“Uh... yeah?” he asked in confusion. “Yes, that’s me,” he corrected himself when he remembered he’d been taken to see the boss. Was this really him?
“Come in then, come in,” the older man said as he ushered Lachlan in. Looking at the man in the doorway, Lachlan thought of a cross between his grandfather and a librarian or museum caretaker – he had kind eyes, greying hair, and wore very respectable, if old-fashioned, clothes. He probably wasn’t old enough to be Lachlan’s grandfather, but he certainly didn’t look young. “We’ve been waiting for you, you know.”
“Uh, yeah, sorry about that. The trip took longer than I thought it would.” Lachlan had originally replied to his invite saying he’d be there within the week. However, he hadn’t realised just how far away the planet was, despite being told in the message that it was “a remote outpost, quite out of the way” for security purposes.
“We expected as much. We were honestly surprised when we received your message; we thought perhaps that you had perfected a new propulsion system or some such.” The older man guided Lachlan to a seat in front of a panel of 3 other people and an empty chair.
“I am James Ruther, by the way,” he went on, taking his own seat. “I run the facility. These are my Heads of Departments: Rachel Neil, Head of Research,” a polite smile and nod; “Jenny Kay, Head of Engineering,” a playful smile and flick upwards of the head; “and Robert Felds, Head of Computing,” a small smile, duck of the head, and a subtle wave.
“It’s nice to meet you all. I’m guessing that you all know that I’m Lachlan Hunt, ideasman extraordinaire,” he said with a laugh; his default professional introduction, “but… I’m still not sure where I fit into all of this. The message you sent me wasn’t really all that heavy on the details, and the couple of files I read about this place in my quarters upstairs didn’t exactly help. And I mean no offense by this, but… you guys all seem a little too old to believe in magic. That is what this place is, isn’t it? A big… magic… thing?”
“Forgive us for the brevity of the message, but this outpost is not common knowledge amongst the people of the worlds, and it is wished by many that this should remain the case. Also, I doubt you would have believed us if we had requested your expertise for our Big Magic Thing, as you called it.” There was a quiet smile beneath James’ words that Lachlan liked.
“No, you’re probably right. But… what are you going to tell me now to make me stay? The Big Magic Thing by itself is intriguing, well it would be if I believed it, but… that’s just it; I don’t really.”
“Joe didn’t show you his stick?” Jenny asked. Her grin told Lachlan that the innuendo was more than intended.
“We told Joseph to take the cane with him to… ease you into everything.” James explained. “We didn’t think you’d believe it, per se, just be interested by it. You did see it in action, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, you could say that. He turned my luggage into a circus act and walked it off my ship. Then he almost moved my ship with it.”
“Hun, he could make the earth move for you with that stick of his”
“Jennifer!” Rachel whispered, blushing quite madly, while Robert sniggered quietly. Lachlan’s reaction fell somewhere between the two – it was a nervous sort of laugh to cover his embarrassment. “The walking cane may be one of our more powerful and better understood artefacts, but I don’t think he’d have been able to move your ship with it,” she reassured him. “At least not without help.”
“To get us back on track,” James interrupted, “the cane was merely to get you interested. It is one of many artefacts we have stored here. In fact, that was this outpost’s original purpose – to house dangerous objects, as deemed by the government, which were found on Earth or any other planet that was encountered. Some of those objects were pieces of equipment that were based on scientific understandings and abilities far beyond our own. Others were less straightforward.
“Throughout history there have been rumours and stories of magical artefacts, each giving their user particular abilities or qualities; this much I’m sure you know; we all heard stories growing up, after all. However, some of these artefacts are, as it turns out, real. While they appear to be magical on the surface, studies carried out here over the years have given us some insight into their workings, which now seem to be based more in obscure, complex sciences than magic. Still, as they say, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so, to make things easier, that’s what we call it – magic.
“Now, as Rachel said, Joseph probably wouldn’t have been able to move your ship without help. Rachel? Would you like to explain what you meant by that?”
“Sure,” she answered, smoothing out a couple of nonexistent wrinkles in her lab coat and sitting slightly straighter in her chair. Lachlan was pretty sure things were about to get interesting, in a geekishly technical sort of way. “As Mr Ruther said, despite the title ‘magical artefacts’, they do work on a level that we, as scientists, can understand and manipulate. Each artefact appears to have some quantity of unidentifiable particles within its structure that don’t belong in this universe. We aren’t sure how they came to be, but given that the particles are not on the surface of each artefact, we are relatively certain that the particles were present in the component materials prior to construction. Now, have you ever heard of string theory, My Hunt?”
“Uh, yes, I have. I get the feeling I don’t know it well enough for what’s coming next, but I have heard of it.”
“That’s ok; I’ll dumb it down for you.” If she hadn’t said it with such a sweet smile, Lachlan would have thought she was having a go at him; apparently, though, the Head of Research had a sense of humour. “Simply put, the particles of our universe vibrate at a specific set of frequencies; each element vibrates at its own frequency that is both unique to and constant within our universe. The stray particles within our artefacts, however, vibrate according to a completely different set of frequencies, with completely different timbre. It’s like the difference between a group of violins playing an extremely high E chord, and a bass tuba playing an extremely low E sharp – they’re both musical instruments, but they really don’t interact ‘properly’. The stray particles are most like the tuba – overpowering and harmonically upsetting. Because their particles vibrate at such a conflicting frequency, they have… shall we say interesting affects on the particles of our universe.”
“Ok… so a bass tuba made my luggage walk… interesting.”
“Not quite, but…”
“No, no, it’s ok; it was just a joke. I think I get it; it just seems so weird… You really don’t know how the particles were created?”
“No, unfortunately. From what we’ve been able to discern, the particles seem to be leftovers from a previous universe, but we can’t figure out why their resonance wasn’t altered like the rest of the particles in our universe. Thankfully, though, for our work here, we don’t need to know why they exist, just how they work.”
“And how we can make money out of it” Jennifer interrupted. From the look on her face, Lachlan could tell she wasn’t happy about it; she looked like she thought the others had sold out.
“That was merely to get the funding required to build the engine, Jenny, you know that.” James’ response was tired; this was clearly an old discussion. “Funding that your team required more than any other, I might point out.”
“We could have done it differently, though,” she countered obstinately. James looked like he didn’t want to keep fighting, so he sat back in his chair and sighed.
After a pause, Rachel started back in. “Anyway, as Miss Kay said, the promise of commercially viable by-products from our research was necessary to receive the extra funding from the government required to do that research. Basically, we sold out, but for a good cause. That’s where Miss Kay’s team comes in…”
Rachel was clearly trying to pass the explanation over to Jenny, but she was still in her mood, so she wasn’t taking. Rachel kept going herself.
“Ok… uh, once we got a certain way through our research, we theorised that we could turn the artefacts into a power source; the particles vibrate at a different frequency, and as they interact with our own universe’s particles, there is a sort of friction that occurs which puts out the energy required for the feats they perform. We thought we could harness that energy for ourselves, but it turns out they tend to need an activating energy – a user – otherwise the friction energy dissipates before it reaches its peak. There have been a few cases where artefacts have activated seemingly of their own accord, but they’re rare occurrences. But I’m straying off topic. Basically, if we’d wanted to use the artefacts as a power source, we’d have had to have had someone holding and concentrating on one of them all day and all night. That was not going to happen, so we put that idea on hold until we could come up with a way to circumvent that requirement.
“One of my scientists then had the idea of redirecting energy from one or more artefacts to boost another artefact, with the intention of creating a super artefact; not only would it be more powerful, but it could have a wider effect range, be more precise, or possibly even gain extra abilities. So Jenny’s team set out to build a device that would channel the energies of one artefact into another. Because of the vast number of artefact combinations that were available to us, there were many tests to be performed, and the outcomes of our tests were rather wide-ranging. The most important piece of information we learnt from those tests was that the effects of the artefacts could be combined to better their performance. So the next step was to combine more artefacts.”
“And that’s what the… sorry, you called it an engine? That’s what the engine does? It combines artefacts and augments their abilities?”
“Basically? Yes.” Jenny answered. “Rach will tell you it’s a lot more complicated than that, but it’d be boring as hell, so let’s move on.
“Rob here” and there was a slap on his back that woke him out of his bored stupor “designed and developed the interface for the engine, which is freakin’ awesome. I won’t spoil the surprise, but don’t worry; you’ll get to see it in all its splendour soon, if you take the job. That’s actually what you’re here for – we want you to run the engine from the inside, sort of pilot the thing.”
“Pilot? You mean that dome flies?!” Lachlan was mixed with equal parts horror, terrified excitement, and nervous awe. The awe was more inspired by fear, the way one fears their deity’s mighty wrath, than it was by the beauty of the mental image he had conjured – the white dome whizzing through the sky, then space, at break-neck speeds, Lachlan losing control, smashing into a moon or a planet (or a sun) and releasing a system-destroying shockwave of magical energy.
Not that he believed magic existed, yet, but the bright colours of the fiery end that visited the eight planets he had envisioned were, in a way, pretty.
“No, the dome room does not fly, Mr Hunt” James reassured him. “It may cause other things to spontaneously levitate and wander off, but it itself does not.”
“Not yet, anyway.” Jenny’s addition to James’ comforting did not help to calm Lachlan down. In fact, the slight pout on Jenny’s lip only made him feel worse; she clearly meant to get the dome in the air before long.
“We are getting sidetracked once again by your doings, Jenny” James chided and Jenny turned her face down sheepishly. “But you are right; the offer we are extending to you, Mr Hunt, is for the role of User. To begin with, you would be in the dome room on the surface, with one of Robert’s teams guiding you from a workstation down here; you will learn the interface. You will also learn your tools – the artefacts; each has a different use, and a different character, that you will need to come to terms with and eventually master. Once you are familiar with the systems, we will begin the next stage of our testing. We haven’t been able to use the engine as of yet, so from then on we will be learning together.”
“Right. Well, I have to admit: I am intrigued, and I don’t think I can pass this sort of opportunity up. But… I do have one question, still. From what I saw in the halls on my way down here, you guys seem to have a pretty full staff, and every one of them has to know what’s going on here at least to some extent – information like what you’ve been telling me doesn’t just stop at the door; in a place like this, there’s always gossip. So… I guess I have to ask: why not one of them? Why me?”
“No one else felt comfortable after the last User died in the big seat.”