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June 20, 2012 by · 8 comments

by Valentin D. Ivanov

NGC 253 - VLT Survey Telescope snaps wide-field view of NGC 253
Photo: European Southern Observatory: VLT Survey Telescope snaps wide-field view of NGC 253

“Astronomer,” Clive told the boy. “This is what my badge says.”

The kid was startled. It is one thing to stare at the uniform of the man at the next table, and another to hear him talking to you. Most adults just ignore you, if you barely reach the table height.

The boy’s mother, a plump figure extra bloated by the Martian gravity, hushed at the father to summon the kid. Next time you tell him yourself, the eyes of the man silently answered, as he tore himself from the menu.

“Come here, son. Don’t bother the stranger.”
“It’s no bother at all. I was doing the same when I was his age,” Clive said.
“Come back, Ronny.” The mother intervened. “Now.”

The kid returned to his parents, but continued to gaze at the neighbor – thin guy in a worn out uniform, with a weathered skin, and a pair of wire-frame glasses. The family, farmers on their way to one of the agricultural colonies, from the look of their clothes, hurried through the rest of the meal, picked up their carry-ons, and went to search for the gate to their new home.

They just had their last supper in the Solar system, for a while, Clive though, while he was waiting for his first meal back here in four months. It was the same cafeteria, and his parents and Monica stayed on the other side of the quarantine glass. He was turning away when Monica put her hand on it, so Clive put his against hers, and for a moment the glass felt warm.

Apparently, nobody was seeing the farmer’s family off. They must have said their goodbyes on the Earth, Clive figured. He was lucky, back then his closest people worked here on Mars. This time he will have to endure another three months of flying to Earth, before he can see them.

The clanking of the waitering table distracted him. He ordered a spaghetti bolognese and a botle of red wine, and stared through the window at the dust devils. They were especially numerous during the Martian Fall.

“May I?”

Clive had missed the moment when the cafeteria filled up. Only a few scattered chairs remained empty, and three of them were at his table.
The man who asked the question towered above him, still waiting for a permission. He wore a blue jumpsuit, wrinkled from long hours in some narrow seat. His left hand held a brown paper bag with food, wisely bought from the dispenser near the entrance.

You can beg for the attention of the waitering table for a long time in this crowd. The man dragged behind a small wheeled suitcase, the kind that fits in the overhead luggage compartment.

“May I?” He repeated.
“Sure. Excuse me, I was thinking.”
“It is OK.” He dropped his body on the seat and stretched. “The lines at the customs were atrocious.”

Clive nodded, unsure if he wants to spend his remaining time here in idle chat. Sensing his indecision, the other man smiled encouragingly.

“How is the good old Earth?” Clive asked after all.
“Greener than ever, and still spinning.”
“Good to know.”
“Long time away?”

“Four months. I am with the UNGS.”
“What, some UN outfit?” The stranger looked mildly surprised.
“Yeap, same as the USGS, but international.”

The man looked like he had never heard the abbreviation.

“Same as the USGS but international.”
“I see. And what is the deal with the uniform?”
“We are militarized. Just in case.”

Clive’s meal finally arrived. He offered the man some wine.

“No, thanks. I am all set.” The guy tore the bag, placed the paper on the table, and smoothed it with his big hands. His meal included a veggy sandwich and a can of diet Coke. “Are you digging for oil?”

“The survey is doing a bit of that, but I personally look up, not down.”

The man made a puzzled face.

“I am with the Astronomy Division. We map the Maze.”
“I see. My name is Mack, by the way. I sell insurances.”

A Spiral in Leo
Photo: European Southern Observatory: A Spiral in Leo

Clive introduced himself, and they spend the next half an hour talking about the cramped Mars-Earth flights, the delayed orbital lift construction, and the weather. Mack crossed the Maze at least twice a year, and he was full of travel stories.

“The scary thing, my friend, is not that you remember the names of the flight attendants, but that they remember yours!”
“I don’t have to worry about that, with my long shifts I don’t spend enough time in-system.”
“Starting tomorrow, I won’t have to worry either.”
“Are you staying here only for a day? I thought you just arrived.”
“It is a stop over. I came through the Maze from Vereya an hour ago…”

“Never heard of it.”
“They discover new branches by the troves. But this is an old colony.”
“The Maze,” Clive opened his hands, “connected more than seventeen hundred billion worlds when I was leaving four months ago.”
“You can’t know them all,” Mack agreed. “I am scheduled to go to Tagora tomorrow in the morning.”

Clive shook his head, and the man quickly added that it was a new node with a small research station.

“You probably won’t sell many insurance polices on this trip.”
“I won’t be selling anything. I will do risk assessment. Apparently, the biohazard level on the planet is higher than usual, and the university that sent those poor sods is worried.”
“Aren’t you afraid yourself?”

“Nay, never-ever. I haven’t suffered as much as a broken toe nail, and I have been among the stars for twenty some years.”
“Seventeen, you mean,” Clive corrected him.
“Well, it will be twenty one in January,” the man insisted. “I am a veteran from the first flights.

The Maze was discovered nineteen years ago by unmanned NASA Mars rover. Clive was sure. For two years machines from various countries waged what was later known as the Rover War, before the humans finally landed on the red planet to take over the Maze exploration.

And to continue the war, until the true scale of the Maze became apparent, and people recognized how stupid it was to fight over hundreds of billions of planets if the total population of the Earth was orders of magnitude lower.

“Let me see,” Mack rolled his sleeve, stretched his hand and started to count on his fingers. “I was on the Mars Prime crew in twenty-thirty one…”
This guy should not be traveling the Maze, Clive decided, and pulled his backpack closer. The cylindrical contraption on the floor next to the table housed his telescope – a lightweight device with laser adaptive-optics unit, and the price tag of a small country villa in Tuscany. If something happened to the thing…

“Those were the days!” He cut in. “Cheers!”
“Cheers! Then, Robertson crossed the Maze in twenty…”
“Right. The Maze can take us anywhere, but it is good to be back, isn’t it? Well, at least back in the System.”
“There is no wine on any planet,” Mack sighted, “not even on the oldest colonies. Which is just as well, because the doctors put the breaks on the alcohol for me.”

“Nothing serious, I hope,” Clive said. His little diversion was succeeding.
“No, they said. But you can never be sure how much to believe them. And I want to live long enough to see some grandkids.”
“To the grandkids, then.”

“To the grandkids. What is in the bag? It has a strange shape.”
Clive didn’t expect his new companion would notice the quick move of the backpack.
“Tools of trade. A telescope. I go around the Maze to map the nodes.”

“I though the exploration teams do that. With particle beams and quantum pendulums.”
“Penduli. It is a Latin word. You are right, that is how they carry out the world line mapping of the outlets. But then, where is the planet with the node in three-dimensional space is an entirely different matter.”

“I just read about it.” Mack pulled out of his pocket a folded magazine. Its name had three words, Clive could only read the second, “euristics”. The last one started with “prog”.

“So you probably know already about the astronomical triangulation.”
“Yeap. Is it true that every node is in a different galaxy?”
“Yes, as far as we have managed to check. There is a puzzle, though – they are all grand design spirals, very much like our own. No ellipticals and no irregulars.”

“It says here,” he patted on the glossy cover, “that finding another node in the Milky Way or in the Magellanic Clouds will be a biggy. I wonder why, as if there are no more empty planets than people.”

“It is not about the territory,” Clive said, realizing that he sounds like a talking head form a TV show, but it was too late to stop now. “It is about the look at our own Galaxy that we will get. It will be from a different vintage point than the Solar system. I bet there will be a big base there, regardless of the biohazard level. Think of it as a chance to insure much more people going to a high risk place.”

“I am glad to see a man who understands how the things stand.” Mack smiled. “Not many people of your kind do.”
“What?” Clive put in the question all the frost he could master. “What is my kind?”

“Forgive my choice of words. I meet many scientists on my trips. You are usually hanged up on whatever you are researching: stars, bugs, e-e-e… whatever. You lose sight of the big picture, which is that your research works for other people. I’ve seen plenty of folks that want others to work for their research.”

“Thank you, I will take it as a compliment, I think.”
“You should,” Mack said, and downed his Coke. His eyes stared at the last drops of wine in Clive’s glass.
“And it is also to understand why.” said Clive. He knew he is reverting to his talking head frame of mind, but he couldn’t leave the issue hanging in midair.

Mack looked up.

“Why they build it.” Clive went on, and pointed at the corridor that led to the gates. “Why always on some barren rock in a system that contains an Earth-like planet, and not on the ‘Earth’ itself? Why all biospheres are derived from ours, but there are no humans anywhere? If we know where the Maze opens, we might even find out who build it.”
“You are talking like a scientist again.”

“I try to, because I am enthusiastic about what I do, even though it is astronomy at nineteen century level. Aren’t you enthusiastic about the insurances?”
“No, not about the insurances. I could be selling home appliances or ecologically friendly detergents. I am enthusiastic about the sell, though. The art of the job is to make people agree with you. It is a great challenge.”

“You know, once I met a guy selling processor fluids for mathematical computation. He told me he loves gadgets.”
“Search for him.” Mack finished his sandwich. “You will find that he is probably broke, and his business is taken over by someone who loves the sell. Same for the Maze – doesn’t matter who has built it or why. It is there, and we will use it. For selling insurances, among other things.”

Clive raised his shoulders and returned to his spaghetti. You can’t convince a true believer, who lives in his own world.
They both listened to the conversations of people at other tables for a while.

“Well, I’ve got to go.” Mack stand up. “If you ever need an insurance…” He reached for his belt. “Argh, my handy, they made me to leave it in the luggage. Here…” He reached for the magazine, but misjudged the distance. This happened to people who frequently moved from one planet to another, even small gravity changes confused the human vestibular apparatus. The magazine fell on the floor, and spilled a few inlaid pages with advertisements.

“Here,” repeated Mack, and took one, turned it around to see which side had more blank space, and wrote “Mack Fairchild Insurances. Earth”.
“This is enough, every search engine will find me in a blink.”

A Postcard from Extragalactic Space?
Photo: European Southern Observatory: A Postcard from Extragalactic Space?


After many more years of astronomical triangulation Clive happily reached the retirement age and left the UNGS. The Maze remained as mysterious as on the day when he had enlisted. Two months later the former surveyor was so fed up with the noise and the traffic of London, that he started to look for a small country house along the Southern coast.

It took him too long, and he paid too much, but eventually he found a quiet place, overlooking the ocean.

The house had to be insured, and Clive remembered the loony insurance agent he had come across on a stopover at the Martian Maze complex.
Mack had judged him right on that day, not trying to turn him into another customer on the spot. Frankly, Clive didn’t expect to find him still in business, not if the guy couldn’t keep in his head a few dates straight, and plainly lied about being part of the first manned flight to Mars.

The astronomer realized that on some subconscious level he wanted to get a satisfaction in the failure of that self-confident man, who thought that it was more important to love the sell than to love the things you were selling. It felt wrong to wish somebody ill, but Clive couldn’t help it.

The glossy paper was still stashed among the pages of his old travel notebook, and he run a search for “Mack Fairchild Insurances. Earth.” Nothing. Intrigued, he started another engine, tried a few permutations, and even allowed a fuzzy search.

Still nothing. Satisfied that the reality complied with his expectations, Clive threw the page towards the trash bin. It missed, and it flipped a few times over before falling on the floor. Its back was covered with an image of the Milky Way.

Intrigued, Clive picked the paper up. It was an interactive map of the Maze. Small miracle – the battery still worked after all these years, probably recharged from the light of the table lamp or from the warmth of his hands. It was a real map, with the spatial location of the Solar system in the Milky Way.

He zoomed in, the nearby stars weer there and they looked right. There was a touch pad at the bottom. The astronomer tried it. If flipped through the Maze nodes, and as it did, the Milky Way turned into something else. He tapped his finger again, and the strange galaxy went through another transformation. And again, and again.

The nodes always opened in spiral galaxies, as far as we knew. In different ones. Many different spiral galaxies. Or were they really different, Clive begun to wonder.

The pad had a search feature. It took him a while to remember the name of that old colony. Eventually it came back, and he typed it–Vereya. The map found it without a perceptible delay. What was the name of the other one… Ah, Tagora.

And hundreds of billion other nodes, about half of them previously unexplored, as he discovered after four hours of cross-checking Mack’s map against the latest Maze update at the UNGS. Finally, no search engine could find the tour agency that posted that add. It didn’t appear in any historic records, either.

There might be other humans on some of these planets, after all. But our paths rarely intersect in the infinite number of worlds, Clive realized. We live in different versions of the Universe. Except for the Solar systems, that always have a habitable “Earth”, and a Mars-like stony rock with a Maze node, they barely share a thing.

Clive suspected that this was a design feature, that the Maze builders had simply ignored all the versions of the Universe without “Earths” and “Marses”. Having nearly identical Solar systems didn’t guarantee that similarities extend forever. The further you go from the Sun, the more different the Milky Ways would become, until they look so much unlike ours, we take them for other galaxies.

Yet, sometimes the parallel universes must be so much alike, that you can share a table with someone from another world without realizing it.
Clive realized that he should wonder if every time he came back to his little studio in London, he had always returned to the same four walls, if every word in the thousands of books on his shelves was the same as before, and if the grandchildren that he kissed coming out of the gate were the same that saw him off when he had left.

He realized he should get in touch with his former colleagues from the UNGS, that he must choose carefully the words in which he would tell them the truth about the gates; yet, may be they knew it already and he, with his low security access level as a field worker may have been kept in the dark…

Instead, Clive though of Mack and his love for the sell.

Clive had a good reason – he used to work in the computer business before the university. He loved the gadgets, but he didn’t love the sell, and naturally enough his small business went down. Unlike many of his friends and co-workers who remained bitter for life, Clive was fortunate to discover something else he did love.

The End

Atanas P. Slavov - Alieni
Image: “Alieni” by Atanas P. Slavov – Co-Founder of the Club for Science Fiction and Heuristics “Ivan Efremov”

Valentin D. Ivanov
European Southern Observatory
Avenida Alonso de Cordova 3107
Vitacura, Casilla 19001
Santiago 19, CHILE
Phone: (+56 2) 463 3000
Fax: (+56 2) 463 3001

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