Somebody has systematically exterminated every scientist involved with teleportation research except two: Thomas Muoka, who has sworn to abandon the project forever, and Anne Poole, who is suffering from massive brain damage. Not only this, but teleportation itself is also now physically impossible. Anne Poole has become invulnerable to physical harm and no longer requires air, water or food to survive.
Tom Muoka and Mike Murphy have been on the United Kingdom Advanced Physical Laboratory site since the morning.
"She can still see and hear," says Tom. "She can't be blinded. Her limbs cannot be overextended or wrenched, but they can be manipulated. She's frozen in time, but she can move. So something's wrong here. Sight and hearing depend on physical changes in the body. Chemical changes which precipitate electrical signals which convey messages. There is simply a point at which such chemical changes are so intense that they cause damage. Or where additional photons falling on the retina would cause damage rather than additional stimulation. Or where pushing the joint a little further would cause damage. But something's stopping her from passing that point. Understand? It's like there's a Platonic Ideal Form of Anne Poole's body. And she can't diverge from it to the point that her pain receptors would fire. So something is maintaining her physical state on an atomic level on a second-to-second basis. It doesn't make sense!"
Murphy climbs down from the high, domed roof of the Medium Preonic Receiver. The receiver is a wide, inverted parabolic dish enclosed in a modern brick facility. Half of the MPR's components are accessible by steel panels in the roof, the rest have to be reached by descending a short flight of steps into the bunker-like space under the dish. "Everything's good up there. Do you really think the A-Layer transmission has the answer?"
"All these things have happened at once. Ashmore disappeared from prison in broad daylight. The Michaelson Building - gone, permanently. I don't want to say it's punishment from God. I don't want to say Anne's an immortal being. But I can't deny it out loud," says Tom Muoka. "I'm too scared to deny it. All I can do is study the facts. That's what I'm here to do." He pokes a few final keys on his laptop, which is jacked into the MPL's systems, and an encouraging humming begins to build. "Almost done."
"Tom, the project never came to anything. I'm nearly retired. All the data is public--" says Murphy.
"We need to check it again. There has to be something missing."
Arika McClure and Jason Chilton are Powers, members of a series of people with superhuman strength and speed and the ability to fly. A new Power is born every year, each one twice as powerful as the last.
Watching a man you know kill another man, even indirectly, even if there might have been rational reason to do so, is a profoundly unnerving and sickening experience. Ching knows that he wasn't supposed to see what happened. What was supposed to happen was that he saw nothing, and was told that the sedatives had worked and Datu Dimasalang had stayed docile the entire time. And then, maybe, he'd be told that Dimasalang was shipped off home. Or maybe he'd be told that Dimasalang had died due to overdose. Or maybe Ching would have been held and forced to keep working on the problem regardless. Or maybe anything. But somebody dropped the ball. And luckily for Ching, he is a nice person. He has spent more time working directly with Jason Chilton (Nine) and Arika McClure (Eight) than anybody else. They like him. They trust him. They will do what he asks them to do.
Jason sets Ching down just outside the perimeter fence of the air base. Arika is not far behind. In the distance, one or two alarms begin sounding, but they have a minute or two before somebody makes it to their location.
"Ching, what is happening?" asks Jason.
"They killed Eleven. They killed a man. I just watched it. Maybe there was a half-way rational reason behind it. But this project is over now. If they think you're a threat, Jason, or, you're a threat, Arika, they'll kill you. Or me. Or anybody. We know what they're capable of, now. So it's over. All three of us are out now. Objections?"
"Nope," says Jason.
"They killed him?" says Arika. "Why would they kill him?"
"...Because Powers are threats. Okay? It's all based on fear. And despite everything I've tried to tell Moxon, despite all the good faith I gave him, he doesn't know any other way to deal with threats. So here's what we need to do. First priority is to protect our families..."
Ching's immediate family is his recent wife, Susie, who lives with him in their apartment in Brooksburg, a few miles south of the base. Susie knows that "Google" is just Ching's cover story and that he actually works for the United States Department of Defense, but she doesn't know any details beyond that. So far, this hasn't caused any friction. Most, if not all, of these facts are about to change, however, and Ching knows it.
Jason Chilton is married, with two children in primary school. A trans-Atlantic move would have been a monumental undertaking, so, for now, the Chilton home is still in Kent in the United Kingdom. His wife knows about everything that he can do, but his daily activities and tests on the base are protected by various U.S. secrecy laws and he has obeyed these thus far. As for his kids, he is supposed to be keeping everything secret from them, and besides, nobody they blabbed to would believe them, or so goes the reasoning.
In theory, Jason could and should spend the working week in America and be flown home to his family at the weekend by conventional civilian jet, for maximum discretion. In practice, he has found he can easily make a high-altitude trans-Atlantic morning commute and nothing Moxon or anybody else on the base can do could stop him from going home to his family every night. Nobody has reported a sighting so far, mainly because he travels by night, but summer is coming and the nights are getting shorter.
Arika McClure has no immediate family. She has no legal guardian. It's debatable whether she needs one, because she's nearly eighteen years old, and the Air Force is taking reasonable care of her so far, and in any case she's quite capable of making her own decisions, not that anybody other than Jason could possibly make her do something she didn't want to do, and... frankly, it's complicated. Sometimes she sleeps on the base, sometimes she sleeps on Ching and Susie's sofa, sometimes she just goes missing for a night. She saw the base counsellor once, at Ching and Jason's encouragement. The results were vague enough to be potentially alarming and since then she has turned down further offers of support. Nobody is quite sure what she wants and possibly nor is she. But she has no immediate family. Right now, Ching sees that as an asset.
"Arika. Your job is to go to Susie. I'll give you a word to tell her which will allow her to trust you. Tell her... tell her everything you know. Show her everything you can do. Keeping secrets beyond this point cannot possibly help. Get her trust and get her to pack up some essentials. Keep her safe in the house. If somebody comes, get out of there and take her somewhere safe. Don't tell me where it is. Don't tell anyone. Go out into the hills or somewhere nobody will be able to find you easily. Wait for Jason or me to come back for you. Jason: you and I are going to England. You can check your family and... well, say whatever you want. But you need to drop me off somewhere on the way. First you need to steal me the HV pod. And a satellite communicator. Then we can go."
"You really think they'll put Susie in danger?" asks Arika.
"I've seen them kill one person today," says Ching. "Right now I would believe anything. All I know is you're not faster than radio communications, not yet. The word is 'Houdini'. Go. Go!"
Minutes later, Ching is slouched inside the experimental hypervelocity pod, headed east. It is simply a conventional jet fighter with all wings, armaments and propulsion removed, and a big, heavy handle. The idea of the pod is to protect a human occupant while he or she is towed, at hypersonic speeds, by a Power. It's cosy and quiet and air-conditioned. Under Jason Chilton's power, it can get from Nevada to England in less than an hour, completely circumventing civilian air travel.
Ching broadcasts to Jason from the cockpit. At first Jason thinks he is just filling silence and doesn't pay much attention. "A few years ago there was a man called Mike Murphy who had an idea for faster-than-light communications. The idea was to send messages through a secondary plane of our universe with differing physical properties from our own, one where light was faster. The theory was all there, a dozen and a half different papers on the possibility. He got some people together and some funding and they built their equipment. And when they tried it out, they found that something was wrong.
"There was nothing in there. Over small scales - millionths of a metre - the signals worked fine. But they dropped off to zero amazingly rapidly - geometrically, with the sixth power of distance. The mathematics said they were supposed to drop off linearly; slowly enough that a signal would still be audible after passing through the Earth. You see, the universe has extra dimensions. We've known that for a long time. But they were supposed to be wrapped around on themselves, containing the energy like light in a fibre optic cable. They'd been unravelled. The extra energy was just being drained away into empty dimensions.
"And instead of being able to transmit anything of their own, all they could do was receive a single message, circulating around and around the extra dimensions they were trying to harness. A textbook. It started from the most basic principles of one plus one-- and it was months, years before anybody managed to translate enough of it to figure this out-- and built up the theorems of mathematics and the theories of physics, the laws of motion, and electromagnetism, and relativity, and quantum mechanics, and string theory, and... and it kept going. Even FTL communications. There was everything we knew about science. Hundreds of years of scientific discovery whittled down and presented economically in blunt black and white pages. And there was more. Think of physics as a series of milestones. I've just named five of them. There were more. At a glance, a hundred more, and the message went on long enough to contain another million.
"I was one of the people who helped discover this message. But the man who broke through the text was not me. He was named Jim Akker. He was Dutch. A linguist with a passing interest in mathematics. The Book or the Manual or the Rules or whatever you want to call it had been put online because it was felt that a team effort would stand a better chance of translating it, but not enough people looked at it, or those who did got five pages in and gave up in boredom, assuming that there would be nothing of note... which is fair. The document is huge. Intimidating. And not at all transparent. I can see why one would quit a short way into it. Akker was the first person to reach the first examples of new and unknown mathematics and physics. And he started putting the information he'd discovered online.
"Then Akker - who unfortunately had some fairly severe personal problems - committed suicide. Most of what he'd learned sadly died with him - the tattered, sketchy notes he left behind were more or less illegible, even to a native Dutch speaker, and access to his personal computer was denied by his family. I believe the machine may even have been destroyed by now.
"Since then, we've been scrambling to pick up the pieces. And I, personally, have been trying to find some kind of explanation for what you and your cousins, can do. Because I think it's in there, somewhere. What you're doing looks like magic, but it must be explainable somehow."
"So who wrote this message?" asks Jason on the radio.
"We don't know. Nobody knows. But it's interesting, because whether it was written by a human being or not, it's been totally accurate as far as anybody has been able to tell. FTL communications matched our observations and the message described that. Recently, teleportation technology was developed in line with what was discovered in the message and there was agreement there too."
"I thought teleportation was a failure," says Jason.
"Well, kind of. It's never worked properly, in the way we wanted it to, but it does work. But here's the thing. Last night, the message changed. The message is on two channels, right? Channel three has all this information, saying 'this is all possible'. But channel two is like a qualifier. It says, 'actually, no. FTL transmissions aren't allowed'. For whatever reason. At first, I thought it might be that we need to pay for access or something, but I've reconsidered that. It's something else. And that channel two message changed last night. It got longer."
"And what does it say now?" asks Jason.
"I don't know. I didn't have time to decode the new input and I didn't have time to transmit it to a safe location. All I knew is I didn't want the Power project to have access to more knowledge than they already have. So I broke their machine. And where we're going now is the site of the original machine which I helped build. To retrieve the new message."
"And what happens once you've done that?" asks Jason. "What if someone does come after us?"
Ching stares at the streaming clouds and ocean. "I don't know. I... I don't know. Let's just do this. It's important that we do this. GPS says we're coming up on the British mainland."
"Ching, is my family going to be at risk?" asks Jason.
"With you protecting them?" Ching starts giving more detailed directions. Within a few minutes, they have located the stately Lincolnshire home which the United Kingdom Advanced Physical Laboratory stands nearby. It's mid-afternoon, local time. Jason drops altitude, to make a relatively inconspicuous approach. He drops Ching off behind a small grove of trees behind the facility, where Ching thinks they should be unseen. Ching takes his laptop and a few other small pieces of electronic equipment from the cockpit, and stuffs the latter into his pockets.
"Now you can go to your family. Make sure they're safe. Take them somewhere safer. Then... I don't know. We'll all have to meet up again somehow. Sooner or later these communicators will be disabled remotely. I'll think of something. Just go."
Jason leaves the HV pod behind the trees, and arrows into the sky and angles south, without another word said. Ching watches, shielding his eyes from the sun until the dark blue dot is too small to be noticed against the sky. Then he begins to wade through the trees and up the hill towards the MPR.
"Where did you come from?" asks a voice as he is halfway up. Ching stops, and looks up at the tall, thin scientist looking back down at him. He doesn't know who Tom Muoka is, but he does know that there are no footpaths approaching the MPR from this direction and the man is probably wondering why he didn't hear an approaching car.
"Let's come back to that," says Ching. "Who are you?"
"Who's that?" says another voice. It's Murphy, poking his head over the top of the MPR. "Ching?"
"Mike! Mike? I want to reactivate the Receiver. What's going on?"
Mitchell Calrus is a seemingly ordinary human being who can move and see through solid objects, and turn himself invisible.
Seph Baird and Mitch Calrus wind along narrow country roads in Seph's minuscule cyan Nissan. Seph is a capable but terrifying driver, and Mitch is carsick. Mitch has toyed with the idea of phasing them both through anything they collide with, but the prospect of winding up partially phased through a mountain of twisted metal is even more terrifying than that of simply crashing, so he is simply trying to concentrate on the scenery and hold onto his lunch.
"The most immediate conclusion would be that you're passing the atoms between each other," says Seph. "Rearranging the atoms from each object so that they don't interfere with one another in stasis, then putting them all back into position afterwards. Like in your comic books. But that's obviously impossible. You would need direct, conscious knowledge and control over every atom in your body - including the ones in your brain which do the controlling. And, when you're linking the two glasses, you're even controlling particles outside your body, with which you're not in direct contact. And while an inanimate object would theoretically survive that process, applying it to yourself, living tissue, particularly nerve tissue like your brain, would be fatal.
"So the answer is a little bit more complicated. I think you're moving through another dimension. Our space is laid out in three dimensions in which we move freely, but other spacial dimensions have been theorised endlessly."
"I thought time was the fourth dimension."
"There is no 'the' fourth dimension, there's your usual three, and then the rest. Time can be modelled as a dimension. It sometimes helps. But sometimes it doesn't. Anyway, you're not a time traveller. I'm talking about a fourth spacial dimension. Okay, imagine the universe was a flat table. And we're all flat objects on the table."
"Fine, Mitch, beer mats. Embedded in the table. All we can do is slide around on the surface of the table. We see only a thin slit of reality, we can't climb out of it. What I think you've done is found a way to climb out of it.
"Beer mats are pretty good actually. So, ordinarily we just slide around. But because beermats have thickness, if we meet, we collide, we can't move through each other. But if you lift yourself up by just a fraction, you can slide over the top while I stay where I am. From a 3D viewpoint, it looks like you're passing through me, but you're actually sliding over the top of me. Now, this is the extra bit: if you stop, and try to relax back to three dimensions---you get stuck. There is pressure, from above and below."
"Like pint glasses on top of them."
"Kind of. Actually it's more like the beer mats are really heavy. This would be why we're compressed to just three dimensions. Because of the weight. Or possibly some kind of physical barrier. When you relax, you default to our plane like everybody else in the world. So... you aren't likely to fall to the centre of the Earth while you're asleep, if that's been worrying you. But, if you put two objects on top of each other, the pressure creates friction, and, while they don't actually interfere with each other at the atomic level - necessarily - they can't move. Which is how your tricks work. When you're tangible, that's because you're in real space. When you're intangible, or invisible, your bodily structure is kind of rippling into the fourth dimension. (All except for the soles of your feet, of course.) And you seem to be able to apply these perpendicular forces to other objects you're in contact with, like cutlery and your clothes. I can model this mathematically if you want."
Mitch is ecstatic. "I was told you were smart! Awesome! I got it, I got it: I can be 'The Four-Dimensional Man'. That's pretty good. Too bad my real name isn't alliterative."
"Fine. I've told you what you can do. But I've opened up about a million additional questions. I have no idea how you do it, what the mechanism is, or why you are the only person who can. Look: additional dimensions were predicted a long time ago. In theory. There is a substantial amount of evidence, right now, that they may even exist. But nobody ever, ever predicted that they would be accessible by an ordinary-- by what appears to be an ordinary human being without equipment."
"So we still need to figure out my secret origin."
"Which is why we're here," says Seph, turning off the main road and heading up a narrower one, past a slightly overgrown sign saying "UKAPL". Mitch doesn't catch the smaller writing underneath it but Seph explains anyway. "This is the United Kingdom Advanced Physical Laboratory. It was built a few years ago."
"This is where they found the weird message which you mentioned?"
"This is where they found the weird message which nobody has managed to decode much of yet. There's two reasons we're here. One is that you have X-ray vision. I figured that out. You can't see in X-rays. Your head just doesn't have the hardware. That's ridiculous. What you're seeing is light bent through the fourth dimension. When you look inside something, you're angling your eyeball to catch light which isn't sent straight through the third dimension, but around all the obstructions. In 4D you can just pass through stuff, and so can some light."
Seph parks the car in the small car park. There is one other car already there, which gives Mitch brief pause for thought, but Seph is still chattering away happily as she pulls out her rucksack and locks the doors. "Right. Then the problem becomes darkness. How come you can see an apple in my bag and tell me that it's green? And see my internal organs in red and purple and whatever? The bag is dark inside. I am not internally lit. That means that some light must be coming in from the fourth dimension. Then it must be bouncing off the particles of the object you're looking at, being partially absorbed - hence the colour - and then reaching your eye. The photons can move through 4D but they obey an arc, maybe a parabola, maybe something else. Which means that the Sun must be giving out this superlight all the time. Which is why you can't use your X-ray vision on the Sun! Try it."
It's early afternoon. Mitch tries it. "Ow." He blinks until the spots go away. For a moment he thinks he sees something actually moving in the air, but in a moment it's gone.
"Now: four-dimensional superlight. It's mentioned in the Eka Script. We'd probably have discovered it ourselves within a few decades. So now we know that it exists. It's a real phenomenon."
"The weird message. We call it the Script or the Message or the Manual or the Document or whatever. Eka is just a name somebody came up with. Eka is the language it's written in. Anyway: 4D imaging is a mind-bogglingly powerful tool, Mitch. We're talking magnetic resonance imaging plus plus plus. Imagine a surgeon who can wield a scalpel in 4D. But then imagine a soldier who can walk through walls. Or a thief. Or anything. Basically, what I'm saying is: we are standing on a terrifyingly tall diving board here. If you're not a complete one-of-a-kind genetic abnormality, the whole world might be about to go sideways."
"Okay... You mentioned there was a second reason I'm here?"
Before Seph can answer, they come around the corner to the front of the Medium Preonic Receiver and there are the rest of the people: Ching, Mike Murphy and Tom Muoka. "Hello," says Seph.
"Did you tell other people?" hisses Mitch.
"No," says Seph. "I don't know why they're here. Why are you here?"
"Seph!" cries Ching, rushing forward and enthusiastically greeting Seph for the first time in several years. "What are you doing here?"
"Are we expecting many more people?" sighs Mike Murphy.
"I wasn't expecting anybody," says Ching. "I was expecting to be on my own. But I'm glad you're here, Seph. We need your help. We need to talk."
What a coincidence, that they'd all come together at the same location at the same time.
There was a war in Heaven and the debris fell to Earth.
As they work, Ching, Mike, Tom and Seph tell each other what they know. Ching doesn't say anything about his flying companions; without hard proof, there would be no point in attempting to convince his colleagues of what he's seen with his eyes. Instead he tells them everything he's learned about the Message since they last spoke, which isn't much, and he tells them that he may... just may... have discovered something one might come to call "antigravity". Seph, likewise, only reveals that she has discovered proof that 4D superlight exists; not how she arrived at this conclusion. For the moment there is little need to prove these facts. There will be time for that.
Tom tells the long and increasingly disturbing story of teleportation science and Anne Poole. Mike Murphy has little to tell. And Mitch Calrus drifts away from the increasingly technical discussion, eventually seating himself on the roof of the MPR where the view is best, playing on his PSP. For now, he lets them think he's with Seph, which is, broadly speaking, true.
Within minutes, Ching has been provided with a fresh printout of the new message. After an hour he has confirmed the group's suspicions. They gather on the roof, near the hacked-together live readout, not far from where Mitch is seated, ignoring them. The sun's setting.
"The Eka Script has changed," says Ching. "There was never any doubt about that. Up until recently, the message on channel two said that FTL communications were not available to us, because some inexplicable parameter was out of range. Last night, something else was added to the list of things which are not available. Teleportation. It's been switched off."
"You told me it was about access permissions," says Mike Murphy. "You said, and these are your exact words, 'we need to buy a more expensive broadband package'."
Ching smiles. "I know. That was a joke. A guess. Maybe the A-layer is a natural formation and maybe it isn't. Maybe it is about something vaguely resembling money but it could be something else entirely. It could be that FTLC consumes a finite resource which ran out some time ago. Maybe teleportation works the same way. All we can say for sure is that somebody's behind it all."
"I don't think that's necessarily true," says Muoka. "Almost everything we've discovered so far has to do with meaning/medium duality. The meaning of an object and its physical existence are independent from one another. You can tell something what it should be. You can take what-it-is away from it. Information as substance. You say somebody had to have authored the message. I don't think... maybe there doesn't need to be an author. If the message is part of the universe, it's information. Maybe it doesn't need to be artificial."
"It has prime numbers in it! It has grammar and vocabulary!" says Ching.
"It could just be a state definition. Boundary conditions for the Big Bang, maybe with a few twists. Here's what I think. Our universe and the Eka Script are the same thing, presented from different angles. As if one is a shadow of the other. Or they're both shadows of the same larger object. When one changes, so must the other. Which implies that an effected change to channel two could have shut out TP universally," says Muoka. "Or vice versa."
"Two objections," says Murphy. "One is that it can't be that simple. The mere idea of a self-modifying p-brane frightens me because self-modifying systems can modify themselves to be all but unmodifiable. And the other is that this message is about a million times longer than could ever be necessary to describe our entire universe. What can there possibly be in the rest? Shredded newspaper?"
"Ching ran a frequency analysis and it's definitely coherent all the way through," says Seph.
"Unless there's more to the universe than we know," suggests Mitch, arriving behind them all. He has his earphones out and his game turned off. He has been listening. "Just saying."
"A million times more?" asks Murphy, glaring at Mitch.
Mitch shrugs. "Why not? Maybe the power is being pulled from extra dimensions. We know they exist. I know you do, because I can't see through part of this machine."
"That's because it's partially four-dimensional," says Seph. "That's how it works. I wanted to see if you could tell."
"What's he talking about?" asks Murphy. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
Mitch points downwards, towards the middle of the MPR's structure. "This is an inverted parabolic dish, right? It's right there at the focal point. Opaque even in 4D. I just noticed it. Like a thumbtack, with the point aimed up through hyperspace. It's weird as hell."
"Mitch, don't--" begins Seph.
Mitch bends down and reaches into the roof of the Receiver. He reaches down towards the focus, reaching through the brick and aluminium like a ghost.
"What's he doing? What's he doing?"
Mitch touches the sharp, rapidly oscillating 4D obstruction. It wobbles against his fingers, gives him a mild electric shock, and then collapses, crushed back down into three-dimensional space. As it falls, it leaves a momentary wormhole in hyperspace, a gap between regular reality and whatever is lying on the other side of it. The hole slams shut within femtoseconds, of course, but that is enough time for information to strike through it, like lightning.