A Travel Agency story
I wrote this as an exercise in exploring the technology of the Travel Agency universe and as a treatise on the limitations of an Earth-centric view which has been discussed in popular science off and on for some time. I hope you enjoy …
DR FIONA BOON GAPED; SHE COULDN’T HELP herself. Glancing at her companion, she was pleased to see she wasn’t alone.
“Sixteen, seventeen thousand kilometers, equatorial?” She queried.
The man shook his head without taking his eyes off the glorious view of Earth. “Closer to twenty. This can’t be real!”
Fiona turned slowly, taking in their surroundings for the first time since they had stepped out of the closed box Mohamed Jones had called an ‘elevator’. He was off to the side, waiting patiently.
She took it all in with a mounting sense of dread. Impossibly light and airy, the platform on which they stood was a tube of bright steel and huge panes of glass. The elevator had docked with it at a slim collar which seemed insubstantial for the pressures she knew were at play.
The man stepped up to her shoulder.
“Gravity,” he said simply, and she suddenly realized the other thing which had been bothering her.
Gary Polinsky was a professor of astrophysics and her bitter academic rival but right now all she wanted to do was hold his hand and stare down this impossibility.
They heard soft footsteps and turned to see Mo, as he preferred to be called, joined by a tall young woman who touched is arm affectionately. Only she wasn’t quite human. Her hair moved; by itself, ruffling like feathers. She looked directly at them and pointed over their heads. They turned to follow the direction of her outstretched arm and saw through the glazing of the lift lobby roof, the greater structure to which it was attached.
“I’m gonna be sick!” said Polinsky, softly.
“Fram Medellin Depso Tzu,” said the young woman, with a certain formality that presumed you knew who she was. Boon proceeded to start chatting, playing the gender card, such as it was.
Oh great, thought Polinsky, a politician! They seem to be universal. A veteran of every variation of the proverbial funding committee, he prided himself on being able to recognize politicians and bureaucrats at the drop of a pin. Fram was a politician, even if she wasn’t human. I’m having trouble with that also, he mused. The initial shock was wearing off now, though.
Boon seemed to be adapting to this insanity, too.
They were in some sort of conference center and Gary finally had a chance to regroup and review. He had serious suspicions about the events of the last month and would have loved to take it all out on Boon, but she was as gobsmacked as he felt. And she was no actress. They’d sparred often enough for him to be sure of that. So, she’d been set up as thoroughly as he had. The invitation to speak at the opening of the University of Queensland’s new Physical Sciences Building was deliberately arranged to get him to Australia from the US. The free flights and accommodation had helped; he wasn’t rich by any means. He wondered how they’d dragged Boon out of her lab in Sydney.
His musings were interrupted by a new visitor. Clearly not human, this one looked like something out of a Tim Burton film, all elongated limbs and a strange loping elegance. The clothes were interesting too; leather, maybe and a style like something out of the sixties.
“Doctors,” said Mo, “this is Neelak. He’ll brief you on ‘why’ you’re here.” With that Mo and Fram left. Boon walked over to Gary and sat beside him.
Neelak nodded and touched a band on his right wrist. The conference table and chairs folded themselves away and left the two humans in their seats with a small workbench adjacent each. What looked like a parking bollard rose out of the floor six odd metres in front of them and Neelak stepped up beside it.
“I’ll be brief,” he started, “as each of you is probably bubbling over with questions.”
“You think?” said Gary with some heat.
Neelak smiled. All the pointed teeth took the wind out of the astronomer’s sails.
“Thank you, professor. There is a bonus here if you’ll be patient.”
Polinsky swallowed and then inclined his head.
“Excellent. You, professor, are a Big Bang skeptic and are here because we want to give you the evidence you’ve longed for. You, Dr Boon, despite your opposition to Dr Polinsky’s point of view have produced some of the most elegant and near-accurate mathematical proofs in human astro-science. Proofs which are tantalizingly close to reality. We wish to give you the opportunity to apply those skills to Dr Polinsky’s new data, to radically change human cosmology.”
“Why?” asked Boon.
“Because it’s time for human perceptions to shift. That can’t happen without better data. The cargo-cult methodology doesn’t work; we’ve tried. So, creative interference is our preferred option. You are the instruments of that plan and will be paid very, very well for your participation.”
“What if we don’t want to play,” offered Gary.
“Then you’ll be returned to Earth and nothing more will be said.”
“That’s it. No threats?”
“Unnecessary, doctor. Who’s going to believe you?”
Gary shrugged. He had to ask.
“How am I wrong?” asked Fiona.
“Wrong is perhaps inaccurate, Dr Boon. ‘Misplaced application’ would be a better term.”
Neelak inclined his head slightly and his lips threatened that smile again. “Now, now Dr Polinsky. While correct, your speculations have only ever been exactly that, speculative. You’ve never been able to provide proof.”
“Ha,” said Boon.
Neelak adjusted his wrist band again and on the opposite side of the pole an image snapped into being, a perfect hologram.
“This is the Horsehead Nebula as seen from Earth’s most powerful radio telescope.”
After another adjustment, the image shifted into something equally spectacular but totally unrecognizable.
“This is the same region of space but free of the galactic debris and spectrum distortion from which you currently suffer.”
They rose as one and approached the display.
“How?” asked Boon, “filters?”
“No. We sent a survey vessel on Earth’s line of sight and took a multi spectrum image from five light years away.”
“For the two of you to examine.”
Gary and Fiona looked at each other and then turned as one to face Neelak.
“You’re kidding,” said Fiona.
“Not at all.” Neelak adjusted his wrist band again and the display morphed into a flat projection of astronomical calculations and diagrams. Gary recognized half a dozen principal equations but knew he’d need days to wade through the rest.
Fiona scanned the display for a few seconds and said, “No, no … Doppler shift doesn’t work like …”
“What’s a Slipstream?”
Half a day later, Gary flopped into a human-style sofa in one of the many observation lounges on Regulator 2. They’d just finished a two-hour session of general orientation and his mind was struggling to process all they’d seen and heard. The information was fragmented, a puzzle for which he was yet to see a whole pattern.
A young woman who seemed vaguely familiar approached him, “Dr Polinsky. I’m Vicky Jones. Spare a minute?”
Gary stood and shook hands, “Sure, grab a set, miss.” Aussie accent, he noted.
A passing group of who-knows-what, to Gary’s mind, began to chitter and all nodded at Vicky. She grinned slightly, inclined her head and spoke in the same language briefly.
“That was weird,” said Gary.
“You have no idea,” laughed the young woman and Gary relaxed despite himself.
“You’re Mo’s sister?”
“Right, what can I do for you, Vicky?”
The young woman smiled again, “More the other way around, professor. I’m the investor Neelak spoke to you and Fiona about. The business entities which will allow the two of you to operate are my creations. I’d like to kick off discussions on the details if you’re feeling up to it.”
“What are you,” said Gary, incredulously, “twenty?”
“Twenty-one. Last month. Big party and all that. I brought my friends up here for a rave. It was a blast. And my personal wealth dwarfs the US economy by an order of magnitude. And yes, I’m human. Also, very lucky and thanks to my brother very well connected. A few years ago, I invented something which had great value. I didn’t do it for the money but that came regardless. Now I’m stuck with it and have to find ways to amuse myself. Does that about cover everything?”
Gary snorted a laugh, “Yes. Sorry. I’m still struggling.”
“Fair enough. Now, to business. Who do you think will see your new expertise as profitable. What sort of market segment can we access …”?
Gary’s mind churned, and many pennies dropped as one. “OK. Frame of reference is the key to this I believe. If, as part of an asteroid mining operation we were to put observational equipment out near Jupiter’s orbit ….”
The conversation continued for over an hour and Vicky was well pleased. She’d had Neelak listen in via her communications implant and he had in turn fed her relevant questions without alerting Gary to the less-than-private nature of the discussion. Fiona was also present at the other end but under strict instruction not to contribute.
Vicky wound things up and took her leave. She traversed from the lounge across a connecting tube to the operational area. The journey of ten odd minutes wasn’t actually necessary; she could have hole-conferenced, but she wasn’t ready yet to abandon face-to-face meetings.
Fiona Boon was literally jumping with questions when she arrived.
“Why the cloak-and-dagger? Don’t you trust him?”
“No. he’s a scientist for hire after all.”
“That stopped a nearly decade ago. He settled down.”
“True. But before we include him further, he has to prove he’s left those attitudes behind. This last session has done that, I think?” She looked at Neelak who had been standing nearby quietly.
“Yes,” he said, “The bio-metric monitors confirm his sincerity.”
Fiona’s eyebrows raised and stayed there for several seconds.
Neelak smiled ever so slightly and said, “You passed.”
“Great! Now what?”
“Now,” said Vicky Jones, “you both get to see the big picture. Pack a bag.”
It took two days and if Boon and Polinsky thought their minds had already been blown, this trip disabused them of that notion. They surveyed the asteroid belt and cruised a moon of Jupiter on the journey out of the solar system.
Now, they stood in an operational annex of the Slipway, a ring-like construction one sixth the diameter of Earth’s moon.
“I’m numb,” said Polinsky.
“Roll with it, Gary. What else are we going to do?”
“Yeah! I don’t know. The scale of it. Look at that! The inner race of this ring thingy is two hundred meters wide. For fuck’s sake, Fi … the scale.”
The ring thingy started to glow.
“Activation commencing,” announced Neelak, who had taken over the annex when they arrived. The two scientists stepped eagerly up to the viewing area, another expanse of glass-like material which seemed too large to withstand the pressure differential. Boon reached out and touched it tentatively. It was a reflex by now and she didn’t really notice.
The ring race changed color.
“Inbound reinsertion in five seconds.”
Polinsky peered at the space he judged to be the middle of the ring. It seemed impossible to him, but he could just see the other side of the ring’s glow nearly six hundred kilometers away.
Without warning a massive ship appeared in the space he was watching, continuing to move to the right as it completed its inter-dimensional journey out of the seam of gravitational resonance which was the Slipstream.
“Jesus H … it looks like it’s only a few hundred metres away.”
Neelak laughed, “Yes, it still is an impressive sight, no? I never tire of it. And here on the Sagittarius Arm we are a very long way from the nearest connection point. The craft must be robust.”
“How far away?” asked Boon.
“The third arm; eight thousand light years.”
Neither scientist spoke.
Victoria Jones joined them in the lounge an hour later after they’d exhausted themselves peppering Neelak and his staff with questions.
“Hi Vicky,” said Fiona, “I could die happy now. Well, after I published a few papers, anyway.”
“Publication is going to have to wait, I’m afraid. You’ll have to make do with money.”
Gesturing, she said, “Your orientation to date has been deliberately vague. But the crux of things is that all of this is run by an entity called The Trade Directorate. It’s what passes for governance on a galactic scale. It’s been in place for about ten thousand years. Mo and I are directors in a sub-department of that organisation called the Travel Agency and we’re intending to expand. When we first met, Gary, those passing people I spoke to were tourists returning from an adventure holiday on Earth.”
The young woman adjusted a bracelet at her wrist and the coffee table erupted into a holographic display of the Milky Way galaxy.
“We’re here,” she said, and a red dot blinked into existence. “A lonely little water-world on the fourth arm of the galactic wheel.
“Most of the star-faring peoples of the galaxy live here.” A yellow mist oozed into view covering large sections of the other galactic arms, thinning as it moved towards the rim.
“A few years ago, my brother and his friends shut down an illegal operation which was using an unregistered Slipway here.”
Another red dot blossomed on the fourth arm but much closer to the center. A thin red line snaked away from it to a similar point on the third arm.
“Six months ago, the Trade Directorate granted the Travel Agency exclusive control of that previously unregistered Slipstream. The terminus is ten thousand light years from Earth. Between there and here are four hundred and five industrialized planets, most of which have never had off world contact.”
“Four hundred …”
“… and five … worlds.”
“Yes. Just shipping tourists to those worlds alone, will triple the Agency’s current revenue. But the opportunities for trade will make Earth a Galactic power within three centuries. There’s a planet a few light years away called Cuvalla; it’s volcanic and produces exotic metals like we produce corn. Some of those metals can form the control mechanisms in the drives of the ship you just saw.”
“Aliens will invade and take it all away,” said Gary.
“No, they won’t,” answered Vicky, “That’s not allowed. More importantly, it’s enforced. The Trade Directorate has been around for so long because they know how to do business.
“Fifty years from now, the Agency will stage-manage First Contact on Earth. What we’re doing now, hopefully with your help, is prepare for that. Are you in or out?”
Polinsky and Boon looked at each other.
“In,” they said as one and turned back to look at Vicky. She touched her wrist again and the hologram vanished. Taking a clear slate from nearby she handed it to them.