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Juan Obrion grasped the central guide bar and stopped his motion through the long tube leading from sleep quarters in the spinning wheel to the isolated work sphere, high above the hub. As usual, he had not slept well in the wheel's simulated half-g, waking up with the words centrifugal sleep begets coriolis dreams playing in his head, defying him to guess their meaning. They still seemed to mock him as he floated in place and peered out at the other components of the deteriorating industrial park orbiting a choking, warming Earth that would soon be able to support only the most obviously practical projects. Of the thirty bunched zero-g spheres, half had been empty since 2010. Four shuttles, abandoned six years later for lack of maintenance, drifted against the glow of early morning in the Pacific.
He feared the slow dying of devotion within himself, the loss of his feeling for the work of science, which he had once hoped would liberate him from the mill of power, greed, and survival that sooner or later enslaved most people; even on the high road of ideals, death still waited along the way. Liberation was beginning to look like an open grave.
He pulled up to a viewport so badly pitted by cosmic dust that it was impossible to see out. He tried to see a chaos pattern in the complex etchings, and was reminded of a letter by a Russian named Tasarov in a math journal, linking chaos and probability theory in a novel but untutored way. There's always a choice to do your best, he insisted to himself.
He pushed over to the other side of the tube, and watched the regular shuttle dumping itshundred-thousand-pound load of radioactive waste into the last containment sphere. When it was sent on its way into the Sun, they would start filling the zero-g work spheres, which were now too old to renovate.
He grasped the center bar again and pulled himself forward toward the door to the control room. Get a grip on yourself, he told himself as he reached it and pressed his palm to the key plate. We're all good people up here. Hard workers, all ten of us. Better times may come.
The door lurched ajar, then slid open. He pulled himself inside, and tried to seem cheerful as he came up behind the stocky figure of his friend.
Malachi Moede turned from the control panel and said, "Just about ready to use again."
Juan smiled. Malachi floated up, slipped a smoke from the pack in his shirt pocket, and scratched the cigarette on the low ceiling. The tip glowed red against his black skin as he took a drag, then exhaled toward the ventilator intake. "I'm quite sure it will work perfectly," he said in his subdued British accent, which made even his most pointed remarks seem understated.
Juan recalled again how often he had been reminded that his detector was not relieving the choke below or opening Sunspace for industrial development. The complaints reminded him of his dead father, who would have said that his son had built a toy with other people's money for his own amusement. "Maybe we'll skip a few growing pains if this rig puts us in touch with our alien brethren." The bitter disbelief in his own voice disturbed him.
Malachi took a deep drag and held the smoke for a moment before releasing it toward the grille. "Possibly the tachyon beams are very tight and miss our rig. We'll have to search more of the sky."
"Or no one is sending."
"We couldn't say that even after searching the whole sky."
"Maybe it's the rig," Juan said, suppressing his desolate mood.
"I checked it from top to bottom today. Mind if I stay for part of your shift?"
Juan nodded, slipped into the control seat and strapped in, then opened the gyro controls. The screen's dark blue eye was blank as it came on; audio was silent. The magnetic field was a still pond waiting for a pebble to drop in. He reached out with a kind of lonely love and prayed for a faster-than-light particle to be absorbed, resonate with atomic particles in the field, and show up as an unmistakable jiggle on the display.
Malachi's hand touched his shoulder. "Don't take it so hard, dear chap. You stare at that thing as if expecting to see into the mind of God."
Maybe there was no one out there at all, Juan thought, and humankind was alone in the universe. His project had only added a tachyon silence to the radio silence of the universe. He had built a tachyon detector which did not detect tachyons, and that would be enough for Titus Summet to close it down.
He switched to a view of the shuttle pulling away from the dump sphere. As the orbiter dwindled, he found himself almost sympathizing with the ridicule that had been hurled against the tachyon project. Trying to eavesdrop on alien civilizations in the hope of picking up tech tips was like expecting to inherit wealth without knowing if one had rich relations. The basic scientific work for the detector was decades old; it would not yield new science without tachyons. A world fighting rising oceans, deforestation, ozone depletion, lack of clean air and water, and an increasingly better organized criminal class, could not afford altars to uncooperative gods. The cost of medical care for the aging, for the treatment of immune-system diseases, and the monitoring of the millions of drug-damaged individuals was increasing geometrically, as was the population. The only thing saving his project was its modest cost compared to the big ground-based projects.
"Maybe I need a rest," Juan said as he stared at the south polar icecap. It was bright in the sunlight. Clouds veiled the south Pacific. From a thousand kilometers out, no scars showed. A feeling of precariousness came over him. Something had dared to distinguish itself from the darkness--a vast planetary creature wrapped in gases, living on the Sun's streaming energy. What am I doing outside it, he asked, suddenly incredulous, even though he knew it was only his father again.
The audio monitor sang out a high, varying tone.
Juan switched back to the detector's blue eye. A twitching white line marched across the screen. "I'll get a fix," he said, not daring to hope.
"Look," Malachi said, "the ripples measure to our predictions for a tachyon mass running into the detector."
Sweating, Juan leaned forward against his straps--but his hopes died. "The signal's coming straight up from the Antarctic." He took a deep breath and switched to the main view of Earth, leaving the blue eye as a bottom-right insert. "Damn Summet, he's got a project of some kind down there!" He looked up at Malachi, who was scratching up another cigarette. "We've gone to a lot of effort to prevent anything else from triggering our detector. It's got to be an experiment generating tachyons."
Malachi coughed and slipped his cigarette into a wall slot. "If it's tachyons."
"What else could it be?"
Malachi nodded reluctantly. "At least we'll prove to Summet that our detector works, and be able to send out more than radio messages. We'll show those shining galactic cultures that we can do more than put up smoke signals. They might have a rule about replying to radio folk, you know."
The line continued to dance with the steady repetition of its sound analog.
"What are they doing down there?" Juan said.
"Maybe we're supposed to receive while they send. He planned to surprise us, and see whether we knew what we were doing. Time to call him and say we've caught on."