Read an Excerpt
First came a supernova, dazzling the universe in brief, spendthrift glory before ebbing into twisty, multispectral clouds of new-forged atoms. Swirling eddies spiraled until one of them ignited—a newborn star.
The virgin sun wore whirling skirts of dust and electricity. Gas and rocks and bits of this and that fell into those pleats, gathering in dim lumps … planets …
One tiny worldlet circled at a middle distance. It had a modest set of properties:
mass—barely enough to draw in a passing asteroid or two;
moons—one, the remnant of a savage collision, but big enough to tug deep tides;
spin—to set winds churning through a fuming atmosphere;
density—a brew that mixed and separated, producing an unpromising surface slag;
temperature—heat was the planet’s only voice, a weak one, swamped by the blaring sun. Anyway, what can a planet tell the universe, in a reedy cry of infrared? “This exists,” it repeated, over and over. “This is a condensed stone, radiating at about three hundred degrees, insignificant on the scale of stars.
“This speck, a mote, exists.”
A simple statement to an indifferent cosmos—the signature of a rocky world, tainted by salty, smoke-blown puddles.
But then something new stirred in those puddles. It was a triviality—a mere discoloration here and there. But from that moment the voice changed. Subtly, shifting in timbre, still faint and indistinct, it nevertheless seemed now to say,
“I … am …”
An angry deity glowered at Alex. Slanting sunshine cast shadows across the incised cheeks and outthrust tongue of Great Tu, Maori god of war.
A dyspeptic idol, Alex thought, contemplating the carved figure. I’d feel the same if I were stuck up there, decorating a billionaire’s office wall.
It occurred to Alex that Great Tu’s wooden nose resembled the gnomon of a sundial. Its shadow kept time, creeping to the measured ticking of a twentieth century grandfather clock in the corner. The silhouette stretched slowly, amorously, toward a sparkling amethyst geode—yet another of George Hutton’s many geological treasures. Alex made a wager with himself, that the shadow wouldn’t reach its goal before the sinking sun was cut off by the western hills.
And at this rate, neither would George Hutton. Where the devil is the man? Why did he agree to this meeting, if he didn’t plan on bloody showing up?
Alex checked his watch again, even though he knew the time. He caught himself nervously tapping one shoe against the nearby table leg, and stopped doing it.
What have Jen and Stan always told you? “Try to learn patience, Alex.”
It wasn’t his best-known virtue. But then, he’d learned a lot the last few months. Remarkable how it focused your mind, when you guarded a secret that might mean the end of the world.
He glanced toward his friend and former mentor, Stan Goldman, who had set up this appointment with the chairman of Tangoparu Ltd. Apparently unperturbed by his employer’s tardiness, the slender, aging theoretician was immersed in the latest issue of Physical Review.
No hope for distraction there. Alex sighed and let his eyes rove George Hutton’s office one more time, hoping to get a measure of the man.
Of course the conference table was equipped with the best and latest plaques, for accessing the World Data Net. One entire wall was taken up by an active-events screen, a montage of real-time views from random locations across the Earth—zeppelins cruising above Wuhan … sunrise in a North African village … the urban lights of any city in the world.
Original holographic sculptures of mythical beasts shimmered by the entrance to the suite, but nearest the desk were Hutton’s dearest treasures, minerals and ores collected over a lifetime grubbing through the planet’s crust—including a huge blood zircon, glittering on a pedestal just below the Maori war mask. It struck Alex that both objects were products of fiery crucibles—one mineral, the other social. Each denoted resilience under pressure. Perhaps this said something about George Hutton’s personality, as well.
But then, perhaps it meant nothing at all. Alex had never been a great judge of people. Witness the events of the last year.
With a sudden click and hum, the hallway doors parted and a tall, brown man appeared, breathing hard and coated with perspiration.
“Ah! You made yourselves at home. Good. Sorry to keep you waiting, Stan. Dr. Lustig. Excuse me, will you? I’ll only be a moment.” He peeled a sweaty jersey off broad shoulders, striding past a window overlooking the sailboats of Auckland harbor.
George Hutton, I presume, Alex thought as he lowered his outstretched hand and sat back down. Not much for formality. That’s just as well, I suppose.
From the open door to the lavatory, Hutton shouted. “Our game had delay after delay for injuries! Minor stuff, fortunately. But I’m sure you understand, I couldn’t let the Tangoparu team down when I was needed. Not during the finals against Nippon Electric!”
Normally, it might seem odd for a businessman in his fifties to neglect appointments for a rugby game. But the dusky giant toweling himself off in the loo seemed completely unselfconscious, aglow with victory. Alex glanced at his former teacher, who now worked for Hutton here in New Zealand. Stan only shrugged, as if to say billionaires made their own rules.
Hutton emerged wearing a dressing gown and drying his hair with a terry-cloth towel. “Can I offer you anything, Dr. Lustig? How about you, Stan?”
“Nothing, thank you,” Alex said. Less reticent, Stan accepted a Glenfiddich and spring water. Then Hutton settled into a plush swivel chair, stretching his long legs beside the kauri-wood table.
Whatever happens, Alex knew, this is where the trail ends. This is my last hope.
The Maori engineer-businessman regarded him with piercing brown eyes. “I’m told you want to discuss the Iquitos incident, Dr. Lustig. And the miniature black hole you let slip out of your hands there. Frankly, I thought you’d be sick of that embarrassment by now. What did some press hacks call it then? A possible China Syndrome?”
Stan cut in. “A few sensationalists set off a five-minute panic on the World Net, until the scientific community showed everybody that tiny singularities like Alex’s dissipate harmlessly. They’re too small to last long by themselves.”
Hutton raised one dark eyebrow. “Is that so, Dr. Lustig?”
Alex had faced that question so many times since Iquitos. By now he had countless stock answers—from five-second sound bites for the vid cameras to ten-minute lullabies for Senate investigators … all the way to hours of abstruse mathematics to soothe his fellow physicists. He really ought to be used to it by now. Still the question burned, as it had the first time.
“Talk to me, Lustig,” the reporter, Pedro Manella, had demanded on that ashen afternoon in Peru, as they watched rioting students set Alex’s work site ablaze. “Tell me that thing you made isn’t about to eat its way to China.”
Lying had become so reflexive since then, it took some effort to break the habit today. “Um, what did Stan tell you?” he asked George Hutton, whose broad features still glistened under a thin gloss of perspiration.
“Only that you claim to have a secret. Something you’ve kept from reporters, tribunals … even the security agencies of a dozen nations. In this day and age, that’s impressive by itself.
“But we Maori people of New Zealand have a saying,” he went on. “A man who can fool chiefs, and even gods, must still face the monsters he himself created.
“Have you created a monster, Dr. Lustig?”
The question direct. Alex realized why Hutton reminded him of Pedro Manella on that humid evening in Peru, as tear gas wafted down those debris-strewn streets and canals. Both big men had voices like Hollywood deities. Both were used to getting answers.
Manella had pursued Alex onto the creaking hotel balcony to get a good view of the burning power plant. The reporter panned his camera as the main containment building collapsed amid clouds of powdery cement. Cheering students provided a vivid scene for Manella to feed live to his viewers on the Net.
“When the mob cut the power cables, Lustig,” the persistent journalist asked while shooting, “that let your black hole out of its magnetic cage. It fell into the Earth then, no? So what happens now? Will it emerge again, blazing and incinerating some hapless place halfway around the world?
“What did you make here, Lustig? A beast that will devour us all?”
Even then, Alex recognized the hidden message between the words. The renowned investigator hadn’t been seeking truth; he wanted reassurance.
“No, of course I didn’t,” Alex remembered telling Manella on that day, and everyone else since then. Now he let go of the lie with relief.
“Yes, Mr. Hutton. I think I made the very Devil itself.”
Stan Goldman’s head jerked up. Until this moment, Alex hadn’t even confided in his old mentor. Sorry, Stan, he thought.
Silence stretched as Hutton stared at him. You’re saying … the singularity didn’t dissipate like the experts said? That it might still be down there, absorbing matter from the Earth’s core?”
Alex understood the man’s incredulity. Human minds weren’t meant to picture something that was smaller than an atom, and yet weighed megatons. Something narrow enough to fall through the densest rock, yet bound to circle the planet’s center in a spiraling pavane of gravity. Something ineffably but insatiably hungry, and which grew ever hungrier the more it ate …
Just thinking about it put in sudden doubt the very notions of up and down. It challenged faith in the ground below your feet. Alex tried to explain.
“The generals showed me their power plant … offered me a blank check to construct its core. So I took their word they’d be getting permission soon. Any day now, they kept telling me.” Alex shrugged at his former gullibility. An old story, if a bitter one.