I had been trying to sell this story for a while now, but was not successful. There’s a bit of a catch-22 to selling a short story for the first time: without any feedback from editors and readers, there is no way for me to tell whether a rejection was because the story didn’t align with a publication’s interest at the time, or whether they didn’t think the story was very good. (And if it wasn’t very good…what it did wrong.)
This makes me sad, because I got lots of positive feedback from people who went to graduate school in a technical field. I think that maybe that’s the problem: the story appeals to too much of a niche crowd.
Anyway, here it is, the version of the story I most recently tried to sell. It’s about a young scientist presenting her findings at a research conference, and the unexpected reception she encounters there. It was inspired by some of my own experiences in grad school.
The numbers didn’t match up. Ceren Aydomi tapped her desk, frowning at the resonance spectra before her. The projections cast pale purple and green light over Ceren’s face, spilling down the front of her body and glinting from the polished glass surface of her desk. The peaks of each spectrum marched onward, rapidly deviating from her calculations. And the Three Hundred Seventy-Eighth Channel Interstice Studies Meeting was only two days away.
She sighed, covering her eyes with one hand, and hunched back. Her experiment packages sat on small devices positioned midway along six of the Channel wormholes and had been collecting data for the better part of a year. She had already managed to squeeze some publishable results out of the resonance dynamics, but if she could make her new theory match up with this data, she thought her tenure at the Republic Institute would be assured.
Ceren swept a hand over a gesture-plane. The spectra slid over in midair to make room for her calculations and a copy of Farok’s paper from CISM 374. Her handwriting shined in the space in front of her, annotating Farok and groping through interstitial algebra. Scratch-outs and strike-throughs glowed everywhere, but at the far right of the workspace Ceren had underlined, circled, boxed, and scribbled exclamation marks around one annotation to an equation; a new perturbation term on Farok’s fundamental expressions. She felt more confident than ever that her math was correct; this term should allow her to extrapolate resonance data to Channels beyond those equipped with her instruments, and on into the wider galactic wormhole transit network. But the spectra wouldn’t match her expressions, no matter how she ordered the processor to reduce the data. Ceren stared at the spectra, then at her algebra workspace, then at Farok’s paper, then back again.
“Plate 7 shows the behavior of these laws when applied to the data from Aydomi, Shef, and Crisped [27k476],” said Farok [27k477], referencing Ceren’s past work. “That work provides novel methods of resonance data collection and ingenious analyses that may be used as calibrations for Equation 36.”
Ceren had checked over the five-year-old paper Farok referenced, back from her early studies at the Great Fields Observatory, more times than she could count. Farok’s work indeed provided a solid framework for interpreting her data—and then Farok himself gave Ceren the basics of her new theory. If it would only work consistently, she thought to herself. Her algebra predicted all the resonance drifts in her 27k476 data, but not in all the spectra she had collected over the past year. A difference of five years should have been nothing at all to the Channel Network – the wormholes themselves defied any known dating methods, and their Anchor structures underwent periodic self-rejuvenation processes, but the whole system was at least forty thousand years old.
“Novel methods and ingenious analyses…” Embarrassed, Ceren wondered how often she had idled over that phrase – so in character for Farok to drop an occasional comment like that in the midst of his paper. She pictured a young professorial type, diligently bent over his desk and striving to inject his own style into a dry scientific publication.
Ceren sighed. She set her processor up to run through a few more analysis techniques overnight, but was not hopeful. She slashed her hand through the projections and they vanished. She stepped out the open door into the dim hallway, snicking the door shut behind her.
The next morning, Ceren came into the building earlier than usual. The light of Yama’s sunrise was still spilling in through the spacious Institute atrium as she walked up the stairs, satchel over her shoulder and a mug in one hand.
She was on her way to her office when she passed Krivo in the hall. He normally arrived at some abusively early hour. Sometimes she felt ashamed of her own work ethic when she saw him at odd times. “Hey, Cere,” he said, unnecessarily shortening her name.
“Morn, Kriv.” Ceren tried to walk past him, but he wasn’t finished yet.
“Did you hear that the transit company had some kind of maintenance issue?”
“Yeah, it was on this morning’s dispatch. I checked, and they’ve grounded their af-Yama fleet.”
Ceren looked around despairingly. “Have you told Magd?”
“I’ve been checking his office every couple minutes. He’s not in yet.”
An innocent, inquiring look came over Krivo’s face. “I don’t have Magd’s home reference. I was kind of hoping you did, but I couldn’t remember.”
Ceren started walking again. “You bastard, of course you could,” she said tolerantly. “I think I’ve got his ref somewhere in my desk. Come on.”
They proceeded around the gentle curve of the corridor; wide windows and potted plants on the outer wall, office doors and research posters on the inner. Krivo asked Ceren how her work was coming and she complained about the new spectra not fitting her theory. Sympathetic, Krivo asked why she couldn’t build time variance into her equations. Ceren launched into a discussion of how old the Channel Network was and the incredible minuteness of the probability that any change had occurred in the time her experiments had been active. She was in the middle of making a particularly vociferous point, involving lots of expansive gestures with her mug in hand, when they arrived at her office door.
“Anyway,” she said, “it’s unreasonable. Let’s get this transit thing done so I can go back to the spectra.”
Ceren opened the door and woke the desk processor. It projected the default display before her; a small winking indicator in the corner showed that the overnight analysis had not turned up anything new. “Here it is,” she said, poking at a corner of the desk. She looked at Krivo, who was prodding at some trinkets on her shelf, and spoke: “Hi Magd, it’s Ceren Aydomi. Krivo says there’s some problem with the transit company; we probably have to find someone else for passage to the Heliast conference center.” She tapped the desk again.
“See you,” said Krivo. He stepped sideways out the office door.
Ceren’s desk pinged.
“Ceren,” came the senior researcher’s voice, “will you talk to Uvalid in Department Travel and see if she can make the necessary arrangements? Thanks, Magd.”
“Aaahh,” groaned Ceren.
Ceren arrived with Krivo and Magd at the planetary port. They haggled at the ticket counter about their itinerary; Magd had to bluster a bit, but finally they boarded the shuttle, tossed their baggage in storage compartments, sat down, strapped in, and lifted off. Yama transitioned from surface to horizon to globe out their windows. Krivo gazed outward. Magd was asleep instantly. Ceren remained buried in the graphics her slate projected. It was connected to the processors in her office desk, with access to all her data and algorithms.
She had been going in circles the previous day and night, but still she could not use her new theory to account for the resonance spectra.
Finally, she thought back to her conversation with Krivo the morning before. It was a simple matter to identify the time-varying terms in her equations. Five years’ evolution in the Channel Network between her 27k476 resonance spectra and the present time; five years out of forty thousand or more. Well, she thought, I might as well give it a shot.
She retyped the terms, requested the fit again. A little “wait” symbol animated in the middle of her slate. It soon disappeared in favor of an analysis report.
The spectra fit her theoretical calculations. The error was less than a few hundredths of one percent.
Ceren was stymied. She looked over to Magd, almost shook the senior researcher awake, then thought better of it. He didn’t like to do anything but sleep on shuttles.
She showed Krivo. He handed the slate back, saying “good fits.” No comment on the obvious implications.
Feeling rebellious, Ceren said to herself: so what? I might as well stick my neck out a little. I can always just put this forward as an interesting solution to the data. But if this fit is correct….
What? She pulled up Farok’s paper. Did some scratch calculations with the fit parameters. If this was correct….
A new Channel Anchor must have opened.
Some more scratchwork, some extrapolations of the fitted data, and some other time-varying equations. The new Anchor would have to be somewhere in the Far Reaches. All her experiments were placed in Channels near the Republic Institute. Ceren just predicted a dramatic change in a Channel tens of thousands of light-years away from her resonance experiments!
Either this fit was a fluke, or her theory was more powerful than she could possibly have imagined. A new Channel could change the flow of galactic commerce.
Ceren accessed a few other papers by Farok and his colleagues, trying to work out the corroboration she needed before CISM 378 started the next day. Her presentation was on the second day of the conference, but she knew that she wouldn’t get much good work done after she arrived.
As Ceren pondered, she glanced out the shuttle window and caught sight of the Channel Anchor in orbit around Yama’s sun. These massive constructs, the preserved work of long-vanished Architects, held open the galaxywide transport and communication network that allowed cultural, political, and commercial links between planets and peoples. But though the Anchors served as the foundation of all Galactic civilizations, their workings were enigmatic—and so they remained objects of study for researchers like Ceren. She turned back to her work.
The shuttlecraft flared its engines and dove through the Anchor. The huge aperture of space encircled by the object shimmered and the shuttle vanished into the Channel wormhole.
Ceren gave the travel information to the receptionist on Heliast, who then assigned their rooms. She took the key and dragged her luggage to the lift, leaving Krivo and Magd to explore the resort and conference center.
Her room was spacious and open, draped with colorful fabric hangings and overlooking the clear turquoise ocean. It had a desk. Ceren threw her things onto the floor and dropped into the chair, waving the desk awake. She entered her Institute account number and synced in to her office processor. Information flew from a desk in the Republic Institute on Yama through space and Channels to a polished business-style desk in a one-bed resort room on Heliast Major.
I have it, Ceren thought. She ran a more careful calculation with the time-varying formulae: a new Anchor opening in the Far Reaches matched her data nicely. Now she had to integrate this result into her presentation.
Outside Ceren’s window, Heliast’s sun sank below the oceanic horizon. The ripples of the sea split its light into a billion fragments. The water lapped at a white beach with languid rushing sounds. As the sun set, fading light revealed convoluted red-purple emission nebulae, stretching from the horizon up to the zenith. Stars began to wink into visibility throughout the velvet reaches of the sky. A few wispy clouds obscured the spectacle, still painted in ruddy oranges from the now-invisible sun.
Ceren closed the blinds to free herself of distractions.
“…that’s only the first glaring error,” Ceren decided, swiping a hand through the air. Krivo walked next to her as they and a few dozen other attendees spilled out of a meeting room into the wide hall. A low buzz of conversation filled the air. “Grephor and Oewi did not formulate their expressions for such cases. Second, she showed a graphic indicating a correlation in the forcing modes…”
Krivo rolled his eyes and selected a snack from a serving station. Ceren was still complaining about the last presentation (not a great speaker, Krivo thought to himself, and yes, technically flawed material) when a man interrupted Ceren’s monologue from the other side of the serving station.
“I believe you may be critiquing that presentation a bit too harshly.” Ceren stopped and looked at the man. He was wearing a trim, high-collared tunic of deep purple with buttons up the right side; Ceren judged him to be a few years older than she – and attractive, in a studious, somber sort of way. “I have several issues with the derivation,” he continued, “but I believe Oewi’s later work with Jiladaben corrects the earlier theory to allow some room for interpretation. I have a copy of their 27k451 paper, if you would like.” He lifted a slate halfway out of his shirt pocket and let it fall back.
“I’m not familiar with that work,” said Ceren, dismissive.
“It’s fairly obscure,” conceded the other researcher. “Not many pay attention to Oewi’s work after his seminal paper with Grephor. Those familiar with his post-440 research hold divided opinions. He went down some odd avenues from time to time, but I think that sometimes he glimpsed something Grephor missed.”
Intrigued, Ceren decided to be more gracious to the stranger. She reached into her satchel and pulled forth her slate. “Well, you’ve got me curious. I’ll take a look at that paper.” As the man produced a projection of the file’s title page and waved it over to Ceren’s slate, she smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry—I worked late last night finishing up my own presentation. Some of my results are only a day old.”
He smiled back. “I know exactly what you mean. That’s how it is sometimes.”
The title page glowed in the air above Ceren’s slate. Some keywords in the abstract caught her eye. “Huh…”
“It makes interesting promises, doesn’t it? I’m not sure it delivers on all of them, but I wouldn’t discount Oewi without giving him a good read.”
Nodding, Ceren replaced the slate in her satchel. A soft tone murmured through the hall, calling attendees to the various conference sessions. The stranger cocked his head and said, “I apologize, but there’s a presentation that I simply cannot miss. I’m sure we’ll run into one another later; what was your name, again?”
“Ceren Aydomi, from the Republic Institute,” she answered. “And you?”
“Ah, Miss Aydomi! I very much enjoyed your recent work with Magd.” As he turned away, he stated, “I am Dellas Farok.”
Ceren saw Farok again across the terrace at lunch. He was munching a sandwich, slate propped on one knee, but he was looking out over the narrow beach to the ocean. She recognized his distinctive tunic and took her lunch basket over.
With her mind still considering what to say to this man whose work had been instrumental to her own, Ceren blurted out, “I collected some new data that only fits your equations with the introduction of time-varying terms.”
Farok set his slate on the table and placed his feet flat on the ground, facing her. “Now that is interesting. These are your mid-Channel collectors, from the paper with Magd?”
“Yes—I had no idea you knew about that!” Ceren realized how naïve her remark sounded the moment it escaped her lips; the paper had been published.
“Of course,” said Farok. “I must admit that I followed your papers closely after that one with Shef and Crisped. That data was invaluable.”
She managed to avoid blushing, imagining the misconceptions she held about Farok after reading his papers. His overly formal attitude was in keeping with the tone of his writing, she assured herself.
“I thought my work was rather narrowly focused,” she admitted. “I’m interested in your opinions.”
Farok touched the glassy surface of his slate. An aquamarine projection of a paper’s first page appeared horizontally in the air over the slate. He spun his hand in the air over the projection, and it rotated to face Ceren. She recognized Aydomi and Magd [27k480]. All around the manuscript, annotations glowed. The handwriting was neat and precise. Ceren noticed that the longer notes had a conversational tone, like that of colleagues meeting in a café.
“Your assumption here has some interesting implications…” he began, indicating one of the notes.
Their discussion ranged for an hour as other researchers milled about, entering and leaving sessions and holding impromptu meetings at the tables of hors d’oeuvres.
Finally, Farok rubbed his eyes with his fingertips and said, “Puzzling out the details of this data usually gives me much to think about.”
“I think,” replied Ceren, tapping her slate against the table, “that I agree with you, Mr. Farok. And you may call me ‘Ceren,’ if you like.”
“‘Dellas’ will do, as well.”
Ceren and Farok went their separate ways to different technical sessions; she had chosen Channel Anchor Internal Structures while he picked Interstice Mechanics and Energetics. Magd came into Internal Structures for a few presentations. While the presenter spoke from the center of the circular auditorium, strolling around the three-dimensional projection, Magd whispered with Ceren about her upcoming talk.
“What do you think of the time variance idea?” she asked.
A pause, filled by the drone of the speaker.
“If you present it as a possible fit to your data… I am skeptical, but you are correct; it improves the fit error. Maybe this accounts for temporal variation in your instruments?”
Magd ducked out before the session ended. The last speaker left Ceren puzzling over the internal workings of the Anchors. Few expeditions had successfully penetrated the relics; instead, most Galactic citizens took the links across light-years for granted.
Ceren walked through the scientist-filled resort halls, found a restaurant, and ordered a cheap meal to go. She took it back to her room and, crumbs spilling from wrappers, synced her slate up with her office processors on Yama again. She called up her presentation, and took herself through the images, spectra, and plots before falling into bed late at night.
She tossed the bedsheets about as she dreamed.
Ceren woke to the sounds of gentle surf outside and the insistent chiming of her slate, which was also projecting alternating colors about her in an effort to catch her attention. She squinted at the rising sun and made a groggy slurping noise. For a brief moment, she wondered how she got so twisted up in the sheets. With a lot of shaking and tugging, she extricated herself and waved grumpily at her slate to stop bothering her.
She fished in her luggage for the self-heating breakfast packs and cracked one open, leaving it on her desk while she stumbled into the bathroom. When she emerged, Ceren went straight to the desk, dug out the warm meal with one hand, and flipped through her presentation again. Every now and then she mumbled around a mouthful, gaze turned towards the ceiling, experimenting with new wording and trying to commit the best turns of phrase to memory.
Twenty minutes later, she was out of her room. She met Krivo almost immediately. “Hi, Cere,” he greeted brightly. “Good luck this morning, huh?”
“Thanks,” she acknowledged. “You, too. It’s too bad our sessions are simultaneous, I’d like to see the reception you get.”
They walked together to the lift and took it down to the main resort floor, where the first CISM attendees were meandering among service carts, taking the opportunity before sessions started to fill mugs with steaming liquids and hands with confections.
Krivo wished her luck again when he spotted his session chair and left to deal with the logistics of his presentation. Ceren waved to him. He would have no problems with his presentation, she thought: nothing controversial to say and a very thorough researcher.
She wandered through the service carts, picking up a pastry and warm mug of her own, heading toward the meeting room she had been assigned. A flicker of motion jolted her attention to Dellas Farok—the thickening crowd separated him from her, but she saw that he was waving a projection of the conference program from his slate. He pointed to the section for that morning and gave her an encouraging smile. Ceren cheerfully waved back.
Feeling much better, she reached the meeting room. This was the larger venue she visited the day before: circular, with tiers of chairs facing a central podium on which sat a hemispherical projector. The lights were dim now, but faint primary-colored radiance leaked out from a console at the projector and silhouetted the shape of a man. Ceren called to him.
“Ah, hello.” His tone was welcoming. He almost fit her imagined picture of Dellas from long ago. “Are you speaking here this morning?”
“Yes. Ceren Aydomi, on ‘Determination of—’”
“‘—High-Order Interstice Resonances from Primary Measurements.’ Excellent! I am looking forward to this one. Since you’re here early, would you mind syncing your slate with the projection system?”
She stepped forward and held her slate over the hemisphere, her presentation open. The projector recognized the file and synchronized. Ceren chose a chair in the first tier and sat, setting her satchel and mug on the floor and leaning back.
The other speakers for the session trickled in at first. But a few minutes before the session started the meeting room filled rapidly.
At precisely the scheduled time, the session chair stood. Beginning a slow, clockwise walk around the projector, he greeted the assembled, hushed crowd with the ceremonial session-opening words: “Well, it looks like it’s about time to start. I want to get things moving straightaway so that attendees have time to get to all the presentations they would like. Welcome to ‘Experimental Measurement of Channel Interstices.’ Our first speaker this morning will be Fe Icun Poramanuod of the Shaleh Memorial Observatory at Isis. He will tell us about ‘Viewpoint Dependence of Optical Distortion upon Channel Entrance and Exit.’ Please keep your presentation to twenty minutes, Researcher Poramanuod, and then we will have five to ten minutes of questions.”
Ceren sat straight-backed through the first presentation, sipping from her mug. She paid little attention to the speaker’s technical material, however, as she mentally reviewed her own. After twenty minutes, she applauded with the rest of the attendees, listened to the speaker field a few pointed and subtle questions, applauded again, and then moved to the edge of her seat. There was a brief hustle of movement as some researchers exited the meeting room and others entered to find places in the audience. Once again, the chair stood and moved to the projector.
“Next we have Researcher Ceren Aydomi, who has been working with Eathen Magd at the Republic Institute on Yama. She will be talking to us about some new results on high-order interstice resonances that she obtained from primary mode measurements. Researcher Aydomi?” He gave her a sweeping open-handed gesture.
Ceren stood, smoothed some wrinkles from her shirt, and stepped up to the central podium. “Thank you very much. I’m Ceren Aydomi, and my presentation title is ‘Experimental Determination of High-Order Interstice Resonances from Primary Measurements.’” She touched her slate; the first graphic of her presentation appeared in the empty central space of the auditorium. “I’d like to begin with a quick overview of developments in interstice resonance experiments from the last decade. The current state of the art in interstice data collection is the correlated cavity-mode, or CCM, diffractor…”
As she spoke, Ceren moved around the projection, giving even eye contact to the audience arrayed about the central podium. From time to time she moved ahead, or doubled back a bit, or stopped her incremental orbit to point out features of the projected graphics, equations, tables, and references.
“I’m sure you all know that, while we perceive passage through a Channel as instantaneous, in fact the Channel Anchors cannot collapse the distance between them to exactly zero. Thanks to Crisped’s pioneering work, we have the means to suspend CCM diffractors—or other instruments—at the geometric center of a Channel wormhole.
“A diffractor so located can measure the resonant modes of a hundreds-of-light-years-long Channel,” she continued. “In fact, Farouth’s famous field equations from 19k098 provide that the diffractor can pick up on the resonating modes of adjacent Channels—even Channels two- or three-times removed from the data collector.”
She displayed some of her raw data. “Here is an example of an interstice frequency spectrum.” She panned and rotated the plot to explain some of its particular features to the audience, and how Farok’s 27k477 paper was the best extant model for those features. She could see members of the audience nodding along with her explanation.
Now Ceren introduced her new spectra. She explained the most recent experiment; collecting data from several adjacent Channels over the course of a year. Then she showed the spectra evolving through time.
She took a deep breath, chose her words carefully.
“The modeling error becomes large for some of the more recent spectra. I have found that Farok’s equations fit this data with fraction-of-one-percent errors only if they are augmented with a few perturbation terms. Here,” she indicates the display, “and here. The perturbations are small, but…they vary with time. I propose these equations as an interesting model for this spectral data.
“One intriguing interpretation of this model is that the Channel Network structure has changed during the year when I collected this data. Specifically, the perturbations are consistent with the appearance of a new Channel Anchor at this galactic location.” Ceren showed a Standard Galactic Map with a labeled set of coordinates.
A few murmurs from the audience. Ceren could see some heads moving about in the dimness.
The bombshell dropped, Ceren went through some statistical analysis of her spectral model fits and discussed the probabilities of various alternative scenarios. The session chair caught her eye on her next circumnavigation of the projector and gave her a signal; Ceren careened through the remainder of this analysis to reach her concluding remarks. She thanked Magd and Krivo, acknowledged Shef and Crisped. She thanked the audience.
They replied with dutiful applause.
The chair hopped to his feet and called out, “Are there any questions for Miss Aydomi?” He raised the lights halfway, so that the audience was more visible.
There was a small pause, and then the chair turned to one side and indicated someone halfway to the far wall of the room. A gaunt woman stood. She asked, “Can you go back to that Galactic Map?” Ceren twiddled her slate, zooming the presentation backward. “I wonder if you considered applying the method of Tvost…”
Ceren nodded along with the technical question, and then launched into a brief discussion. She ad-libbed a few ideas. Satisfied, the researcher in the audience resumed her seat.
The chair pivoted on the ball of one foot and extended both arms towards a spot next to one of the radial aisles. “Yes, Curator Jumet!”
That was Vice Curator Witara Jumet, Ceren realized, of the Shobah Library Central Collections and Archives. While all the spacefaring races acknowledged that the ancient Architects possessed superior knowledge, and many studied the hulking Architect relics to advance their own scientific state of the art, the Librarians took this archaeological approach to the extreme. They maintained that the Architects made all possible discoveries about the physical Universe and that study of their artifacts was the most efficient way to recover them.
Ceren kept her face rigid, resisting an urge to roll her eyes, bite her lip, or display any of the other reactions she felt the Librarian deserved.
“Neither the Channel Network nor individual Channel Anchors have exhibited any changes in the past forty thousand years,” he started in, “except those wrought by foolish attempts to manipulate them. Natural events seem to have no effect on them; the observations of Delarin and Reoahl from 06k294”—the Curator stressed the first two digits of the date —“and the landmark 11k007 Humark et al. paper show this beyond doubt. The field of modern interstice resonance studies is approaching six thousand years of age and clearly recognizes the stability of the Channel Network.” Ceren wondered if he would be asking a question, but Curator Jumet had a point to make.
Finally, it came: “Since your models contravene thousands of years of established observation, do you suggest any possible mechanisms for alterations to the Channel Network? Have you any supporting research suggesting changes in the past?”
Ceren stood still for a moment, playing over possible responses. The silence stretched to become uncomfortable. She knew she must say something. She opened her mouth to reply. “No, I—”
Curator Jumet interrupted her. “No? After all, Researcher Aydomi, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. How can the interstice studies community accept your purported findings, or yourself as a thorough researcher, if you have no supporting information to suggest that the Channel Network could possibly change on such a small timescale?”
Some murmurs of assent came from around the room. The chair stood, graciously. “Excuse me, but I think perhaps—”
“That is quite all right.” The Librarian dusted off the front of his jacket and sat.
Now, under her professional attire, Ceren was shaking. Her slate slipped in her now-sweaty grip; she fumbled to keep it from falling to the floor.
The chair looked to Ceren; her composure must have been better than she believed, because he glanced back out at the filled auditorium and called, “We have time for one more—brief—question. Yes?”
Ceren had to take a step around the projector to see the audience member who stood up at the chair’s prompt. He came into view around the Galactic Map still hovering in the center of the room. It was Magd.
Oh, thank you, Magd! Ceren thought. Please put me on better footing.
“With regard to the time-varying perturbations to Farok’s expressions—did you check for time variances of the mid-interstice CCM diffractors to account for the perturbation?” he asked.
“I haven’t—” Ceren stuttered. “N-no.” She stood stock-still and mute.
“Okay,” said the session chair. “Let’s thank our speaker again.” The applause seemed perfunctory at best. “Next, we have a talk on….”
Ceren closed down her slate, picked up her satchel from beside her chair, and walked up the aisle and out as the lights dimmed for the next presenter’s projections.
Dellas Farok found Ceren Aydomi on the bare beach just outside the resort compound. She was sitting alone on the bleached sand. Her arms were wrapped around her knees as she stared over the placid ocean into the purpling evening sky. Her slate sat in the fine-grained sand next to her satchel, which was half-open and nearly spilling its contents.
She could not see Dellas behind her. He reached down to put his hand on her shoulder, hesitated, and withdrew. “Ceren?” he gently inquired.
She drew a shuddering breath and looked to either side, finally spotting Dellas just behind her. She looked away. Then she put her face in her hands, looked up again, and met his eyes. “What?” she asked, her voice a low whisper.
“Well, I—” he stopped. “I thought….”
“I don’t know if I want to hear what you think about me.”
He sighed. “Okay. Time to get your mind on something else. Let’s look at the tourist offerings around this place, hmm?”
Ceren gave him a little snort, but let Dellas take her arm and pull her to her feet. With one hand still on her elbow, he bent down, picked up her fallen slate, replaced it in the satchel, and shouldered the bag. Dellas started her walking down the beach, towards the resort’s dock platform.
There was a sign by the dock reading “CISM 378” in small letters, with “Tours start at Six” below that. Dellas led Ceren down the whitewashed deck planking towards a midsize floatcraft. It was an open-topped vehicle with pairs of seats running down its length on either side of a central aisle. He showed the attendant their conference attendee badges, and the attendant waved them on. Dellas walked down the aisle and chose a row in the middle of the vehicle, gesturing for Ceren to take the seat closest to the rail. Many of the seats were taken; a few other small groups of researchers from the conference percolated onto the floatcraft before the attendant closed the gate. The floatcraft glided away from the dock, coming up in a gentle climb until it had reached a few tens of meters altitude. The resort island slipped away behind them.
The tour guide explained how Heliast was an ancient world with a moon nearly half its own size, and how that had dominated the history of the planet to make it ideal for resort paradises. The moon orbited in tidal lockstep with one Heliast day, giving the world perpetually calm seas. The small radius of Heliast’s solar orbit left the planet with a reasonable day length, while the dimness of its sun placed it in the liquid-water zone. Without ocean tides, with a massive moon shielding the planet from asteroid impacts, and with barely any axial tilt to create seasons, there had been little geological diversity and little selective pressure on Heliast’s life forms. Life on the planet thus failed to diversify very much. Three or four avian species, eight or ten surface-level swimmers, two or three land animals, and about six land plants were all most tourists had the chance to interact with. The planet consisted of tame, tropical archipelagoes for visitors to enjoy.
Over the background of the tour, Dellas Farok talked to Ceren about anything that might keep her mind occupied. He commented on the dynamics of the Heliast system. He told her how his academic advisor at the Technical University of Geshabar habitually mixed up his first and last name. He pointed out the birds and fish visible from the floatcraft. Ceren stayed quiet, looking out to sea.
The floatcraft took the conference attendees on a wide, sweeping course around the resort island, with its flat beaches and clumps of deepest-green vegetation laden with chlorophyll to absorb the wan sunlight. The always-gentle sea breeze brushed over the researchers-turned-tourists and ruffled the ocean below into ranks of ripples. The setting sun, a wide orange orb in the sky, descended, its expansive disk taking a long time to disappear. The nebula came out in splendor.
As the floatcraft wheeled around for the return trip to the resort, colored lights winked on around the rails and soft music emanated from projectors. The attendant strolled down the aisle, offering complementary snacks and beverages for conference attendees. Dellas ordered cocktails for both of them. A moment later, the attendant handed him two glasses. He passed a tall, green-tinted glass with a garnish of spicy orange leaves to Ceren. She sniffed at it as Dellas took his first sip from a much more conservative clear glass.
“You know, I used to play Aped Avour quite a bit at the Technical University,” Dellas said, continuing a previous thought. “I wasn’t ranked, but I thought I played a decent game.”
“I had lessons for three years as a child,” said Ceren, breaking a long silence. “I think I lost my Avour table when I moved to Yama, though. The container just didn’t come through in shipping.” She took another sip of her cocktail. “I miss some of the things I had in that box.”
“Sometimes I am amazed at how the Architects left us these tremendous constructs, and we can find no other use for them but to find ways to lose packages and make instantaneous travel inconvenient.”
Ceren’s sudden laugh echoed out over the water.
They returned to the dock platform and disembarked. The attendant thanked them for coming.
“You haven’t eaten anything since this morning, have you?”
“No,” answered Ceren. Then, a note of surprise in her voice: “I’m starved!”
They meandered through the resort grounds, past stately square columns and across airy verandas, to the strip of restaurants and shops fronting the compound. Ceren pointed at a grille offering genuine Pelasite cuisine. They entered, found a booth, and ordered a round of appetizers before making a closer inspection of the menu.
Neither of them was familiar with Pelasite foods. Dellas picked something with ingredients he knew. Ceren found two items on the menu with nothing she could recognize and selected one randomly.
After the empty appetizer plates had been cleared and they were waiting for the main course, Ceren looked up at the ceiling and asked, “Why did they do it?”
Dellas sat calmly, sliding a utensil around on the tablecloth with one finger. He watched Ceren’s face warily.
“While I was sitting on the beach, I heard a group walking behind me. Someone said something like ‘she was suggesting that the Network has changed’ and something about the quality of research at the Institute.” She looked down, straight at him. “Why did they do it? Him especially. And Magd! He didn’t even…”
“I expect,” Dellas said in measured tones, “that they don’t like dramatic changes to a well-established theory.”
“But they are researchers. Scientists.”
Dellas shrugged. “Sometimes even the most compelling evidence doesn’t sway people. And…”
“…And I did not have the most compelling evidence,” she sighed. “That Librarian…”
“He did put rather a lot of stress on the millennial prefix of that one date, didn’t he?”
Their food arrived. The waiter placed wide plates before them, each with a narrow spire of dinner in the middle, asked if they would like anything else, and vanished.
“What do you think, Dellas?” Ceren demanded.
Dellas moved a morsel to his mouth. “I am…skeptical,” he admitted. “But I don’t dismiss your theory out of hand, especially not when you have such good agreement to the data. The question is why that theory fits so well.”
She sighed. “You really think this won’t hurt my career?”
“Yes,” he stated. “It’s just one conference presentation. You can refine this work substantially before you publish, if you choose to do so. Your tenure at the Institute will be decided based on the entire body of your work. I think you had the right idea in your presentation this morning: you have discovered a possible model to fit your data. Implications and evidence can come next. Or you might not pursue this idea further at all.”
“Are you sure you will be all right?”
“Yes. Thank you, Dellas.”
“My pleasure, of course.” He changed the subject: “We could play some Avour tomorrow, after the sessions, if you like. I have a table projection program on my slate.”
“I would like that,” she replied.
Dellas opened his mouth to say something, but let his breath out without any words. A moment later, they both looked down at their plates.
They ate. Both dishes were delicious.