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.
“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.
“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?”
“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…”
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 strings 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…”
[END OF THIS SAMPLE]