by J. R. Dunn


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Hazeltine gazed at the pattern taking up half the lobby wall. "Not bad for a coat of paint."

"It's not paint," Walsach said. "We don't know what it is."

"A joke, Ron," Hazeltine said, but Walsach wasn't listening.

". . . thought it was monomolecular but it just seems that way. It's two-three layers integrated somehow, right down on the nuclear level, if not deeper . . ."

Narrowing his eyes, Hazeltine turned to the pattern again. A pleasing design, once you got used to its essential strangeness. A tangle of lines, some thicker than others, sweeping across the wall in delicate curves that seemed on the verge of falling into a recognizable outline without ever quite doing so. The eye was drawn by it, following the lines from one end to the other. At this distance it seemed dull black, but Hazeltine knew that a sheen appeared closer up, and that it definitely changed color at irregular intervals. It had been there a little over a week.

Walsach had fallen silent and was staring sadly down at the table between them. "So it's quite advanced, you think?" Hazeltine asked him.

Closing his eyes, Walsach let out a blast of breath, then got up and paced toward the wall. "I'd like to know where the neutrinos are coming from, I'd like to know what the power source is, I'd like to know how it's modulated, I'd like to know . . ." He sighed. "A few things."

"But it's unquestionably a signal?"

Walsach swung back to him, a hangdog look on his face. "That's what Maimonides says."

Hazeltine merely nodded. Walsach was depressed that the team at Maimonides had beaten him to discovering the neutrino pulses. Well, he had nothing to be ashamed of. The work crew here had walked past the thing for three days before realizing that it wasn't artwork put up by the decorators.

Tenting his fingers, Hazeltine gazed down at them. "So in effect, we've been bugged."

Walsach walked back over, shaking his head. "Well, the exo gang doesn't want us to jump to conclusions . . ."

Hazeltine grimaced. He'd sent the exobiologists packing yesterday . . . this morning, on this world, Spinoza. They'd done nothing but argue, with most of what they had to say nonsense, as far as he was concerned. Aside from that, he'd seen the carnivals that the various teams, units, and committees had made of the other sites on Maimonides, and Teller and wanted none of it. "But it's absorbing photons at all wavelengths, and you believe it's picking up sound as well."

Walsach shrugged.

"Your opinion, Ron."

"Mr. Moderator . . ." He looked up and smiled. ". . . Alex. You're damn right we've been bugged."

There were footsteps from the hall and one of the construction crew appeared, a piece of equipment floating behind him. Hazeltine watched with amusement as his steps quickened and he made a wide detour around the pattern. He didn't look in their direction once.

"What I don't understand is why." Walsach was facing the wall once more, scratching his head. "They want to find out about humans, okay. But why put it in plain sight? You walk out of the portal and there it is. Hits you right in the eye." He looked over at Hazeltine. "I mean, they could have hidden it anywhere."

Hazeltine made a sound of agreement. There were plenty of theories among the exo people: a test, a challenge, a puzzle, but no consensus whatever. After all, it had only been a week. A hundred years ago they'd been thinking in terms of decades and centuries in dealing with a problem like this, and even then there had been worries. "One thing that we do know," he said slowly, "is that they are not human. The reason may be incomprehensible in our terms. But whatever it is, we can be sure that in their context it's a good one."

"I suppose," Walsach said moodily.

A buzz of conversation drifted from the hallway, the construction team going off shift. It died suddenly, the crew emerging in absolute silence, huddled together as they passed. A few gave Hazeltine surly or reproachful looks, and one woman actually glared. Hazeltine simply smiled back at them. They'd obviously heard that he'd vetoed any military presence.

A moment later they were gone, and he was about to speak when there was a sudden thump of running feet. He turned just as the worker who'd come through earlier burst around the corner, wild-eyed and out of breath. He skidded to a halt, staring at the two of them in shocked surprise, then nodded nervously as he walked to the portal. Hazeltine managed to keep himself from laughing until he'd gone through.

"Well, that's it," Walsach said. "Nobody else within fifty lights."

Rising, Hazeltine said, "I believe that Thatcher is forty light-years solward, but a good point nonetheless."

He walked Walsach to the portal. "You'll be back tomorrow, I assume?"

"Yeah," Walsach said, scratching his temple. "I'll want to go over the data with my kids, particularly the stuff from Maimonides, so it might not be early, but . . ." He stopped speaking, finger pointed at his skull. "Did you say 'back,' Mr. Moderator?"

Hazeltine nodded.

"You're not staying out here?"

"Yes," Hazeltine said. "I have an overwhelming desire to sleep in the director's suite. I've never had the opportunity."

Walsach gave a low laugh and shook his head. "Awful long nights here — fifteen hours. I mean . . ." He studied Hazeltine's expression and shrugged. "Well, I guess you know what you're doing."

Squeezing his arm, Hazeltine smiled. "Tomorrow, then." Walsach went through without another word.

Hazeltine turned and walked to the pattern. He studied the swooping, near gaudy-whorls, the seemingly random splash of dots in the center. A chill touched him and he glanced back at the portal as if to assure himself that it was still open.

A single step and he could be back on Earth . . . He dismissed the thought. Someone had to stay, and he was a moderator, after all. It wasn't a matter of choice for him. But even if it had been, he would have made the same decision. He might have doubts, but of this one thing he was sure: The universe was not a hammer aimed at mankind's head.

He gazed at the pattern for another moment then walked to the elevators.


This story copyright © 1992 by J. R. Dunn. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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