To the Terran mind, the extent to which Thuriens went in "wiring" their cities and other environments with sensors to provide authentic inputs for their reality simulations seemed bafflingly elaborate. Even regions that were sparsely populated, or in cases not inhabited at all, were subject to broad surveillance by satellite and other means to enable plausible reconstructions of local scenes and conditions by interpolation. It seemed that the dictate of balancing cost against benefit that was the first consideration of every designer, project planner, and program manager on Earth played no part in whatever process the Thuriens applied in deciding what was to be done, and how. Either that, or the concepts of "cost" and "benefit" meant very different things from what they did on Earth.
Even the voids of space around planets and other habitats, and the regular traffic lanes within planetary systems, were monitored to a degree that would have struck Terrans as pointless. It meant, however, that a network of imaging pickups and other detectors likely to spot any unusual events was already distributed through the volume affected by the MP2 experiment. VISAR estimated from the probabilities that came out of its immense Multiverse computations that the chances of at least one intruder from a different reality appearing somewhere in that region of space were about even. The surveillance system was primed to be on the lookout accordingly.
It happened when MP2 was complete and being readied for the first attempts at transporting sizeable and more complex test objects. Hunt was in the tower at Quelsang, going over proposals that had been put forward for the kinds of objects that should be devised and in what progression, when VISAR came through to announce that the sensor scanning processor covering a region about a hundred thousand miles out on the far side of Thurien had reported anomalies consistent with the sudden appearance of something that shouldn't be there. A replay of the image captured by analyzers directed at the location showed what appeared to be some kind of instrument package: an open framework containing a conglomeration of devices, antennas, and other bits of engineering, the whole about the size of a regular upright chair. It sustained itself for just over eleven seconds, and then broke up. But not in the sense of coming to pieces; it more, just faded away--growing indistinct and then dissolving into nothing. It was exactly what the scientists had been hoping for. Without even bothering to convene together, they excitedly suspended whatever else they were doing in the various places they happened to be, to go over the information the detectors had recorded and see what could be made of it.
It was clearly Thurien in origin, although there had never been any doubt about that. Some of the devices were of clearly recognizable function, others more obscure. A number of optical and other imagers were identified, busily scanning the surroundings. One of the appendages suggested a Thurien gravitic transponder normally used for relaying into h-space, but with apparent modifications. A Thurien located somewhere inside Eesyan's department in the city speculated that it might be adapted for trans-M-space transmission: across the Multiverse, back to where it was from.
"The cluster at the left-hand end looks like an antenna array for the local planetary spectrum," another Thurien commented, this time in the Institute.
"The design is unfamiliar, but the dimensions check," VISAR agreed.
"Are my eyes playing tricks, or is that an UNSA emblem painted on the side--at about coordinates 1.2 and 3.7?" Sonnebrandt queried, across in the other building at Quelsang.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised. It's the kind of thing I can imagine Vic doing," Danchekker said. Hunt shot him a pained look across the two desks separating them.
"Let me see if I can enhance it," VISAR said. "It could be just a trick of the light."
VISAR also reported that a transmissions had been received across a number of standard Thurien communications signal bands. But they were garbled and defied all efforts to extract anything meaningful. Nevertheless, it was encouraging. A proof as bizarre as anything that could be asked for that project's immediate aims, at least, were realistic.
Most significant was that if the device was equipped to collect data from the place it arrived at. It followed that it had to possess also a means of sending its findings back to where it had come from. Otherwise, what would be the point of collecting anything? It implied that even at the stage the scientists were now at, they should be close to achieving the communication across the Multiverse that the original brief visit of Hunt's alter ego had demonstrated as being possible. The fact that the device had remained only for seconds indicated that although the versions of themselves who sent it seemed to have solved the problem of getting a transported object to stop, they were not yet able to stabilize it. Chien had already proposed a halting method that the Thurien experts agreed sounded promising, and so with luck they couldn't be very far behind.
The manner of dispersion when the device vanished was consistent with the idea of its being locked as a standing wave pattern that had lost coherence. VISAR was already analyzing the decay profile, from which it was hoped a lot more would be learned. From what could be ascertained at the present, it seemed to the scientists that they were on the right track. This boosted their confidence to push ahead even more vigorously with implementing a similar instrument package of their own, which they just happened to be working on. But given the strange nature of these parallel realms of existence, it probably wasn't such a strange coincidence really.
The first visit by an artefact from another universe, and the ensuing conversation between Hunt and an elsewhere-existing version of himself, had been announced publicly at Owen's retirement dinner a week before Hunt and the others' departure. With no precedent to compare with it in the whole of history, it could only be a godsend to the media and entertainment industries, the publishing world, and the entire spectrum of scientific debate from supermarket tabloids and chat shows to the proceedings of the most eminent institutions. News from Earth was that the whole subject of Multiverse physics and the implications of effectively unlimited "twin" realities had become the latest sensation to capture the popular imagination. The discovery of "Charlie" was old now; the subsequent speculations regarding the supposedly extinct race of Ganymeans, died when they showed up very much real and alive; and the more recently revealed computer-evolved world of the Ents was already starting to wear thin.
A British sitcom entitled "Sorry, That's the Universe Next-Door" was roaring up through the ratings, and a number of games had been rushed out in which players at different terminals hopped in and out of each other's realities. Old song titles that had inspired top-selling spoofs included "Welcome to my World," "Don't Blame Me," and "Out of Nowhere," while a remake of The Wizard of Oz was in the works with a time line warp replacing the tornado and providing the lead-up to the classic-line warp: "This isn't our Kansas, Toto."
Inevitably, the public was saturated with misconceptions which, once formed and launched into circulation, took on a life of their own through uncritical repetition and couldn't be laid to rest again. One of the most common was a revival of the old notion of the universe "splitting" at critical junctures, "critical" usually being taken to mean as judged from the standpoint of human affairs. That the fundamental processes of physics should be responsive to events in the day-to-day lives of cabbage-growers or kings was evidently no obstacle to the popularizers, some of whom didn't hesitate to embellish the notion with articles bearing such titles as "How Your Flip of a Coin Can Change the Universe," and even a book-length decision-making guide on how to get the better deals in life at the expense of other selves competing for them in other universes. And, of course, Multiverse phenomena in some form or other became the latest explanation for telepathy, telekinesis, psychic visions, visitations, ghosts, and the basis for a new interpretation of UFOs, various"triangle" mysteries of interchangeable geography, and the list of usual suspects from the JFK assassination all the way back to the builders of the pyramids.
Hunt remained serenely detached from it all with a mixture of amusement and despair . . . until VISAR put through a call from Caldwell's secretary, Mitzi, at Goddard, saying that someone from a company from California had been in touch, who wanted to offer Hunt a part in a movie.
"You're kidding," was Hunt's hardly original reaction when she delivered the message.
"Yeah, as if I don't have anything better to do than make practical joke calls to busy scientists at other star systems. He's serious--as serious as anyone out in the Granola farm gets, anyway. His name's Arty Strang. From Premier Production Studios."
"PPS? . . . Are you sure this isn't a joke?"
"It's not even April one, Vic."
"Hm. Okay. What kind of movie is he talking about?"
"How would I know? The only way you'll find out is to call him and ask."
"I guess so. . . ." Hunt realized that he was stalling for time while he tried to organize his thoughts more coherently. "Oh yes, and while were at it, do you know anything about a Lieutenant Polk of the FBI?"
"Yes. He was trying to get hold of you too. How did you find out about him?"
"He tried calling me here. How did he get the access codes?"
"Well, they are the FBI."
"So it wasn't you, then?"
"No. We just told him you were out of town. Gregg figured you had better things to do too."
"Any idea what it was about?"
"Do you remember giving an investment tip for Formaflex in Texas to that neighbor of yours out at Redfern Canyons?"
"Jerry Santello? Yes, right. What about it?"
"You got it from the other version of you who showed up here, right?"
"That's right. Jerry had been bugging me about investments for a while. I thought it might keep him happy. So? . . ."
"Well, it seems your other self was privy to information that's still not for general consumption yet in this universe we live in. Like, illegal? That's what Polk was on about. He wants to know where you got it from."
Hunt stared at the window in his visual field that Mitzi was speaking from. "That's it? We're on the verge of opening up new universes on a scale that would make colonizing all the galaxies look like camping in your own back yard, and he wants to talk about shopkeeper economics and bookkeeping?"
"I told you Gregg figured you'd have better things to do."
"Gregg never fails us. Look, if you hear more from this guy, which I've a feeling you will, hold him off until I've thought of how to handle it, would you?"
"Will do. How's everything else there? Has cousin Mildred driven Chris nuts yet?"
"Pretty good. We had another object materialize. I've sent through a report. Actually, you'd be surprised. Mildred is turning out to be a great hit with the Thuriens. She's possibly the best ambassador we could have picked to send. Chris doesn't quite believe it either. But he isn't complaining."
"Wow! Sounds fascinating. I can't wait for you to tell me all about it. But right now I have to go. I'll watch out for your name on the Oscar list."
"Don't hold your breath. Talk to you again soon, Mitzi. Say hi to Gregg. Take care."
Hunt leaned back in his chair and stared for a minute or two at the wall screen, which was showing some results of VISAR's decoherence analyses superposed on a background of an alien undersea scene somewhere. Danchekker, who had been at his desk earlier, had gone out of the office while Hunt was talking, leaving him on his own for the moment. On impulse, he activated VISAR again.
"Do you have a number for Arty Strang at Premier Productions?"
"What's the time there?"
"Almost three in the afternoon, Tuesday."
"See if you can raise him for me, would you?"
Perhaps what they had in mind was some kind of science documentary, Hunt reflected. Hosting something like that would be appealingly different from the regular workaday routine, he had to admit. Even if he did say so himself, he thought he could do a much better job than many of the overrated celebrity names whose efforts he had witnessed. And given some say in the content and presentation--which his position in UNSA would surely give him some leverage to negotiate--it could go a long way toward correcting some of the deluge of nonsense that the world had been drowning in.
A window appeared, framing the upper view of a heavy-set man in his mid-to-late thirties, perhaps, with a pink complexion and collar-length blond hair, wearing a bright yellow jacket with a red shirt collar turned over the lapel, and sunglasses. Hunt shifted his field of view to bring the wall around as background. "Dr. Hunt!" The face creased into a rubbery smile.
"My office at Goddard says you were trying to contact me."
"That's right." Strang's image peered out questioningly for a moment. "Just to make sure I've got this straight. Right now, as we speak, your talking to me from some other star out there, that right?"
"The Thuriens' home star, twenty light-years away," Hunt confirmed.
"Unbelievable! You know, they used to tell us that could never happen. I never believed it. They said that about too many things, and now they happen every day and nobody even notices. But it was all there in the old movies from way back. Did you ever see one called Starward Imperative? Kevin Bayland at his best, before he went into all the weirdo stuff. That was where Martha Earle first got noticed."
"I can't say I did. . . ." Hunt waited for a moment, then hazarded, "I, ah, was told you had some kind of proposition in mind."
"This is you, I suppose? Not one of these doubles of yours that comes zipping in and out of other universes or whatever?"
"What? . . . "Hunt brought a hand up to his brow. How did one handle this kind of thing? "I'm not sure I--"
The pudgy features contorted into a grin again. "Just a joke. But it's more than a joke really. That's what we want to make the movie about."
"You! Your story. I mean, come on, don't you know you're a big name these days? Regular on the shows; pieces in all the mags. And all to do with the kind of stuff that everybody's interested in and kids are wild about: The mummy on the Moon; real starships and aliens; people inside a computer. And now this latest! . . . It's a natural that's screaming out to be made. It beats me why nobody's done it yet. It'll be the blockbuster of years."
"Well, that's an interesting thought, I suppose. . . ."
"Trust me. I know the business. It's got all the potential. But to really make it fly, we're gonna give that something-extra zip, know what I mean? We want you in it, playing yourself."
Hunt shook his head as if to clear it. Strang raised a hand in the manner of forestalling an interruption.
"We've got the angles figured. Some of those Jev lines about our guys having all that military out there at Ganymede when the Ganymeans show up are dynamite. And it's already put together. All we have to do is weave it in." He was talking about the faked surveillance accounts that the Jevlenese had fed to the Thuriens. This was already getting insane. "We've got a couple of writers working on some action scenes that make them into great paranoids to begin with--but only until they come around to realizing that we're only defending ourselves and underneath it Earth guys are really okay. Then the act comes together. It needs more sex too. We want to give you a real dazzler as a partner, to work in some good hot scenes. Somebody like Kelly Heyne, maybe. Does that sound good? She plays Danchekker. We make it a female role. The balance is perfect, and the opportunities for--"
Hunt shook his head. "No. I'm flattered and all that, but I don't think it's my kind of line."
Strang showed both palms in a conciliatory gesture."Okay, well I kinda figured that might be the case. But we'd still be interested in having you on board as an advisory consultant. I mean, we want to make sure we get everything right, right?"
Hunt almost choked. "Really. . . . Thanks again, but I do have more than enough to do here as it is."
"What kind of money do they pay you?" Strang inquired.
"Enough to get by."
"Whatever it is, we'll double it."
"You don't seem to understand, I don't need it. I wouldn't have the time to make use of it," Hunt said.
Strang had to stop and think about that one. His script evidently didn't allow for such a possibility. "What do you mean? How can anyone not need it?" he asked finally. "It's what it's all about, isn't it?"
"Is it? What what's all about?"
Strang seemed momentarily at a loss, as if he were being asked to explain the obvious. He made a face and threw up his hands briefly. "Everything. . . . The works. The ball of wax. I mean, it's the thing that get's you what you want, right?"
"No, Arty, you've got it backward. The only use it has is for buying junk I don't need. Not having to waste time making it gets me what I want."
"I don't getcha. What kind of sense is that supposed to make?"
Hunt made as if to reply, then changed his mind and shook his head wearily. "Forget it," he replied. "It could be just being out here for a while. Maybe I'm starting to think like an alien."