KASMA MAGAZINE

Speaking to Mother

By Tom Doyle

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Artwork by Jose Baetas.


After long hours observing the black hole devour matter, Lakshmi watched Harry consume spicy squid. From the tension in his jaw, and decades of watching his face, she knew that he wasn't really happy, and that it wasn't the squid's fault. It was the other thing.

At least it only showed when he was eating--that was when his guard was down. As she cleared the table with him, he was already chirping away, showing his happy face.

"Nice squid. Your mother's recipe?"

"No, I got it off the net." She lied instinctively. Mothers were off limits tonight.

"Oh, well it was nice. We'll have to make it again sometime."

Lakshmi relaxed. She needed a nice evening, and he wasn't going to be disagreeable. Like countless pleasant evenings before, they would enjoy some wine and music. He would hold her until his warmth drove out the thoughts of the cold alloys beyond the faux teak interior of their quarters, the colder vacuum beyond and the dark thing she studied. They would make love under the heatless light of unblinking stars.

And he wouldn't speak of mothers and children.

Afterwards, she lay awake and staring through the unshaded porthole. From outside, on every rotation, the yoni and lingam of the curvilinear accelerator and launcher intruded on her sleep. Like a Kamasutra for robots. The mech intelligences had been very convincing in advocating its construction, but they and their launcher had fallen from favor, and their tiny chattering interstellar probes were now monitored with cautious unenthusiasm. Humans had taken over the launcher and this station, like insects in a rotting wooden hut.

In the backwash of the enormous energies of the accelerator, they had found the seed of Kali, the black hole, and had maintained and fed it. Surrounded by tending and measuring machines, Kali's accretion disc glowed in the distance opposite the launcher, like the maw of death in the Gita. Kali also intruded into Lakshmi's sleep and dreams--cold equations that needed all her thought.

So she wouldn't think of mothers and children.

*****

The observation lab had the same clean lines and pseudo-wood interior of the cabins, ship-like, as if being at sea was more assuring, more natural, than being in space. The d├ęcor camouflaged the fact that mechs had built and used this station for years before humans had occupied it, and its falseness rankled at the start of Lakshmi's day. That, and the ever present sense of cold that was more than her sense memory of a tropical childhood.

"Early again, Dr. Kakarala." The scientist on the previous shift observing the singularity (what was his name again?) wore a bemused smile that still had natural youth in it, as did the thin, energetic rest of him. His hands made some quick motions at the console as she approached. "Hoping I might leave a nanosecond early?"

"Not really." Lakshmi smiled. The idea that anyone would give up a single interactive moment with the instruments surrounding the singularity was ridiculous.

"Ah, a smile. I'm honored."

The smile vanished. "I'm here. Buzz me when Kali's ready."

The scientist (his name was Ichiro) stared unabashedly, still amused, as Lakshmi turned away from him. She marched into the adjoining lab to bury herself in her data pad notes, thinking of what Ichiro and the other scientists called her when she was wrathful: Kali, the same name as they had given the singularity. Goddess of destruction. All devouring Death.

Damn Ichiro anyway. People in their thirties always annoyed her. They had achieved mastery in their vocations, but hadn't made the complete transition to monogamy. Funny how the longer people lived, the more monogamy made sense. After a couple decades of multiple or serial partners, mastering another learning curve of a new person's life experience became too daunting. You needed someone in fixed orbit who would move around with you, onworld or off. And eat your spicy squid. Ichiro's flirty banter might as well have been in Sanskrit for how ancient it seemed.

Besides, she had to be secretive. Ichiro kept ambition barely hidden beneath his dubious boyish charm. She could only relax when he left the lab to her. What was he working on anyway, some quantum nonsense?

Ichiro buzzed her. "She's all yours. Have a beautiful day." He overemphasized "beautiful." Damn him anyway.

As soon as he was out of sight, she went to work. Her overt subject was variances in the gravity wave signature of the artificial singularity. Her equipment had changed little in basic principals from the LISA mission earlier in the century. Three laser inferometer units hovered in a triangle formation kilometers away from the station and the singularity. They caught the reverberations in space-time hot off the lathe of heaven.

"Computer," she sub-vocalized, "switch to ASF data mode." The Armed Space Forces had ordered her to keep two books of data to hide the details of her initial experiments. Her covert purpose would have disturbed her colleagues. Watching variances in a gravity wave signature was one thing; causing variances through changing the amounts and trajectories of the mass fed into Kali might be much more dangerous.

Thinking of variances, Lakshmi was troubled by a continuing anomaly in the orbital solution for the station around Kali. The orbit required repeated adjustments, as if a significant mass were slowly approaching, though nothing had been observed. It made her experiments all the more difficult.

Bloody gobar! The wave signature for Kali was significantly off. She checked--yes, the variance was real. Damn, had someone else induced this, chasing her rightful prize? Ichiro? She jumped on the vid.

Ichiro answered, already naked at least as far as the vid showed. "Ichiro, what the bloody hell have you been doing down here?"

"Ka--Lakshmi, you're way out of line. This is my sleep shift!"

Resistance begot rapid insistence. "No time--Kali's wave pattern way off--whatthehell have you done?"

"Not a damn thing, you're the wave pattern expert, you tell me."

"You'd better come down here."

Ichiro didn't take long--the station was a one minute world. "So confess, Ichiro. What did you do?"

But Ichiro was already focused on the gravity wave data. "Nothing. Wait, that can't be it."

Lakshmi had a sudden sick feeling in her stomach. "Say it."

"Well it looks like an interference pattern which could only be produced by something with the same grav wave signature, and that..."

But this was only confirming Lakshmi's deeper fear. She was at the vid again. "Code Red alarm."

"What the hell?"

"You said it yourself. If you didn't do it, this means that our mystery mass is another singularity. And unless someone comes up with a different plan, we're bailing."

*****

Kali posed no general threat to humanity. Scientists agreed it would begin to evaporate the instant it was removed from its pampering equipment. The non-scientist majority was more comforted by its orbit running way out beyond Pluto. The Kuiper belt provided plenty of mass to feed the singularity and plenty of water and other chemicals for the station.

However, Kali and the tremendous forces maintaining it posed a real risk to the humans in its near vicinity. And chaotic Kali needed people in its near vicinity. It needed to be fed, but not too much, and its particle burps had to be watched. Computers could have done all that, but after the repression of the mech intelligences, computers were being kept on a short leash. Advanced constructs tended too readily to scary philosophical speculations and a disregard for human life.

Safety protocols erred on the Chicken Little side: if you thought the sky was falling, ditch the black hole and run like heck. Another black hole in the area qualified as collapsing sky. Lakshmi knew she was absolutely right to hit the alarm. But, even as the crew scrambled to prepare for an evacuation, there would have to be a meeting. Lakshmi hated meetings.

No single space in the mech-designed station could hold everyone. Lakshmi, Karl the station director and Ichiro met in presence, but everyone else who wasn't readying the evac ships was vid. The flash of the Code Red alarm from consoles and emergency lights gave the scene a garish quality that might have been comic.

As director, Karl was that hybrid of scientist and administrator that was execrable at both. Also, slim Lakshmi disapproved of his weight; with present technology, he had no excuse to be overweight on a space station. Lakshmi could barely conceal her contempt at more relaxed times. Yet even now Karl regarded his job as more important than his and their lives.

They shouted at each other above the sounds of alarms and evac prep. They needed to decide whether to disconnect Kali from life support and get out of Dodge or stand down. Data streamed in from sensors and probes, and Karl highlighted some of it. "Look, we've been all over it--there's nothing out there, artificial or otherwise."

Lakshmi pointed at the wave signature. "It could be hidden somehow."

"No way," Karl said with unscientific certainty. "We have probes flying all over the place. It's not there."

"But the waves, there's something out there, very close or very large--another spinner. If it tugs at Kali, or Kali pulls it here, when that's at all probable, the protocols are clear."

Karl flipped his pad stick in resignation. "Fine. Assuming for the moment there's something out there, can you give us a direction yet?"

I'll give you a direction, ghi ass, but Lakshmi stuck to the facts. "No, there's something screwing up the array--it's seems to be coming from everywhere at once. It's like we're right on top of it."

Ichiro chimed in, "Then it must be something internal to Kali."

"I don't think so," Lakshmi said.

"You don't think so?" Even the half-scientist Karl knew this smell of blood.

Lakshmi spoke like a sleepwalker. "It doesn't feel right."

"Doesn't feel right?"

But Lakshmi was thinking too many light years away to notice Karl's childish tone. She heard nothing as the shouting continued around her. She saw Kali in four-dimensional space, and moved herself all around the singularity in space and time, looking everywhere and when. And then she looked somewhere else.

"Oh god. I think I know where it's coming from."

Everyone, personal or linked, went silent. And Karl got nervous. "Now wait a minute--I'm still not going to scrap Kali on the basis of speculation."

"You're right, Karl."

"What?"

"You're right. You can have the station stand down."

"But you said--"

Lakshmi held up her hand, nodding. "The interference isn't coming from anywhere in the known universe."

Karl remained clueless. "Well, then, I guess there's no problem"

But Ichiro, nodding back, had grasped it. "If not this universe..."

Lakshmi gave him another smile. Bright boy. "Can't be anything else."

They were leaving Karl out again, and the stubborn idiot wouldn't ask for an explanation. But Lakshmi was feeling generous. "Director, I think we've just discovered another universe."

*****

Lakshmi got back to their cabin late. Sleeping Harry woke up the moment she entered. Strangely enthused through bleary eyes, he said, "Hi."

"Hi. Sorry I'm late. Didn't mean to wake you."

"No, that's alright. I know you were busy."

"Yeah, exciting, isn't it?"

"Maybe you could bring me up to speed on why you think it's another universe. I had to get my plants ready in case we had to exit." Harry and his damn plants. He played with the temporal and gravitational effects of the singularity on plants and bugs. This made red-haired Harry more Gandhi-like in his attitude towards the lower orders than any of the more practical Hindus Lakshmi had grown up with in Andhra Pradesh. And as if this nurturing weren't enough, he also monitored environmental safety for the crew. Everybody had several jobs on the station, though what was a biologist doing here, anyway? But of course, he was here for her.

"The plants couldn't wait?" Lakshmi asked.

"Nope, that's the problem with biology--life waits for no man." Not very subtle, that.

"I'm exhausted."

"Well, at least tell me something."

"It's about branes, Harry."

"Thinking?"

"No, membranes," Lakshmi said. "String theory. Gravity travels from brane to brane, everything else is stuck."

"Oh. I'll look it up tomorrow."

"I'm sorry," Lakshmi said. "I'm awfully tired."

"I know. We'll talk tomorrow."

Harry's enthusiasm had made Lakshmi nervous; it echoed the way he was about kids. But now she relaxed. She slipped into bed and lay next to Harry. The canopy of stars moved above them. She dreamed her familiar dream of a distant land under the stars.

She is back in Andhra, beautiful green Andhra. She smells the monsoon season; she had forgotten that smell. She is a child, sitting on the porch of the main house of her family's plantation. Her mother speaks Telegu to a computer, setting up the parameters for an evolving intelligence. Her mother doesn't see her, never sees her. Lakshmi cries. Mother notices, stops, smiles, offers Lakshmi a mango lassi. Lakshmi sips, so sweet. Then her mother offers her a fruit. Not very subtle, that. Lakshmi, no longer little, says no, and her mother turns her head away.

*****

The next day shift, Lakshmi came to the lab at her usual time. Her theory was still just that, and shifts would continue as usual. But now, everyone would be focusing on different aspects of the same problem: was the interference coming from another universe? From Durga?

The name was her mistake. They had given her the usual naming rights for this singularity in another cosmos. With quick logic, she blurted out "Durga." It was Kali's other aspect in Hindu belief. She was grateful that no one asked for the further nuance of the name's meaning. Durga, the Great Mother. Absurd, but as a name no more incongruous than, say, Venus or Neptune. But why not Ganesh, lord of the threshold? Too much mother stuff.

Cosmic mapping of gravity wave sources had been inconclusive on the subject of other universes. The overall gravitation of other branes, if present, seemed to produce a nearly even effect across our cosmos. To find a point effect like this, so strong and close, was incredible luck. Literally incredible--she didn't believe it was luck. What was another brane's singularity doing so close to Kali? It hadn't always been there. And at least in the physics of our cosmos, it looked artificial.

Lakshmi would continue to focus on variances. She would look for regular patterns and cycles, sorting out the signature of Durga from Kali. Like two people who've been together a long time, it might be difficult to sort out which traits originated from whom.

Karl scheduled shifts to overlap so information could be exchanged. Lakshmi and Ichiro spent more time together in such overlaps, combining expertises and exchanging views. She minded him less now, whatever might be going through his thirty-something brain about her.

But sometimes he waved it in her face. "Why don't you come over for dinner sometime?" he would ask. "We could talk."

"Go to hell. I'm twice your age."

"You don't look it."

"That's not the point." And they would get back to work. Affairs weren't themselves a violation of the marriage standards, but right now Harry would see an affair as symptomatic, and that would confuse things. The problem wasn't about the who of sex; the result was the issue. God, silly even thinking about this. So she focused on the problem of Durga.

From the beginning, the interference pattern suggested an underlying similar signature for Durga, but there was some noise. The irregular noise teasingly suggested patterns that then veered back towards chaos. Lakshmi observed Durga's noise impatiently. As exciting as the potential discovery of another universe was, that was now the whole station's project. She wanted to get back to her own covert project. She growled at her data: "Say something, dammit."

That's when it hit her. Maybe their project was her project--deliberate induction of gravity wave variations. And maybe these aliens had the same reasons for their project as hers.

Why not? Kali had been near its current mass for years, perhaps enough time for the aliens to detect it and prepare their own more massive singularity. Of course, the probability of their observing the relatively miniscule effects of Kali from their brane were infinitesimally small--unless these aliens had fully saturated their brane with sentience. Again, why not? If it really was a massive artificial singularity, that implied considerable intelligence and power--perhaps even the power of a Type V civilization in which nearly every quantum state down to the Planck limits would be in use for computational purposes and even the smallest gravitational variations would be detectable.

Humans had needed some intelligence and power to create Kali, so Kali could have been a gravitational sign to these aliens that we were ready for Durga. This thought brought an old shame back to the surface: Kali owed much of its existence to the mechs that had built these facilities, not the humans who now controlled them. Humanity had fudged the test.

All admittedly biased hunches--she would have to wait days, perhaps weeks, to confirm the first of them. She would need patience, but she already felt frustrated.

That night, despite an infinitude of culinary choices, Lakshmi absent-mindedly served the same squid recipe again. Harry said nothing about it. He ate everything, always did, as if he had his own black hole that did not vary with mood. And Lakshmi did not notice his more subtle reactions.

She took a long time to fall asleep. She dreamed of Andhra again.

It is nighttime in Andhra and the sky is full of stars. Her mother is in front of the house. Her mother's mouth is moving slowly, like a water buffalo chewing. Lakshmi cannot understand her. Lakshmi shouts at her to "say something, dammit!" But her mother doesn't seem to know that Lakshmi is even there. From the house, the computer speaks in her mother's voice. "Namaste, Lakshmi. We're ready to begin."

Days passed. The interference definitely did not come from our four-dimensional space. The supposedly random noise continued. Lakshmi had been monitoring the waves for over a week--perhaps enough data now.

Lakshmi analyzed the data, and found her pattern. After each two and a half days, the noise began to repeat. Lakshmi sighed; her secret work had been anticipated a universe away.

Lakshmi called another station meeting. As usual, Karl was peevish and small, if only in personality. "So, do we hit the evac ships now?"

Lakshmi now found it easier to ignore his slights. "They're sending a message."

"They?" Karl asked.

But Ichiro bypassed Karl's query. "How do you know?" He seemed surprised that she had reached any conclusions outside of their daily conferences.

"These variations--let me show you."

Lakshmi walked them through the data. She also had been decoding some of the signal. "The initial steps of the contact code sequence is remarkably similar to our own. Prime numbers, simple mathematical progressions. And, damn it all, there it is, a hydrogen atom. They must have something like our physics."

Ichiro understood her disappointment. "That's a shame. If the physics is the same, they'll just be the usual aliens lonely hearts club."

Karl's negative mindset saw this as home ground. "Well, it'll be a lonelier club than usual, since we can't signal back."

Lakshmi hesitated for a breath. "I can signal back."

This ripped away any other words. Then, Ichiro restarted with "You can what?"

"At least I think I can."

"That would involve deliberately causing variations in Kali's gravity wave pattern."

"Yes," Lakshmi said, "I know."

"That's what you've been doing, isn't it? God, that's why you've been so paranoid, why you jumped on me when you thought I had done something to the wave signature." Ichiro turned to Karl. "Is she authorized?"

"I have authority from the Armed Space Forces."

Ichiro was fuming, but Karl was subdued like a rogue mech by the mention of the ASF, and Lakshmi didn't blame him. She wondered whether the ASF wasn't too dangerous a friend, whatever its uses.

Karl finally let out some vocal air. "I'll check that out. So, you can reply to them?"

"Yes, I think so. Not as elegantly. I can affect spin very slightly by the amount and momentum of matter that we feed Kali. It'll take more time for me to convey even minimal information. But they'll understand us."

"What about first contact protocols?"

"Shouldn't be too much of a problem. They can't come here, we can't go there. Can't imagine it being any safer."

Ichiro interposed, voice shrill. "But what about the safety of our equipment? A little too much variation and you could rip everything apart. A little more and you could kill us all!"

Karl remained calm and subdued. Contact protocols and relations with the military were familiar ground for him; for once, Lakshmi probably made some sense to him. He ignored Ichiro. "OK. Get ready to reply. I'll clear everything Earth-side."

Karl left with Ichiro trailing and grumbling about "objections on the record" and glancing back at Lakshmi with hurt eyes. Poor boy, he feels betrayed. Or perhaps he feels neglected. Personally, his teasing, patronizing banter would now be out of place, and professionally his work, like everyone else's, would be further subsumed in the new discovery. Or maybe he was just being political, vying for a job like Karl's. No matter. For Lakshmi, there would be still more work to do.

Her mother had told her a story when she was a girl, of the love of a blind flutist and a deaf-mute painter. That story always sounded to Harry like the beginning of a bad joke, but it was the most romantic thing Lakshmi had ever heard. Communicating with another universe was going to be like that.

Manipulating the wave patter of a singularity was in some ways a powerful way to send a signal, in others extremely weak. A gravity wave signal passed through barriers that would stop an EM transmission, barriers like those between two different universe-branes. But information transmission rate was ungodly slow. The sentients in the other brane seemed incredibly skilled in inducing variations, and it still took two and a half days for the basic contact sequence. Lakshmi was not so nearly skilled, yet. This was going to be a very long conversation. When Karl's green light came through, she was wondering if there was an inter-universal operator who would present them with a cosmic-sized bill for such a lengthy call.

She had produced minuscule variations before through barely tweaking spin and mass. But a real signal would require considerably larger forces. As she commenced the first signal, she knew that most station personnel were watching her on their vids.

Even with minor variations she had come up against the design of the station itself. The station was, despite its attempt at comfort, "structurally a retrofitted junk pile" according to one overly candid engineer, formerly used by beings who didn't mind a little cold hard vacuum. As such, it was barely suited to orbit humans around a stable, unvarying minihole. Significant changes in the direction and intensity of gravitational and tidal forces would apply unanticipated stress to the whole station superstructure. Well, she had done what she could. Only one way to test it.

As she began to induce a change in spin, she could actually hear small groan of metal. So could the rest of the station. Some even ran for the evac ships without an alarm. Karl was on the vid, telling her to stop. She continued to make adjustments instead. "No going back without stressing the structure the opposite way," she replied, never taking her eyes from her readouts.

As Karl was about to order evac, the sense of dangerous torsion finally subsided. The station settled into a new rhythm, a slow thrumming vibration that passed through everything like the heartbeat of a sleeping elephant. Their reply was on its way.

*****

She could still feel the new thrum of the station that night at dinner. Harry seemed completely unperturbed about the risk she had taken earlier. "Communication?" Harry's perennial enthusiasm went from bubble to boil. "That's great! That changes everything."

"Yes, I suppose I'll be famous back home."

"Famous? They'll vote you the Nobel this year. But, communication with another universe." He paused, hoping she would get his meaning without explanation. "That changes everything."

"What do you mean?" Lakshmi didn't like the sound of this. "We've found sentients before. The fact that they're in another brane, that's just an artifact of physics."

"But it means when this universe goes, it's not the end."

How did he know that she cared about that? Same way she knew what he was thinking from the slightest tension in his jaw.

But Lakshmi had already thought his point through. "It's just an extension of the same problem, dear. Just like here. We can jump from star to star, but eventually all stars go out. If that other universe is like ours--likely to be older than ours even--then it'll be coming to the same end."

"Oh, but..."

"I mean, who's to say there's anyone on the other side anyway. It could just be the mech voice of a long dead race, ready to talk neo-Nietzscheism with us after the usual hellos."

"Oh." She heard his enthusiasm cool, but Harry was a biologist. The science of hope. "Still, we gotta live."

"Yes, we do."

But that didn't mean they had to bring anyone else into it. Lakshmi was a cosmologist, and cosmology was not about hope.

*****

After the station's reply was complete, Durga sent her further missives. It was more numbers, more equations. No dilly-dallying with cultural history for these folks. Being in another brane, they must have felt safe enough to go right to their science.

Harry was showing the strains of an internal battle to stay happy with her. Why this problem now, she had no idea. But even she found herself noticing the children on the station more. They weren't forbidden, though most families left when they reached school age. Kids turned out a little weird if kept in this confined physical and social space. That was a five year window, and even she couldn't imagine still being here in the void with her personal black hole for another five years. But she couldn't imagine children either. Dammit Harry, what was the point? Certainly, there was no ultimate point. What would she want to pass on, anyway? Her shame of her mother's world and work? And as for the happiness that children brought, she knew better.

Two weeks after their unhappy discussion, Harry made dinner. It was her favorite meal from childhood, an assortment of vegetable curries. She had never told it to him. In her glass was a mango lassi. She felt violated and not real.

"Where did you get this?" she asked.

"Your mother."

"My mother is... has been dead for a long time." She deliberately used the "D" word.

"I know. She gave me this recipe shortly after we married. Not long before she passed away."

"I don't understand. My mother didn't like you. My mother didn't like me. She only cared about the bloody AIs. Humanity's children, she called them. She gave her life to them, more time than she ever had for me, and those mech bastards bloody well nearly buggered us good. So why?"

"Why did she give me this?" Harry shook his head. "I don't know. I forgot about it for years anyway. You and your mother didn't get along, her work with the mechs embarrassed you, so I knew you wouldn't want anything that reminded you of her. But as for why, well, I only know what she told me."

She didn't want to hear this. She wanted to run away and cover her ears like a little girl in Andhra, and the stupidity of it angered her, so she was caught, and had to listen.

"She gave me this because she said it brought you joy."

Lakshmi sat quietly. She felt both years and self threatening to shatter into tinkling bits inside her. She and Harry ate without saying another word.

*****

A few days later, Harry appeared sullen, defeated.

"What is it?" Lakshmi asked with some dread.

"I've been thinking."

"And?"

"I've been thinking of taking some time off and going back to Earth." The "alone" was unspoken. "I could teach again for a while. Maybe that would give me the sense I need of passing something of myself along. To somebody."

"I understand. Could I ask a favor?"

"Sure."

"Could you wait for a just a while? Things are coming to a head soon with Durga. After that, we should spend some time together and talk."

"OK. I'll wait."

So Lakshmi sent her personal life into suspended animation. She continued instead to focus on the transmissions. Early on, they gave the specifications for Durga. That wasn't hard to figure out, as they were so similar to Kali's. Now, they were describing a different, more complex singularity. Lakshmi compared the description to that of observed black holes of all sizes, from the micro to the galactic. Nothing quite fit.

And there was another part of the description that she couldn't readily digest--deep quantum stuff. She needed Ichiro's help.

Ichiro still acted displeased with Lakshmi. But there was a swagger in his manner as if he had heard that Harry might be leaving the station, though he couldn't have known. Smug bastard, as if he would be the one to be getting any if Harry were gone. She froze inside: as if anybody will be getting any if Harry were gone. What would she do without Harry?

Ichiro studied the latest transmission equations, and his professional tone took over long enough to summarize them for her.

"Hmm. Yep, I can see why this might have thrown you. This isn't about black holes or gravity waves." Another slight from a childish male. "This appears to be related to a set of states within a quantum foam." He plugged some helpful parameters into her pad.

"As in the stuff between the branes?"

"Very good! Anything else?"

She hurried away, trying to repress her emotions. She was not upset with Ichiro, she was excited for reasons she couldn't quite state. She went to her console and plugged in the numbers. Then she extrapolated forward in time. Such a singularity in the quantum foam would radically expand, then...

No, not a singularity, the singularity.

Lakshmi felt a sudden warmth all around her, like the station itself and the void beyond had come insistently alive on her discovery. This was too much for the world, too much for her. She needed Harry. She called on the vid for him. His image appeared. "Lakshmi."

"You're not going to believe this--"

But Harry kept speaking. It was a recorded message for her. "I'm sorry, a transport was leaving for Neptune, and I couldn't wait any longer. And I couldn't bring myself to face you. I'll send you a message from Earth. Good bye."

Lakshmi felt the world grow cold again.

*****

Lakshmi sent out an "urgent" beacon to the transport for Harry to contact her. She didn't expect a reply. Then, she called another heinous general meeting. Revealing her discovery now, or rather revealing her theory of what that discovery meant, was career suicide. Lakshmi was already far from her original covert mandate of exploring military communications. Her sponsors at the ASF, whose job gave them an almost pre-Copernican sense of human importance, would not be pleased by her latest speculations. Her earlier successes only made her more of a threat. But with Harry gone, it didn't matter.

At the meeting, Karl was now the overly familiar one. "We've got to stop meeting like this." Kissing the arse of the future Nobel winner, no doubt. She liked him better before. But she was past all that now. "I know what they're trying to tell us."

Ichiro looked at her projection. "I don't see any hidden message here."

Odd that Ichiro was still prickly. "Ichiro, your insight helped me make this projection, and you can see--"

"So they've figured out the initial conditions for a universe like ours. Very advanced stuff." Prickly and dismissive.

"No, more than advanced," she continued. "The initial conditions for a universe--"

"Are not knowable within such universe. True. So they observed it, gravitationally."

"No, more."

Karl intruded with a chuckle. "Are you saying you're talking to God?"

The others laughed at this relief from the tension, but Lakshmi was still thinking ahead to the ASF. "That's not it at all. They aren't omnipotent. Probably just older versions of us. But they created the initial conditions for this universe."

Karl wasn't giving up on God. "So they're bragging? Great. What next? They created Earth in seven days?"

This got another laugh. But then another voice joined in via vid. "No, they're not bragging."

Lakshmi started. "Harry?"

Ichiro was as quick as hostility could make him. "This is a meeting for station personnel only."

A few seconds elapsed before Harry's reply. "I'm on my way back to the station. I received an 'urgent' message, and I've told this transport that I've been ordered back." He was smiling nervously, clearly hoping that no one besides Lakshmi paid too much attention to this story.

"OK, Harry," sighed Karl. "What do you think they're doing?"

Lakshmi shook her head at Harry, trying to let him know that he didn't have to do this. She was afraid for him. One career destroyed was enough.

He ignored her. "They're teaching."

"Teaching? I don't follow." Karl must have assumed that Harry was out of his depth.

"Teaching how to create a universe."

Lakshmi stared at Harry through the vid, more stunned than before. Not only was he there for her, not with his plants, not going to Earth. He was also right. But Ichiro wasn't giving an inch. "Ridiculous. This isn't a facts of life speech. Why would anyone want to create a universe they could never see, that we could only observe its gravitational variances?"

Ichiro's face glared with intensity that couldn't just be about her jeopardizing their safety or not responding to his banter. And then she knew what it was. This must have been Ichiro's own covert project, recreating the conditions of the Big Bang. Talk about dangerous. Poor Ichiro. He was not resigned, as Lakshmi had been, to having his thunder stolen by another brane. But she would deal with that and him later. Or, more likely, he would be dealing with her.

Lakshmi continued for Harry, though he was the more certain one about motivations. "I think they did it so that they could pass on everything, eventually. Who they are, what they know. Maybe what they learned from universes before theirs. Everything."

"But," Ichiro's protested, "the rate of transfer is so damn slow, that'd take forever."

But this just confirmed Harry's realization for Lakshmi. "Not forever. Just a very, very long time. They have time. We have time."

*****

Her mother had told Lakshmi how the worlds were created and destroyed. Brahma awoke, and the worlds sprang in being. Brahma slept, and the worlds folded back into him. Back and forth, through eons of "days and nights of Brahma." Even for a cosmologist, the story had a point. The universe was an ever-renewing dance. Our lives and deaths were just parts of that dance.

Ichiro remained adamant, and the others remained unconvinced. Scientifically, it didn't matter whether they agreed right now. The question would be resolved empirically, eventually. Politically, however, it would be very tough for Lakshmi and Harry for a while. The proto-bureaucrat Ichiro would certainly call the ASF. They would no bloody doubt regard her latest hypothesis as "mech-like," certainly part of her mother's legacy. She would be pulled from the project. She and Harry would have to go back to Earth after all, at least until the data caught up with her theory. But she knew. And Harry knew.

And they had time. She had no idea how long it would take human beings to master the forces necessary to repeat the experiment of creating another universe. Maybe soon, maybe eons from now. In the meantime, there would be the transmissions, not from one alien species lonely in the void, but the collective knowledge of cosmos upon cosmos. And with the transmissions, the standing invitation to join a great chain of being stretching forward and backwards into eternity. These were times, and would be times, exciting to live in. Worth sharing. She needed to share them.

She returned to their quarters. Harry would soon be there. Lakshmi felt she would smile at him always, a generous return on years of warmth. Why keep him waiting any longer? There was a universe they could create right now.


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