His loneliness lasted a second, snapped by the vibrating flablet.
It was Thuris Thranganis, without his glasses. He stared at Chuck Marley from his terminal, his eyes larger without his lenses. “Mr Marley, you’re alive! I thought by now–” Static. Something was distorting the connection.
“I’ve bought us some time. Not much time.” Marley pointed the flabet’s camera at the Former Acting Chief Scientist of Roboto-Genetic Engineering (deceased).
“Now you can call him whatever you want. Mothball, producer of useless things!”
A flicker of goodwill, almost triumph, crossed the features of Thranganis. The triumph was perhaps sobered by the thought that he wouldn’t be here to savour the moment much longer. “How much time do we have?” A burst of static punctuated the final word.
Marley panned the camera to a readout: “3:30.”
“Then I implore you, Mr Marley. Invert the…” Another burst of static. “Invert the area…”
The bony head of Thranganis contorted, bulged left and right, expanded like a balloon, squeezed into a pancake.
“Thranganis! Are you alright?”
“I’m perfectly fine. But none of us will be so soon unless you invert the area of eff–”
The image wobbled. The flablet shook in his hands. Tiny cracks edged their way along the screen. With a pop it shut itself down.
“Invert the what?” Marley frantically looked around for something to invert. Area of ‘eff–’ “What the eff could that mean?” Marley put his palms on his eyes, first in despair, then in concentrated thought.
He sought an explanation from the recesses of his unconscious. “Invert the area of effect!”
Then a feeling within, deep inside his stomach radiating to the centre of his forehead. He let his will go. Words inserted into his head like a disk into a computer. “You know what to do.”
He felt more connected to his body than ever. The banks of controls, switches and screens looked less alien. LEDs flashed like a symphony of lights, drawing his attention to a monitor in the centre, almost at the top. Above that, another monitor linked to an external camera. It cycled through images of the labs, then further afield to the human settlement.
Marley only noticed these screens because he was a man. A man who had spent a quarter of his waking life (and some of his sleeping life) in public bars watching sport. Not that women can’t be sports addicts. But they often have better things to do, such as playing sport.
In the Quasar Bar, it didn’t matter if they were showing lunar golf or ice-skating on Enceladus, Marley’s head uncontrollably jerked towards the screen. He had nothing against golf. He particularly liked the Decennial Io Skins, especially the par five with three volcanoes and a lava trap.
This daydream cost Marley 20 seconds of thinking and acting time. But he had discovered an important screen bank. The screen below the camera monitor looked like a radar. It was green. A simple outline represented – what? Marley had to think quickly. Now was not the time to be a dullard. Right now he needed to think like a hare, not a tortoise.
He played an imaginary game of charades. “One word, two syllables. No one syllable. A thing. A representation. A representation of what? Not a real thing. A sketchy outline. A map!” The answer came, a bolt of sunshine amid clouds of nonsense.
The unobtrusive screen was displaying a map of the settlement with the lab at the centre. From the lab, a white circle radiated outward, reaching the periphery where the settlement merged into desert and the final manmade object was a sign that said, ‘Last Jinko’s for 10 light years’.
After a satisfying beep the monitor booped; the white circle started over again from the centre.
The area of effect!
Everything within the clutches of this circle would suffer the photon annihilation. Buildings would be twisted, bodies warped, their organs reshuffled, maybe even transferred to foreign bodies. Imagine gaining the liver of your friend next to you. Although that wouldn’t be too bad if you had been drinking your whole life and he was a teetotaller.
On the other hand, what if you inherited the antlers of a Zorgon? Or genitalia of the opposite sex? At the same time keeping your own genitalia! Who knew what could happen in a photon annihilation incident. Maybe everything did disappear, completely. Maybe it crushed you to the size of a pea while your liver remained the same size. He’d sooner sacrifice himself to the greater good than let one hundred and fifty trapped and helpless scientists inherit each other’s livers.
Beneath the screens, a round trackball, centuries old, begged to be stroked. Marley knew what a trackball was because he’d played computer games. A trackball is an upside-down louse. You place your palm on it and move the ball; rotate slowly for fine movements, or quickly run your hand over the ball many times for running games or those frantic first person skiing or gliding simulators. Marley needed precision.
He touched the ball lightly with two fingers, gently rotating it towards himself. With each touch, the outer limit of the circle’s circumference became smaller. Rotating in the opposite direction expanded the circumference of the circle, until the whole of Zorge was exposed. Surely that wasn’t possible. Could he annihilate the whole planet?
With rapid flicks Marley stroked the ball towards him, fixed on its unseen axis. The beeping radar circle decreased in radius with every cycle. Finally, it became a flashing dot, centred on the very room, maybe the very point where Marley stood.
In the very near future, possibly in the next two minutes, Gaston Dimble and Thuris Thranganis, Rhonda Rogers and Zorgeous, all the scientists holed up in the labs, would know themselves to be alive.
And Marley would be dead, or disappeared, or for all he knew and for all his luck, instantly transported to the planet of Tentacled Shrews. Soon he would know, or know no longer.
He remembered an obscure book from the Great Library on Crete 581d: Visualising your Ideal State and Making your Dreams Manifest by Manipulating the Quantum Law of Energy Attraction…The title continued all the way into the second chapter…but the thrust of the book was that whatever you believed, came true – that all thought and feeling ultimately appeared, for real. Zeen Crawdex had laughed in Marley’s face when he told him this theory. That didn’t stop Marley trying.
Initially it worked, or so it seemed. He had imagined sitting next to Fulucia in class and the very next day she sat beside him. Then the opposite occurred and whatever Marley wished for bounced back in his face. He dreamed of waking up next to Fulucia and instead woke up next to a pizza.
Maybe his faith was not strong enough.
But if his faith was supported by a photon annihilation incident, where the fundamental forces of the universe became Irish potato stew? Where the strings of string theory twisted into combination Chinese noodles? Each particle annihilated by its antimatter equivalent and turned into pure vindaloo energy or aloo matar! Now, with the quantum barriers about to defabricate, this was his only hope.
Quantum mechanics has contributed a lot to science but still no one can explain how it works, how observing a subatomic particle actually influences its position in space. Comforted by this, Marley looked at the topmost monitor as the camera images flashed by. He closed his eyes.
He imagined himself lying on the beach next to a cold Epicurean cocktail frothing with seaview juice. He saw the Great Elevator of Epicurus reaching to the skies, disappearing through the crystal blue out into space where cruise ships docked and jettisoned a cargo of eager tourists and world-weary travellers.
The lazy sea.
The imported yellow sand from Earth.
He held this image of luxury and laziness firmly in his mind.
“Epicurus, come to me. Let me come to you. I am there.”
As the countdown started, he willed. As the chamber shuddered, he believed.