“Chancellor, it’s Zend, at the University. One of your research students. I think you should come and see something.”
The voice on the other end of the line was groggy. The Chancellor didn’t bother to keep the irritation from his voice. “Are you aware what hour it is, Zend?”
“Sorry, yes, it’s late, I know. Or I mean early, depending on how you look at it.”
“Have we inadvertently fabricated another black hole in Astrophysics? Has the Bio lab released a pathogen capable of eliminating all known life in the galaxy? Because if it’s anything less than either of those things I’m not going to be pleased, Zend. Not at all.”
“It’s … it’s nothing like that, Chancellor. Something rather more … philosophical has cropped up.”
“Philosophical! At this time in the morning?”
“Yes, Chancellor, I’m sorry, it’s just … it’s The Experiment.”
“Which experiment? There are hundreds of experiments. What are you talking about?”
“The Experiment. You know, the big globe in the faculty lobby. The Experiment.”
There was, finally, a pause from the other end as the Chancellor grasped what Zend was talking about. His voice was noticeably more shaky as he replied. “Are you saying something has happened after all this time?”
“There are lights on it. Flickering electric lights. I don’t know what they mean but they look like alarms. They’re flashing in a way that suggests … urgency.”
“What colour are these lights?”
“Red. Is that bad, Chancellor? They look bad.”
“I have no idea! The Experiment hasn’t done anything for a hundred years. No one has any clue what flashing lights mean. No one knew it even had flashing lights.”
“There’s also a sort of mechanical buzzing sound, like a clockwork alarm bell ringing.”
“I’m coming in, Zend. Tell nobody else and keep the doors locked until I arrive. No one else is to know about this, understood?”
Within the hour, four of them stood in a circle around the shining, ten metre sphere that had dominated GalTech’s lobby for as long as anyone could remember. Normally the high hall echoed with a thousand conversations, with footfall and skitter and slither. Now it was filled only by an eerie, echoey silence. Zend could see his own distorted reflection in the coppery surface of the orb above him. It gave off its familiar smells of oil and grease and steam. The red lights continued to flicker in rings.
The orb was a remarkable device, a feat of early metaphysical engineering, although the jets of steam that occasionally whooshed out of it always alarmed Zend. There were plenty more advanced micro-universes these days, but the huffing, rumbling original fascinated him. He’d been studying it for two years, topping it up with water and oil, tapping it, peering into it. Partly because no one else in the University seemed interested.
Next to him stood the Chancellor, the Archdean herself, and also Professor Overarch, GalTech’s Head Philosopher, called in especially for the crisis.
“Are you sure it isn’t merely a malfunction?” asked the Archdean. She was, Zend knew, a historian by training. She could probably drone on for hours about the significance of the Experiment to the development of galactic scientific culture, the breakthroughs it had heralded. She probably had little idea how it worked.
Which, to be fair, was probably true for most of them.
“Let me show you,” said Zend.
A movable flight of five wooden steps gave access to the various spy holes and scopes distributed around the sphere. Zend wheeled the steps into place so that the aged and somewhat shaky Archdean could ascend to peer through one of devices.
Her voice was muffled by her billowing sleeve as she adjusted the tiny focus wheels. “It looks the same as ever. The same tiny blue planet, the oceans, the clouds. Remarkable, truly. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was. The life forms on it survive?”
“Try adjusting the focal length and you’ll see,” called up Zend. “That scope is positioned very precisely but you’ll need to use maximum magnification.”
There came a series of muffled sounds as the Archdean battled with the controls on the unfamiliar contraption. “Ah. Yes. Of course. Um. Ah! My word, I see now. There’s definitely … something.”
“You can see a tall stone tower? There’s a man on top, yes? Peering into a contraption? It’s night so it’s hard to see but the man has little candles by his books. I’ll brighten the moon a notch for extra illumination and send a few fireballs across the sky.”
“Yes, I see him! So tiny and sweet!”
“The beings are, of course, only small with reference to our frame of existence,” said the Chancellor, doing his best to sound like he knew what he was talking about. “If we could ask them, they would think they were the same size as us. In the same way that their time appears to move normally to them but from our perspective…”
The Archdean ignored her Chancellor, as she so often did. “That device the little man is looking at. It’s almost like … like a telescope.” Her face reappeared from the folds of her voluminous gown, eyes wide in an expression of astonishment. “He was looking upwards at me! Could he see me? Have they worked out the truth after all this time?” She looked genuinely alarmed, wobbling slightly on top of the little flight of steps.
The Chancellor’s grey, thinning fur bristled. “No need to worry yourself. They’ve made a remarkable invention, but it’s still crude; they can only see what they’ve always been able to see. The stars as tiny points of light, the sphere slowly rotating. The planets and moon and sun projected across it. Everything is under perfect control. In many ways this is a triumph for GalTech. Not only did our forebears create the first viable micro-universe, but now the life forms evolving there have shown glimmerings of genuine intelligence.”
Professor Overarch shook her head, horned brow wrinkled with anxiety. She was the youngest professor in GalTech, her skin still a delicate, spring-bud green. “It should never have been allowed to get this far. We should have terminated the Experiment when the first single-celled creatures appeared.”
“As I recall,” said the Chancellor, “it was your faculty that argued against that proposition, claiming the absolute right to life even if you happened to exist on a manufactured planet housed within a steam-powered brass sphere.”
Professor Overarch’s eyes narrowed very, very slightly. “Philosophy has moved on a lot since then. Destruction of a monocellular life form is surely morally preferable to wiping out a complex and intelligent species.”
“Is it?” asked the Archdean. “You must explain the thinking to me. Some other time. The issue we have now is what are we going to do?”
“Why do we have to do anything?” said the Chancellor. “Everything is … contained.”
“But for how long?” said Zend, finally speaking up. “Don’t you see? Not so long ago the beings in there were sharpening stones to kill each other more effectively. Suddenly they’re building telescopes and staring into the night sky wondering about the nature of reality. And that’s not all.”
The Archdean looked suspicious, as if, somehow, all this was Zend’s fault. “What do you mean that’s not all?”
“It’s not just telescopes,” said Zend. “It’s microscopes, too.”
“Well, yes,” said the Chancellor. “Very similar mechanisms. That’s hardly a surprise.”
“But they’ll see,” said Zend. “They’ll see the gaps and the flaws. All the details that were left out two hundred years ago. The beings were never supposed to get to this point of technological development.”
“Wait, gaps?” said the Archdean, peering down at them all. “Flaws?”
“I’ve studied the Experiment in great detail,” said Zend. “Our forebears didn’t … fill in all the details of the physics of the universe when they built it. They didn’t think it would be worth going to so much trouble. The Experiment was rather, well, cobbled together. Once the beings’ lenses are a little better they’ll see that the stars are tiny lights on a perfect black dome. They’ll see that the sun is a small but bright yellow circle. Through their microscopes they’ll see that everything is made of tiny dots of stuff but that no one has worked out what the dots are made of. The beings will realise they live in a fabricated – a rather poorly fabricated – universe.”
The Archdean’s voice was sly. “So, why, exactly should that matter? I mean, who’s to know?”
“They also have these writers and inventors with big ideas of building spaceships,” said Zend. “I’ve seen them. Give them time and they’ll succeed, I know they will. They’ll blast off into space and puncture the black sphere and they’ll be here.”
The Archdean studied Zend for a moment as she absorbed his words. “The effect on the reputation of GalTech would be terrible. An escape like that would contravene all galactic statutes. People would laugh. We have to do something.”
“We could just, you know, quietly switch the machine off,” said the Chancellor.
The rest of them looked at him, not speaking. “What?” he said. “I’m just saying, who’d know?”
“Well, they would,” said Professor Overarch. “The beings in there.”
“No they wouldn’t. Their whole universe would have just stopped.”
“No, it’s unthinkable,” said the Archdean. “We have a clear duty of care to any universes we construct. There must be another way.”
In the silence that followed, Zend cleared his throat and spoke again. “Erm.”
“What is it?” asked the Chancellor, once again not bothering to keep his irritation in check.
“Well, it’s just, I have been sort of fooling around with plans for an expanded version of this micro-universe. Thinking we might need it one day, sort of thing. It’s still not infinite, but it’s a lot larger.”
“Ah,” said the Archdean. “An expanded universe? Now that sounds splendid.”
“I haven’t finished some of the trickier calculations,” Zend continued. “I’ve got a problem with missing matter at the macro level and some of the subatomic particle interactions are frankly a bit hazy. Plus I haven’t yet worked out a way to reconcile quantum effects with gravitational…”
The Archdean waved these reservations away with a dismissive pincer. “But it will work?”
“Well, it’s a mock-up. I’ve had to limit the speed of light to make everything hang together and the transferral process might be a bit bumpy. But it should function for now.”
“Excellent!” said the Archdean. “Then let’s do that. We’ll transfer the beings over and they’ll never know the difference.”
The Archdean, Chancellor and Professor prepared to leave, nods of congratulation passing between them.
“But eventually we’ll be back to square one,” objected Zend. “The beings in there will notice the new flaws, the things that don’t make sense.”
The Archdean reached the bottom of the stairs and smoothed down her gowns. “And how long will that take?”
“Centuries in their terms. A lot less for us, obviously.”
“Well, then,” said the Chancellor, “that’s all fine. We can go back to bed and worry about the Experiment in the morning. Or next week. Or some other time.”
The three filed out, laughing together, leaving Zend alone with the warm, gently humming sphere.
Frowning, he climbed the steps and peered through the scope the Archdean had used.
It was day down on the planet now, but the man with the telescope was there again, staring upwards to the sky. He had some sort of sketchbook in his hand. Fitting a stronger eyepiece, Zend could just discern that the man’s eyes were narrowed, his expression puzzled. After a moment he began to urgently scribble something in his tiny book.
Zend swallowed and looked away. Sooner or later there was going to be trouble with these beings. He couldn’t contain them forever, even in version two of their universe. They’d work out the truth and then they’d break free, out into real reality. Demanding answers and, quite possibly, angry at being imprisoned for so long.
And when that happened no one at all was going to be safe.