Below the jump. Notes:
- This is the free version, which I am posting, à la Sarah Hoyt, for feedback. It’s ≈6,100 words, so reading time is 15-30 minutes unless you divert to checking the math and science—which is probably something I would do if somebody else were dropping a reading assignment like this on me. If so, consider it extra entertainment value (but see #5, below). Still more entertainment value will accrue to those familiar with a certain educational establishment we should all know, if not necessarily love.
- The paid version will be one story in a collection that is well underway and which I hope to publish by about the end of 1Q23. I expect all the stories in that collection will be science fiction; all the ones I’ve worked on so far are. Most will (unlike this one) be alternate histories.
- The paid version will also have been revised and lightly edited for, among other things, internal consistency and a general … excess of Manifoldness in spots.
- I already have an editor. Publication will, at least initially, be for e-reader devices only.
- This is a work of fiction. It includes fictional devices, in the technological as well as literary sense. Attempts at explaining to me how nonexistent technologies really work may be met with “Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”
- Math corrections are OK, though.
- As no less a personage than David Goldman (“Spengler”) said about his The Quantum Supremacy: An Entertainment, if you have half as much fun reading this as I did writing it, I will have succeeded. (FWIW, I had fun reading TQS.)
Someone said, “it’s time,” and teacups clinked into saucers as our entourage filed out of the ornately-paneled Common Room in Eckhart Hall. Outside, golden-yellow autumn leaves drifted down onto damp flagstones from the cathedral canopy of engineered Himalayan elms overhead. Our robus waited at the curb on University Avenue. As we stepped up to its door, the AI asked the team members to board first, addressing each of us separately: “Vik Das? Gil Mazandarani? Lee Yang?” Inside, we flung duffel bags of personal effects onto luggage racks and sprawled onto seats. Relatives, campus functionaries, and politicians followed us aboard.
The robus closed its doors, pulled away, and turned east on 57th toward Lake Shore Drive. A couple of minutes later, the Museum of Science and Industry loomed on our right. A score of vehicles similar to our own disgorged or collected swarms of schoolchildren on field trips. Teachers glanced nervously around, waggling index fingers in counting motions. “It could have looked like that a century ago,” said Vik. “Just change the buses a little and add human drivers.”
We swung north on LSD, and presently turned west onto the Stevenson, then north on the Ryan. Our view of the Loop was dimmed by drizzle, but the truncated outlines of partially-rebuilt skyscrapers were evident. “That looked like that a century ago, too. Those buildings were about the same height,” said Lee. “Just not as ‘hot’ … although I heard the other day that residual radioactivity is down to only about ten rems a year in Millennium Park. Even lower in Greektown. My father”—he nodded toward the rear seats—“was supposed to be at a matinée performance at the Goodman Theatre the day of the Wolf Point Nuke. Some random thing came up and he couldn’t go. So here I am.”
“I wonder what campus would be like now if the wind had been out of the north instead of the northwest?” I asked.
“Gone,” said Vik. “That thing was buried under six meters of water and two meters of mud. Lots of extremely nasty fallout. Everybody who didn’t hole up in a basement for a couple of weeks, and then clear out and stay away for twenty years, would have gotten a fatal dose. The B-school used to have a building in Streeterville. Almost all the faculty was there that day. None of them survived. Decontamination and reconstruction turns out to be a lot easier than replacing people.”
We turned onto the Eisenhower and sped up nicely; half an hour of meandering conversation later we were dropping off at Kirk Road and pulling into Fermilab. A knot of reporters and one white-haired man in a suit met us as we stepped off the robus in front of the towering wishbone of Wilson Hall. We struck twentieth-century-astronaut-like poses and murmured laconic, confident-sounding answers to questions as we strode into the fifty-meter-high atrium, duffels slung over our shoulders. The elderly man was the director himself, Johanson, who proved to be the sort of dignitary with a talent for putting youngsters like us at ease. He led, trailed by the reporters, to elevators to the observation deck on the fifteenth floor, where there were seats for the team and a podium for him.
Johanson stepped up to the podium, positioned so that the old Tevatron ring would appear in the background of the reporters’ imagery, briefly introduced us, and then described the mission. “These graduate students are collaborating on a program of deep investigation of the event that formed the Phoenix Nebula, also known as NGC 7842. This object is located in the southern sky, over forty degrees south of the celestial equator and about twenty degrees southeast of the first-magnitude star Fomalhaut, which you can see from Chicagoland low in the south in early evening at this time of year. The Phoenix Nebula’s formation event is believed to have been an electron-capture supernova. The team will observe the explosion at many wavelengths, ultraviolet as well as visual, and perform chemical spectroscopic analysis of the circumstellar material.
“Since no supernova within the Milky Way Galaxy has been seen since shortly before the invention of the telescope, all current knowledge of the nebula is derived from imagery which is necessarily historically recent. This mission will be the first to utilize the capabilities our facility provides to observe a relatively nearby supernova during its explosion and period of peak luminosity.
“The team’s observation module, the Simurgh, will be injected directly into polar geosynchronous orbit at an epoch shortly before the time when we believe the neutrino and optical wavefronts from the supernova traversed the Solar System, over two millennia ago on our world line. If all goes as expected, the team will remain in space, gathering data until retrieval, scheduled for fifty-eight days after injection.”
He tapped a pattern of glowing icons on the podium. “A star map, images of the Phoenix Nebula, specifications of the Simurgh, and an orbital diagram have just been released from embargo and transmitted to your devices. We have a few minutes for questions.”
“Won’t the Simurgh be visible to people on Earth back then, and start legends?”
“No, it will be a hundred times farther away than a satellite in low Earth orbit, and therefore seventh-magnitude or fainter in spite of its size—at least two and a half times too faint to see with the unaided eye.”
“So, a couple of months of data-gathering for them. How much time will pass here?”
“The same—with only an imperceptible correction for gravitational time dilation, since the Simurgh will be forty thousand kilometers higher in Earth’s gravity well. Our technique allows for over a hundred light-milliseconds of spatial displacement, but the temporal displacement remains constant throughout the mission.”
“Will the Simurgh be re-entering the atmosphere and landing on a runway? Part of it looks … aerodynamic.”
“Not unless some hazardous condition occurs.”
“Uh … such as?”
“How many of you have been beyond low Earth orbit?” Most hands went up.
“Did you get a prescription?” Nods.
“That was for a synthetic triterpenoid, to protect you from galactic cosmic rays. This team will have those. And orbital debris is nonexistent in the target epoch, over nineteen centuries before spaceflight. So the obvious possibility for real danger is a coronal mass ejection from the Sun, which would require the team to take shelter inside Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere. That means reaching Earth’s surface, and doing so within twelve hours of detecting a CME. The Simurgh carries a pair of smaller telescopes to monitor both the Sun and Earth, and is capable of a controlled deorbit and water landing in such an emergency.”
“What happens then? Does the team send some kind of SOS?”
“No—there is no way to transmit a distress signal to the present. If a landing is necessary, the team has been instructed to select an uninhabited location. In any case, retrieval will occur on the same schedule, back to the injection facility here.”
For the final image-op we donned coveralls, white with—inevitably—maroon piping, and posed in various groupings with families, Congressional delegations, department heads and faculty advisors, etc., all in front of a backdrop showing a graphic of the original mythical simurgh paired with the University’s phoenix-and-flame seal. Then mildly awkward goodbyes, and we were escorted to a separate elevator to a sub-basement and rode an electric cart through hundreds of meters of corridor to the new Simurgh.
The main cabin was three crash couches in a triangle, mine forward, Lee’s and Vik’s to port and starboard just aft. Each of us had a triptych of screens within easy reach, grab bars for zero-gee, and netting for our personal effects. The countdown checklist could have done for an Apollo flight nearly nine decades prior: “Attitude determination and control … ADC is go … command and data handling … CDH is go … power … PWR is go … thermal control … THR is go … structures and mechanisms … STM is go … guidance and navigation … GNV is go.”
With one telling exception. “Communications … internal COM is go.” Internal COM. Where we were going, there wouldn’t be radio for another nineteen hundred years.
Fictional conventions notwithstanding, there is no physical sensation when the Peshkin Temporal-Spatio Displacer is activated. No sudden jolt, no blurred star trails in a front viewport, nobody passes out or loses concentration for minutes on end—not even a momentary feeling of discontinuity. One second you’re in Batavia, Illinois, +2057 November Gregorian, and the next you’re in microgravity far above the Galapagos Islands, late –5 Gregorian, and moving southeast at three kilometers a second. We were strapped in, mildly doped up on anti-emetics, and presumably capable of whatever physical tasks would be required, thanks to hours of practice in a “vomit comet” over Lake Michigan, weeks earlier on our timeline.
“That’s one small step for a man …” I intoned.
“One giant leap for grad-student-kind,” said Lee.
“The checklist, gentlemen,” said Vik. “Solar and terrestrial ’scopes first. Shahinshah Gil, want to do the honors?”
“By the power of the Peacock Throne, I command thee,” I said, jabbing at icons on my left-hand screen with a stylus. On my right-hand screen, the forward optical module unfolded like origami, and two stubby cylinders the size of rain barrels swiveled to point in different directions. My center screen split vertically to show the Sun on its left half and Earth on its right half. “Significant sunspot activity. Earth looks weird with no city lights. Might be interesting to look for forest fires or range burning.”
“Well, then, go ahead and fire up the hyperspectral imaging camera and see if you can … smoke something out.”
“You owe me a pizza for that. OK, hypercube data set initialized and accumulating.”
“Neutrino detector,” said Lee.
“Gonna be a long couple of months if this thing doesn’t work,” I muttered, tapping more icons. Now the center screen showed what looked like a very large, complicated cube puzzle, the size of a house and with a hundred panels on each face, but all the same charcoal-gray color. As it drifted away from the Simurgh, individual segments began to detach and slide toward the edges. “So far, so good. Linear configuration and target acquisition in seventeen minutes.”
An hour later we were finished: onboard systems all checked and rechecked; UV-vis spectrophotometer deployed alongside the solar and Earth-imaging ’scopes; neutrino detector now a kilometer-long straw a meter in diameter, filled with liquid pseudocumene and pointed within a few microradians of the candidate star; hyperspectral cube of Earth coming along nicely.
“The Committee on Geographical Sciences will go nuts when they see this,” said Vik. “We’re getting twenty-meter resolution in the visual and pulling in wavelengths from three hundred nanometers out to four microns. A few more days and we’ll have the entire planet mapped. Land use, urban areas, coastlines, you name it.”
Weeks passed. Having a well-stocked library, we partook of our share of entertainment, interactive and otherwise, and occasionally squabbled over access to the cupola, a feature of the Simurgh inspired by the one on the International Space Station, installed nearly half a century before our own time. Ours was a solid hemisphere of clear sapphire glass ten millimeters thick and a meter in diameter, nanofabricated in one piece, with no framework or separate windows. In the antisolar direction, stars like diamonds on black velvet were strewn across half the sky, gathering into glowing clouds along the galactic equator.
From Hyde Park, the “Great Chicago Nebula,” as we called it—skyglow from millions of LED street lamps—obliterated everything but the Moon, the five brightest planets, and a handful of first-magnitude stars. The view was better from, say, the countryside around Kankakee, but nothing south of about –45° declination would ever be above the horizon.
But from here we could see everything, down to at least sixth magnitude and from celestial pole to pole; the entire Winter Milky Way, from Cassiopeia to Auriga, cascading east of Orion through the Winter Hexagon, plunging down past Canis Major to Carina, with the Magellanic Clouds just to the west in the far south.
We dutifully took our meds for the millisievert or so a day of radiation hitting us, but stopped taking sleep restrictors and thereby started sleeping eight hours in twenty-four instead of two—mildly disrupted by the occasional flash of Cherenkov radiation as cosmic rays sleeted through our retinae. There just wasn’t any point in being awake nine-tenths of the time anymore. We talked about covering shifts but rejected that idea. Any real problem would sound an alarm that would alert us all in a few seconds anyway, much faster than we would need to react to it.
But we were anticlimactically wide awake in the middle of our day when the CME came. Every display in the cabin lit up and began sounding a thousand-hertz beep at ninety decibels, like all the robuses in Chicago backing up at once.
Lee slid into his crash couch and poked at his center screen. “Let me pull up our map … our drivers are that we have to add a comm link to the optical module, jettison and repoint it, and incidentally land ourselves alive and intact, before that thing gets here. I, for one, want to be somewhere with line-of-sight to the supernova. Unlikely as it may seem, we might notice something visually that isn’t obvious in the data.
“Restrainers: delta-v to deorbit from up here is about three thousand meters a second. We’ve got maybe a fifteen per cent propellant contingency for maneuvering. We can’t land in the daytime or within a couple of hours of sunset or sunrise; might scare some locals. Time-of-flight on a Hohmann transfer ellipse is, let’s see … five and a quarter hours, all other things being equal. So we’ve got to fire those retros in less than seven hours, and our options will be down to nothing if we don’t pick a spot well before then. Ground track is pretty high-inclination, thanks to our orbit. We have to land on water and ride up onto a shoreline.
“With those stipulations, gentlemen, here’s our landing ellipse. Any preferences?”
I pointed. “That spot looks interesting. A lake has to be safer than the ocean. As long as there are no people around …”
“Nobody lives on that peninsula. And the body of water around it is exceptionally saline, which is good for buoyancy. Vik?”
“Looks good to me. Unanimous. Let’s get down there.”
Four hours after local sunset, we heaved ashore north of Cape Molyneux on the Lisan Peninsula, having touched down five kilometers southwest at a hundred meters a second and plowed a tremendous wake as we decelerated, through fantastically dense water nine times as salty as the ocean. A waxing Moon, in conjunction with Jupiter just to its south, was setting in the west over the mesa-like profile of Masada. We clambered outside, clumsy in one gee after a month and a half of weightlessness, to spread camouflage netting over the Simurgh. The air temperature was a reasonable 18°C and the humidity perhaps 30%. After we finished we watched the aurora, a green shimmer low on the northern horizon, as charged particles from the Sun slammed into Earth’s ionosphere. “Total energy of twenty megatons or thereabouts,” said Lee. “Fortunately spread out over a few million square kilometers.”
“You know, the Oriental Institute would scream if they knew we were sitting here doing nothing,” Vik said.
I was ready for him. “So throw a robe on. Translator AI and earbuds go under a turban. We’re moderately exotic travelers from the East. We even look like it. Not an African or European in the bunch.”
“And we eat and drink what, exactly, that won’t make us so sick we can’t walk?”
“The nanofabricator doesn’t need more than five or six kilos a day of feedstock for each of us, and it recycles all but a few grams of it. We can live on our regular diet and won’t run out of anything.”
“How are we supposed to schlep that thing with us? It’s bigger than the proverbial breadbox. And I want our comm gear. What if the neutrino detector goes off?”
“The mechano-fabricator can build a robot that will be big enough to carry everything.”
“A robot. That won’t attract any unwanted attention.”
“Not if it looks like a camel. I’ve been thinking about this. We can probably even make it smell like one. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from everyday reality.”
Lee broke in. “We need valuables, for a cover story if nothing else. We’re from a long way away and only have the one beast of burden, so nothing bulky.”
“Specie,” I said. “Trade goods … probably aromatics; they’ll help cover up any unusual odors.”
“Can we get gold from the water?”
“Forget it—it’s on the order of a hundred micrograms per cubic meter of Dead Sea water. It’d take years for us to extract a useful amount.”
“That leaves the aromatics. We’ll have to trade them for money.”
“Where?” asked Vik.
“Ein Gedi,” I said. “Twenty kilometers north-northwest. We’ll have to cross the water, at night. We can fabricate a boat and break it down after we land.”
“How much of the aromatics?” asked Lee. “A few kilos is one thing—we can synthesize them in a couple of hours. If it takes a tonne of the stuff, we’ll need more camelbots. Those are going to take a couple-three days apiece. Then there’s the boat.”
“Less than ten kilos. We shouldn’t have to trade even half of that to get a kilo of gold, which is multiple years of a comfortable income here. Plenty of reserve.”
I piloted, Vik navigated, Lee scanned continuously with night vision goggles to look for inadvertent witnesses; blessedly, none appeared. An hour before sunrise, we landed at Nahal Hever, a tiny rivulet flowing into the Dead Sea six kilometers south of Ein Gedi. The boat collapsed and went into the camelbot, which was mostly hollow. We walked north at a deliberate pace, the shoreline a stone’s throw to our right, a six-hundred-meter tall ridge two kilometers to our left, and reached the town in two hours.
The place smelled amazing, and what was even more amazing, not all the smells were terrible. But most of them were. “When we get back, I’m going to find a re-enactor’s dairy farm in Wisconsin and compare it to this,” said Vik, stepping around a spectacular pile of camel dung. Structures ranged from solidly-built, two-story stone buildings through mud-brick houses to low, wide tents of coarse, dark cloth, all interspersed with palm trees. Robed, olive-skinned locals, a large majority male, were already out and about. They didn’t seem to find us especially unusual, a good sign.
I pulled my shemagh scarf over my mouth and muttered “translator, Hasmonean Aramaic” under my breath. “Dictate,” it answered. “Excuse me. Is there a spice market nearby?” It responded with guttural noises. I repeated them until the AI indicated an acceptable match.
An hour later I was slipping a double handful of aurei and a sizeable bag of denarii into the camelbot’s innards. The dealer smiled and bowed, as well he might, having probably given half the going rate for frankincense and myrrh thanks to our … limited … haggling abilities.
“How did you get here?” he asked. The translator AI seemed to be working perfectly, and I was getting better at voiceless velar fricatives.
“Not the usual way,” I said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
“Your camel seems exceptionally well-trained.”
“You get what you pay for,” I snapped. His eyebrows lifted slightly. We bowed and left.
“Where to now?” asked Lee.
“North,” I said. “Jericho’s fifty kilometers. Farther than we can get in a day. There’s a place about three-quarters of the way there I’d like to try for.”
As the Sun set behind the ridges to the west, we approached a complex of low stone buildings. Several men walked out to meet us.
“Achim, al lo deber. Tiashari lishon kan.”
“Hebrew,” said the AI. “‘Brothers, you are welcome. Stay the night here.’”
We unloaded the camelbot and lugged armloads of belongings through corridors, past rooms lit with oil lamps, one with a man reading psalms aloud to a small group of listeners, another with several men holding elaborate-looking pens and hunched over desks covered with parchment.
“What’s going on in there?” asked Vik.
“A later age would call it a scriptorium,” I said. “If we’re where I think we are, they’re working on what will become the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’ll try to get a tour and sneak some images.”
Our room was three meters square and had a single unadorned window high up on the east wall. Also pallets for sleeping, which we improved with 21st-century air mattresses and sleeping bags, carefully concealed under period-looking blankets. We got the tour—and gigabytes of imagery on our turban cams—but begged off participating in the communal supper.
From Khirbet Qumran it was an easy three-hour stroll to Jericho the next morning. We engaged an inn, with accommodations much like those we’d just left. Paying in advance, I told the innkeeper we would be starting early, well before dawn the following day. “Good that there are three of you, although more would be better,” he said. “Be forewarned that the road you will be taking is … not secure.”
“So, what, are we gonna get jacked?” asked Lee after we settled into our room.
“Probably,” I said. “Been doing some more reading. Apparently it happens often enough to have become downright proverbial. The road obviously isn’t patrolled and the first few people who find our unconscious bodies might not even try to help.”
“Great,” said Vik. “Shall I have the fabricator whip up something concealable in nine-millimeter for each of us?”
“Nah, I’ve got a less drastic approach in mind. But don’t worry; it’ll work just fine.”
I unloaded the ’fab and began dialing up magnesium and potassium perchlorate.
The night was a cool but comfortable 12°C and perfectly clear. Procyon was setting ahead of us over the Judean Mountains as we entered Wadi Qelt. Mars shone high in the southeast, near Spica, and due south, we could just make out the Southern Cross—well below the horizon in our own time thanks to two millennia of equinoctial precession—in the haze over the Dead Sea.
We donned night-vision goggles. “Looks challenging,” said Lee, staring up at the fortress on Tell el-ʾAqaba, nearly two hundred meters above and to our left.
“Anything would look challenging after living in dead-flat Chicago for long enough,” said Vik.
“We’ve got less than thirty kilometers to go, but over a thousand meters in elevation gain,” I said. “‘Song of Ascents’ wasn’t just an alliterative phrase for these people.”
We were a couple of hours in, maybe ten kilometers west and three hundred meters higher than we’d started, when the gang showed up. “Just about when it became possible to see our silhouettes in the morning twilight,” said Vik. “And they make their getaway before they’re too easy to see. These guys are pros.”
Half a dozen tough-looking men blocked the road. One of them snarled something that didn’t, strictly speaking, need translation. “Aramaic: ‘Give us all your money or we feed you to the ravens,’” the AI nonetheless proffered.
“Translator OFF,” I said. “Gentlemen, face the other way, close your eyes, and cover your ears.” I drew a perforated cylinder the size of a jumbo salt shaker from a front pocket, pulled the pin, depressed the handle, and threw it directly at the would-be robbers. One and a half seconds later there was a blinding flash of light, accompanied by an ear-splitting bang. The men fled, stumbling and wailing.
Lee hadn’t looked away. He blinked hard and shook his head several times. “Uh, won’t that, shall we say, blow our cover?”
“Not likely. People like that don’t tell stories about getting scared off. Do retrieve the casing, though.”
At noonday we trudged up Nahal Og and over the ridgeline at Bethany. Two kilometers south on our left were the walls of Jerusalem. Half an hour later we entered the Second Quarter through the Fish Gate.
“OK, now what?” asked Vik.
“I keep getting that,” I said. “Let’s find a place to stay and take a look around.”
Another inept haggling session ending in raised eyebrows secured a week’s lodging at, in all likelihood, twice the going rate. The next day we reconnoitered the northern perimeter of the Antonia Fortress and circled the Pool of Bethesda, getting 360° imagery at hundred-microradian resolution and, perhaps more importantly, 24-bit audio. Not impressive-looking on a map, since we were staying only three hundred meters from the fortress, but the streets were the width of sidewalks and had plenty of traffic, both human and animal. Also, the seasonal rains had begun.
Upon our return, the innkeeper gave us a look that conveyed intense, but mixed, emotions.
“Better deal with this,” I said. “Translator on … I’m sorry, sir, is something wrong?”
“Not at all. I always look forward to delegations from Legio X Fretensis. If we’re lucky, the soldiers won’t show up in the middle of the night to drag you away. But I expect them sometime soon, in any case.”
“Translator off,” I said, turning to Vik and Lee. “I think we’ve underestimated the locals’ observational acuity.”
“They haven’t let on that I can tell,” said Lee.
“Unlike your grandparents, you haven’t lived under a dictatorship,” said Vik. “People learn to play it close to the vest when summary execution is an option.”
“Translator on,” I said. “Sir, we apologize if we have caused you any trouble. We can compensate you. What would cause us to be … questioned?”
“Don’t worry, you’ve paid me plenty. Let me put it this way: there are ten thousand people in Jerusalem. Perhaps ten of them are not aware of your presence.”
“Is there anything we can do to make this less difficult for you?”
“Just wait for them, go without resisting, and have an excellent explanation ready, by which I mean one that doesn’t assign me an active role.”
Half a dozen legionarii appeared at midmorning the next day. They didn’t say much, but they didn’t have to. A full centuria of soldiers were spaced along the route as we marched six hundred meters southwest to the praetorium—and on into the palace itself.
We entered a peristyle courtyard and were thankfully led underneath the portico, out of the rain. Our escort visibly stiffened as an elderly, elaborately dressed man shuffled out of a cubiculum and approached us.
“Duc me ad ducem tuum,” I muttered.
“What?” asked Lee.
“‘Take me to your leader’—oops!”
“What?” asked Vik.
“I had the translator on.”
“Well, that explains the looks we’re getting.”
“Quid ais?” asked Herod the Great, glaring.
We held the fastest observation team meeting in history.
“What do we tell him?”
“Anything that keeps us out of a dungeon,” said Lee. “To generalize, don’t discuss politics.”
“Remember, if you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room,” said Vik.
“Gentlemen, thank you for your constructive feedback. We now need a miracle. Here goes.”
I turned to Herod. “Translator on, Classical Latin.”
“Whatever you told him must have worked, at least for now,” said Lee. We were back at the inn, not half an hour after being summoned, our escort safely out of sight. “And he must be a busy man. That was fast.”
“I have a hunch there will be a follow-up interview, so to speak,” I said.
“Why?” asked Vik. “Did you leave him hanging?”
“Not deliberately, but I was a bit vague on some points.”
“Like, what we’re actually doing here?”
“Nope. Straight-up told him we were studying a star and had traveled from the east. Made sure to say we picked the inn purely for convenience. His response, and I quote, was ‘and you seek the true ruler of this people.’”
“That must have been when his eyes narrowed. I thought we’d had it.”
“Let’s see: older, hostile, somewhat paranoid, wields absolute power, effectively has us in custody. That’s a Venn diagram overlap with our thesis committee,” said Lee.
“Any idea what he’ll do next?” asked Vik.
“Have us watched,” I said. “Getting away may be … difficult. I counted eighty guards just now, and he’s probably got an entire cohors, which is six times that many.”
“Well, we can watch them right back. I’ll mount the long-wave infrared camera on the roof. Body temperature is a good thirty kelvins above ambient in this weather. They’ll stand out like beacons.”
We stayed in the next day. The LWIR had showed a pair of soldiers watching the inn all night, relieved at three-hour intervals.
Some time after sunset, a single guard came to our door. He gestured for us to follow him as quietly as possible. No others were visible. Ten minutes later we were again standing before Herod.
“When did the star you are observing first appear to you?”
“During target selection in Autumn Quarter of 2055,” I avoided remarking, instead saying, “Duos annos, dominus.”
Herod nodded. “He whom you seek is somewhere near six miles south. Report back after you find him. I want the exact location so I can visit and—pay appropriate homage.”
None of us slept well that night.
Three hours before sunrise, we were all wide awake. “Anybody else think getting out of here and never coming back sounds like a good idea?” I asked. Vik and Lee responded with affirmative grunts.
“OK, next question: how do we leave without being seen?”
“We hope for even worse weather,” said Vik. “Let me see if I can pull down a few images from the satellite. Might give us a window of opportunity if one of these bands of rain hits at the right time.”
“So do we go south, or east?” asked Lee.
“I don’t want to get caught in an obvious escape attempt,” I said. “If I were Herod I’d have all the other roads guarded by soldiers under orders to stop us. So we roll with it. South.”
We walked toward Bethlehem through bursts of rain that fell at a forty-five-degree angle, driven by gale-force winds from the west. I snuck a peek at the readout on my left wrist: 6°C.
“I’m conceiving of a device,” said Lee. “Suppose there were some kind of flexible, waterproof material, light enough to carry around in quantities of a square meter or so. The device would be made of that material, stretched over supporting elements. It would unfold and deploy like a Sun shield for a space telescope, but over your head, to reflect and channel drops of rain away from your body, instead of solar photons.”
“I’ll search the patent database as soon as we get back,” said Vik. “I must say that it sounds promising.”
“I credit the legendary cleverness of my people.”
It could have been worse: the Romans had paved the road, and the rains cleared it of filth, which also helped make up for the ten-percent grades through the Judean Hills. And we had it to ourselves; any tail Herod had put on us was nowhere to be seen on infrared. Of course, they still knew where we were going, and Bethlehem was not a metropolis. A one-man search party could have found us in half an hour there without so much as breaking into a trot.
The rain tapered off, and the sky cleared more quickly than I would have thought possible. Being what we were, we stopped where we could see Fomalhaut, low in the southwest, twinkling blue-white in a gap between buildings.
“Well, we’re here. Now what?” said Lee. He and Vik both looked at me.
“Ah, the joys of command,” I said. “There will be a short break while I assess the situation.”
And then everything happened at once.
The camelbot bellowed: the neutrino alarm.
We looked at each other with a wild surmise, atop a metaphorical peak in Darien.
Then we were all sprinting up the outside stairs of the nearest house, whooping and hollering, jumping up and down on the roof, slapping each other on the back, doing a group hug, and generally announcing our indiscreet presence to everyone within earshot.
The arrival of the optical wavefront and its rise to peak luminosity, of course, wasn’t that quick; we didn’t see anything. But we knew it was there, as sure as we knew we were standing on that roof and looking in the right direction at the right time.
“We are great and we are grand—we make bombs beneath our stands!”
“Thucydides, Themistocles, the Peloponnesian War, x², y², H2SO4! Who for, what for, who we gonna yell for? GO, MAROONS!”
“Gimme the speed of light!” “C!”
“Gimme Planck’s constant!” “H!”
“Gimme the square root of negative one!” “I!”
“Gimme carbon!” “C!”
“Gimme the Bohr radius!” “A!”
“Gimme the gravitational constant!” “G!”
“Gimme the additive identity of a non-trivial group!” “O!”
“What’s that spell?”
After a couple of minutes, we calmed down enough to look around. “Probably woke up everybody in town,” I said. But there was only one figure in the street below.
We all looked at him. “Is it just me, or has he been expecting us? Seems awfully calm,” said Vik.
“Probably his house. Better go down and explain ourselves as best we can,” I said. “Hey, this might even solve our search problem.”
“The ultimate two-fer,” said Lee. We clumped back down the stairs.
Middle-aged guy, salt-and-pepper beard, smiling faintly. He said nothing, but gestured toward an open door.
“Culturally obligatory hospitality,” I muttered. “Gentlemen, follow me. Let’s see what we can do with this.”
The interior was perhaps twenty square meters. Surprisingly good furniture. Oil lamps in each corner. The man didn’t follow us in.
A young woman sat in a chair, steadying a toddler. They both looked at us with the same preternaturally calm gaze as the man outside.
We stopped and stared. After some indefinite interval, Lee whispered, “What’s going on here?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I think I know what to do next.
“Unload the aromatics and the specie. Set the cases to nanodegrade in two million seconds.”
Vik and Lee stacked the lock boxes of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the middle of the room. I took a deep breath, whispered “translator on, Hasmonaean Aramaic,” and faced the man.
I bowed. “These containers will turn to dust in three weeks. Be somewhere safe by then. The valuables they contain should support you for several years.
“We need to … return to our own country.”
And then we all bowed again, deeply, to the young woman and the child.
Ten minutes later, light-curve data began pouring in.
A kilometer along the way to Tekoa, I pulled the LWIR out, stepped off the road to the right, flipped the viewfinder open, and swept the southwestern horizon. A glowing blob immediately appeared. I switched to 10x zoom, and the blob split into a taller, thin figure leading a large oblong one with something poking up on top: a man leading an animal bearing a rider and their possessions.
“They’re not wasting any time.” Lee had stepped up behind me.
“Headed to Beersheba—and points beyond, I expect,” said Vik, also looking over my shoulder.
I nodded and tucked the camera away. “Well, we’re getting out of Dodge ourselves.”
We ate pizza in River North to celebrate. Afterward, we walked over to State Street and turned south. It was a fine evening for early January, dry and above freezing, with almost no wind. A quarter-hour’s stroll brought us to Daley Plaza. We stopped. A few steps in front of us, opposite the entrance to the Washington Street subway station, was a nativity scene. Brilliantly robed, heavily-bearded magi knelt, vessels in hand; Corelli’s fatto per la notte di natale played softly on speakers.
“So, do we tell them?” asked Vik.
“No way,” said Lee. “We didn’t look that good. Also, we barely knew what we were doing.”
“Barely seems to have been enough,” I said.
“What did we just do?” asked Vik.
“Nailed our doctorates and tenure-track positions,” I said. “Quite possibly a Nobel. Chicks dig Nobels.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We did a job and got a reward.”
to the memory of Arthur C. Clarke