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Chapter 5


Some Answers

The dorm room, thankfully, was empty. Crawling into his bunk, Bandicut pulled the curtain flap closed around him for privacy from the other five bunks. Lying back, he drew a deep breath and sighed, closing his eyes to a sudden, overwhelming weariness. He had a thousand questions to ask the quarx; but really, for just one moment, all he wanted to do was rest his eyes and his mind.

It was impossible, of course. Visions of the ice cavern rose in his thoughts like ghosts haunting him even in the privacy of his own mind. And not just the cavern: the artifact danced before him like a jeering clown, its spheres whirling and eyes winking. /Jesus!/ He sat up abruptly, bouncing to the ceiling of his bunk, blinking his eyes in the near-darkness.

/// I'm not Jesus. I'm Char— ///

/I know you're not Jesus!/ he snapped. /It's just a fucking figure of speech, okay?/ He sank back again groaning, feeling that he was floating, even though he was motionless in his bunk.

/// Oh. ///

The quarx seemed puzzled.

/// You seemed disoriented and confused.

I thought maybe you thought...

Never mind.

Do you want to talk? ///

Bandicut drew a deep, slow breath. The darkness was crowding in around him, making him suddenly, extremely nervous. He knew what that meant: he needed the neuro, badly. He was on his way into another silence-fugue. /Charlie!/ he whispered urgently. The darkness was crowding closer still, and he heard the distant muttering of unreal voices...

/// What is it?

Are you in distress? ///

/Uh...oh damn, I need the neuro...if only I could link into something...can you, can you stop this—ohhhhhh, jeeez—/

Before his outcry was finished, everything around him changed with a flash...







>>>>>>>>>—<full-neural link>—>>>>>




>—<mode shift>

It was like a holo-image flicking on, transforming the darkness into an array of images: information sources, pulsing and waiting. He gasped, heart pounding. He had just flipped over from impending fugue! But how? And to what?

/Is this better?/ asked the quarx, from somewhere within the link. Its voice sounded different, like another human in the neuro.

He could not speak. His heart thundered with joy. He was trembling. He hadn't really imagined that it was possible, hadn't dreamed—

/Take it easy now. It's not—/

/You connected me! You did it! Jesus, it's—it's—/

/John, listen to me!/

The array twinkled around him like a series of gleaming panels, beckoning his inquiries in the dark. He reached out with a tentative finger of thought and—


—touched an unyielding, unliving surface. There was no connection here, no source, no pulse; it was just an illusion.

/John, don't flip over into's.../

/Nothing! It's nothing!/

The quarx was struggling for words. /It's a...stage set, John!/

/What? Stage set?/ His frustration rose like a cloud of toxic smoke in the image. /A stage set for what?/

/I had to act fast. You were slipping away, and this was the best I could do. It was the best I could do!/

/Best you could do!/ he moaned. /It's a fake!/ A crushing depression was settling around him as he realized the full emptiness of the illusion...

/Look—give me a moment, John! Let me see if I can make it real! Hold on a moment longer. Try it...wait!

One of the data-connect panel-images was pulsing bright emerald, against an aura of sunset red. Bandicut's anger twisted around him and finally blew away, leaving him breathless but clearheaded. He suddenly realized what the quarx was trying to tell him. The illusion had short-circuited the fugue; and that blinking light was the one connection that the quarx could make for him, without his neurolink. It was a connection to the quarx. Alien as datanet.

/Link in and ask me questions,/ the quarx said softly.

Nodding to himself, swallowing, feeling a little ashamed for his anger, and wanting desperately for this to be more than he thought it possibly could be, he reached out with his thought toward the pulsing panel, and he plugged in, and his remaining outward senses fell away as he was fully enclosed by darkness, but a darkness filled with energy...

—<mode-level shift>—

/Are you here?/ he whispered in astonishment.

>> Ask me what you want to know. >>

It was the quarx's voice, but altered...deeper and more resonant, exactly like an information-source replying through the datanet.

He sighed with unexpected pleasure, and a tremendous feeling of need welled up and then as quickly ebbed away. Dizzily, he whispered, /I want to know where you came from and why. And I want to know exactly what you want of me./

>> I shall try. Where would you like me to begin? >>

He shrugged mentally. /At the beginning, I guess./

>> Of time? I wasn't there. >>

He began to retort angrily, then realized that the quarx was attempting humor, attempting to lighten things up; and despite himself, he chuckled a little. /All right, you can start later than that. Let's stick to your personal lifetime. Unless, of course, you're really long-lived, in which case, you can start by telling what you want with me, and work backwards./

There was a moment of uneasy silence.

>> I' long-lived, certainly not in the way you're thinking. It's true I a sense...alive, millions of years ago, but that's...well...because I was in statis in the translator... >>

Bandicut tried to follow that, frowning. /You're not long-lived, but you were alive—in a sense—a million years ago?/

>> Yes, but the millions of years don't count, you see, because of the stasis...whereas, to understand a quarxian life cycle, the first thing you need to ask is... >>

Bandicut felt himself sliding toward mental quicksand, and interrupted, /All right, wait! How about if you explain all that later./ He paused, sensing the quarx's discomfiture at the interruption. /Let's start with the present, and this "mission" of yours. What is it you're planning to do here? What is this about Earth and some sort of danger?/

The quarx hesitated, as though uncomfortable with the question. Bandicut began to grow impatient, but before he could ask why, the quarx finally spoke.

>> You see...that's difficult to explain fully just now, because I don't have all of the information yet. The first thing I must do is gather additional data for the translator to process... >>

/Gather data?/ Bandicut asked suspiciously, visions of alien invasions dancing in his head.

>> No invasions, I assure you. Not from us, anyway. There may, indeed, be something heading for your home planet; but, I believe, it's more in the nature of cosmic debris—and it is my job, and the translator's, to identify that hazard and act to prevent it from striking. With your help, of course... >>

/Of course,/ Bandicut muttered. /What sort of help? And what kind of debris are we talking about?/

>> Well...I can't give you the specifics on the debris until we have the rest of that data. I can guess, but— >>

/Guess?/ Bandicut felt a rush of anger. /Quit bullshitting me, Charlie, or I'm going to go to our company quack Dr. Switzer and have him cut you out with a knife!/

He immediately sensed the quarx's affront.

>> I'm not "bullshitting" you, and I thought you understood that I have no physical presence as you think of it, so your doctor's knife could only harm you, not me. >>

Bandicut sighed in annoyance. /Look, that was just another figure of speech, okay? Now, do you want to continue?/

>> Oh. Very well. Here is what I was given: a picture of small, orbital-dynamical shifts somewhere in your solar system, leading to the potential hazard. I suspect it's some sort of sizable interplanetary rubble. Listen, John, you must understand that I'm not..."sitting in the left-hand seat" on this one, as you pilot-types would say. So I can't— >>

/Then who is sitting in the left-hand seat?/ Bandicut interrupted.

>> The translator. And once it has the data it needs to positively identify the will pass that information on to me. And I'll pass it on to you. >>

Bandicut thought he sensed a certain hesitation in the quarx's voice. /Wait just a minute,/ he said. /Who controls the translator? You do, right?/

>> Me? Hardly... >>

Bandicut felt dizzy, and he sensed an eruption of troubled feelings in the quarx. /You mean there's someone else here? Damn it, I knew it—/

>> John, no. It's not what you're thinking. It's just the translator and me, and the translator is just a machine. But it's...sent by others who are, I assure you, very far away. And I've never known it to attempt anything that wasn't...helpful to those it visited. >>

It seemed to Bandicut that the quarx was more than a little hesitant when it spoke about the translator. He wondered why. /Well, that doesn't sound like such a big deal—identifying some space rubble,/ he said cautiously. /But I have to say, you don't sound entirely convinced about it yourself./

>> What? No, no—the translator is trustworthy. But it's not...always do what it wants, is the problem. Look, would it help if I filled you in with some background? >>

/Isn't that what I've been asking for?/

>> I thought you...never mind. Just watch, and listen.... >>

—<mode-level shift>— . . .

* * *

The information swirled by like a churning white-water rapids, and it seemed that all he could do was sample here and there, and file for future analysis. But that was difficult; perhaps he would be better off just jumping in and riding downstream with the flow...

It was millions of years ago, just as human science had surmised, that an orphaned body later to be named Triton had fallen into the gravitational influence of the solar system. Charlie and his translator were aboard, though the quarx was in stasis-sleep, and would remain that way for millennia yet to come, until awakened by the translator. But the translator never slept. It probed ceaselessly, monitoring the inner solar system and the evolution of sentient life on the third planet, unmistakably marked by first gradual—then abrupt—transformations of its biosphere. When there were visible events to be observed, the translator recorded them, from volcanoes to atomic explosions to the migrations of small vessels out of the atmosphere. It studied events of all kinds, whether apparently significant or not, and in its own methodical way, drew conclusions about the events it had studied.

Much of what Charlie knew, he had learned directly from the translator. Since his awakening, he had viewed years of reruns of Earth television, all recorded by the translator in that window of time when TV signals had been broadcast into space, before laser and opfiber transmission had mostly ended the free show. He owed much of his knowledge of human culture to such broadcasts.

He'd also gleaned hints of what it was he was doing here, what purpose he intended to serve. Bandicut could only register astonishment: how could the quarx not know his own mission? But it was not his first, far from it, and he had yet to fully understand a mission prior to undertaking it.

The other thing that astonished Bandicut, as he caught all of this in a great swirling stream, was that the quarx really didn't know how the translator performed many of the feats in which the quarx himself was a participant. Surely, if he'd been alive in the translator for millions of years, didn't he have to know how it worked? No no no, whispered a quarxly voice, almost lost in the undercurrent. I'm not the master of that science. The quarx knew how to use the translator, but it was not actually his machine, not a quarxly machine at all.

But Charlie come to be in such a time and place...?


The images changed like a whirlpool yawning. There were glimpses of dozens of worlds, dozens of hosts in quarxly lives was like a flickering of holocards...and then the image settled, and filled with the sounds and impressions of other beings, alien beings, living on this very moon. The beings who had left the metal deposits? Their footsteps echoed around the translator, their voices and activities an incomprehensible murmur. For an instant Bandicut thought, with a flash of alarm, that they were here on Triton now

—and then he realized that this scene was far, far in the past, long before Triton had ever come to the solar system. It was the moon as it had been, not just in the past, but so deep in the past that primitive life had scarcely yet evolved on Earth. This was Triton eons ago, in another star system, another reality.

It was Triton at war.

In frightening silence, he watched as long plumes of light splashed languidly across the ruined landscape of a nearby planetary body, the mother world. He was aware that the light beams came from the surface of Triton, and they were no mining lasers. They were weapons, terrible weapons, and they were raining devastation upon their homeworld. The plumes of destruction flowed and surged over the planet's surface like tides, and the civilization beneath them crumbled, melted, evaporated.

Nor was the conflict confined to the planet's surface: battle raged in space, as well—between the planet and its moon, and on the surface of the moon. Spaceships tumbled past one another, lancing each other into debris. Streams of fire swept over the surface of the moon, boiling away its atmosphere and reducing miracles of technology to molten slag. The footsteps were gone now; it all happened in silence. But he imagined that he could hear the screams of dying beings echoing across the emptiness of space.

There was no escape, none at all—except down into the buried, shielded translator, the place from which the quarx had first emerged in his failed, futile effort to prevent this tragedy from happening. Though damaged and unable to escape, the translator could probably survive the dark and the cold to come, if it could just survive this last terrible onslaught of violence. The quarx was now slipping downward through the deep darkness of ice, into the machine that might bear him through eons, and perhaps an eternity, of silent exile. He felt, but only distantly, the final tremendous explosions that vaporized the last living beings on the surface and hurled the moon out of orbit, out of its star system, and into the somber and lonely silence of interstellar space. With those explosions had come the final, bitter end to this war, and to the last of those who had fought it.

The quarx drifted off into a timeless, dreamless stasis-sleep. His final thoughts were darkened with grief. Where he was bound now, he had no idea. But he knew it could take longer than the lifetime of his own race to reach his next destination. And while he slept, the translator repaired itself. Would he ever see another quarx? All he really knew for certain was that his life had changed forever, yet again.

Bandicut's whisper was a part of the blurred datastream. My God, is this your memory? Did you really live through this? Were those your people who died?

Not my people, no. For a time, yes, but not anymore...that time was past...


The battle images spun swirling away, the whirlpool of memory displaced by new images of Triton in orbit around the cold, cerulean planet Neptune. The heat of its capture had melted most of the moon, causing all the stone and metal in its crust to sink to the core; but some of that energy had been harnessed by the translator, and it, with some of the metal remnants of the alien civilization, had erupted back upward to the surface in a great convective flow as Triton cooled.

With awakening, for the quarx, there was a sense that certain memories were faded or perhaps had been lost, that some very important work had gone unfinished, that some failure had to be rectified, some wrong atoned for, some need fulfilled. There was a reverberating memory that this was how it always felt to awaken.

The quarx felt a deep loneliness and longing, but also a sudden new urgency. Here was a new place and time, a new solar system, a new race called "humanity" that had come into being while he had slept. And humanity had found its way to Triton, and would soon discover the translator. Who were they, these humans—and were they dangerous? Would one of them make a suitable host and companion? Were they dangerous? Why had the translator waited so long to wake him? It had served him well, and protected him—but it was not life to be trapped in that machine forever. How he longed to be free of its bonds—to grow, to taste again the reality of life with another!

But it was not to be easy; there was something that had to be done here—a matter of life and death, not just for him, but for the beings of this solar system. He did not know yet what it was, but he knew that that was why he had been awakened, and he knew that it would be risky and costly, because it always was. He had much to learn, and quickly.

With the help of the translator, he listened to humanity and came to know their languages and some of their ways. He watched their entertainment and studied their history through what he could capture of their datanet. He struggled to get to know a race that sometimes made him shudder with fear.


They were a dangerous species, humanity. Of course, most sentient species were; and with that thought came another shudder.

Do you fear all sentient species? whispered Bandicut.

Watch the datastream, you're missing too much, was the whispered answer.

The quarx still had much to learn, even as he paid particular attention to a survey pilot named Bandicut who was stumbling along in a rare but promising condition known as silence-fugue, toward a potential meeting. The translator hinted that time was probably growing short, and this person seemed the most promising of an uncertain lot...

—<mode-level shift>—

The datastream changed, and most of it diverted away, while a single, bright connection remained.

/Are you saying that you deliberately—/

>> I didn't say that. >>

/—drew me in—?/

>> I didn't say that, exactly. >>

/But you knew a lot about me already, and you sure as hell opened the ground under my feet!/

>> Well...yes... >>

/So you knew I was coming?/

>> I sensed...yes...when I am in the translator, it enables me a certain degree of...what you would probably call telepathic scanning. It is nothing like the intimate contact that we have now. It is more like a...radar sweep. >>

/Radar sweep? And are you still doing this? Are you probing the other people here?/

>> I can't, not outside of the translator. Except in a limited way, when you physically touch someone, or something. >>

Bandicut remembered Napoleon. /Like the robot, you mean?/

>> Yes. >>

Bandicut was silent for a time, trying to absorb all that the quarx had told him. /Charlie,/ he said finally, /are you trying to say that you spend your life traveling around the galaxy trying to bail civilizations out of trouble? Because that's what it sounds like.../

>> Well, yes—I mean, no! Not always whole civilizations... >>

Bandicut blinked. /Good God, but you mean it's true? Is that what you do? It sounds like...I mean, don't you...have a life of your own to live?/ He swallowed, and realized that a shadow of grief seemed to have come across Charlie with his words. /I'm sorry, look, I didn't mean...if I said something.../

The quarx spoke, but as though from a great distance.

>> It's bad, really. It has its own rewards, you know. >>

/Charlie—/ He hesitated, and after a moment, the quarx drew back toward him, speaking softly.

>> It is true that I am on a...journey, John Bandicut. And that I don't always know where I am going, or for what purpose. Or whether I will ever return to my own kind. Or even if they are— >>

The quarx paused. /What?/ Bandicut asked. /Alive, or something?/

>> Yes. >>

/Jesus...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—/

>> It's been a long journey, John. I've seen more than one civilization fall, and I've seen some saved, and the latter way is better. I'd like to help save yours, if I can. >>

Bandicut was silent. They had to save the Earth, the quarx had said. And he wanted Bandicut's help. /You want to, uh, tell me a little more about that?/ he asked at last.

>> I'll try. Let's start with a question. How much do you know about chaos? >>

/How do you mean? Randomness, disorder, entropy?/

>> No, I mean the science of chaos. >>

/Oh. Not too much. What should I know about it?/

—<mode-level shift>—

The explanation came in streams and waves, curling around him like breakers rolling in upon a shore...

The dynamical theories of chaos were the only practical means of describing many kinds of natural events, of illuminating past and present patterns, and of predicting future patterns of similar events. Among the subjects described by chaos theory were fluid turbulence, atmospheric weather patterns, the movements of particles, of individual lives, of planetary bodies in orbit...and even the social forces that swirled through crisis upon crisis in the history of any civilization, including Earth's. It was the last two of these subjects that had drawn the sharpest attention of the translator.

It was the study of the chaotic patterns of orbital resonance in the solar system that made the translator suspect, long ago, that the Earth might one day be in trouble.

How's that? whispered Bandicut.

Let the stream carry you, and just try to follow, murmured the quarx.

The human science of chaos was far too immature, even in its second century of organized existence, to adequately analyze the appropriate data; and even the translator, with its vastly more powerful chaos-calculator, was still working furiously, refining and analyzing, drawing together vague and shadowy possibilities into a picture that soon would make clear exactly what would go wrong, and where...and what must be done...

Charlie...? I'm not...

Take an example, murmured the quarx. Motions of particles in a cloud of smoke—or in the rings around a planet, a planet such as Neptune, or Saturn. All the particles followed known physical laws of motion. But the motions were too hopelessly complex, viewed from a perspective of close detail, for predictions of any individual particle's motion to be useful. The tiniest perturbation of an orbit in one place could cause a drastic change in a particle's path elsewere; and every particle exerted some degree of force on every other particle, so if you were trying to predict a particle's path with any precision, taking into account the millions of moving bodies and fluctuating conditions...

It was impossible—unless you employed truly advanced chaos dynamics, such as the calculations used by the translator. And even then, working out general patterns of orbital resonance and the stability and instability of orbits was one thing, but the raw-data requirement for tracking where one individual particle might get flung out of its orbit like a bullet was truly staggering, and best represented this way:

An image flicked into existence, showing a series of hollow, transparent, concentric tori, colored various shades of green, blue, orange, and red. Waves of distortion began rippling through the donuts, and then kinks appeared as resonant instabilities, and then the tori opened up like onion shells and twisted like bizarre Möbius strips, and shredded into four-dimensional ferns...

I am not following this, not at all—

—<mode-level shift>—

The image vanished, and Bandicut let out a long breath. /Now, that sure was helpful./ He sensed frustration coming from the quarx.

>> I don't expect you to follow the actual math, John. But I was trying to let you see the general outline of the problem, and the solution process. The translator, to put it very simply, is making n-dimensional phase-space analyses of the movements of objects in your solar system... >>

/That's putting it simply—?/ Bandicut asked, but the quarx continued without missing a beat.

>> ...including those at the outer periphery, not just in the Kuiper Belt, but in what you call the Oort Cloud... >>

/Kuiper Belt? Oort Cloud? There's nothing but empty space there, and a few zillion comets./

>> Precisely. Plus some dark planets which you haven't discovered yet. Your science is not yet tracking the large-scale movements of those bodies, or their gravitational effects on each other. Nevertheless, the translator is mapping the resonant attractor patterns that emerge over time, in an effort to mark the probable locations of future events. And now it needs the specific transient identifiers to locate— >>

/Would you explain this in English, please?/

>> I'm trying, I really am. It's a question in one sense of identifying the largest-scale meta-attractions, and then using that as a focusing device to scale down to— >>

/Fucking A, Charlie, if you can't explain it, can you just cut to the conclusion?/

>> I...yes, if you wish. The conclusion is that something's very likely to hit the Earth, something big, and I'm not sure yet what it is, and I need your help to find out. >>

Bandicut remained silent and puzzled for a little while. /Oh. That's more or less what you said in the first place, isn't it? But listen, then...why insist upon secrecy?/

There was a sigh, before the quarx answered.

>> That's another part of the chaos analysis: the sociopolitical attractors. The translator says that time is too short, and if we go public, we'll set up turbulences that may delay our acting until it's too late. >>

Bandicut frowned. Before he could think of a reply, the quarx whispered one more thing.

>> I'm putting a pretty heavy burden on you, I know. But there's one more thing here that you ought to know, too. >>

/Which is—?/

>> Uh—well, you see...there's a good possibility that I might not live long enough to see this to its proper—oh, hell's bells! NOW what's happening—? >>

He was interrupted by a hash of static.

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