The Virllian Password

(c) 2000

Chapter 1

Ralphus Gray awoke with a start, panting. It was quiet now, only the sound of the fountain outside his window stirred the bright, cold morning.

He rarely had nightmares, and that last dream wasn't much as nightmares go. It wasn't the tragic kind of nightmare, or the extremely embarrassing kind. But dreams take on an importance all out of proportion to their actual value, regardless of the scenario.

He was speaking to a large group of unruly people in an enormous hall. It was outside, dark and ornate, and without a roof. The situation was somehow solemn, ceremonial, and the crowd's boisterousness angered him so much that he had to shout for silence. He wound up shouting so loud that the words came out incorrectly: wrong usage, incorrect syntax. His shouting had little effect, but just before he awoke he saw three unusual figures in the audience. How were they unusual? In the way that, in dreams, familiar names attach themselves to unfamiliar faces, in the way disparate ideas come together and somehow make sense.

Sleep is like a computer reorganizing its file system. As information is added or deleted data becomes fragmented--a bit here, a byte there. If read in a linear fashion the data becomes nonsense. The human mind must work this way, and the incongruities in dreams arise from the nonlinear way the brain stores information.

House lights came on slowly as he got up from the bed pedestal, the room air warmed, window transluced, the data interface screen flashed on, and the foodprep unit hummed with breakfast. All this activity woke no one else. Ralphus had been alone most of his life, and this day, this week, this year was no exception.

Soon his cerebral data interface (CDI) flashed to life and at synaptic frequencies downloaded the day's important information directly into his brain. Much of this is superfluous, Ralphus thought. Anything I enter myself I remember, and anything external I have ample warning of. But he was reluctant to set any filters, just in case the stray priority message came in overnight.

And today was just such a situation. Like a flash of awareness, like the proverbial "Eureka", a first priority message lit up his mind. A VP at ID Technologies has requested (a euphemism for demanded) a meeting ASAP. Ralphus was unfamiliar with the name, C. Braswell, PhD, Vice President of Dimensional Inquiries, but a VP was a VP.

Time to get going, he thought. He slewed in front of his interface module and rolled the screen down 90cm--half his height--so he could review himself top to bottom. Lean and clean, but shaggy. His genes had given him that countenance regardless of how well he groomed. The interface could make him appear neater, less swarthy, more formal to the outside world. Too bad it worked only in communications.

Ralphus shaved and dressed formally, loathe to do so, but he wanted to approach the meeting from a position of power. As Chief Investigator of Password Technologies at ID he had considerable pull in the company, and a more-or-less tenured position. These meetings are generally with aging ex-field agents, agents to whom the field position was merely a step to the front office. Their experience was minimal, and usually they held these meetings to hear themselves reminisce about their adventures. Coming to the show with guns blazing, so to speak, would minimize the number of arbitrary mandates they would deliver to justify their position.

He had a quick bite of breakfast--protein, carbs, and caffeine--and left his house expecting to take his flitter into work. But waiting for him there was a long black company limo! An attempt to intimidate him, he thought, not a courtesy or honor. Well, I've been in limos before, when it was a sign of honor. He was gracious to the driver but maintained his attitude of "been there, done that", his game face for the meeting to come.

As the limo skimmed over the streets in downtown Atlanta Ralphus glanced out the tinted windows at the streetcrowd. Businesspeople, students, workers and transients--a pretty normal mix. Occasionally he caught a glimpse of that poor unfortunate soul with some physical deformity who seems to be in every city, in every age. He turned away, not wanting to stare, even though his windows were opaque to outsiders. He saw that everyone, except small children until prompted by their parents, also turned away from these malformed, and frankly ugly, people. What was it about "normal" people that made them shy away the ugly ones? Was it a feeling that it might have been them sitting there, might still come to be them after a horrible accident? Ralphus thought of the popular song "Alien Creatures", wherein aliens had come to Earth to observe, and had taken the form of the hideous so no one would look at them too closely. As the melody flitted through his head he had a flash of remembrance of his dream/nightmare. Strange juxtaposition, he thought.

They shortly arrived at the interworld headquarters of ID Technologies, a tall cylindrical building. The VP had an office at the top, of course, 50 floors up; Ralphus took the express lift to the office. C. Braswell turned out to be Cinthia Braswell, a stunningly attractive women whose beauty was not at all diminished by her smart business suit. Tall and voluptuous, a perfect face under a crown of long dark hair, VP Braswell might have been Goddess Braswell in an earlier life. Ralphus was thrown off-line for a moment, and when he recovered he realized first what a negotiating advantage she had. As a PhD in a hard science (molecular biophysics, as displayed on her strategically placed diploma) C. Braswell had formidable intellectual skills. As a VP of a major corporation she had considerable political influence. And her looks were well honed to completely disarm half the population. Ralphus was an experienced and competent, even inspired, investigator, but there was no doubt where the power lay in this meeting. They exchanged CDI business data and Ms. Braswell began,

"Investigator Gray, so nice of you to take time out of your busy schedule to stop by." (a hint of sarcasm in that warm Texas drawl? She seemed genuinely cordial--he was just being paranoid, an aftereffect of his disarmament) "I hope your ride in was comfortable?"

"Yes, thanks. It's nice not to have to fight the traffic for a change. And I'm always happy to meet with the front office folks; gives me a chance to fill them in on our researches."

"Yes, we like to keep current with our field agents. Mr. Gray, we have a problem, one that has bothered me since I became VP of Dimensional Inquiries. For the past twenty-five years we have been using the alpha Password frequency to become essentially excellent hoarders. Alpha gives us great storage but nothing more, from what we can tell. So far we haven't been able to implement the beta Password frequency. Hell, we might not even be translating it correctly. Double Hell, we don't even know the name of the civilization who made the original Tablet!"

"I'm pretty confident that our synthesizers and transducers are up to the task; after all, the alpha works fine. But all we've done is make storage easy. From the briefcase and its variants to waste disposal to fuel storage, we can now take it with us, or eliminate it, without any inconvenient mass complications, but that's all we can do, after a quarter century of our best minds and computers working on it. We might as well be called "Closet Technologies" for all we can do. I feel like a savage who has found a data screen and uses it cover a hole in her mud hut."

Ralphus didn't doubt that the best minds in the business were working on the problem; Interdimensional Technologies made enormous amounts of money from their Password products, but the company that doesn't grow withers and dies. They would spare no expense to expand their market. He sympathized with the woman; it was a frustrating circumstance.

"But the real problem is this: about 1 in 150,000 objects put into n-space vanishes, with no clue to what happened to it, nor what caused the malfunction. There's not much pattern we can see to what vanishes--not similar items, or items with one particular element or compound."

"Fuel tanks always return what was put in, allowing for instrument uncertainties. We don't inventory waste, but we assume that the same percentage of trash vanishes. The only apparent similarity is that everything that has disappeared was manufactured, about 500 objects in all."

"So far living things apparently store safely. Plants come back in good shape, although they blossom late or early, with no pattern. Animals also return in good health, so it seems that there is air and warmth in n-space. But their handlers say the animals' behavior is subtly changed, in ways hard to quantify. Some animals have learned new tricks, others have forgotten old ones. Some nocturnals stay awake during the day shortly after they return from storage. Again, no pattern, nothing to statistically indicate a trend. And none have disappeared, but then in 25 years we've only records for about 14,000 live subjects."

"Because of this, we can't put people safely into storage commercially. We can't risk one in 150,000 people vanishing without a trace. And it appears that something happens to live subjects, but we haven't a clue as to what."

"Interestingly, some have chosen n-space as their final resting place. Their thinking is that it's a shortcut to the afterlife. And I can't refute it, given my lack of evidence!"

"But if we could guarantee safety in human storage, think of the mass savings in transportation! Assuming that n-space is contiguous, we could have whole mansions stored for spaceship travelers, with far less fuel requirements than for mere cabins. Steerage would become first class, and first class would become presidential. We could exploit our spaceline holdings and expand our tourism markets enormously. For that matter, n-space could be a destination itself, with resorts built into portable units."

"More than that, if n-space is contiguous it might be that an entrance into one storage unit would exit out another. But we can't find out if n-space connects spatial coordinates so it could be used as a corridor until we know what happens to people inside."

"We of course have tried robots. Sensors return with inconsistent readings. Some have days of blank media when left in for a few minutes, others devices record nothing at all when inserted for weeks. Real-time sensors merely reflect the normal-space end of the connection. Acoustic plastic completely disperses EMF, which has opened up a market in itself. But all real-time units must be wired."

"So we really need to send researchers..."

Ralphus interrupted, "Doctor, excuse me, but I'm not volunteering to..."

"Nor are you being asked. By our count, twenty-three "adventurers" around the Solar System have chosen to enter n-space at their own risk, and almost all have emerged healthy but changed, at least in the estimation of their friends and relatives. All these people report experiencing absolutely nothing for a short time, regardless of their duration in n-space, and are tight-lipped about discussing anything else about their sojourn. But these people are not research scientists, and their evidence is considered anecdotal."

C. Braswell paused; Ralphus sensed that this interview was coming to a close, and he had a bad feeling about what she was going to "request". He didn't feel like leaving the comfort of Earth for the frontier life of the off-worlders.

"I need to get to the bottom of these mysteries, Mr. Gray, and something tells me that they are connected. Discover what happens to the missing packages, and what happened to the live subjects, and I'm sure we'll find out why only alpha frequencies seem to do anything for us."

"It's not appropriate for me to tell you your business, but I suggest you track down those "adventurers" first, interview them in person, and see if you can get them to be more forthcoming about their experiences."

How? He had no legal authority. Bribes? Coercion? Threats?

"It's been a pleasure to finally meet you, Investigator. Your reputation preceded you; I hope it wasn't just hyperbole."

And before he could inquire, protest, or even say anything, she took his hand, gave him a withering smile, and bid him good day. He was clearly being dismissed.

Ralphus left the meeting for the Atlanta sunshine, properly humbled, and with added admiration for C. Braswell. Other women with her considerable visual impact would have exploited it and all the feminine wiles that go with it. But the VP of Dimensional Inquiries was warm, open, cordial, but in charge and all business. And he now had a mission that superceded all the details of day-to-day department maintenance. And clearly he had to do it himself!

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