Chapter 1 - Incompatibility Kills...
This bizarreness is the end result of a discussion on Discord with various friends about how one could utterly break the Mass Effect universe with a fairly simple change at the right point. I did a chapter for my random odds and sods thread on Sufficient Velocity, just for fun, and it was received pretty well. The idea kept nagging me so I did another chapter of it. After that I intended to get bacl to lizarding responsibly, as is my wont.
However that little itch at the back of my mind, the one that isn't caused by the mosquito bite, kept on poking me, so I did another chapter. This makes the verbiage enough to warrant a thread of it's own, so here is that thread.
Note that I cannot guarantee how often this will update, although I'm fairly sure it will update on occasion. But I do have two other stories in progress along with actual work-for-a-living issues, so I need to occasionally do those things as well
Now, note that this is once again not going to be anything like canon ME, or indeed the vast majority of fanfics based on that. I have never played the games, although I've read a fair few stories set in that universe, and have extensively read the wiki (looked at it when I needed to know something, given up, and asked someone who has played the games) so this must, obviously, be considered pretty heavily AU. But then all fics are, in one way or another, and the most interesting and entertaining ones usually take canon, crunch it up into a ball, and shoot the ball.
Out of a cannon.
In any case, there won't be vast amounts of pointless ground battles with every single shot fired laid out in numeric format along with the specs of all the weapons. I know some people love that sort of thing, but I find it immensely tedious even to read and it makes me almost cry thinking about writing it... If you need that, there are a lot of stories that have far more than enough of it to satisfy anyone Nor will there be, ideally, lots of stupid aliens who keep doing stupid things while stupid. That said, Turians are a thing, and the less said about Batarians the better. Even the Turians would agree about that.
Nor is it an HFY story, as it's often put. Certainly not in the normal way. It's more of a HOFTI story if anything (Humans? Oh, fuck, they're insane!) Which is slightly ironic because for reasons that will become clear as time goes on, the humans feel exactly the same about everyone else...
Anyway, hopefully people will enjoy it. If not, please don't feel that you have to spend hours complaining about it, because that won't do anything except frustrate you and amuse me Best to find another story and move on, thereby saving a lot of effort all round.
September 2058, Toronto
Institute of Advanced Physics
Department of WIMP Research
"Huh. That's… odd."
"What?" John Warden, double PhD in theoretical quantum mechanics and applied mathematics, looked up from his console, while issuing the mental command through his neurolink that made the projected screen vanish. He preferred to look at a real world screen for much of the work he did, although the mindscape version was more common. His colleague Amanda Jeffries, who had three PhDs in even more esoteric fields, plus a Masters in spintronics, was staring at her own screen with a baffled look on her face.
"I think we have an instrument error," she finally said, shaking her head.
He got up and walked over, stopping behind her to peer at her display. She pointed.
"That's what I said."
"I know." He bent a little closer. "Scroll back to time index… minus ten?"
She did so. He inspected the results, as did she, then both of them exchanged incredulous glances. "That's impossible," he said in a faint voice.
"Completely," she agreed. "But..."
After a few more moments of bemusement, they set up to run their experiment again. The main system was still chilled down from the last run, so they didn't have to wait to do a helium purge, which could take hours. The end result was ninety minutes later they were comparing the new data with the original set.
"What the everlasting fuck is going on?" John finally exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. "This goes against practically everything we know."
"It's repeatable, though. And…" Amanda was staring off into space, thinking.
"And it's not entirely incompatible with supersymmetry. We've known since the last upgrade to the hypercollider that under the right conditions some very odd things tend to happen. Maybe this is an extended version of that..."
"How do you mean?" He looked at her, intrigued. She was a world leader in spin theory, and if she said something was connected to it she was quite likely right. Ever since supersymmetry had been proven in 2032 and shown to be the lowest level of physics possible, trumping even quantum mechanics, people like them had been refining the theory and building more and more complex hardware to chase down all the possibilities of it.
The new understanding of physics in the last twenty six years had already allowed fusion to finally be cracked, and led to a new paradigm in fields as diverse as computing technology through medicine to astrophysics. Even gravity was showing promising signs of being fully understood and possibly controllable. The first tentative unified field theory had been published by a European consortium only the year before and so far was standing up to scrutiny.
But this… this was just bizarre.
"Well, if these readings are right, there was a temporal and spatial displacement of our particle beam of nearly minus five femtoseconds over a small zone in the Z axis. The beam wasn't there for that distance."
"But although the temporal misalignment registered on the side detectors, the beam actually arrived at exactly the right time. So if it really did go back in time, which those readings say happened, why do these readings tell us it didn't?"
"Actually, it arrived too soon by just under half a femtosecond, based on the actual distance between the emitter and the primary target, see? The elapsed time shows superluminal travel."
He stared, did some mental math, engaged his neurolink and did them again with its aid, then finally nodded. "Which is impossible. Again."
"Ah," she said, making another projected screen pop up to the side. "Not quite. Mind you, this is only a hypothesis at the moment, but the way I can see it working is if there really was a temporal shift." The projection filled with equations, which he followed with interest. One constant jumped out at him immediately.
"Oh my god."
"I do." He stared in amazement. "And the numbers check out exactly. Holy shit."
Amanda shrugged, also looking at the screen. "We need to test it again a few times to rule out equipment error for sure, but this is incredible if it's real. And if it isn't, we've got one hell of a bizarre malfunction going on."
"OK, we need to increase the Z axis too, and see if the effect follows the change in distance. If it does, that rules out some possibilities for error."
She nodded, getting up and walking over to their enormous and very expensive experimental machine which filled the entire end of the large lab. Patting it tenderly, she smiled. "Let's make history together, DMITR."
"You're very weird, Amanda," John chuckled.
"Hey, humans pack bond with anything, you know that," she grinned. "And when you've been working on something for nearly a decade, you get attached to it."
The Dark Matter Interaction Test Reactor merely sat there humming very, very faintly, but in John's mind the hum was rather satisfied.
July 2063, Toronto
Institute of Advanced Physics
Department of WIMP Research
"Set up for run… one thousand four hundred and twelve."
#Parameters set, detectors ready, charge status at 100%# the lab AI immediately said through the neurolink. It wasn't particularly smart if looked at from a general purpose standpoint, but it had vastly quicker reflexes than anything human could hope to manage and in its narrow field of expertise was a savant-level genius. John nodded in satisfaction and turned to Amanda, who was standing behind him along with two of the other people who had been brought into this project in the last few years. One was Doctor Philip Black, an expert in ultra-fast measurement systems and particle beam generators, while the other was Professor Jennifer Diaz, a dark energy researcher.
"We're ready. The new detector arrays are reading back in the green and the increased beam power is allowing us much finer control. Anyone want to lay a bet on the outcome?"
"Not at this point," Philip said with a small smile. "I've seen too many runs now. Just do it." Jennifer and Amanda both nodded.
"Get on with it, John, stop trying to add an air of mystery to the whole thing," Amanda added with a long-suffering sigh tinged with fondness.
"Hey, we're breaking entirely new ground here, we should be taking it more seriously!" he exclaimed with a grin. "No one but me thought that putting a few Jacob's ladders around the place was a good idea. And I want a big knife switch to throw. That's how you're meant to do mad science."
"You… are a somewhat strange person at times, John," Jen said with a shake of her head.
"He's seen way too many movies. Go on, start the run, before we get bored and go for lunch."
"For Science!" John said, poking a button on the manual override.
"Ah." He looked embarrassed as his colleagues exchanged looks. "That's not switched in. Execute test."
#Test sequence 1412 initiated,# the AI, still nameless after the nearly six months since it had been installed a result of the increased budget their project had attracted, said in a completely calm voice. All of them were connected into it via their n-links. #Sequence started… Power rising to firing threshold… Threshold reached, firing beam.# A muted thud came from the innards of the DMITR and they all felt a slight sensation of cold go through them, the real world fringe effects of a WIMP beam in action. Oddly enough, it was almost impossible to detect on instruments but the human neural system appeared to react to it readily, for reasons that were so far a mystery even after a decade of study. The only thing that was known for sure was that it was harmless, if disconcerting the first few times.
#Test sequence completed. Beam terminated, recoil energy reclamation at 99.689%. Temporal shift measured at expected value to the limit of detector accuracy. Accelerator at standby. Results of test are available in log file.#
Issuing a mental command with the absent ease of someone who'd had an n-link since he was fourteen, John looked at the holo hanging over the console, as did the others. Graphs in various colors expanded and spun as they all examined the results of the test, with the AI filling in details on request. Nearly two hours passed, until they ended up sitting around the table staring at the final outcome.
"It has to be right. All the numbers meet the theory to an accuracy that's way past chance at this point," Amanda said.
"I'm not arguing that," Philip replied. "I designed those detectors, and I stand by my work. But this is an incredible discovery and I want to be certain we haven't overlooked anything. There are Nobel prizes aplenty in this, after all."
He looked around at the others, who all nodded.
"I agree," Jen put in. "I'm also incredibly excited. We've made the single biggest breakthrough in dark matter and dark energy research in history." She pointed at the holo in the middle of the table. "That confirms so many theories, and completely demolishes others. When this gets out, the effect is going to be..." Trailing off, she finally finished, "profound."
"And then some," John smiled. "It closes the last questions in the GUT, in a way that no one saw coming, and the ramifications of what we've found… I can still hardly believe it even after nearly five years."
Amanda was inspecting the various graphs that were the outcome of over fourteen hundred increasingly complex tests on the phenomenon they'd initially stumbled across while looking for something entirely different. All of them converged towards a final set of equations that were elegantly simple and entirely non-intuitive. Sending a few commands to the AI, she waited as it ran through trillions of operations a second for nearly two minutes solid before rendering terabytes of data down to four lines of symbolic math.
She cleared the display and enlarged the final product, setting it slowly spinning in characters of gold. "That, people, is going to change everything," she said quietly and with wonder in her voice.
"You know people are going to claim we've invented time travel or something, right?" John chuckled.
"We did. Not that you can use it for that. The exclusion principle forbids interaction with anything prior to the present, and the rebound factor means you always end up back where you started from in under one hundred and fifty microseconds anyway," she said, still watching the equations twirl. "Genuine time travel is impossible. This is better."
"Yeah, it is," Philip nodded, also watching the display, a tiny smile on his face. "If we're right that it can be applied macroscopically."
"The theory allows it, as far as I can see," John said. "Mind you, it's going to take a hell of a lot more research to work out how to do it. We're barely touching the beginning of an entire technological revolution that's going to take years to even get properly stuck into."
"Worth it, though," Jen smiled. "Very, very worth it."
"We need to talk to the administration, write up the initial paper on all this, get our names in the history books, then figure out how we actually use it. Funding is going to be needed. A lot of funding," Amanda commented, lowering her eyes to the others. "This facility cost forty two million dollars and is barely enough to show the effect. It'll take billions to turn it into something useful."
"Crass commercialism raises its ugly head over the beauty of theory, as always," John said with a sad expression, causing her to toss a small tool at him. He ducked as he went past and grinned. "If we're really right about this.."
"I want to accept my Nobel Prize in another star system," Jen said firmly.
Amanda looked once more at the display, then blanked it. "That just might happen," she replied with a sensation of extraordinary satisfaction in her heart.
April 2075, Toronto
Institute of Advanced Physics
Department of Superluminal Drive Technology
Jeffries-Warden TBT Drive Control Center
#All systems report ready, Doctor Warden. The test craft is holding at T minus ten seconds. TBT drive power is at initiation threshold. Phobos base is standing by.#
"Thanks, Dmitry," John replied to the calm voice of the AI in his head as he studied the various holo displays around the large room, and the more personal ones inside his mindscape. The two dozen people present were all doing much the same thing, although it was mostly the computers doing the actual monitoring of the experiment. He turned to the woman standing next to him.
"Seventeen years to get here," he said with a sigh. "I wondered at times if we ever would."
"I had faith in our people, John," Amanda replied softly. "But I know what you mean." She looked around. "If this works, the things we're going to do over the next decades are going to change all of us beyond belief."
"Hopefully in a good way," he muttered. "We don't want a repeat of the Quick War."
She shook her head sadly, thinking of the way so many people had died in a few minutes of insanity nearly fifty years ago. The world was still rebuilding itself from that, and entire countries had ceased to exist in their original form. Luckily it had stopped as fast as it started due to the quick thinking and deliberate sacrifices of some very brave people. And the end result was a much more unified world that was far less tolerant of the sort of ideology that led to such things, with any luck permanently this time.
"No, we don't," she agreed. "We came far too close in thirty-four. That's why this is so essential. We have a couple of hundred people scattered around three research posts on Mars and the Moon, and a few thousand in the orbiting habitats. That's not enough. We need to put a lot more people in a lot more places just in case the lunatics take over the asylum again. Next time we might not be so lucky."
John nodded, then turned to the people on his other side, who had been engaged in a low conversation of their own. "Any time you want to go, Colonel," he said to the RCSF man who represented the people who were actually flying their experimental craft, currently five hundred kilometers over their heads. "We're ready here."
"Thank you, Doctor," Colonel Park, who despite his name was only one eighth Korean and didn't even look that, replied. "A moment on a par with Armstrong's first step onto the moon, I feel." He looked tense, but confident. Turning to the small group of people in RCSF uniforms who were monitoring their own displays, he checked they were all happy, then opened a channel to the test ship.
"TBT control to Pathfinder. Lieutenant Williams, you have a go for drive initiation," he said to the air, his n-link relaying the words to the distant spacecraft.
"TBT control to Pathfinder. Lieutenant Williams, you have a go for drive initiation."
Alexis smiled broadly, feeling that she was on the precipice of a new age.
Or, possibly, a horrible let down, but she was an optimist and ignored that possibility.
It would work. And her name would be there alongside Gagarin and Armstrong.
"Thank you, sir," she replied. "TBT Drive initiation in ten seconds… Nine… eight..."
She counted down even though the computer was keeping a much more accurate tally, and was the one which would actually fly the ship. The pilot was basically there as an observer, mostly because even now after more than a century of computer autopilots, certain quarters still didn't want the human out of the loop. She was one of them even though it was mostly because she just enjoyed flying, especially experimental craft.
It was one hell of a rush.
"Three… Two… Initiate!"
Her n-link was feeding her all the readings from around the small spacecraft, the data integrated so tightly into her sensorium that it was almost like she was the ship. She felt the drive pass the threshold and generate the enormous WIMP flux, and felt it invert the resulting TBT effect to put the ship inside the field rather than outside. Even as a rush of purely mental icy cold something went through her physical body, her expanded senses twitched as the entire universe seen through a wide variety of sensors… jumped.
And she was somewhere else.
"Fucking hell it worked!" she screamed in jubilation as she looked at the red planet in front of her, which certainly wasn't the Earth.
Then she frowned. "What the hell is..." she managed, staring at the pinprick of strangely iridescent blue-white light that had appeared on the surface of Mars almost directly below and ahead of her, less than a second after she'd arrived. It was growing at a ferocious rate, covering a distance that must have been measurable in dozens, if not hundreds, of kilometers in seconds.
#Massive gravitational waves detected from unknown source,# the ship told her in tones of warning. Even as it did the craft shuddered hard. #Inertial dampening at maximum output. Reactor at maximum output. Gravitational waves increasing in amplitude, recommend acceleration at full power to clear danger area.#
The blue roiling ball of fire was now rising into the thin atmosphere of Mars, lightning flaring around the edges, in a sight that was simultaneously one of the most impressive things she'd ever seen and hands down the most terrifying. Without even consciously deciding to do so, she ramped her AG drive to maximum and lit the fusion torch, the ship accelerating at over a hundred G outwards from the planet, only the local frame of reference generated by the inertial dampener field keeping her from being pulped.
"What the fuck happened?" she whispered to herself in shock as she fled for her life. And she desperately hoped that whatever the hell it was had been far, far away from the small Martian outpost down there, because it was blatantly obvious that whatever it was wouldn't have been survivable for anyone in the general area. Or possibly on the same hemisphere...
"We got lucky, the blast was almost diametrically opposite the research station, so no one was killed," Colonel Park said as he sat down in the conference room. It had been a very worrying two days since their first successful test of the TBT drive. Assuming that 'success' was the right word for something that might have blown a hole in Mars you could park a decent sized asteroid in without it touching the sides.
They were worried enough about whether it was directly connected to the drive test that no one was ready to allow the Pathfinder to come back the same way. The pilot was going to have to make her way home using the conventional systems, which would take more than a week, which was only possible due to the AG drive in the first place. If they'd been doing this twenty years ago it would have taken months at a minimum. Luckily the ship was equipped for that sort of thing, as they'd planned for possible drive failure, so it was only tedious rather than life threatening.
"If it wasn't the TBT drive it was one hell of a coincidence," Captain Jackson, one of the military technical people also present, said. "The blast happened as far as we can tell at the precise moment the ship arrived over that point on the surface. It started somewhere underground which gave it a small delay until it was visible, but Phobos Station had the entire hemisphere under camera observation to record the arrival of the ship. They correlated the visible signs of the explosion with the Pathfinder arriving and seismic readings from the ground, and they all line up to within milliseconds."
"What actually was it?" Amanda asked, staring at the recording that was replaying in the holo over the table. One side was a view from their experimental ship's cameras, while the other was from Phobos Station. The bizarrely pretty blue fireball didn't match anything she'd ever seen before. Neither did the recordings of a huge surge of gravitational interference, which every gravity detector in the solar system had measured. Even some sensitive seismometers on the Moon had noticed it as the waves went through that body and made it very gently ring like a giant bell.
"We have absolutely no idea, Doctor Jeffries," he said with a shake of his head. "There was no radiation release, no neutron output, none of the signs of a fission or fusion blast. A vast amount of thermal radiation which has melted thousands of square kilometers of rock into glass, a hell of an electrical discharge that blew out half the instruments at the research station on the other side of the planet, and the gravity surge, but none of those match anything I've ever heard of. Not even in theory, and not even something as esoteric as antimatter. We just don't know."
"What was the yield?" Colonel Park asked.
"We're estimating from the size of the crater a minimum energy release in the area of two hundred teratons, sir."
Everyone gaped at him.
"Roughly the result of a ten kilometer iron asteroid hitting the planet dead on," he added helpfully. "The crater is over forty kilometers across and nearly a kilometer deep. Based on measurements from the visual record, the fireball was over two hundred kilometers in diameter at maximum size."
"Jesus Christ!" Philip said in awed tones. "What in god's name did that?"
"I have no idea, but I most definitely do not want it happening here," Colonel Parks replied grimly, provoking a nod from everyone else present. "That would kill half the people on the planet." He looked at them all. "We need to find out what did it, why, and how. And most importantly how to make sure it does not happen again."
"Maybe it was an asteroid that happened to hit at exactly that same moment?" Jen mused. "No, that doesn't make sense, the results are completely ridiculous."
"We'll have to examine the ship when she gets back, to check the drive didn't malfunction, but I can't think of anything even in theory that could cause that," John commented, pointing at the looping holo. He glanced around his team, all of them shaking their heads. "The exclusion principle should stop the drive interacting with anything other than the ship itself, which is inside the field. She could have aimed for the center of Mars in theory and still ended up in space."
"Forgive me if I say I would rather not test that, Doctor," Colonel Parks replied. He glanced at the holo too, then back to John. "Especially considering what actually happened."
John had to agree. "Even so, I can't see the drive field doing it," he insisted. "When the bounceback is completed, we get almost all the energy we put into it back, and there's only a small WIMP flux that's not enough to even register on the instruments." He shrugged. "We're missing something important."
"Indeed. And we need to work out what that is. Your drive works, but if that's the result of using it, it's of very limited use." The colonel smiled a little. "We don't have enough planets that we can afford to put enormous holes in them every time we want to go somewhere."
"I wonder if it was a weapon?" Captain Jackson suggested almost absently, showing the signs of someone using an n-link very hard. "It certainly did enough damage that it could be used as such."
"A weapon from whom?" Jen asked. "We certainly haven't got anything that could do that. Neither does the CAS, or the European Alliance, or anyone else. And it's too damn big to use on Earth anyway, except as a doomsday device straight out of a bad novel. Like the Colonel said, it would kill half the planet with one shot. You couldn't even test it safely..."
He shrugged. "Just a thought. Maybe it was aliens?" His face showed he was joking, although he wasn't precisely smiling.
"I doubt aliens decided to bomb Mars right at the same time we tested a superluminal drive, Captain," his superior officer commented with a wry smile. "That seems to be stretching credulity far past the breaking point. But we need to work on this before we can risk another test. I very much hope the drive wasn't the cause, since I would like to see it developed further."
"We all would," John said. He looked around at his group, then back to the military man. "We'd better go over the calculations again, and check all the results."
"You'll have all the resources you require, Doctor. Keep me updated on your progress."
Colonel Parks stood, nodded to them, then left, Captain Jackson going with him after a quick wave to the rest.
"God." Philip leaned back and sighed, staring at the holo. "So close, then this happens."
"We'll figure it out, Phil," John assured him. "The theory works. We proved that. All we need to do is work out how to get rid of the collateral damage."
They all looked at him, then at the holo, before everyone got to work.
October 2077, Toronto
Institute of Advanced Physics
Department of Superluminal Drive Technology
"That's what did it," John finally said. He gestured wearily at the containment vessel in which a tiny glowing speck of something floated in an AG field. "There must have been a couple of hundred kilos of that stuff under the surface, around five hundred meters down based on the latest calculations."
"What is it?" Colonel Parks asked with great interest, peering into the container through the transparent side. Around them, a dozen scientists were working hard, the AI Dmitry helping correlate their activities, while also monitoring ongoing experiments. The department had grown enormously since the early days, now occupying a large building of its own a dozen kilometers from where they'd first found the initial signs of what turned into TBT theory.
"We don't have a full understanding of it yet, and even less idea of where it comes from, but it's pretty much a type of dark matter that's been bound into a form that interacts with normal matter," John explained, looking between Parks and the other military people that had come with him. Seeing some confused expressions, he expanded on his comment. "Dark matter, and dark energy, don't interact with normal matter and energy except through gravity. They account for the vast bulk of mass in the universe but we could only infer their existence through theory until about 2032, although it had been thought for decades before that to be the most likely explanation for a number of phenomenon astronomers had detected."
He paused while everyone thought that through, then continued when the Colonel gestured a little. "The breakthrough that led to the development of the TBT drive was a chance discovery we made while researching dark matter through the mediation of WIMPs, or Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, which had been suspected to exist for a long time. The proof of Supersymmetry and the development of the Grand Unified Theory finally led to being able to detect them, and to techniques to generate and manipulate them. That in turn led to the AG drive, the inertial compensation field, and a number of other key technologies that all rely on altering or generating gravity. Even our modern fusion reactors wouldn't be possible without that breakthrough."
John noticed Amanda walk over and stand behind them, listening to his explanation with a slight smile, but went on with his impromptu lecture. "This material was found scattered in tiny, almost microscopic, amounts over half the surface of Mars after the Pathfinder Detonation Event. It defied normal chemical analysis, and all other standard techniques, giving completely ridiculous results such as having impossible physical properties, and so on. But we finally worked out that it's something analogous to a clathrate, only consisting of dark matter bound into a matrix with normal matter to the point that it will interact with the rest of the universe."
"What's a clathrate?" one of the visitors asked.
"It's a chemical compound formed of one substance that makes something like a three dimensional lattice which traps another one that wouldn't normally bond with it," Amanda replied from behind the small group and making them all turn to look at her. "The most common form of such a thing is a clathrate hydrate, such as what's commonly known as methane ice. It forms at low temperatures under high pressure in the presence of methane, such as under the ocean in very cold water. It used to be mined for the gas until fusion was perfected."
She waved at the container and its floating speck. "That material is in some ways similar, but it's dark matter trapped in a lattice of modified normal matter, we suspect as the result of a very high energy event such as a supernova or something of that magnitude which occurred in a stellar zone rich in both dark matter and dark energy. Basically it's a dark matter crystal, if you want to think of it like that."
"And we're almost certain that what happened is that the decaying WIMP field from the TBT drive operation interacted with a cache of this stuff buried on Mars and destabilized it all at once. It reverted to its original form more or less instantly, while releasing a vast amount of heat and high energy beta radiation. The gravitational effects were caused by the enormous WIMP flux it produced and at the center of the blast probably momentarily formed an actual singularity, incredibly enough," John carried on, making them all look back to him again. "The energy yield is off the charts terrifying, even higher than a matter-antimatter explosion. There's some thought that it's essentially what could have happened during the first few microseconds of the Big Bang, only thankfully on an inconceivably smaller scale. Or we wouldn't be here."
He examined the floating little object, which was barely visible to the naked eye and only then because it was slightly glowing. "Only a small amount survived, probably because the effect was momentary and once the field decayed the remaining crystal wasn't directly affected and only got scattered by the blast. We've managed to work out the possible energy yield from destabilizing microgram amounts and from that worked back from the measured blast size to arrive at a figure for the original amount. As I said it's roughly two hundred kilograms, although there is an error of plus or minus about fifteen percent since we're not sure it scales linearly."
He fell silent as they all exchanged glances, then examined the container again. Eventually Colonel Parks said, "You are absolutely certain that the TBT drive interacted with this… material… and that's what caused the detonation?"
"We are, yes," John nodded. "As I said, we have a working theory that the AIs agree with, and very cautious experiments back it up."
"And there is no possibility of the drive causing similar effects if this material is not present?"
"No. The WIMP field doesn't interact with normal matter beyond gravitational effects, and those are so minor that it's basically barely detectable in the first place." John shook his head. "We were both spectacularly lucky and equally spectacularly unlucky to have the Pathfinder arrive close enough to the location of this stuff to set it off. If it had been a thousand kilometers further away it wouldn't have had any effect, and we might never have discovered this effect. Which could have ended very badly if anyone happened to be there when we did manage to make it go bang."
"Or if a ship arrived near a larger amount," Jen commented from the other side of the room, turning away from some tests she was working on. They all looked over at her. She shrugged. "It has to exist somewhere else, right? There's no way we just happened to trip over the only chunk of it in the universe. It might be all over the place. Even here on Earth for all we know."
"That… does not make me feel safer," John said slowly.
"It probably doesn't, mind," she added a moment later with a slight smile. "Or we'd most likely have noticed by now. The way it interacts with electricity would make it obvious, since one lightning strike in the wrong place and all sorts of weird things would happen. Not to mention that we're pretty sure it's toxic, although we haven't got enough of it to test properly yet."
Colonel Parks looked enquiringly at John, who nodded. "It seems very likely that it will interact badly with biological systems, we're told. We know it reacts to an electrical charge with some extremely odd effects we're still characterizing at the moment, which could take several years, but that does imply that electrical flow in the body could do much the same thing. The end results wouldn't be pretty, even if it's not chemically active."
"Sounds like something of a nightmare substance," one of the other visitors said. "Is it going to cause problems for the Mars program?"
"Hopefully not," John replied, although he shrugged. "We've got people working on improving methods to detect and contain the stuff. Since we know it interacts with a WIMP field, there is some thought to it being possible to use a very low power one to scan for it by measuring changes in the energy flux. In theory that would let us detect it over significant distances. Possibly interplanetary ones, due to the way dark energy works. But that will take time and money to develop. With any luck by the time we need to put people anywhere near the site of the blast we'll have been able to clean it up, and until then it's far enough away that we can simply avoid it."
"Does it have any useful properties?" Another man asked the question, looking intrigued. "Many materials are toxic or dangerous and still very valuable."
"Some of the effects we've seen are interesting, but most of them we can already manage through much safer and more controllable methods," Amanda noted, walking around to stand next to John. "Even the less likely ones are in theory achievable, with time and research. This substance is in our opinion far too dangerous and unstable to use commercially, if only due to the catastrophic interaction with WIMP fields. If the TBT drive becomes viable, which is after all what we've dedicated nearly twenty years to, we can't risk using it in any way."
"Even if we can find a method to shield the drive, it's too hazardous," John added. "Considering that you could probably make this damn stuff destabilize from the other side of the solar system with a sufficiently strong WIMP beam. About the only thing I could see it being used for is weapons, worryingly enough. It makes a fusion bomb look like a firecracker. You'd have to be an idiot to put the stuff into use otherwise."
Colonel Parks gave him a thoughtful look, then turned his head to study the containment vessel again. After a while he turned back, although John got the feeling that he might have inadvertently done something stupid…
"I would tend to agree," the man said mildly. "Is shielding the drive from this sort of problem even possible?"
"We think so, but it's another entire branch of research that we're certainly not going to solve overnight," Amanda sighed. "We've got an entire department working on it. As Jen said, we have to assume there is more of the material around the place, and we don't want to risk this happening again somewhere where the results would be less fortunate. We're going to have to make sure we keep our testing of the drive to empty areas of space once we restart the program, until and unless we can work out how to either detect the substance from far enough away to avoid it, or shield the drive, or both."
"Agreed." Colonel Parks nodded. He glanced at the people with him, then turned back to them. "I will take this to the relevant people, and I expect the program will be restarted in short order. I also believe that more funding will be put your way to allow a rapid research effort into this problem."
"That would definitely help," John said.
"We'll be in touch, Doctors," Parks went on. "Until then." Having shaken their hands, the entire party left. Sitting down in the nearest chair John rested his chin on his hands and stared at the mystery substance in the containment vessel.
"We need to give it a name," Amanda remarked, leaning on the bench next to him and also looking at it.
"I vote for Tiberium!" Jen called.
"We are not naming the most bizarre material ever discovered after something from an ancient video game, Jen," Amanda replied calmly, causing the other woman to laugh.
"Marsite?" John suggested with a grin.
"Sounds like a breakfast spread."
"That's just silly."
They exchanged smiles, then got back to work.
South Polar Region
Nine hundred and twenty kilometers from the Pathfinder Blast Event site.
#More Planium readings detected fifteen kilometers due west of our current location, Mike.#
"Trace amounts as usual, or something larger this time, Demi?" Mike asked wearily, leaning back in the seat of his vehicle and stretching. Even with all the comforts of home, this was a tedious job.
#Based on the readings I estimate as much as fifty grams,# his AI replied quietly. Her voice, since he'd decided that she was female and she'd gone along with it, was pleasant and low, sounding through his n-link a lot like a teacher he'd known as a child. Once again he marveled at how rapidly AI technology was developing. When he'd left Earth fifteen years ago for the slowly expanding Martian Research Outpost, they'd been idiot savants, yet today they were as smart as humans were at a minimum. And generally easier to deal with in his experience.
"Fifty grams!?" he exclaimed in shock, sitting upright very quickly. "Are you sure?"
#Within a very small margin of error, yes,# she replied. He could almost swear her voice showed amusement at his reaction, no matter what he was told about AIs not having much if anything in the way of emotions.
"That's a hundred times as large as anything we've ever found before," he said in wonder.
#The latest detectors are far more sensitive and work through much deeper layers of rock,# the AI replied. #The readings suggest the source is buried at a depth of approximately two hundred meters. The location correlates with a small range of hills, and it's possible it's in a cave under them. Satellite survey results have shown many such caves in that area.#
His vehicle was already heading in that direction, Mike having activated it without much thought. The idea of finding fifty grams of the incredibly rare and weird Planium, so named after the Promethei Planum area in which a much larger quantity had drastically remodeled the landscape eight years previously, was exciting. There was quite a reward for each gram of the substance, both for its value for research and for the purposes of decontaminating what would one day be another habitable planet. No one wanted that stuff lying around where it could cause future problems.
They arrived in the general area within minutes, the AG vehicle easily floating over any obstructions. More readings were taken as they quartered the area, until finally he was looking out at a hole in the side of a cliff with a quizzical expression.
"Demi? Is it my imagination, or is that cave… a little too perfectly rectangular?"
#I have to admit it does not appear to be natural,# the AI replied after a moment. The pair of them scanned the entrance, which was a very obviously manufactured opening, the sides perfectly straight and flat. #It's large enough to drive into.#
"Well, only one way to find out, I guess," he said as he brought the drive online again and started moving.
#We could send a drone inside first,# his synthetic companion commented mildly.
"Where's the fun in that?" he chuckled, carefully maneuvering the aircar into the hole, which it fitted fairly easily. Half a kilometer and four turns later in what was clearly an artificial structure, he stopped the vehicle dead and simply stared.
There was a very long pause, then he said in a slightly strangled voice, "Demi?"
"Do you think there's a reward for finding proof of alien life?"
The AI made a small sound that was perilously close to a snicker. #I suspect that you won't have any difficulty getting funding for your projects after this,# she replied, as they both looked at the metal door incised with strange symbols, around which tiny lights flickered.
Institute of Advanced Physics
Department of Superluminal Drive Technology
"The latest results from the Mars Research group have shown that this facility was a small automated outpost acting as a backup for the main one, which was in the exact center of the blast site," Doctor Henry Chan, Xenoanthropologist, remarked as he highlighted several locations on the holo display with a series of mental commands. "The larger site was, based on the data we've so far downloaded and decoded, some forty times larger than the one discovered last year. We have only fragmentary data about them, or what they were doing on Mars, or indeed what happened to them, since the records have been badly degraded by both sheer time and the damage caused by the Event. It's likely that we'll never be able to reconstruct more than a small amount of the data, which is a great blow to science."
"Do we know how old that place is yet?" John asked.
"Based on a number of dating methods, we're estimating approximately fifty thousand years plus or minus fifteen hundred," Doctor Chan said, popping up several tables of data. "It would appear to have been uninhabited for nearly that length of time. There are no bodies, and very little data on the people who built it. We don't even have any pictures of them."
He flipped through a number of pages of information, until he stopped on one indecipherable set of symbols. "Their computer technology was robust to have lasted this long with any sort of integrity, but not very advanced by our standards. There is no sign of spintronics, for example. Without the aid of our AIs we'd have spent decades attempting to work out the little we have so far. However, we did make one rather unnerving discovery. As best we can determine, this document is a warning."
"Warning?" Colonel Parks asked intently. "To whom? Or about what?"
"To us, we think," Doctor Chan replied. "Or, more accurately, to anyone who discovered the remnants of that base."
"What is it warning about?"
"Some great threat the aliens were very worried about," he said. "We're not sure yet what that was. Disease, natural disaster, enemies… It could have been any number of things. My personal view is it was some opponent of theirs based on some of the phrasing used, assuming we've managed to translate that part correctly. But they seem to have been running from whatever it was, which may explain why their facilities seem to have been abandoned with considerable haste."
Everyone looked at each other, then back at the holo. "That is somewhat discomfiting," Amanda said after a few seconds. "It makes me wonder if that threat is still around."
"We have wondered the same thing," Doctor Chan admitted with a frown. "Fifty thousand years is a lot to us, but it might not be to whatever the Promethians were."
"Promethians?" Philip asked, sounding puzzled. The other man smiled a little.
"That's what they're being called, due to their outpost being located in the Promethei Planum area of Mars. For want of a better name, that one seems to have stuck."
"I suppose it's as good a name as any," Philip chuckled. After a moment he became more serious. "But you're right, it's not impossible that this mysterious threat could still be out there, or they could as well."
"A thought has occurred to me that I find disturbing but can't rule out entirely," Colonel Parks remarked, his eyes fixed on the holo. Everyone looked at him. "Is it possible that the large amount of Planium that was in their main base was actually a booby-trap intended to deal with these potential enemies of theirs, assuming Doctor Chan is right about that possibility?" He looked away from the display to cast his eyes around the conference table to each of them in turn. "It caused a vast amount of damage and utterly obliterated the entire facility. If they were expecting an invasion or attack, it would have been a good last ditch defense. If nothing else it would ensure that no trace of them was left."
"But it didn't go off until we accidentally triggered it..." John pointed out.
The colonel sighed. "I know. That part puzzles me. Perhaps they abandoned their base before they got attacked, or the attackers somehow neutralized the trap, or there was an error in the design… There are a lot of possibilities and no answers. But I can't rule it out. As you've all said at one point or another, Planium is hideously dangerous in large quantities. I can't see any good alternative reason for it to be there except for some form of weapon."
They exchanged looks again. "The man has a point," Philip commented.
"Power generation, maybe? We know it can be used for that, if you don't mind the danger," Amanda said tentatively.
"That much of it? How much power could they need?" John responded. "Grams would be enough for most purposes. Kilograms is getting ridiculous."
They discussed the concept for some time, but were ultimately unable to come to any consensus. "We may never know," Doctor Chan finally summed up. "But we've learned quite a lot, even it it isn't as much as we'd like. And we now know for a fact that we're not alone in the universe, which is one of the most important discoveries in history."
Everyone nodded. Then they went back to work, while thinking over the possibility that one day they might themselves meet another species out there somewhere.
Institute of Advanced Physics
Department of Superluminal Drive Technology
"It works. It bloody works!" John grabbed Amanda and danced around the desk with her in his arms.
"Yes, it works. Let go, you lumbering idiot," she said acerbically. He released her and grinned.
"No sense of fun, some people," he complained. "Thirty years we've been working together, and you still won't dance with me."
"You have at least two left feet and outweigh me two to one, you twit," she sighed. He merely shrugged.
"But it works. The shielding actually works."
Her frown turned into a broad smile. "That it does. Finally. We can retrofit the Pathfinder with it within two months, then see how well it works in practice. If it does what these tests show, we could be in a position to try the first interstellar test that doesn't end up in empty space."
"Those poor test pilots are getting bored with looking at emptiness," John agreed. "I think they want to see another planet. I know I would in their position."
"Let's call the relevant people and tell them the good news, then," she smiled.
Both of them looked around as the door opened to reveal Jen, who had a weird expression on her face. "The shield works, Jen!" John shouted in glee.
"Great," she mumbled, apparently thinking about something else. Looking at the main holo display she activated it with her n-link and projected an image onto it even as she walked into the room and closed the door. Both the others turned to look at it, slightly confused.
"What's this?" Amanda asked.
"The results of the prototype Deep WIMP Array," their colleague and friend replied. "We got all the detectors synced up last night for the first time, and ran a quick test to calibrate the system. This is the result."
They glanced at each other, then her, then went back to looking at the image.
"That's Mars," she continued, highlighting a shadowy sphere with thousands of tiny bright points scattered all over about one quarter of it. "Planium particles all over the damn place."
"You're picking up that much from Earth orbit?" John asked in astonishment. "Christ. That's far more sensitive than I expected."
"It works incredibly well," she nodded. "So far there are no other signs of it within range. With one exception."
The display changed, then zoomed in. A fuzzy dim blob appeared close to an even fuzzier one that was considerably larger. Near the middle of the first one was a bright spot.
"What… is that?" John asked slowly, leaning closer to examine the display.
"About sixty thousand tons of Planium," Jen said in a low, worried voice. "Enough to destroy half the solar system. And there's no way it's a natural deposit, it's way too concentrated for that."
There was silence for some time as all three of them looked at the holo.
"I can't see it being anything else," Jen replied to Amanda's horrified expression. "What else would you need that much Planium for?"
"Fuck." John shook his head. "I've got a very bad feeling about this. I think we need to tell someone a little higher up the food chain right now."
As he placed an n-link call to Colonel Parks, he tried not to think what would have happened if their first test flight had gone to Charon rather than Mars...
Temporal Bounceback Transportation Drive System, commonly known as the 'Blink Drive'
The principles behind the Jeffries-Warden TBT Drive were initially discovered almost accidentally in 2058 by Doctor Amanda Jeffries and Doctor John Warden during research into Supersymmetry and Dark Matter. It was found that under the correct conditions, a form of momentary temporal translocation could be induced in macroscopic objects. The translocation field decayed in microseconds, but while it lasted it projected the object back in time approximately 98% of the age of the universe. Due to a principle dubbed 'Conservation of Temporal Momentum' it is not possible to move an object back along the temporal axis and leave it there. It will always return to the present time plus a very small offset of some dozens of microseconds, and does not interact with anything in the process.
So what use is this effect, one naturally asks?
That is the key question, and the answer is of course that due to cosmological expansion, the universe at 2% or less of its current age was inconceivably smaller than it is at the current time. There is a very brief window between the 'outbound' leg of the trip and the 'inbound' leg where the object can be moved a small distance in the far past, but on its return to the present will find the distance it has covered is hugely greater. Effectively near instantaneous superluminal travel has been achieved even though at no point during the entire process has the speed of light genuinely been exceeded.
The Blink drive opened up the universe to humanity...
From 'A Guide to Superluminal Travel Techniques, second edition, Ganymede Technical Publishing PLC, 2143'