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By Charles Sheffield
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-87791-7
Chapter OneExpansion 4135 (6219 A.D.).
Where am I?
A man who had seen fifty planets and succeeded in a hundred difficult jobs ought to be like a cat, turning instinctively to land on his feet in any situation. But recently he seemed to be just the opposite, more disoriented with every new task.
Hans Rebka came fully awake and lay with eyes closed, waiting for memory of place and function to seep into his brain. As that came, confusion was replaced by anger.
A week earlier he had been in orbit around Paradox, preparing for one of the most challenging assignments of his life. He and three companions were to enter the Paradox sphere, carrying with them new shielding and a completely new type of recording sensor. If they succeeded they would bring back for the first time information from the Paradox interior-perhaps new information about the Builders themselves.
To Rebka, Paradox was the most enigmatic and intriguing of all Builder structures. The dark, spherical bubble, fifty kilometers across, permitted ready entry but on exit removed all memories, organic or inorganic. Computers emerged with no recording on any storage medium. Humans who had reached the interior returned with the minds of newborn infants.
Exploration efforts had finally been abandoned; but lately visitors to the region of Paradox had been reporting changes. The bubble was different in external appearance, and possibly in internal status. A new effort might succeed.
It was a dangerous mission, but Hans Rebka had been looking forward to it. He had volunteered, and he had been accepted as team leader.
And then the call had come, just one day before the descent into Paradox.
"An alternative assignment..." The voice was thin and whispering, reduced in frequency spectrum by its passage through the Bose communications network. "... to the double-planet of Dobelle. You must leave without delay..."
The space-thinned voice sounded in no way imperious, but the command emanated from the highest government level of the Phemus Circle. And it was an assignment for Rebka alone; his companions would proceed to explore Paradox. At first it sounded like an honor, a privilege that he should be singled out in that way. But as the assignment was explained to him, Rebka's confusion began.
He knew his talents. He was a doer and a fixer, and a damned good one. He could think on his feet and improvise solutions in real-time to tough problems; he was a typical product of his home world, Teufel.
"What sins must a man commit, in how many past lives, to be born on Teufel?" Half the spiral arm knew that saying. Like all the planets of the Phemus Circle, Teufel was resource-poor and metal-poor. Settled in despair and dire necessity as the life-support systems of an early colony ship faltered and failed, it was also an outcast planet, too hot, too small, and with a barely breathable atmosphere. The life expectancy of a human who grew to maturity on Teufel-most did not-was less than half the average for the Phemus Circle, and less than a third of that for an inhabitant of any world of the Fourth Alliance. All those born and raised on Teufel found an instinct for self-preservation before they could talk-or they never lasted long enough to talk.
Rebka was a slight, large-headed man with hands and feet too big for his body. He had the wan, slightly deformed look of someone who had suffered persistent childhood malnutrition and trace-element deficiency. But that early privation had affected his brains not at all. He had learned the odds early, when at eight years old he had seen a set of images from the wealthy worlds of the Alliance bordering the Phemus Circle. Strong anger was born within him. He learned to use it, to channel and control it to fuel his progress, at the same time that he learned to hide his feelings with a smile. By the time he was twelve years old he had worked his way off Teufel and was in a Phemus Circle government training program.
Rebka was proud of his record. Starting with less than nothing, he had risen steadily for twenty-five years. He had run massive terraforming projects, taking the harshest and most inhospitable planetary bodies and converting them to human paradises (someday he would do as much for Teufel); he had led dangerous expeditions to the heart of the mirror-matter comet region, far from any chance of help if things went wrong; he had flown so close to stellar surfaces that communications were impossible in the roar of ambient radiation, and his returning ship was ablated and melted past hope of further use. And he had led a crew on a near-legendary trip through the Zirkelloch, the toroidal space-time singularity that lay in the disputed no-man's land between the worlds of the Fourth Alliance and those of the Cecropia Federation.
All that. And suddenly-at the thought, confusion was replaced by anger; anger was still his friend-he was demoted. Stripped, without a word of explanation, of all real responsibilities and sent to a distant, unimportant world to act as nursemaid or father-confessor for someone ten years his junior.
"Just who is Max Perry? Why is he important?"
He had asked that question during his first briefing, as soon as the planetary doublet of Dobelle became more than a name to him. For Dobelle was an insignificant place. Its twin planetary components, Opal and Quake, orbiting a second-class star far from the main centers of the local spiral arm, were almost as poor as Teufel.
Scaldworld, Desolation, Teufel, Styx, Cauldron-sometimes it seemed to Rebka that poverty was their only bond, the single link that held the Phemus Circle worlds together and separated them from their richer neighbors. And from the records, Dobelle was a worthy member of the club.
The records on Perry were transmitted to him, too, to be scanned at his leisure. Typically, Hans Rebka reviewed them at once. They made little sense. Max Perry had come from origins as humble as Rebka's own. He was a refugee from Scaldworld, and like Rebka he had made his way rapidly upward, apparently bound for a job at the very top of Circle government. As part of the general grooming process for future leaders, he had been sent for a one-year tour of duty on Dobelle.
Seven years later he had still not returned. When promotions were offered, he refused them. When pressures were exerted to encourage him to leave the Dobelle system, he ignored them.
"A large investment," whispered the distant voice beyond the stars. "We have trained him for many years. We want to see that investment in him repaid... as you repaid it. Determine the cause of his difficulties. Persuade him to return, or at least to tell us why he refuses to do so. He ignores a direct order. Opal and Quake desperately need people, and Dobelle law prohibits extradition."
"He won't tell me anything. Why should he?"
"You will go to Dobelle as his supervisor. We have arranged for a senior position to be created within the ruling oligarchy. You will occupy it. We agree that Perry will not reveal his motives as the result of a simple inquiry. That has been tried. Use your own strengths. Use your subtlety. Use your initiative." The voice paused. "Use your anger."
"I am not angry with Perry." Rebka asked more questions, but the answers offerd no enlightenment. The assignment still made no sense. The central committee of the Phemus Circle could waste its resources if it so chose, but it was a stupid mistake to waste Rebka's talents-he lacked false modesty-where a psychiatrist seemed more likely to succeed. Or had that already been tried, and failed?
Hans Rebka swung his legs off the bunk and walked over to the window. He stared up. After a three-day trip through five Bose Network nodes and a subluminal final stage, he had finally landed on the Starside hemisphere of Opal. But Starside was a bad joke-even before dawn there was not a star to be seen. At that time of year, close to Summertide, cloud breaks on Opal were rare. Approaching the planet, he had seen nothing but a uniform, shining globe. The whole world was water, and when Dobelle swung in at its closest to its stellar primary, Mandel, the summer tides reached their peak and the oceans of Opal never saw the sun. Safety lay only on the Slings, natural floating rafts of earth and tangled vegetation that moved across Opal's surface at the prompting of winds and tides.
The biggest Slings were hundreds of kilometers across. The Starside spaceport was situated on one of the largest. Even so, Rebka wondered how it would fare at Summertide. Where would it go, and would it survive when the main tides came?
If his birthworld of Teufel had been Fire, then Opal was surely Water.
And Quake, the other half of the Dobelle planetary doublet?
Hell, from what he had heard of it. Nothing that Rebka had read or had been told in his briefings had had one good word to say about Quake. Events on Opal at Summertide were said to be spectacular and hair-raising-but survivable. On Quake they were deadly.
He looked up at the sky again and was startled to see that it was light. Opal and Quake were tidally locked to each other, and they spun around their common center of mass at a furious rate. One day in the Dobelle system was only eight standard hours. His morning musings had taken him well past dawn. He would just have time for a quick breakfast; then an aircar would carry him around the planet to Quakeside-and to the most stupid and least productive job of his life.
Rebka swore, cursing the name of Max Perry, and walked across to the door. He had not yet met the man, but he was ready to dislike him.
ARTIFACT: PARADOX UAC#: 35 Galactic Coordinates: 27,312.443/15,917.902/+135.66 Name: Paradox Star/planet association: Darien/Kleindienst Bose Access Node: 139 Estimated age: 9.112 � 0.11 Megayears
Exploration History: It is not known how many times Paradox was discovered, and all knowledge of it then lost. What is known is that in E. 1379 Ruttledge, Kaminski, Parzen, and Lu-lan organized a two-ship expedition to investigate the light-refraction anomaly now known as Paradox.
Arriving first, Ruttledge and Kaminski recorded on their ship's main computer the intention of entering the Paradox sphere using the exploration pinnace, while the main ship remained well clear. Five days later, Parzen and Lu-lan arrived and found the other ship and its pinnace, both in perfect working condition. Ruttledge and Kaminski were in the pinnace, alive but suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. They were incapable of speech or simple motor movement, and subsequent tests showed that their memories held no more information than the mind of a newborn baby. The data banks and computer memory on the pinnace were wiped clean.
Following a review of the other ship's records, Parzen and Lu-lan drew lots to decide who would make a second trip inside the Paradox sphere. Lu-lan won and made the descent. No signals were received from him by Parzen, although there had been prior agreement to send a message every four hours. Lu-lan returned, physically unharmed, after three days. His memory was empty of all learned information, though somatic (instinctive) knowledge was unchanged.
Paradox was declared off-limits to all but trained investigators in E. 1557.
Physical Description: Paradox is a spherical region, fifty kilometers in diameter. Its outer boundary displays "soap bubble" color shifts across the surface, reflecting or transmitting different wavelength radiation apparently randomly.
The sphere is opaque in certain spectral regions (1.2-223 meters) and perfectly transparent in others 5.6-366 micrometers). Nothing is known of the appearance of Paradox's interior.
Paradox's size and appearance are not invariant. Changes in size and color have been reported nine times during its history.
Physical Nature: Based on transmission through it, Paradox is believed to have a complex interior structure. However, no first-hand information has ever been obtained, because of Paradox's information-destroying nature. Most analysts believe that Paradox is the four-dimensional extrusion in space and time of a body of much higher dimension, perhaps the twenty/three/seven knotted manifold of Ikro and H'miran.
Intended Purpose: Unknown. However, Scorpesi has conjectured that Paradox is a "cleansing vat" for large Builder intelligent artifacts, such as Elephant (see Entry 859), prior to reuse. Note, however, that this suggestion is inconsistent with the physical dimensions (4,000 x 900 kilometers) of Elephant itself, unless such objects were subjected to multiple passes through the Paradox sphere. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Convergent Series by Charles Sheffield Excerpted by permission.
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