Office of the Director, Dr. Edward Carlson
She wore a bright yellow t-shirt, white capri pants and white sneakers with no socks. Hair so sun-bleached as to be almost blonde, skin tan. She was older than Kala and had those wrinkles older people got from spending a life in the sun. She smiled when Kala entered the director's office and her teeth were perfect, white, and straight.
"Kala Kapur!" the woman said from her seat. She was leaning back, one leg slung over the other. Her hands clasped in her lap. "Great to finally meet you, have a seat." She nodded at the plush chair across the expansive desk.
Kala surveyed the director’s office. “Doctor,” she said reflexively, and sat down.
“Right, sorry. Absolutely. Dr. Kapur. Thanks for coming in.”
“Where’s Director Carlson?”
“He’ll be here, I wanted to talk to you alone first.”
“I’m trying to figure out what I did to get called into the principal’s office, or whatever this is,” Kala said looking around the small metal box.
“Nono, you’re not...heheh,” the woman chuckled, held up her hands, “you’re not in trouble. You’re not—the opposite, if anything I guess.”
“This doesn’t feel like the opposite.”
“Well, it’s a sort of grey area, I admit. This is going to get...strange.”
“It’s already strange.”
“I apologize in advance if I end up pulling the rug out from under you here. Part of the job.”
“Who are you?” Kala asked.
“Right?” the woman said, infuriatingly. “I wonder sometimes myself. Anyway, we’re just going to talk for a little while, get to know each other except not really,” she shrugged, “and just have a little...exchange of information.” The woman smiled, genuinely, like they were best friends. Like there was nothing in the world that could make her happier than being here talking to Dr. Kala Kapur.
“Am I free to leave?” Kala asked.
“Ummm, I don’t know, that’s a good question. Are you free to leave? I mean, maybe? Do you want to leave? Wouldn’t you like to know what all this is about? Mysterious person pulls you from your work? Why?”
“I already asked that,” Kala said. “Who are you?”
There was a brief pause as the woman looked at Kala, evaluating her, as though seeing her for the first time.
"I read a précis of the work you did on recombinant metadynamics when you were at Luna Actual,” she said, ignoring Kala’s question again. “Very interesting, even for a layperson."
Kala placed her hands flat on the mahogany table, leaned forward. "Who are you?"
The mysterious woman smiled. "I can't say I understood it all, but that's not really my department."
"Which is?" Kala got more insistent. “What do you do? Who do you work for?”
"How's your research here going?"
Kala sat back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest. "I'm not at liberty to discuss it. Mercury Isolate is double-orange clearance and above."
The woman sighed, sat up, pulled a briefcase out from below the table and opened it. "I'm not going to tell you my name," she said, pulling a thick manila folder out of the case, "Any name I gave you would be fake anyway.” The folder was labeled “DO NOT SCAN, EYES ONLY.”
From the folder she extracted a letter and handed it to Kala. “This should explain everything. Well, ‘everything,’ it explains enough.”
Kala read the letter, the signature at the bottom, the imprint. She read it again, checked the signature.
“I’ll follow up on this,” Kala said.
“Absolutely, yeah. Actually Ed…I mean, Dr. Carlson will be here in a little while and the three of us will have another talk, but I asked him to give me some time with you alone first.”
“And I don’t get to know your name.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, and seemed genuinely regretful, “it’s really to protect you. If you knew my name your value would increase to people I’d rather didn’t even know you existed.
“I can tell you," she continued, "I’m also a director here. I work for the same people you work for, ultimately. I was ah…,” the woman squirmed a little in her seat as though she was uncomfortable in the large, expensive chair. “I was the person who originally suggested we bring you on, back when I was Deputy Director. Ed Carlson will confirm that.”
“Ultimately,” Kala said.
“You said, you work for the same people I work for. Ultimately.”
“Oh. Yeah! Yeah I...I work for CMET, same as you. I’m just not in, ah…,” she waved a hand around, “the science business.”
“Transport?” Kala asked, dumbfounded.
“Hah, no. No my coat buttons up over a completely different set of duties,” she said archaically.
“I’m beginning to get a sense of that,” Kala said warily.
“Yeah, I know,” the older woman said with a shrug. “So, Doctor, how is your research going?”
“I’ve been sampling genetic material from sea slugs found on Redwood.”
“Mmmm,” the woman said. “Doesn’t sound very interesting.”
“Maybe not to a layman.”
“Yeah. Doesn’t seem strange to you? The great molecular biologist, working for years on slugs?” she said ‘slugs’ like the idea was absurd.
Kala peered at the woman. “Slugs are interesting.”
“Big production here," she raised one eyebrow. "Just to look at slimy things from a hundred worlds away?”
“It’s an interesting problem,” Kala said, a tone of challenge in her voice.
“More than you know,” the woman nodded slowly, as though Kala had confirmed something.
“What do you want?” Kala asked. “Why did you bring me here?”
“You're right. Good call,” the woman said. “Let’s get down to it. I want to ask you a question.”
“So ask,” Kala said.
“Sure. What’s delta-kay over eye-tee?” Her eyes squinted a little as she peered at Kala. She had pronounced crow’s feet at the edges of her eyes, like she’d spent a life laughing in the sun.
Kala’s face went blank. "Don't trust that, don't trust any of that. None of that has been peer reviewed. It never will be. Δk / it is...it can't be right."
“Well, I’m...I mean obviously I’m inclined to take your word for that, but I literally don’t know what it is.”
“Then why are you asking?”
“People who do know tell me it’s important. Tell me you’ve got the bull by the horns.”
“It’s not important, it’s wrong.”
“Yeah,” the woman said, sat up, and rifled through the papers in the folder, “but according to your notes, you wrote, ‘When I remembered the Patterson Transformation, I felt a bolt of lightning go through me. I knew it was the answer. I knew it. I felt like I’d known it all along. It’s insane. It’s the only answer.’”
“Those are my private journals,” Kala said, alarmed.
“Well, you asked what I do, I read other people’s journals,” the woman said almost as an aside. “You seemed pretty certain here,” she said, her brow furrowed.
Kala was breathing hard, angry. Tried to focus. She was being interrogated.
The woman looked at Kala, unblinking. When Kala didn’t answer, she looked at the paper, and traced her finger over the words. “’It’s insane,’” she glanced up at Kala, then back to the paper. “’It’s the only answer.’”
The woman sat back in her chair, crossed her arms lightly. Gave Kala a slight smile.
“So, what is it?”
“The letter you showed me said I have to cooperate with you. But my contract with Celestial gives me operational freedom...”
“Ah! Yes, operational freedom. Not freedom from intelligence.”
“Operations,” the woman pointed at Kala. “Intelligence,” she pointed at herself. “You are free to take your research in whatever direction you see fit, unburdened by managers or fellow scientists. You are not free to hide your work. I encourage you to check your contract. I brought a copy of it with me.”
She ferreted a copy of Kala’s contract from her briefcase and dropped the heavy document on the metal table. Kala didn’t even look at it. So the woman quoted it at her.
“You are required to disclose all processes, data, methods, results, and all internal memorandum covering discussion of the results, immediately, when requested to do so by the Corporation’s intelligence officers after having identified themselves as such, which I just did.”
She picked up the letter from Kala’s director, held it up, and put it back on the table.
Sitting back in her chair again she said; “Now then, Dr. Kapur. I ask you again. What is Δk / it?”
Kala turned her head and stared at the wall. “If you wanted my cooperation, you have spectacularly failed to earn it.”
“Dr. Kapur, I know how this sounds, but I am not your enemy. I am someone very interested in your research, I’m someone in a position to greatly expand the scope of your work, grant you access to...whatever you need to crack this problem.”
“And what do you think the problem is?”
“Alright, just to show willing, I’ll go first. The problem is the DNA in your ah...slug samples.”
“It’s not DNA, it’s HNA.”
“Which I was told means it’s artificial.”
“That’s science-fiction. It’s the kind of thing someone says when they’ve never tried it.”
“HNA is unstable, it explodes from the inside. The phosphates fly apart.”
“But your samples are stable.”
“Yyyes.” Kala admitted. "I'm certain there's a natural explanation for that."
“What?” the woman asked.
Kala said nothing.
The woman picked up the page from Kala’s journal, held it up as example. “Δk / it.”
She scooted her chair closer to the table, leaned forward. “So,” she said. “We have a problem, those, uh slugs. Huge problem for us. You have what seems to be a solution, Δk / it. I just want to know what it is. Help me understand.”
Kala took a deep breath. Gave in.
“Change in kaluzas,” she said slowly, “inverse to imaginary time.”
The woman smiled again, showing perfect white teeth. “Thank you! None of that makes sense to me.”
“The company funds an excellent university on Earth, it’s not too late to enroll.”
The woman actually laughed. “I’ve got the best teacher right here,” she tapped the table and then pointed to Kala, “and I’m dying to learn.”
“Kaluzas,” Kala said. “The unit of dimensional displacement.”
“It’s the measure of our ability to move something into Cherenkov space.”
“So…more kaluzas means larger ships?”
“That’s exactly it.”
The woman rocked back, clapped her hands. “I don’t know why no one told me that! They all wanted to explain something called Murakami radiation!”
“Minkowski. You were asking the wrong people,” Kala said, flatly.
“Delta just means ‘change.’ Delta-t would be a measure of how much time has passed.” She looked at her watch.
“Ahh, delta-k, change in dimensional displacement.”
“Ok, so, it? And the 'i' is always, like. . .italicized, I don't know if that's important.”
“And what is THAT?!” the woman asked, eyes wide.
“It’s how we measure time in Cherenkov space.”
The woman frowned as understanding dawned. “This have something to do with the Patterson drive?”
“Yes,” Kala nodded slowly.
The woman scratched her head. Her hair seemed stiff and brittle. “The Patterson drive?” she said to herself.
“You’re starting to get it.”
“Yeah but…I’m not sure I like it. It may explain some things.”
“Now you know why I said it’s impossible. Δk / it is at the core of the Patterson Transformations, it’s the breakthrough that gives us FTL, anti-gravity, force fields. What the hell is it doing inside a metabolic process in a bunch of nudibranchs?”
The woman bent over, put her elbows on her knees and looked at the floor for a few moments. She nodded her head. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. What is going on down there?” she asked, rhetorically.
She jerked her head up and looked at Kala. “Let’s find out.”
“I’m telling you it’s a mistake! There’s another answer!”
“Ah, let’s not be hasty,” the woman sat up. “Wouldn’t the next step be a test?”
“A test,” the woman said with a shrug. “Science. Test the damn thing, see if you’re right. You said you knew it was the right answer when you saw it. Let’s test it.”
“You don’t understand. It’s impossible.”
“Yeah, you keep saying that. Dr. Kapur, if you don’t mind my asking...what are you afraid of?”
“What?” Kala said, jerking her head back, scowling.
“I just asked how your research was going, which is...I mean isn’t that the kind of thing you normally talk about in the cafeteria? I ask here and I get nothing for ten minutes, I practically had to browbeat it out of you. Why? What are you afraid of? It’s not me! I haven’t done anything! It’s something else.”
Kala said nothing.
“If Δk/it was right,” the woman said, “what would it mean?”
Kala stared off into space, her mouth slightly open, her eyes dark. Time passed in silence. “It would mean...,” she said, her voice low.
The woman said nothing, allowed her to process it.
“It would mean there are creatures out there....”
“Yes?” the woman asked.
“It would mean there are creatures out there who can do what we do,” Kala said.
The woman nodded. “Force fields, anti-gravity. Even FTL.”
Kala shook her head. “There’s no way,” she said. “It’s impossible.”
The woman wagged a finger at Kala. “That’s a strange statement coming from someone who stole a mechanism that tricked energy out of from the quantum foam from an alien bacteria and transplanted it to an Earth bacteria.”
Kala couldn’t argue with that. She had been afraid. Afraid of the truth, of what it meant. That had never happened to her before.
“So!” the woman said, clapping her hands together. “Let’s test it! Science! That’s what you do, it’s what this whole place is for!” she threw her hands up.
“They’re just invertebrate sea slugs,” Kala said, mostly to herself. “What...evolutionary advantage would there be?”
“Forget about that for a minute,” the woman said. “What would you need to test it?”
Kala shook her head, exasperated. “I’d need Bohrium! And lots of it! It’s the most expensive substance in the galaxy!”
“I can get you as much as you need.”
Kala’s jaw dropped.
“Actually,” the woman said. “I can get you as much as you want. Which is way better.”
Kala blinked. “You’re serious.”
The woman smiled. “I told you I was on your side.”
“It has to be...” Kala started slowly. “The entire facility would have to be retrofitted to handle the radiation.”
“We have a facility ready,” the woman said.
“I’d need specialists in transuranic chemistry.”
“Got boatloads of them,” the woman said. “You can have your pick.”
Kala slowly turned to look at the woman.
“What are those samples?” she asked, her words coming out evenly, deliberately.
“Ah!” the woman held up a finger. “The sixty-four thousand dollar question.”
She opened the briefcase again, rifled through the papers inside. “And now, Dr. Kapur,” the woman said. Who uses paper? Kala thought. “We begin our journey down the rabbit hole.” It sounded to Kala like she was talking to herself.
She pulled a sheaf of full-page photographs on heavily inked paper from the top secret folder. Placed them on the table in front of Kala, one at a time.
“Goliath,” she said. Kala leaned forward and looked.
“Kraken,” the woman said, placing another picture on the table. Kala pulled out a magnifier from her pocket, leaned in and inspected the Goliath photo.
“Wraith,” the woman continued placing pictures on the table. “Behemoth. Gorgon. This one. Another one.”
Kala looked up, grabbed the last picture. “Good lord,” she said. “What is this thing?”
“I know, right? Crazy. Doesn’t even have a name yet.”
“Is that a man?” Kala pointed at a small figure in the corner of one picture.
“Ahhh, yeah. Yeah, looks like. Colonist, probably. Poor guy.”
“That means this thing is…ten meters tall! At least!”
“And that’s not the biggest one,” the woman said.
Kala rocketed out of her chair. “These are the nudibranchs?” She grabbed one of the photos, looked at it again.
“I want to preface everything that happens after this by saying it was not my idea to keep you in the dark,” the woman said.
“You lied to me!”
“Well, not me personally, but yeah. ‘We,’ Celestial, lied to you. I’m sorry.”
“How long have you known about this?!”
“Um…yeah.” The woman scratched her head. “Two years,” she admitted.
“Two…,” Kala’s arms dropped to her sides. She looked like someone had cut whatever strings had been holding her up. “Two years….”
“Kala. Kala, sit down.”
Kala made no indication she heard the woman.
The woman stood up, walked around to Kala and pushed her gently backwards until she half-sat, half-fell into the chair. “There we go,” the woman said, kindly. She sat on the edge of the table while Kala remained in shock.
“I was not part of the decision to keep you in the dark,” the woman said. “I know that sounds hard to believe, but Director Carlson will confirm it. It was my predecessor. He was an old school, sinister, spymaster. That’s not me. I inherited all his cloak and dagger programs.
“It was his policy that the subject be given as little data as possible so as not to…‘distract them with the ethical implications of the work,’ was the phrase he used. Asshole. He picked people he thought were…obsessed, no offense, and lied to them to keep them focused.”
“What have I been working on?” Kala asked, weary, desperate for something to hold on to. Two years of work, for what?
The woman took a moment to answer. She looked around the room, thinking of how to say it. Finally, she looked at Kala.
“We’re under attack,” she said.
“NORDITA took the biggest hit. We lost our Colony on Factor. Hub lost a whole colony ship. Everyone’s racing to find a way to stop these monsters and we just happen to have the greatest molecular biologist in the galaxy.”
Kala dully looked up at the woman seated on the desk. “Monsters,” she said.
“So,” the woman continued. “If it’s not too much trouble, we’d like you to figure out how these creatures work, so we can save the galaxy.”
“This is going to sound melodramatic, but a conservative estimate of lives lost is a little over three million people.”
“Three million…,” Kala echoed softly.
The woman went and sat back down in her chair.
“You understand why we kept this all hush-hush. If people knew what was happening out there….”
“What about me? What about if I had known?!” Kala was shaking off her stunned reaction. And she was angry.
“Well, you know now,” the woman said, avoiding Kala’s gaze.
“Why didn’t you tell me? I wasted the last six months!”
“This is top secret research, Celestial had to be sure we could trust you with sensitive data.”
Kala pounded the table, punctuating her sentence. “And people are DEAD! Because you didn’t give me the data I need!”
“What do you mean? You found Δk / it.”
“I spent six months following a dead end because you told me this was nudibranch genetic material! I only thought of the Patterson Transform when Tom said it would be easier if these things were more complex!”
The woman sat back, stunned. “Six months?”
“When the Wolff-Kishner reductions hit steric hindrance I rejected every solution that required a complex organism! Because you told me the pleural ganglia weren’t part of the compound ganglionic masses.”
“I don’t know what that...hang on, I didn’t tell you anything! I’m as much a victim here as you.”
Kala stood up, braced her arms on the table, her hands turned into fists, leaned forward. “Say that to me again,” she hissed, her body shaking.
The woman held up her hands, surrendered. “I’m sorry, you’re right. Please, Dr. Kapur, help me understand what this means.”
“It means these things...look...where’s that picture?”
She rifled through the documents in front of her. Grabbed the picture of the Goliath. “My god. I was right. What have you done?”
“Dr. Kapur I don’t understand.”
“THIS!” Kala slammed the picture of the Goliath on the table. “What does that look like to you?”
“A giant monster.”
“A humanoid monster. Bipedal, bilateral symmetry, binocular vision. It has a complex brain, nervous system.” She looked down at the picture, her voice dropped. “I bet it even has a cerebral cortex.”
“We have whole specimens, you’ll have access to them all.”
“Where?! Where have you been keeping these?” She gestured at the pictures.
“Preserved,” the woman said. “On Akhenaten.”
“Akhenaten?” Kala said, taken aback.
“You’ll get top secret clearance. Full transfer. Higher pay grade, if that matters which I know it doesn’t.”
“Akhenaten,” Kala whispered. The research station so secret its location was kept a mystery. Everyone acted like it was a fairy story. She now realized that wasn’t true. “I thought,” she said, tossing the pictures on the table. She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the table, the documents, the top secret pictures, the files, her contract, the letter from her director. “I thought Akhenaten was an urban legend.”
“Well that makes me happy,” the woman said. “Something’s working around here. I wish the corp pirates thought it was a legend.”
“That’s what you meant when you said you could get me Bohrium,” Kala said. “Transuranic chemists. A facility, you said you have a facility ready. You meant on the Akhenaten.”
“Yep. Celestial’s Advanced Projects Station has more Bohrium than you could use in a lifetime. It’s the biggest R&D project in the galaxy. There are more scientists and researchers working there than any single facility, even on Earth. And you’ll have your run of the whole place, anything that helps your research, you’ll get it.”
Kala was angry, but under control now. “I better. I better. If Δk/ it is right...you people. With your...stupid games. What have you done? People might have died!”
“Dr. Kapur a lot of people have died in the last six months. NORDITA had to evacuate Shear. 30,000 people from a class-6 colony. Almost 300,000 dead.”
“Because you didn’t give me good data,” Kala did not hide her disgust.
The woman nodded. “And that’s on me. I’ll take the fall for that. But those things are still out there and we need to understand how they work.”
Kala looked at Celestial’s spymaster. “People died because you didn’t tell me the truth.”
The woman shrugged. “We’re telling you the truth now. Will you help us?”
“I’ve been trying to help you for the last two years! I should be asking you that question!”
The woman had no answer for this.
The door opened. Director Carlson came in. Kala spun on him. “Did you know about this?” she held up the picture of the Goliath.
Ed Carlson held up his hands. “I just found out this morning,” he said casting a dark look at the blonde woman. “They should have told us the truth.”
Kala looked from her director to the woman and back. “If I thought you had anything to do with this....” She let her thought hang there. Then she stormed through the open door.
“I want those specimens!” her voice echoed from the corridor beyond.
Moments passed between the director and the mysterious woman.
“That could have gone better,” the director said.
“I’m not sure how,” the woman said ruefully, trying to organize the papers, get them back in the briefcase.
“Are you going to tell her?” Director Carlson asked. “Or should I?”
The woman gave up on the papers. Looked at the open doorway. “I don’t know. I wanted to tell her, I really did. I wanted to be honest with her.”
“But you saw the state she was in. And she’s right. She’s absolutely right. Those people died because we lied to her.”
“You don’t know that,” Director Carlson said. “It may be years before anyone learns how the Patterson Transformation applies here.”
“I don’t think so,” the woman said, shaking her head. “I think...I wanted to meet her. Get a sense of her. And I did. I think Dr. Kala Kapur will do anything to crack this. She’s a zealot.”
“I never saw her that way, before now.”
“There were never lives at stake before. Sometimes they go that way. Give a scientist a cause, tell them the work will save the world or stop a war...they’ll do anything. Go to any length. Heedless of the cost.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment.
“No,” the woman said, wearily. “Give her everything. Full access, all samples, all data. I don’t think Dr. Kapur will sleep until she cracks this. I know the type.”
“But otherwise keep her in the dark?”
The woman sighed. “Yeah. Up her security, transfer her and her staff on a normal black-out flight. Spin them around the station for a while and bring them back. Make sure the blackout is lifted on approach, give her a good view of the station, play it up. She’ll think she’s on Akhenaten and she will be on Akhenaten and at that point we’re clear. We can’t fix the past but we can stop lying to her about the present at least.”
“Risky. If she finds out the truth...”
“She’ll never trust us again. It’ll affect her ability to work. If it hasn’t already. That’s why we can’t tell her she’s been on Akhenaten the entire time." The woman used her fingers to straighten her hair. "I'm going to shut down the whole Blindfold project."
The Director looked at her sharply. "Are you sure? The last director was crazy, but he stopped CIG9 ever getting an agent here."
"Yeah," the woman suddenly seemed exhausted. "But at the same time, we don't have an easy way to leak intel to the Nine. And we need one now. Anyway, the whole project was insane from the start. I'm closing it down. Take the hoods off all the falcons."
"Thank god," Director Carlson said, relieved. "The effort required to keep everyone in the dark. Holograms, blackout fights, delayed transmissions, fabricated transmissions."
"And the risk if someone finds out," the woman agreed. "My predecessor was a complete shitheel but if we tell Dr. Kapur her time on Mercury Isolate was just smoke and mirrors…. She could have a psychotic break and I don’t know what would happen.”
“Well,” the woman said standing up, “nothing good’s going to happen until we can stop these creatures.” She grabbed the pile of papers and dropped them in a heap into the briefcase. Stared at the mess.
“It’s just a choice between evils at this point.”