Aki Luisauir arrived at his laboratory late this morning, like most mornings. Even though he had slept throughout the night, he felt tired. Dwarfed by the surrounding machinery, he threaded his way between old propulsion system prototypes meant for assault frigates, research that had been very promising three years ago but had come to no fruition, leaving him pretty much alone in what now felt like a tomb rather than a bustling laboratory. His work had seen no credible result, and he now faced an ever-growing black hole of debt he saw no chance of ever paying back.
"It's not that you're selfish," his wife said, during his lunch break holocall down to the planet surface. Kia hated life in orbit, and hardly ever came up to the research station. Aki would take the dropship down at the end of every month to spend time with her and their only son, Rias.
"But it's always been about that big breakthrough," she continued, launching into a monologue he knew almost verbatim by now. "How many years did you spend at that engineering university? Sometimes I think you tried to take every possible class and degree there is, no matter how long it took," she added in a light tone. Aki's mind started to drift. He found himself thinking of hyperbolic differential equations, how he'd never fully been able to apply them to spatial microdistortion. It was a problem that could revolutionize propulsion if solved. Despite the continued lack of progress he felt so close to the answer, as close as he had felt two years ago. But still, he'd been just as close two years ago. She was right; he'd gone to a great number of different courses on different topics, believing it would give him a bird's-eye perspective that more specialized scientists lacked. Still, as time went by, that view had become increasingly cloudy. I just have to focus better, he told himself.
"You're not speaking," she said, breaking his train of thought.
"Sorry, my mind was elsewhere."
She was silent for a moment. "Why don't you come down planetside and we'll talk. Take a break. Come home."
Aki glanced around the unmanned research lab. "My work has to go on," he muttered.
"Come down. I'll see you tomorrow." She disconnected.
He knew what this was about. She was going to persuade him to give up. To abandon his research, to take an associate professor position at the local military college and teach math to people who had no respect for it and no sense of its beauty. Grunts that simply needed the certification so they could be issued a weapon and shipped off to some remote hellhole world to die. He suspected that deep down, his wife resented his intellect and feared the moment he would make his discovery, since that would prove her wrong after years of criticsm and sullen disappointment.
A college professor? He used to have college professors as fans. When he'd still been a student, his early research had been some of the most promising new applied astromechanical science in the Federation. When he'd finally graduated, a bidding war had been waged between the largest engineering and aerospatial corporations, fighting to snatch that supertalent and place their research and development divisions securely at the forefront of discovery. When he'd been hired by Duvolle Laboratories he'd felt as if his life was copied straight out of a holoreel: mixing with the most brilliant minds of his time, granted access to the kind of highly classified research and technology he'd only theorized about while at school. But somehow, after all those years spent preparing for the breakthrough moment – all the hopes, the late nights – it never came. Like being suddenly mute in a dream and trying to communicate with people. It became harder and harder for him to come up with anything worthwhile. The corporation was patient with him at first, providing tutors and all manner of assistance. Human resources even offered illegal neurological boosters. Nothing. After they cancelled his contract, news got out about his inability to innovate, so he had no other choice but to go it alone. He'd taken out a massive loan and funded his research himself. That had been three years ago.
He sighed. Something inside him began to give. He'd never allowed himself to think it before, but it had been getting harder and harder to resist, and at this moment the dam finally broke. She is right. This is going nowhere. Perhaps I'm not the greatest mind in the Federation. Perhaps I have to accept the fact that future textbooks will not have a chapter on my discoveries, where students will have to learn about my great dark era before I struck gold. Perhaps that's never going to happen. Secretly, he had believed all these things. He had been waiting for that invitation from the President to celebrate his discovery. His honorary titles. His endless pile of money. His well-earned prize.
Perhaps it would never come.
The dropship shook violently as they crossed into the atmosphere. In addition to being cramped, Economy class lacked the gyrosmoothing equipment of the more expensive classes. They make you feel every nasty twist and rumble, just to incentivize you to pay for upper class, he thought. Like space travel isn't uncomfortable enough.
Kia was at the spaceport to greet him. She had brought Rias as well, which was unusual since he should have been at school. Though he was almost ten years old, Rias looked older. Kia seemed strangely happy, considering Aki hadn't even told her he was giving up and shutting down the lab. She chatted the whole way home; about nothing, it seemed to him. Something is not right, he thought.
Their apartment at sublevel 34 felt damp and dirty. The air belowground was thick and had an industrial smell to it. Aki had promised Kia that when his research paid off they'd have a nice place aboveground, one with actual windows instead of the oversaturated holoframes that now adorned their small apartment. Years later, they still lived in what she referred to as "the hole."
The loud fan noise and cold light didn't seem to annoy her that much today, though. Shortly after they'd arrived home and Aki had begun to unpack, she got straight to the point.
"Honey, do you remember Avagher Xarasier? I ran into him while taking Rias to the science museum last week."
Aki paused. Avagher. His old classmate. "Yes, he-" He cleared his throat. "Wasn't he with CreoDron?"
"Not anymore," said Kia, an note of excitement coming into her voice. "He's with Duvolle now. Doing great."
"Oh? That's good for him."
"Well, not just for him. I spoke to him about your situation. He was asking about you, you know. About how promising your research had been. He talked about how he idolized you back then."
"They have a new program. Something that might help us. It's pretty radical. He wants to meet and talk about it."
She handed him a small card with the words DUVOLLE LABORATORIES glowing dimly off the polished plastic. From beside the logo, Avagher's perfectly groomed face grinned up at him. It hadn't changed much from the last time he'd seen him. Aki looked up at Kia, who was smiling at him, then down at their son, who was playing by the side of the bed.
"Is it a job?" he asked her. "I don't know. It... it would be strange working for him."
"I don't know that much about it," she replied. "It's something new, something they can't talk about to people outside the company. Something that will change the world, he said."
Change the world. How often Aki had heard that phrase. Sure. Let's change the world, he thought.
"I'll go see him tomorrow," he said. "But for now I'd just really like to spend the rest of the day with you two. Maybe go to the museum?" Aki felt he should use the time to vitalize his son's mind, to light his way down the path of math and science just like he himself had been inspired at that tender age.
"We were just at the museum last week, you know," she said. "That's where we met Avagher."
"Oh. Right. Well, perhaps I'll just do some work, then."
Retreating into his small office, Aki began hammering at his terminal. He brought up the schematics for the propulsion prototype, more out of habit than curiosity. He'd gone over them hundreds if not thousands of times in the past months, simply spinning the articulated rendering of the model, reviewing the controller code, not really changing anything, not learning anything new, but it made him feel busy – and, more importantly, made him look busy. Kia shut the door, blocking the sound from outside, leaving Aki alone in the monotonous hum of the industrial air conditioning unit servicing his little room, on sublevel 34, in the city of Rumas on the planet Fricoure V.
Avagher Xarasier welcomed Aki into his office. His face was still perfectly groomed, his skin seemed artificially void of any discontinuities and his hand felt soft as Aki grabbed it. "Sorry to keep you waiting. Things have been going at tachyon speed for the past few weeks." He grinned the same radiating smirk that had been so prominently displayed on his card. "With all of this magnificent stuff coming out of W-space, we're having problems keeping up." As he regarded Aki, a beneficent warmth came into his eyes. Aki suppressed a shudder.
"Wormhole space?" Aki asked. He knew that capsuleers had been going in there for a while now, scavenging old parts from the derelict space stations of ancient races, but to the best of his knowledge nothing new had emerged from those areas for a while. "You have to excuse me. I haven't been in the loop. My contract with Duvolle expired some time ago and I don't have clearance..."
"You haven't heard!?" Avagher seemed very excited, more than his usual self. Suddenly he paused. "You did sign the non-disclosure contract, didn't you?" he asked.
"Yes, on my way in," replied Aki. "A number of contracts, actually. I've probably signed away access rights to my body and worldly belongings. Lot of fine print."
"Okay, we're good then!" continued Avagher. "You see, they found something inside these old Talocan wrecks. We thought we'd seen it all, but up until now they'd only send droids in there. These are pretty nasty places! They're still powered, and parts of them have so much radiation and static that the droids simply get toasted. People assumed they weren't that interesting, just black spots of radiation that they learned to avoid."
"But recently, some explorers started to go in there. Death wish, if you ask me, but they actually found something remarkable. Technology aeons beyond anything we've seen. It's not Jovian, but I'll wager it's close. It seems as if this race was able to fold space and construct some type of quantum computer within the folds. Our lab has been working 24/7 to reverse-engineer the samples we've managed to purchase off these salvagers who've been returning from W-space." He waited, watching Aki intently.
"You want me to take a look at this new technology?" Aki was elated. This was what he'd always dreamed of. Getting a taste of the future, being part of taking the world into it.
"Not quite," said Avagher. "No, we have a great exospatial team working on that right now. Used to be our theory team, but overnight they became an applied science team. Imagine that!"
Aki was silent for a few seconds, breathing measuredly. "So what is it you want me to do? Why did you bring me in?"
Avagher looked out the window a moment, watching as the cold blue sun of Fricoure set behind the sprawling cityscape. Presently he turned to Aki, looked at him with a graver expression than before, and began speaking.
"Do you ever worry that you will never be able to make the most of your mind? That you will never have that breakthrough, that moment of brilliance when your decades of education and experimentation converge in one perfect singularity and out comes an idea so powerful that it will shine a light on your name for decades to come?"
Aki was taken aback. "Well," he said, then hesitated. "I am still early in my research..."
"Actually, no," said Avagher, "you are quite late. Most brilliant ideas and inventions are made when people are in their twenties or early thirties. Of all the great mathematical discoveries of our time, can you name even one which was discovered by someone older than thirty?"
"I'm thirty-five," said Aki. "I still have a large backlog of experiments and research planned, based on my early theories. I think you can't just dismiss anyone over thirty as useless to science."
"That's not my point!" Avagher approached Aki and placed a hand on his shoulder. "This is not about being a good college professor, writing witty essays, finding minor inconsistencies in someone else's research or publishing papers no-one cares about. Sure, you can live to the age of ninety and still be called a scientist, but that's not really what a true scientist is after. No, what any man or woman committed to science is truly after is that perfect crystalline moment of discovery. That moment of bliss when it all becomes clear to you. The moment that makes you immortal in science. Everything else is just hubris, and therefore irrelevant."
Aki felt this was going nowhere. "Why did you bring me here? To tell me I'm never going to get anywhere and that I spent too much time in school? To be honest, I can get that information somewhere else."
"No, Aki, I want to give you the opportunity to have this happen to you. Not in some distant and nebulous future, but here and now. We have something, Aki. It's something that came out of those excursions, and it's something that can make this happen in less than an hour."
"Nonsense! All knowledge accrued over a lifetime, boiled together, connected and yielding results in an hour? That's impossible."
"Not quite. Now, you have to understand, Aki, this is not something we have piled up in cargo containers in some hangar. We've only come across a few nanograms of the IN-06 substance, and those were pretty expensive, even for Duvolle."
"It's a drug? Why don't you synthesize it?"
"We don't understand it fully. We believe we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg here. The rest of the material has been folded. It doesn't respond to duplication or synthesis like regular chemicals do."
"Have you tried it yourself?" said Aki, incredulous.
"I'm afraid I don't quite have what it takes," Avagher replied. "I scored 131/131 on the Federation Cognitive scale when I was at the university, and everyone knows you scored over 200/0.5. Highest score in two decades across all of the Federation's educational facilities, wasn't it?"
Aki nodded distractedly.
"You have studied extensively across different fields," continued Avagher. "Engineering, math, chemistry. It's actually quite remarkable you haven't made any significant discoveries yet, but that's not the issue. We feel that if we are to use the IN-06 we have, it has to be on a brilliant mind, one that's already primed with all the information required."
Aki pursed his lips in silent thought for a second. "There has to be a catch," he said. He leaned back in his chair, lay one ankle over the opposite knee and crossed his arms. "Let's say I take this drug of yours. Do I just get some great ideas, type them into a terminal and go home? There's something you're not telling me, here."
"Well, I'm going to be honest with you," said the other man. "Yes, there is a catch. Since the compound is folded, its inner workings are not known to us. What we do know is that despite the very small dose, the substance manages to distribute itself evenly throughout the brain in less than two minutes. It then goes into hyperconnection mode, creating connections between synapses across the brain, like superhighways or shortcuts across the fabric. It does this for an hour to a progressively greater degree, not quite exponentially but not far from it. The subjects we've worked with before were fully coherent during this period, and were able to elaborate their ideas clearly so that they were readily understood by the team that went on to prove them. However, after only sixty minutes of exposure the connections start to saturate the mind. It's around that time that they become incoherent. The mind continues to function in some limited way – we can see that from the brain scans – but as of yet we haven't been able to communicate with them beyond that point. They seem to go into some sort of psychosis, which may be a result of the overconnection and overheating. After we cool the brain and provide the proper medication, they relax and seem quite comfortable."
"You've turned them catatonic? That's great, where do I sign?" said Aki, staring at his old classmate with undisguised contempt. "Why would I ever want to become a drooling vegetable in some Duvolle Labs basement?"
I think you are forgetting one big factor," said Avagher, lifting a finger briefly as he did so. "Those three people we've done this with already. Each and every one has come up with something amazing. Remember Kanih Motoro? He solved the Kiesler integral problem in less than twenty minutes. It's already being put to use in sub-frequency EM shielding for capsuleer-controlled ships. And Kanih is not you, Aki. Just think about what you could discover. All these things people have been trying to crack for decades."
Aki stood up and walked towards the door. "No, thanks. I'm sure this IN-06 works wonders for you guys, but I'm not at a point where I want to give up the rest of my life just to make a scientific discovery. I have a life. A wife and son."
"Inferno," Avagher replied.
"It's called Inferno by the lab team. The IN-06. And yes, you do have a wife and a son. Is she happy? Is she proud of you? And the kid? Does he have a future? He's not going to have your education. You'll be lucky to have him signed up to the military college. But if you go along with this, Kia won't have a financial worry for the rest of her life. The suits are offering a fortune for your participation, regardless of the results. You'd pay off your debts with a fraction of the sum. Think about it, Aki. This is your chance. You were given this unique mind, this education, this rare opportunity. Are you going to waste it on the rest of your life? You could ensure your legacy here. Provide a future for your wife and kid. Isn't that what you really want?"
Aki didn't answer. He walked out and slammed the door behind him, raising an alarmed look from Avagher's unnaturally attractive secretary.
"So you see, he wants me to take their drug, have my moment of bliss and in return you get freighterloads of money while I drool away the rest of my days in a Duvolle-sponsored luxury clinic. I can't believe he had the nerve to even suggest it! Did he tell you about this when he said he wanted to meet me?"
"Of course not," Kia answered. "It's ludicrous to even offer something like this. Is a single discovery worth your entire life?"
A trashy holoreel was playing on the living room display, but neither of them was really watching. Besides, it was hard to even see what was going on in the actual story with all of the overlaid advertising.
"Exactly!" Aki snapped. He meant to go on, but before he could Kia stood up and went into Rias's room to help him with his homework. Aki sat silently in the kitchen for a while, then retired to his office, fired up the terminal and looked at the schematics yet again. He started to spin the model as usual but found it hard to focus, his mind always going back to the audacity of that overgroomed, pompous former friend of his. I don't need your fancy drugs. I just need a little more time, he thought. The articulated hologram of the prototype unfolded like the petals of a flower as he ran a quick thermal flow simulation. He'd run this simulation countless times before, though, and the results were the same as they'd always been. Aki sat there for a while, going through first the code, then the schematics, then the simulations, as if performing some kind of ritual.
Kia opened the door.
"I'm working," he said. "Just give me a minute."
"The work will be there later," she said, pulling him away from the terminal. It wasn't until she kissed him that he noticed she was barely wearing anything. "I've been waiting a while for this," she said.
Aki watched the dim glow from Kia's imported cigarette illuminate her face and smooth naked torso as she took a deep drag. It had been too long. Between all his worries – the research, the money, his time away in orbit –he'd forgotten how perfectly simple and fulfilling it could be with Kia.
"Did he really say he wanted to turn you into a vegetable just to get your ideas?" Kia laughed and pulled the bedsheets up.
"Well, it's more complex than that. I'm not sure what I'm allowed to say. They had me sign all these contracts."
"I'm your wife. You can tell me. It's not like I'm going to run off to the press or sell industrial secrets. Tell me, what did he say?"
"Well. There's a compound called Inferno. It's from wormhole space. From an ancient race. They have minute quantities of it. And if they give it to people, their brains form connections they wouldn't have formed before."
"Like a cerebral accelerator?"
"Nothing so crass. This is the real deal, apparently. I probably shouldn't be saying this, but... they gave it to Kanih Motoro."
"Motoro? Your old research assistant?"
"Yeah. Avagher said he solved the Kiesler integral problem. Just like that."
"Motoro couldn't solve anything when you were working together," Kia mused. "Didn't he just spend all his research time filling out forms for grants? He always struck me as someone who just worked hard rather than someone with a brilliant mind."
"Yeah, he scored 150/10 on the scale, I think. Something like that."
"And you scored over two hundred, Aki."
"Yeah, I did."
"Well, I hope he got a freighterload of money for it," she said, laughing, as she took one last puff of the cigarette.
"Actually, he did. So would I. Even just a part of it would pay off all our debts."
"All our..." Kia coughed, triggering a deeper cough which sent smoke puffing through her nose. "You're kidding me. They'd pay that much for what's in your head?" She became very serious. "It would mean Rias would never have to worry about anything in his life."
"Yes, but I'd be a vegetable."
"Yes. Absolutely." Kia sat still for a moment. "Motoro solved the Kiesler integral?" she finally asked.
"He did. That kid solved a problem that's been used as the definition of an unsolvable problem for decades. I mean, I tried factoring that for two whole semesters and never got anywhere."
"I wouldn't judge you if you chose to do this," said Kia in a low voice. She looked Aki in the eyes. "I know you value your research over everything else. Even family. I've resented it at times, but I've learned to live with it and I know that you won't change." She looked down and was silent for a moment. "I wouldn't judge you," she repeated then, softly.
Aki felt he should say that she was wrong, that she was more important than his research, but it wasn't true and he felt no point in lying to her now to make her feel better. Knowing of her acceptance eased some of the guilt he'd felt over the years; all those times he'd chosen an assignment in orbit over a day or two with the family.
"I could die without ever discovering anything," said Aki. "I could get hit by a runaway cleaning droid tomorrow, or choke on a snack. I could catch one of those viruses that the immigrants bring down every day, or the power could go out in the air supply in the middle of the night. These things happen."
Tears had begun to form at the corners of Kia's eyes. "I can't believe we're discussing this. I don't want you to do this. I don't want to lose you."
Aki felt a decision begin to come into view on the horizon of his mind. This was becoming more and more clear to him. Kia meeting Avagher hadn't been a coincidence. It was fate. There was something right about it, something pure, like a mathematical axiom or a universal constant. He was smarter than Motoro. His discovery would outshine anything that kid could ever have come up with. His mind was primed and ready. This was destiny.
Still he wept a little with Kia, but more because she was weeping rather than out of any sadness he felt himself. His mind was illumined with excitement. What will my discovery be?
At first glance, the Duvolle-owned lab looked like an expensive classroom. A desk, a neat stack of paper and pens of all different colors. Three state-of-the-art terminals were neatly arranged on the desk, above which loomed multiple digital whiteboards. In front of the desk there were several rows of seats. Avagher, seated next to Aki, was explaining how things would proceed.
"It's quite simple. You just relax and make yourself comfortable. There'll be a few people in here taking notes, perhaps asking some questions about specifics. It's very important you keep talking. We've seen people get so overwhelmed with their thoughts that they forget to tell us what's going on, and that's hardly practical, is it? It's not worth much if it's just happening in here!" Avagher tapped his index finger on Aki's head. Aki smiled, though he wasn't really seeing the humor.
A door opened on the side of one of the whiteboards, revealing the full research crew in a large adjoining room. Inside were what seemed like a hundred people, some hunched over screens showing biological readouts of the various microscopic sensors attached to Aki's body, others running simulations and studying various pieces of his preexisting research. Seeing that Aki was staring into the room, Avagher walked to the door and closed it.
"Best not think too much about them, even though each and every one of them is thinking about you. Just relax and enjoy the ride!" Though Aki was excited about what would happen, he couldn't wait for Avagher's artificially white smile to be out of his sight.
"Let's do this," he said.
The medical team sat Aki down in his chair. Again, the door into the room next to them opened. This time they wheeled out a polished white contraption that looked like a state-of-the-art medical instrument. It had a large oval hole, into which Aki's head slid comfortably. The innocent smooth hum of various servo motors obscured the fact that his cranium was being rather forcefully clamped and held steady with micrometer precision.
A disembodied voice said, "You are going to feel a pinprick in the back of your head, and a strange sensation inside your skull. This is normal, so no need to panic."
It was more than a pinprick. As he watched on the monitor, the sharp needle drove through his skull, penetrating deep into the cerebral cortex, where it began secreting the valuable chemical named Inferno. Aki could sense a tingling itch growing within his skull but he held tight, knowing this was just the insertion phase. As the itch spread out, the needle was subtracted. Finally, the carefully polished contraption let go of his head and he was wheeled out again.
"It can be good to focus on something other than what's happening, just while the compound takes effect," said the technician. "Try to think about something simple, like your childhood."
The technician's face was strangely clear, his bloodshot eyes piercing, his skin more porous and detailed than it had appeared minutes ago. Looking around, Aki saw the room itself was clearer, too, as if previously he had been watching a muddied low-quality holoreel whereas now he was seeing things in full definition, all razor-sharp detail and vivid colors. There was also something remarkably lucid about his state of mind. The usual haze of self-doubt, regret, frustration and worry had vanished; in its place there was now a quiet waiting void.
My childhood, he thought. As he let his mind wander down that path, images flashed before him at tremendous speed. His first swim in the ocean and the shock of the cold water enveloping him. Playing four-dimensional Quivolle with his mother at only three years of age, and seeing her surprise when he sorted all the pieces in less than eight moves. He remembered extensive tests at the institute for gifted children, being allowed to sequence on a military-grade workstation when he was seven. His graduation party at ten, how excited he was to give an interview that was broadcast across the Federation. Seeing Kia for the first time when she was eighteen, in particle collider class. How she ignored him since he was still just twelve at the time. It would be years until she noticed him.
"Okay. Are you remembering things better than usual?" The technician watched Aki closely. "Perhaps focus on something more relevant to our interests now, like propulsion?"
As soon as the word left his lips, patterns, concepts and theory began flooding into Aki's mind, as if the single word had let off an explosion that now expanded throughout his entire field of consciousness. He vividly remembered every formula and equation of standard applied thermodynamics and spatial theory, even the loosely formed ideas about supercritical energy diffusion he'd started playing around with during the undergraduate years. Shapes started to emerge in his mind; articulate, complex, detailed patterns which wove threads between seemingly unrelated facts, fitting everything together in one infinite tapestry of truth. It wasn't very visual – the understanding was deeper than that – but he felt as if a perfect crystal was forming in his mind. He felt he understood the fabric of the universe and how it behaved. It was so clear now.
"You're going to have to talk to us, sir. Are you thinking about propulsion?"
"Oh, yes! I am. It's so clear, why it was going nowhere. I wasn't accounting for the ultraweak forces. You see, in most instances they are completely irrelevant. You only factor them in when simulating the collision of galaxies, the expansion of the universe or the distribution of dark matter. They are so insignificant that they don't count."
He was aware that he was babbling, but he didn't care. The technicians stared at him.
"It's like if you had a map of a house: you'd pretend it sits on a two-dimensional plane rather than on a curved surface, you know, the surface of a planet. But if the house covers half the planet, the rules change. You have to use different math. You can't use simple approximations anymore."
Aki had been writing on the whiteboard while talking and it wasn't until he paused and took a step back that he realized the equations he'd been writing down were not old or known. He felt as if he'd been explaining something that everyone knew, something well studied and explored. Yet, on the whiteboard, softly glowing, stood something no one had articulated before. He looked around, saw how everyone in the room was studying his notes intently, silently, inserting new equations into their terminals, running simulations and analysis protocols. This felt good. Finally, Aki Luisauir was doing what he had been born to do. It felt right. He kept talking.
Forty minutes later, the air in the room felt uncomfortably thick and warm. Aki had been interrupted a few times, asked to pace himself. His mind was going so fast that it was tempting to skip out on topics he felt were trivial, but that were in fact the pillars of the axioms needed to understand what he was going on about. He felt a mild frustration with the lack of intellect in the room, how they just couldn't seem to catch up. His head was starting to feel hot, almost feverish, but he ignored the inconsequential discomfort of his physical form.
"Roughly twenty minutes to totality. Inferno is going to toast him soon." The intern watching the bioreadout spoke as if Aki wasn't listening, and he was right. Aki was busy explaining to the team.
"And by simply tuning the oscillations of the sub-atomic particles so that they are in phase, and applying the force evenly at the precise moment of resonance singularity, you could in fact jump a fairly large body, like a cruiser-class starship, around 100 kilometers without significant energy cost. A kind of micro-jump drive. It might be expensive to build, but all the technology needed exists today."
Aki was rubbing his head frantically. Sweat was running down his face and stinging his eyes, and his shirt was quite drenched. He was finding it difficult to slow down, to form sentences and words to explain his thoughts. It took too much time. By the time he was halfway through a sentence, usually the train of thought had turned toward something new. His voice, his mouth, and other people's slow minds were all major bottlenecks. He sat down at one of the terminals and tried hammering away rather than explaining everything verbally. He quickly outlined the control code for the micro-jump drive, in case the people around him didn't get what he'd been talking about. Still, his hands could only move so fast, and the terminal felt unresponsive.
Hey, take it easy friend, just relax and work at our pace!" Avagher said, smiling. Suddenly Aki's focus wasn't on math, engineering, spatial distortion or any of these topics. Unbidden thoughts of Avagher filled his mind. He remembered meeting Avagher in the kindergarten lab. They'd hung out together, made fun of the teachers. Aki remembered how they'd hacked into and reprogrammed military-grade MTACs at the base to run around and do gymnastics with their hundred-ton hulls, their mechanized arms and legs. He remembered how Avagher had introduced Kia to him. He'd wanted to talk to her for so long, but never had the drive to simply do it. Avagher had always been better like that. More confident. Aki couldn't understand why. While Avagher was less smart – and certainly won fewer awards – he always thought he could do everything, and faced the world with that annoying smile. Aki found his mind performing a deep psychoanalysis of his old friend, something he had no interest in or time for right now.
Suddenly, something clicked into place. A news blurb, seen on a holoscreen two months ago. Aki had been in orbit, supposed to be doing work but instead finding himself scanning pointless news items about what was happening planetside. Five people arrested on suspicion of transporting illegal boosters. Memorial service on the Hueromont Incident at the military academy. Science museum finally closed after years of dwindling attendance. Science museum closed. She said she met him at the science museum with their son. More facts started to emerge, like little pinpricks. The holoframes in their apartment. Quite expensive devices for her to buy. When had she installed them? One day they had just been... there. They had Duvolle Laboratories markings. He'd never even thought about that before.
As he began digging into it, it began to dawn on him. An image of Avagher, ten years old, flashed before his eyes. He hadn't thought of this in decades.
And his son, Rias. His dark scruffy hair. His round face. His round, familiar, face.
Aki's head felt as if it was burning. Finding himself still sitting in front of the terminal, he tried to stand but found that his feet weren't really responding. He was going to scream at Avagher , but he couldn't move his mouth. He suddenly realized he'd spent the last precious ten minutes thinking about Avagher, Kia and Rias. Was this it? Was this the end? The research team seemed to be focusing on reviewing what Aki had already covered; some of the recording equipment had been turned off as they quietly discussed the findings. His hands could still move. He reached for the terminal and continued working on the micro jump drive code.
"He's still going!" someone said, and their attention was on him again. The technician arrived with a pack of ice that he placed on Aki's head. Avagher commented: "That's not really going to work, you know. He's burned out already."
Aki entered a few lines into firmware code for the main stabilization sequence. It took him forever to type, and he felt as if hot lava was boiling inside his head.
"Is it still valid?" Avagher asked one of the researchers.
"Sure. I'm not positive on what exactly it does, though. It seems to improve the yield, but like with most of this stuff, no-one really knows how it works except for him, and I don't think he's in a condition to tell us. He's pretty much toasted."
Aki finished the last line, then collapsed into his chair. The medical crew surrounded him, took vital signs and wheeled him away. He didn't hear them or see them. He was already sliding into the scalding perpetual darkness and ensuing nightmare that was Inferno totality.
It had been a long time since Kia and Avagher had taken time off together. He was being given more responsibility than ever at Duvolle, and some said that he was being groomed for CEO. Kia had taken up her own research again, and was successfully running a small pharmaceutical company in her spare time. Avagher had chartered an Opux luxury yacht with a small crew and was taking her to see all of the astronomical phenomena she had only dreamt of witnessing all her life. With all his work and continuing success at the company, he still had time for her, and that made her happy.
"Do you want to see the flaring on the solar limb?" asked Avagher . "The ship is fitted to withstand the most violent flares you can think of." Not waiting for a reply, he instructed the crew to take them on a close orbit of the sun. It was a fairly small red sun, not the most majestic in the region but possessing a curious intensity that made it interesting nonetheless. They warped closer and were quickly flooded with brilliant light, carefully filtered and balanced by the observation deck windows.
"Sir, you might be happy to hear that we actually have one of your inventions fitted onto this very ship. We recently acquired a Xarasier Micro Jump Drive. Perhaps you and the madam would like a demonstration?" The captain was quite thrilled to have the actual creator of this new device as his passenger.
"Where would we jump to?" asked Avagher. "There's nothing here but us and the sun."
"A 100 kilometers forward," replied the captain with a smile in his eyes. "Just for fun, really."
"Sure, let's give it a try!" Avagher shouted jauntily as he put his arm around Kia.
The captain initiated the drive. Deep within its circuitry, the main loop started to spool up. As it calculated the correct coordinates, a small clause in its code ran an undocumented check, reviewing the passenger charter. As it detected the name Avagher Xarasier, a subroutine within it was initiated. It calculated the ship's position, projected jump coordinates, locations of nearby planets and the absolute position of the nearest sun.
From the outside, everything seemed to function perfectly. Avagher was somewhat excited, since he'd never been inside a ship doing a microjump before. The engine continued to spool up and a mild vibration could be felt from the floor.
Suddenly, the ship jumped. It didn't go 100 kilometers though. It went further than that.
In an instant, a few hundred kilometers deep below the glowing surface of the sun, a small cruise ship materialized. It took microseconds for the violent forces fuelling the sun to consume and entirely dissolve the ship, its crew and its two passengers. The disturbance caused a small solar flare to shoot up from the photosphere of the sun, the plasma arcing brilliantly for a few moments before collapsing again and merging with the twirling plasma on the solar surface.
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