The Only Way Out is Through (Chronicle)

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We are moving too fast. I've told everyone as much, but they ignore me. The project has to get done, they say. We're competing with the others, they say. You think too much, they say. Maybe we should just leave you for the Blood Raiders to find. Or Nation. You'd stop thinking then.

I'm sitting stock still. It's cold here, and even though my clothing retains a semblance of warmth it's not enough to keep the tremor from my hands. This entire isolated section of the colony — I'd call it a room, but it's so cavernous I can barely see the walls in the distance — is made almost completely of metal, and I keep thinking that if I lay my hands too long on the same surface, they'll stick to it, pinning me to the spot. I cannot think of anything worse.

Machinery is being checked and double-checked. Engineers walk about in silence, doing last-minute inspections. Overhead, through long horizontal windows, I can see a group of people who look thoughtful and worried. I'm the one in charge of this experiment, and I'll make the decisions down here once we get started, but they are responsible for its outcome, and they are going to monitor me very closely. It speaks to their confidence in me that I'm even allowed to take part in something as cutting-edge as this, given my insistent doomsaying. We're in the early stages still, and we don't quite have all the procedures down yet, but we are all certain this is the right direction, with the right equipment. And the right people. Exactly the right person in the right place at the right time.

Once the last engineer finally leaves, I stand and begin doing my own checks. It's not that I don't trust our people, and I certainly do not intend to overtly change anything in our setup, but I want to get a feel for the equipment. At this level it is not unlike playing a grand, complicated, potentially murderous musical instrument.

Its circular core is held in stasis, with thick metal tendrils that spread outward like solar rays until they connect with the points of an intricate icosahedral cage that surrounds the machine. I know better than to walk past the barriers of that cage.

I barely understand the thing inside it. Even after a lifetime of working in the field, even though I became comfortable with the inputs and usage of much smaller models while still at university, its mechanics are too labyrinthine for minds like mine. Entire careers have been devoted to partial aspects of its inner workings, and the theories of every aspect of its function have all been pored over, tested, proven and re-proven, but grasping the entire combination, the clockwork whole, remains as much beyond the minds of the living as it was when tiny variants of this thing were attached to the axles of wagon wheels in times of antiquity. Maybe I could have understood those versions. Maybe. But it's a different age now, and the machine has evolved in ways that honestly just baffle me. It works, it has always worked, but we don't know how. There are a lot of things we don't know, here in this place. But we're trying to find out, and it's terrifying.

Operating this great beast is easy. Modifying it, putting it under the exact right set of pressures, inputs and environmental factors that combine to produce an output never intended, that's hard. We are tweaking it in ways so miniscule that even the classified equipment I'm using to adjust all these factors is itself running very close to its own margins of error. We've destroyed several blue boxes already.

When I wondered, so long ago, what it'd be like to work in the innermost circle, I envisioned a ton of arcane equipment interconnected back and forth like metal intestines, with nanobots crawling all over the place in such unreal quantities that they'd look like pools of mercury flowing over every surface. There'd be the occasional electric current earthing itself between the metal floor and some exposed piece of machinery so new they hadn't even bothered sealing off its mechanisms. People would be walking briskly in twos down long corridors, heads bowed and brows furrowed, arguing science with each other sotto voce; while drones hovered over their heads and recorded their every snippet of conversation, in case one of them should think his calculations out loud and, in the process, accidentally stumble upon the exact solution to an unrelated problem that had been vexing the team for weeks.

There are no nanobots. There are no drones. There are annoyed scientists walking briskly, but I have long since learned their annoyance is a shoddily constructed artificial wall against personal interaction. There is a reason they were chosen for a secret research project in an off-the-books facility, and it's only half due to their brilliance. None of them Play Well With Others. Some of them, in fact, appear to be quite thoroughly mad. They aren't afraid of what might happen; they relish the thought, dream of it, fantasize that they will be the ones standing there at the cusp of something wonderful and terrifying.

Well, here it is.

We're a silent laboratory, out in the middle of nowhere. We've already made enough advances with the transport tech our people reverse-engineered — or stole from other outlaws who'd reverse-engineered it first, it comes to about the same in the end — that we can effectively shift our operations to almost anywhere we like. This alone would be enough to guarantee funding until the end of time, except that we are severely limited in what kind of equipment we can bring, and in pinpointing a precise destination, and even, in the ultimate sacrifice that science can ask of a human being, whether we can ever return. We're like ghosts. Empire contacts have even started calling us that. Illicit research, as if they wouldn't do exactly the same if they could get away with it. As if we, who they call pirates, are any different from them, with any less feelings, love for our family or hope for the future.

Not that there's been a whole lot of family here. I've been working on research projects for so long, while my parents and siblings are down on a planet somewhere entirely too far away. And while it's certainly possible to have some kind of stable lovelife when you're a workaholic scientist operating in the spacefaring part of the outlaw factions, that kind of lifestyle has certainly brought with it a whole new cluster of complications. At one blissful point I thought I'd been very lucky. Maybe I will be again.

This is the only base within our faction that I know of, but if we continue to provide valuable results I imagine our people will want us to branch out, spread our experiments far and wide, and dilute the knowledge base in case someone comes hunting for us. The fact that we're all in this one place right now makes me nervous, but our organization wants to attract as little attention as possible, and is pushing for immediate results rather than getting bogged down in organization and administrata. We're working with raw, untested technologies here, and our results are already being put to use in various advanced technological fields. The empires don't want this happening. They've already started frantic diplomatic deals with each other to coordinate their efforts in an attempt to stop us. Good luck to them. We've already gone too far to back out. A contact with the Sisters of EVE leaked very useful data to us — a contingent within the Sisters is very interested in this and I can't quite get a handle on them, I thought they were just search-and-rescue bumpkins — and is now pushing us to share some of our results. I hear they're going to give ships to the capsuleers, the only people who might be crazy enough to openly go after us. Everything's moving too fast. We use encryption code books for everything, and all our communications are vetted. Most of us barely trust those we work with.

We are revving up the equipment now.

But I thought I'd been lucky. I met someone.

The cage holds. I can hear a hum from the core inside it, turning and turning.

At a time when I was utterly disenchanted with the entire process, with the independence of my faction and the righteousness of my cause, but more importantly, the joy in working at the ragged edge of science, he was suddenly there, and we clicked perfectly.

Nothing is falling apart yet.

Not only did we find solace together, here on the outskirts of everything that's known and certain, but we helped each other, and taught each other. There was trust.

The core begins to glow.

We made a connection, two mad people in this utter asylum in the darkest parts of civilization.

He, for instance, knew how to handle this piece of equipment I've been setting up. He taught me everything he knew about it. And I remembered.

It is a Villard Wheel, and the last time I saw him he was on his way to perform a grand new experiment on it. Some adjustment no one else had thought of. He even sent me the numbers; not to brag, and not only because he knew I was one of the few people capable of understanding his pure excitement, shorn of any politics or daily drudgery or anything except pure science; but because it was the most valuable thing he felt he could give me. This is what I created, he said. Now it is yours. And after writing it, he'd rushed to the experiment.

Shortly after, I'd heard the tremors throughout the facility. After I'd run to the point of tasting blood in my throat, after I'd fought my way through people demanding I step back, I didn't have the proper access levels, it wasn't my experiment, they couldn't guarantee my safety ... I gnarled and screeched my way through, half-mad, and found the wreckage.

A shattered Villard Wheel. The indestructible machinery, impossibly wrecked. Smoke still trailing, quite serenely, from the multitude of its ruined parts.

And, amidst the crumbled wreckage of everything else that had been around it, there were hunks of metal, there were clusters of wiring, and darkened, solidified obsidian masses that might have been any number of things. But no him. No parts of him. No flesh, no hair, no sinew or bone, not even — no matter how many nights I scoured the room — a single trace of DNA beyond what he'd left in his normal operation of the machinery. He was gone. Utterly gone.

I'm in a similar room now. I can hear the powering up of great and terrible machinery. The Villard Wheel, in its safety chassis, is glowing brightly. I'm alright with this. I volunteered. They are very selective for these kinds of experiments, but I know the theory and, just as important, I've become renowned for a sense of safety that borders on utter pessimism. They think I'm the last person to take unnecessary chances.

And they're right. This chance, horrifying as it is, is necessary. I know the right numbers and have already entered them without anyone noticing. They think I'm afraid of going too fast. I am. But I have no alternative.

And if he is on the other side, I am going to find him, and I am going to damn well bring him back.

The core is glowing quite brightly now. Villard Wheels are indestructible. Everyone knows this.

Maybe it'll be painless.

The Wheel is turning red. I look up at the long windows, and see that nobody on the other side is trying to shut anything down. They seem more interested in the fact that I'm so perfectly calm. Or maybe something's happening outside the colony that's providing a blessed distraction.

I hope I'll see him again. I hope I'll see him again. I hope