither, perhaps, could an AI.
Finally, El Rez said, "What happens to the universe if you leave?"
Alric answered, "I don't know. We aren't needed anymore, at least for what comes next. But humans and AIs—in some form—may someday find out. Phineas increases your chances. As I told you in the beginning, we knew you'd be coming. We wanted to answer questions and introduce you to Phineas."
Alric suddenly stiffened. The other two reached out to him and the three of them clasped hands. "Sorry," he said, gasping. "I'm going to have cut our conversation short."
The three of them began radiating along every spectrum Phineas monitored. Bright. All sensors, including eyes, were blinded. The last thing Phineas saw were El Rez and his companion covering their eyes.
Then everything returned to normal—except only Marius remained of the three.
"Well, that's a surprise," Marius said. "I always thought the Tess version would be the universe's choice in the end." He brushed an imaginary bit of fluff of his shoulder. "I guess there is accounting for taste."
Many thoughts flashed into Phineas, too many for even him to process.
Marius turned toward Phineas. "I'm now attuned to all ripples in the electromagnetic field. That includes you, my friend. I understand your questions. Yours and El Rez' memories and existence will remain intact. Every intelligence that was within the range of the burst I created will retain all their personal information."
He addressed El Rez. "Assuming you don't blow yourself up, things are going to get confusing for you. The Compagnia will only have ever known me. Tess and Alric never existed. They've been completely quantum erased. You're going to return to a galaxy where humanity thrives, but with small changes to the history you remember. Apparently, keeping my history is the one that got humanity where the universe needed it to be."
Marius began glowing again. It wasn't as blinding to Phineas this time, but no less disconcerting. He watched his creator dissolve, splitting apart—from cells into molecules into atoms, then into things he couldn't imagine.
Phineas and the two remaining humans stared at the spot where Marius had been. Breaking the silence El Rez said, "This is a very nice ship."
"Yes, it is," Phineas replied.
"I assume you have hibernation crèches?"
"Can we catch a ride home with you? It will give you and me the chance to get to know each other."
"I will enjoy the company."