Paths To Otherwhere

Copyright 1995

James P. Hogan

Prologue

      The woman in the tan business suit sat in a padded recliner that looked like a dentist's chair. Her head lay in a concave rest that kept it positioned exactly, in the focal zone of the projection array a few inches above. She was staring at one of the screens on a panel in front of her. Leonard Sarvin, Deputy Director of the Defense Research Administration, stood to one side, out of the field being directed by the machine. His principal assistant, John Fiske, was with him. The department had poured millions into this, and the Director was being harried by the President's office for a progress update. Jesse Willard, the National Laboratory's executive director, watched from the other side of the chair, while the chief scientist of the project, who was handling the demonstration, checked other screens. Cabinets and equipment racks lined the partitioned space around them. The hum of pumps and cooling fans came from other machinery beyond.
      "It's quite straightforward." Kintner looked up and addressed the three visitors. "We're Black. The machine plays Red. It's our move. But the bet has to be real. Let's make it ten dollars, say. You've got three choices for how the game will go: Win for Black, win for Red, or a draw. Winners divide the pot."
      "What happens if we all lose?" Fiske asked.
      Kintner smiled thinly. "Then I suppose thirty dollars goes to charity."
      The two men from Washington looked at each other, as if checking for something they might have missed. They both shrugged together.
      "Ten on Black," Sarvin said.
      "Black," Fiske agreed. He looked at Kintner and Willard. "I mean . . . what else is there to say?"
      The screen showed a position in a checkers game. Red was down to four men, one of them blocked, the others positioned hopelessly. Black still had five men, plus another two already crowned. No six-year-old could have lost from that position.
      The woman in the chair continued staring with a puzzled expression, however. Her name was Jane. She had only recently been promoted to Fiske's personal secretary, and the role of being the guinea pig had fallen on her as the junior member of the party. Her eyes and common sense were telling her the same as the other two had said. And yet . . .
      As she considered the three options in turn, DRAW seemed to shout insistently from somewhere deep in her mind. It made no sense; yet every instinct impelled her toward it. She bit her lip, uneasy at the thought of appearing foolish. But Kintner's instructions had been quite clear: "Forget everything you think you know. Just play your hunches."
      "Ten on a draw," she said finally.
      Beside her, Fiske laughed. "Okay. It's your money."
      "Then let's see what happens," Willard said. "Would somebody care to decide the move?"
      Sarvin and Fiske looked at each other again. Fiske pointed at the screen. "How about that guy to there? Move him up. Why take chances?"
      "Looks good to me," Sarvin agreed.
      "Very well," Willard said.
      Kintner tapped at keys. The move appeared below the board, with a request to confirm. He hit the Y key.
      And the board disappeared, to be replaced by the legend:
      WHAT WE DIDN'T TELL YOU WAS THAT THE GAME SELFDESTRUCTS AT THIS POINT.
      NOBODY WINS
      SORRY GUYS.
      Willard's manner lost the flippancy that he had been maintaining. "It doesn't predict the actual future. That's impossible on principle. But what the machine can do is extract the probabilities of possible alternatives from the weightings of the Multiverse branching structure ahead. And since it's driven by real future outcomes, not theoretical models or probabilities, it delivers a correct indication even if the truth is not as you've been led to believe. Think what an impact this will have on strategic policymaking. It could enable us to restore the entire world balance."
      Just at that moment, it was having an impact on other things too. Jane, still coupled into the machine, was getting vivid premonitions of where more in life was heading than just a checkers game. For months now she had been buying Jack's line about doors he could open for her in the department, a marriage that was just a pretense. . . . How could she have been so naive? Fancy dinners on his expense account, a few nights in hotels when they went on trips like this-and she'd thought she was heading for the big-time social circuit and a career? WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! the machine was telling her. Everything about that future felt bad. There was nothing specific that she could pinpoint; just overwhelming forebodings of anger, hurt, shame, ridicule. But it felt as certain as the result of the checkers game had a few minutes earlier.
      She sat up sharply, her eyes blazing at him. Fiske saw the change in her and shook his head, mystified. "Hey, what is it?"
      There was no way that she could control the indignation boiling up inside. At the same time, in an official visit and with others present, the moment was not appropriate for confrontation.
      She got up. "We have to talk-later," she said tightly. Then, to the others, "I'm sorry. Will you excuse me, please?" And with that, she walked quickly from the scene.
      Sarvin frowned. Fiske looked appealingly at the scientists. "I'm sorry. . . . I really don't know what that was all about." He made a helpless gesture, as if trusting them to understand.
      "It's nobody's fault," Kintner said. "The process does have deeper side-effects. We're still learning about them ourselves."
      They were getting reports of strange happenings from a number of places where research was being conducted. The world didn't need this loose in it as well, on top of everything else, he told himself.
      "It's too potent to be left out there for any foreign power to harness and exploit," Kintner told Willard later, when they were alone in Willard's office. "The whole thing has to be brought under official direction. All other projects should be terminated. Get the best people in the field here and put everything under one centralized authority, where it can be controlled."
      "I already talked to Sarvin about it," Willard said. "He's making the same recommendation. We're trying to schedule a meeting in Washington with the Security Council about it for next week."

Baen Book 10/20/95
Copyright 1995 by James P. Hogan