Talk:XIII: The Meiss Connection

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XIII: The Meiss Connection

Life that is not only aware, but aware that it is aware, evolved separately on this planet at least five times, a fact that gives us reason to reflect. If five times here, how many times Out There? If in two distinct shapes in two radically different environments here, then how many shapes, in how many environments Out There? And if our civilization has willingly embraced five species and two shapes in two environments, will that help those Out There to embrace us? It should help us to embrace them.

—Kenneth Bronowski

Ascent of Civilization

Ooloorie Eckickeck P’wheet first conceived the Probability Broach in 192 A.L., when Deejay Thorens was a mere calf whose present position was occupied by another landling. Unfortunately, she’d been looking for a way to get to Alpha Centauri, and was particularly disappointed since her mathematics had seemed flawless.

At first she thought she’d simply missed by four and a half light-years. Microprobes indicated dry land, terrestrial temperatures, pressures, gravity. It was Earth. But how?

Swimming in faculty quarters at California’s Emperor Norton University, she pondered the landlings, whom a tradition more ancient than tradition itself named “those we love and know not why.” Perhaps it had been their clumsiness. She considered the possibility, lashing her flukes in annoyance. For all their pride in a manipulative ability to translate their childish abstractions into substance, she never really trusted their machinists and technicians. She had never seen the need to clutter philosophy-science, they called it, or physics—with apparatus.

Philosophy was a matter of cool contemplation in the quiet waters of the mind, of gentle debate through many generations, of decorous integration into the poetry and legend of her people. Why must the landlings always hurry? Let my grandchildren find the end of the migration, she thought, if only I can begin the path rightly. Why must the dry ones always do something with it? Is not philosophy enough, in itself?

“I’M GRATIFIED TO meet you, Mr. Bear. You and your counterpart from this continuum are a welcome though scarcely necessary confirmation of my hypotheses.” This Telecom was different, a wheelchair with a table model TV on the seat, a periscope sticking out of the top. Ooloorie guided it remotely, moving her “eyes and ears” around, peering critically over the shoulders of people who were her “hands.” There was no screen at her end, a tank of salt water twelve hundred miles away. The periscope cameras translated what they picked up into an auditory hologram, super-high-fidelity wave fronts that, to her, were “television.”

Like the squiggles on her blackboard, Deejay’s labs reminded me of Vaughn Meiss. Replacing rows of computers, Telecom pads were scattered here and there, but the rest looked unsettlingly familiar.

I told my story to the two scientists. Deejay listened with barely suppressed excitement. Ooloorie mostly in absorbed silence. “It grieves me to hear that Dr. Meiss is … is no longer …” struggled the porpoise. “He had an unusual mind for a landling and accomplished, by himself, much of what it took dozens to do here.”

“At least we know what happened to our Broach,” said Deejay. “If it had failed spontaneously, I’d never hear the end of it from fish-face, there.”

“If I were a pale, spiny, desiccated being, I’d insult beautiful females myself, distractable one,” Ooloorie remarked.

“Why don’t you tell me more about this Broach thing,” I interjected. “I figured it was some kind of time machine, but—”

“It is,” declared Ooloorie, “a paratronic locus, creating a permeable interface between two contiguous probability continua. Energy consumption is calcu—”

“Hold on!” I protested. “One more word and you’ll lose me. Try again, with short sentences and no numbers. Remember, I’m a public servant.”

“Perhaps you had better do that, Deejay. What is a public servant?”

“Tell you later, dear—a long, depressing story. Mr. Bear—Win, I suppose you could visualize the Probability Broach as a sort of time machine—”

“A sideways time machine?”

“Very good! But it’s better to think of it as a window, through the wall that separates two universes …”

PARATRONICS BEGAN AS a study of energy phenomena not related to the electromagnetic spectrum—at first, much like xenobiology before space travel, a discipline without subject matter. But as decades of mathematical deduction began to sire practical conclusions, it left the realm of computers and the minds of dolphins, to become an experimental science.

In 194 A.L., Paratronics, Ltd., attempting to reach beyond the limited range of ion-drive spaceships, stumbled upon the Probability Broach. Peering through a microscopic hole in the fabric of reality, they expected to view deep space from some vantage point other than their own solar system.

Instead, their first photograph showed:


Reorienting themselves ninety degrees produced:



This was not Alpha Centauri. Nor could it be the Confederacy, which hadn’t used a Christian calendar for two centuries. In fact, in all the system, only Hamiltonians disdained the calendar devised to honor Albert Gallatin.

Investigations proceeded slowly. Boring holes through reality is expensive: the university’s lights didn’t quite dim whenever they switched on the Broach; the comptrollers just felt that way. Even thermonuclear fusion had theoretical limits, and the Probability Broach approached them.

Microprobes went into the hole: air, soil, and a few tiny insects came back for analysis. The atmosphere on the other side was filthy with hydrocarbons and other chemicals, the water similarly dirtied. One source was quickly identified as crude internal combustion vehicles. But why didn’t anyone drag their owners into court?

In 198 A.L., Paratronics shelled out for a new reactor. Now a relatively stable hole could be punched through, and larger samples taken, but they told the same depressing story: an unknown, exclusively human, English-speaking people, wearing uniformly drab, tubular clothing, riding in poisonously primitive vehicles. A culture inexplicably bleak and impoverished.

The “portable” Broach head was achieved in 201 A.L. Now, from the deck of a medium-sized hoverfreighter, scientists could transport their point of view, explore beyond whatever happened to lie on the “other side” of their laboratory. They began modestly enough with something nearby called Al’s Newsstand—Candy, Newspapers, Tobacco. What they found there stunned them into cautiousness:




They deposited a half-ounce silver disk on the counter one midnight, reached with carefully sterilized tongs through the newly widened Broach, remembering the wisdom of Poor Richard before he’d gone Federalist. They learned a great deal, none of it encouraging: the Revolution; the Whiskey Rebellion; a War of 1812?; Mexico; and, horror of horrors, a civil war-three-quarters of a million dead. Financial crises alternated with war, and no one seemed to notice the pattern. World War I; the Great Depression; World War II and the atomic bomb; Korea; Vietnam. And towering above it all, power politics: a state growing larger, more demanding every year, swallowing lives, fortunes, destroying sacred honor, screaming in its bloatedness for more, capable of any deed—no matter how corrupt and repulsive, swollen, crazed—staggering toward extinction.

And yet this catalog of horror admitted one tiny spark of light and hope: eleven minor but distinct references to a group whose values and goals might gratify any decent being in the North American Confederacy—the Propertarian Party.

“YOU SEE THEN, gentlemen, how Vaughn Meiss became the focus of our hopes and fears. I rather imagine Fort Collins newspaper editors looked forward to the way he livened up their Op-Ed sections. We obtained such publications the same way we abstracted the almanac and other documents, including street maps distributed by your Hall of Childish Tradespersons.

“That’s the Junior Chamber of Commerce, Ooloorie.” I laughed. “But I like it better your way.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bear. We had little trouble locating the author of these strangely familiar sentiments. His office number was available from a directory that we purchased at the campus bookstore.” The police had likely never heard about this mini-wave of petty thefts, accompanied as each was by an ounce of so of highly illegal but instantly negotiable silver.

“We found ourselves in a narrow channel,” the porpoise said. “It was necessary that we have cooperation: power consumption would fall ten thousandfold if we could establish a resonant field on the other side, essential to bring larger samples—and people—through.”

“It’s like wireless.” Deejay added. “You can send messages simply by beamcasting so much power that bedsprings and lighting fixtures will—”

“So I’ve heard. But if the other person had a radio receiver, you need a lot less power.”

“I’m sorry, Win. I didn’t mean to be condescending.”

“Well, what was the problem in getting cooperation from the other side?” Ed asked.

Ooloorie answered. “You see, Mr. Bear—oh dear, I believe I shall call you Ed and Win—you see, the almanac alarmed us about a number of things.”

“Such as?”

“Such as the unpopularity of Propertarian anarchism, as these primitives conceive it. Most will gladly murder anyone desiring independence from a coercive state. There are worldwide organizations dedicated to such violence, and—”

“That’s my world you’re talking about! I don’t know of any such—”

“Then what did you do for a living?” Ed asked. “Isn’t selling marijuana acting independently of the state?”

“You know what I did, I was a cop—am a cop!”

“I rest my case,” Ed replied smugly. “Ooloorie’s too. And a good thing—they were—”

“‘Getting pretty heavy,”’ I answered. “Groucho Marx, 1932. Okay, so Meiss was as politically naive as the rest of you. How’d you get in touch—hold a seance?”

“It’s pronounced ‘science,’” Deejay smirked. “No, we’d learned so much from the almanac that we prepared a document rather like it, describing ourselves, our project, and culture—and popped it onto his desk one afternoon, when—”

“That was risky,” I said, thinking of the empty notebook in Meiss’s lab. “It might have fallen into the wrong hands. Why not just holler through the Broach hole? Or string a telephone line?”

“Apparently our manuscript has fallen into the wrong hands,” said Ooloorie. “This person Bealls you mentioned worries me. Your culture is ahead of ours only in its ability to wage nuclear war. If this SecPol … well, we’ll just have to see.”

Deejay went on. “Understand our limitations: we couldn’t open a hole bigger than three inches, and not for more than a few seconds at a time. Beyond that, things would start to blow: fuses, circuit breakers, the department’s budget—as for telephone lines, just imagine the field collapsing on an occlusion …”

“I don’t understand,” Ed said, a beat behind me.

“I’m sure you remember the explosion that got you here.”

“Things afterward, not so well perhaps,” I agreed, “but the explosion—”

“All right, now if anything protrudes through the Broach when the field collapses, well, watch this—” She extracted a breadbox-size device from under a countertop, set it on the bench, and plugged it in.

“An early experimental model?” Ed asked, conspicuously not touching.

“Goodness no! It’s a classroom demonstrator. Our first mission-dedicated generators filled three rooms. It’s warm now—watch closely, I’ll shut it off.”

POP! A blue flash at the center of the contraption reminded me of high-school tricks with hydrogen. “What you saw,” Ooloorie lectured, “was a few air molecules interpenetrating the theoretical junction between two worlds. When the interface ceases to exist so do they—or try to.”

“And bigger machines make bigger flashes?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” Deejay answered. “In theory, the interface is two-dimensional; enlarging the area doesn’t appreciably enlarge its volume. Ordinarily, the flash is about the same unless some mass extends through the Broach—then you get a considerably bigger flash, believe me!”

“So you can’t use telephone lines. What would happen if you did?”

“And the field degenerated? It might take the roof right off this building.”

“So you decided to contact Meiss by … by mail. A wise decision.”

“We thought so. He sat there for five hours, reading the whole thing. I expected he’d write us a note back, and was ready to widen the Broach again, but he was ahead of us there—used his blackboard, which we could see and record easily.”

“You sent him the pen and the coins?”

“Eventually, and, I think, a cartridge from my Deane & Adams.”

“And here it is,” I said. “The whole bundle, except for the manuscript. I never saw that. Three guesses who’s got it!”

“Thank you, Win, though I’d rather he’d been able to keep it. Anyway, he began constructing his own Broach, but after a few preliminary tests, we stopped hearing from him. Then something wrecked our half of the mechanism, and now, here you are.”

“Yeah, here I are. How come I didn’t pop up here in this lab?”

“But the Broach is in the park, coextant with Vaughn’s laboratory! Didn’t you see our power shed? It was sitting beside the actual field locus, which was excavated to make the land contours match—blue, corrugated titanium?”

“Hell, I figured I’d been thrown hundreds or thousands of feet.” I began laughing. “The damned silly thing only tossed me over a hedge!”

Deejay, however, looked concerned. “That explosion still bothers me. We’d left pilot power on, because it takes so long to run up. After Vaughn missed his appointment, I finally let the engineers go, and was in class myself when the blowup came. When we got there, the excavation had fallen in. We just pulled up what was left of our pole pieces and shut the whole thing down.”

I thought back through the fuzziness of that afternoon. “Could the Broach be activated from the other side?”

“Yes, the way we designed it. A trickle current acts as a carrier, and—”

“Well, that solves one mystery. I turned the bloody thing on myself, by accident.”

“So I’d surmised,” Deejay said, “although the exact sequence—

“Might’ve been initiated already, by a little gremlin named Bealls?”

“Not unlikely,” she conceded. “The real question is what turned it off—collapsed the field?”

“You’re wrong,” Ed said grimly. “The question is what or who made it explode?” My stomach lurched and I had to sit down.

“And recall, my brilliant colleague,” said the fishbowl in the wheelchair, “that the effect is not symmetrical!”

Deejay paled. “Ooloorie, I hadn’t thought of that at all!

“What are you talking about?” I demanded, wondering what a man would look like after—

“Oh, Win, you were afraid your world might not still exist. Ooloorie’s saying that the force of the explosion isn’t symmetrical, it depends on the distribution of the interrupting mass!”


“I mean, the little bang that tossed you over the hedge was part of a much bigger bang on the other side! Let’s see now … no, we weren’t the initiating side, this time, so—”

“How much bigger?”

“I’m trying to figure that out! Ooloorie?”

A long, uncomfortable pause. “I can’t tell you. Transference was initiated on … I just don’t know.”

“Supposing the interrupting mass were a …” I hesitated. “There were five or six guys chasing me, and—”

Deejay’s head snapped in my direction. “The field collapsed because it overloaded!”

“Okay, suppose one of them got caught. The force of the explosion would depend on—ulp—on how much of him was in the Broach?”

“N-no, on—er, how much was left on the other side.” She looked a little green. It was nice having company.

“Suppose … suppose it was just his feet?”

“About the same as our explosion here, one to five micro-tons—about two ounces of pistol powder,” Ooloorie estimated.

“And—uh—if only his head made it through?”

“A thousand megatons, possibly more.” Perhaps her thrashing was a sign that she was upset, too. If the original explosion hadn’t done the job, certainly NORAD would have interpreted it as an attack: World War III, the end of the Earth I knew.

“Only one way to find out,” Ed said. I stirred from dismal contemplation.

“I concur,” said Ooloorie, flukes agitating violently.

“Y-yes, you’re right,” Deejay said.

“What in hell’s name are you people talking about?”

“Anybody got a shovel?” Ed asked. “We’ve got some digging to do in the park!”