Silk purse, Sow's ear

Dr.Moreno massaged his temples for the fifth time that evening. “Computer,” he said, “begin conductivity test A3 again.” The computer chimed in response. While he waited for the test to begin, he glanced at the clock. 9pm. Again. He knew Maggie wouldn’t be thrilled with him. Again. If they didn’t get some success out of this soon, though, the Syndicate was threatening to pull the plug on the whole Perpetuum project. Lots of potential, they said. Limitless energy, they said... but we need some kind of progress, or we’ll have to abandon it as a lost cause, they said. Wasting a lot of personnel and resources, they said.


Somewhere, thousands of light years away - Moreno had never bothered to find out exactly, didn’t matter - on New Virginia, a massive energy transmitter was warming up.


A huge blast of energy would be leaping skyward, somewhere, unimaginably far away.


“DAMN!” snarled Moreno, slamming his hand down on the desk. That was the best shot they’d had in awhile. He pressed a key. “Vlad,” he sighed, “Let’s bag it for the night. Put the Termis back into TMA and we’ll have another go at it tomorrow.”

“Da,” was the response from his tired assistant.

Moreno trudged home. Six decks of corrugated steel and three ladderways later, he palmed open the door to his apartment with his wife, who had been none too thrilled to move to Perpetuum Station to begin with. They’d given her a job there, what with her qualifications, but still, Perpetuum Station was no Earth. Lights were off. Bad sign. He kept them dim as he moved across the space, pulled a caltube from the closet, and ate it in the semi-dark, thinking.

He fell into bed to receive the far-from-warm reception he expected. Maggie was awake.

“Sometimes I wonder why we married at all,” snapped his wife. “You’re more married to your work than me.”

Moreno closed his eyes and reopened them, staring at a ceiling he couldn’t see. “I don’t like it either, Mags. There aren’t many jobs for molecular construction on Earth now with the overcrowding. There’s just no room left to build. It was this or back to unemployment.”

“I should have stayed with my parents,” she snapped back.

Moreno rolled over and tried to go to sleep.

The next morning Moreno tried to explain. “Sweetheart,” he said, “the problem is we’re trying to do something that’s never been done before. We’re also trying to do it under a deadline. Energy transmission isn’t hard - we’ve been doing that for decades. The problem is that we don’t have the materials we use on Earth over there. We’re having to discover the properties of all the compounds we’re finding, all the molecular compositions. There are elements on Nia we don’t even HAVE here in Sol System. Trying to find the right combinations to build both the transmission laser, receiver satellites, and do it when we can’t even lay hands on things ourselves-”

“Not being able to touch it yourself shouldn’t matter. You know that,” Maggie interrupted. There were distinct disadvantages to being married to a Projection Psychologist. “Stop trying to think of the robot as a distinct entity and envision it as a part of yourself. The sensor banks on any bot - nevermind the advanced ones you’re using - are more than sufficient to imitate basic human sense needs.”

No getting through to her.

An hour later, Moreno was back in the lab and, with a sigh, started flipping through his messages. They were getting more ominous. Used to be that the director asked him how he was doing, or how things were with Maggie, maybe have dinner some time. A small part of every email was chat. Then the Director started asking if he could give any kind of deadline or timetable for some improvements, and only the signoff was friendly. Then Director Brennenburg started laying out clear deadlines and goalpoints he needed to achieve to keep things running smoothly. No friendliness there at all. Now Director John Brennenburg, PHD - MolPhys, was contacting him, making it clear that both his job and the progress of the project were in the balance. Unfortunately, and what was left unsaid, is that a lot more was hanging in the balance as well. While the military researchers were making breakthroughs with Nian weaponry and that was all fine and good, the Syndicate was ultimately only embarking on Project Perpetuum - and the breathtaking costs involved - to find an energy source capable of fueling Earth’s (and the rest of Sol System’s) needs. Well, yes, there was an amazing amount of potential energy resources sitting on Nia. Yes, if we could get them through the wormhole, those resources could fuel humanity for ages to come. The problem was that the Syndicate Council was becoming less and less convinced it could be done. The compounds on Nia just didn’t act like the ones on Earth. No one could have predicted that. Unfortunately, though, the end result was simple: no energy transmission and the project would be shut down.

A shut down project meant Mike Moreno, PHD or not, went back on the wait lists - and jobs in his realm were not forthcoming. With the cost of living skyrocketing, the consequences didn’t bear thinking about. Moreno was pretty sure if that happened, only one person would be going back to live with Maggie’s parents.

Happy thought in mind, Moreno plugged into SyncOS and his own Termis directly. Hated the damn things. He was a human, and wanted to feel and see and smell the world as a human did. Nothing to smell on the station anyhow. Just recirculated air with the tang of disinfectants. As his view finished shifting, Moreno “looked” around their science bunker. The mineral jockeys had been busy overnight, and the bays were stocked with all the usual raw materials and commodities in quantities to make most industrialists blush; he had more espitium and “alligator,” as they called it, on hand than most folks had titanium. Scanning over the manifest, Moreno noticed something odd - there were a bunch of small unprocessed mineral deposits simply listed as “Miscellaneous.”

Moreno frowned. Miscellaneous? What lazy Earth-drafted, computer-gamer-turned-space-hero wrote that in? Some of the “geniuses” he had to work with, Moreno thought, were anything but. Moreno mentally thumbed the tab open.

Dyrepriton ..... 7 U.
H2DT ........... 4 U.
Imentid ........ 12 U.
Stermid ........ 2 U.

Dyrepriton? What was this stuff? “Vlad,” he sounded from the Termis. Ugh. It came out sounding more like a mechanical scream of pain than a name from the old Soviet nation, when it still existed. Trying to use a robot’s sound emitters was something he’d never mastered. “Done any testing on this random junk they brought in?”

“No, I have not. What do you think?” Vlad’s voice came through far more clearly. “There is enough of this Stermid to make a decent synth of an emitter array.”

“Let’s have a go at it, then.” Moreno settled in to work. The compound was rigid, like espitium, but lacked the cleavage problems that espitium suffered to cross-sectional stress. Maybe I could use this to reinforce the conduit on the gathering coils, Moreno mused....

Three hours later, they were set to go. Moreno violated at least a half-dozen safety regulations and logged out of his Termis, still sitting beside the transmission cannon in New Virginia. He didn’t trust the thing’s sensor arrays, and wanted the clean telemetry from his office on the station. He spoke the words he was so sick of saying once more:

“Computer. Conductivity test A3, begin.” The chime sounded.

Idly, Moreno poked at the construction hat in his office. It was sent to him Earthside as a joke - a remnant of older times, when construction workers and construction engineers were actually in danger at construction sites, where things could actually fall on them. Moreno shuddered at the thought. His kind of talent should never be put at risk. He kept the hat as a memento of the friends he’d left on Earth, though. Moreno frowned. If he didn’t get this solved pretty soon, a job wearing that kind of hat would be all he’d ever get again. “Director John Brennanburg, PHD-MolPhys” had given a pretty clear warning about that this morning.


Moreno thought about what Maggie had said and logged back into the Termis. Technically, he could pipe the data in to its displays easily enough, and it would make the mindhacks happy to see him “fitting into established parameters.”


Moreno’s resolution cleared just in time to watch the beam roar skyward, seen for kilometers in all directions. It was funny - here it looked like the stabbing finger of an angry, buried god, blasting upward with enough power to shatter anything in its way, but by the time it reached the prototype receiver satellite, it was hardly a trickle that could barely muss the shields on one of the Arkhe training bots he could see scuttling by. Stupid botjockeys.


Or in other words, no change at all. Stermid was worthless. He slapped the emitter array out of the housing in a fury, watching it crash to the ground. Two of the couplings fractured when they hit, scattering across the ramp. “Great,” he snarled, “now we won’t even be able to recycle it properly.” Vlad pointedly remained silent.

As they gathered the pieces, Moreno flipped the Termis’s scanners on to see what could possibly be salvaged. He immediately noticed something odd: the parts of the array that had been exposed to beam were strikingly linear in their crystalline structure.

“Vlad, do you think we’ve got enough here to reform the Stermid into the actual transmission crystals?” Moreno transmitted.

“We do,” came the reply, “but to what end? The alligor crystals work fine.”

“Just make it happen. I’m wondering if these exposed Stermid crystals will pass the energy through more cleanly. If the energy itself transmits on a more structured wavelength, it should give the beam a lot more sustaining power on the way up.”

Vlad trundled his Termis off to Truhold-Markson’s Alpha terminal. Moreno spent the time mentally composing his letter of resignation; if this last effort didn’t work, it was a fair bet he’d be asked to submit one. Still, the exposed edges of those Stermid crystals had been perfectly aligned, and that should cut down significantly on crossed energy streams, which any bush scientist knew was bad....

To whom it may concern:
You gave me an impossible task of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This is Nia, not Earth. Don’t expect miracles out of the next guy, either. I quit.
- Mike Moreno, PHD

Of course he couldn’t write it that way, but it was satisfying to imagine it. His radar showed Vlad returning to the transmitter, no doubt with the new crystals in hand. Moreno waited. He wondered what Maggie was doing now, and if she really would leave him. It was tough to say if she’d keep her job as a Projection Psychologist if he had to resign. It was tougher to say if she’d keep him.

“Here, Dr.Moreno, the crystals, as you asked - I had to pull the rest of the Stermid from the bin; the calibrations required to make these were unusually demanding,” Vlad placed the Stermid crystals into their disposable can they’d been using.

With a few snaps, Moreno slotted the crystals into the older-style, espitium-based phase arrays. They looked pretty much as he imagined; the Termis confirmed that the crystalline structure inside the housings was perfectly linear. Moreno mused for a moment as to what might cause that - you never saw this in an Earth mineral.

Figuring he was saying it for the last time, Moreno spoke the words, “Computer, begin conductivity test A3.”


To whom it may concern...


The beam leaped skyward once more, no doubt drawing botjockeys’ eyes for miles. There was a whine this time that cut off abruptly after a few seconds, just as the beam ended. Probably a failure in the new crystals. Figures. Well, at least he was consistent in failing.

I am writing to inform you that...


Moreno’s eyes widened. He stared at the numbers. Quickly, he reset the calculation for the last transmission and ran it again.


Seventy-four percent was still probably not good enough for a permanent solution, but it was more than sufficient for early operations and a staggeringly large leap in efficiency from where they had been before. Moreno rolled up and looked into the transmission array. The Stermid crystals were blackened and fractured in several places - almost certainly useless. Probably the source of the noise he’d heard, Moreno mused. The crystals would have to be replaced after each transmission if he couldn’t make improvements, but Stermid crystals could be had in sufficient quantity, if you paid enough. Yes. This could be made to work. A lot more refinement would be required, and this prototype transmitter had some distance to go yet, but energy could be taken from the surface of Nia and - mind-boggling as it was - be returned to Earth. Mankind now had a confirmed, realized, and significant reason to make every effort to take and hold Nia.

The floodgates were opened.

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