It may seem an odd thing to say for a committee that has met off and on for some eight billion years, but our main problem has always been a matter of time. It is not that we haven’t had enough time or that we’ve had too much, it’s just time itself. We, and I think I speak for the whole of the Committee here, have never really got the hang of it. For those of us who existed (and even that tepid verb isn’t quite right) before the Big Bang, time just doesn’t come naturally.
We had trouble adjusting to the other dimensions, those of space, to be sure. However, space, when you get down to it, is much more straightforward. One needs only to crack one’s head a few times on the pointy corner of the cupboard door above the kitchen sink, to get the generally gist of how the dimensions of space work. The big trick to space is to move through it without banging your head into anything.
Time was radically different from space, but it took us a long while to find that out. My first glimmer of just how different time was, came soon after I found myself pregnant. I say, ‘found myself pregnant’, because that was exactly how it was. These days, even a randy tree shrew or an armadillo seems to find the point of the sex act to be perfectly obvious, but it was not so apparent to us. We had been convulsed into an expanding universe with its four befuddling dimensions where time and space had simply not existed before. Nothing was obvious to us. Sex appeared as one of the few pleasing diversions of this new universe, a sort of token compensation for all the other indignities and hardships we were obliged to suffer. That it led to children was not at all clear, not to anyone. Had you asked me before that time, I would have said a person was just as likely to get pregnant from kicking a soccer ball around with a friend.
Nonetheless, I was thrilled at the prospect of motherhood and it did, for a while, seem delightful. Later on, things changed, of course. Some fifteen years or so after the birth of this wonderful creation, I found myself the parent of a morose, unreasonable, sulky being who spent his days moping, indulging in unpredictable mood swings and treating his father and I as if we were the two greatest and most embarrassing idiots in the universe. ‘Who needs this?’ I recall thinking at the time. I wanted out. Just as I had learned that you can duck your head under that open cupboard door above the sink, I decided that I would just move away, move to a different time where I was not the mother of this unpleasant pimply thing.
It was then that I got the first inkling of just how different time was from space. I could move around as much as I wanted, but there wasn’t anywhere where I was not the mother of that child. Get yourself lost in space, you can retrace your path, re-find your original location and set out anew on a different and better route. But you couldn’t, I discovered, retrace your steps in time. I couldn’t go back to that fateful evening of conception and propose instead that, after we had finished the chardonnay, we go outside with a soccer ball instead. Time moved only one direction like a relentless but slow railway train and I was stuck on it. It didn’t matter how far I travelled into the infinite universe, I was still the mother of that adolescent brat and part of me would always be thinking that I ought to be back home at that very instant telling him to shape up, not to slouch, and asking him to pick up after himself for a change.
The universe, it turned out, was simply not all it had been cracked up to be. We had all been skewered somehow by time’s arrow. It wasn’t what we had bargained for.
But what exactly had we bargained for? It is no wonder we were six billion years before we got the investigation together. We were inexperienced, we couldn’t be anything else. There had never been anything to experience before. Bear in mind also, that the incredible photon show that started the whole thing was absolutely dazzling, literally stunning. It was several billennium before we got our breath back and several more before I ever heard anyone criticise the Big Bang for what it actually was: a hollow fireworks display. When we did finally get our bearings back, we began to notice the structural flaws that pervaded this universe into which we had been plunked. Not only had we bought a pig in a poke, but we’d somehow ended up inside the poke ourselves.
Still, that light show was really something else, I’ll say that. You had to be there to understand. Of course, part of it was the novelty of it all. It was the first time any of us had been anywhere. In some ways, it was the early heady optimism of that grand photon flush that later on made it so much easier for our Committee to root out those responsible for the mess. In those, our greener days, everyone thought the Bang or ‘The Enlightenment’ as it was originally called, was an impressive achievement. The triumvirate of David Nepo, Titus Tallyberg and Joe Horvath was quite prepared back then to take all the credit for the splendour of the universe. Later, when the universe was exposed to be the disaster that it is, they were to adopt a different tune.
Despite the aeons I’ve had battling it out with them on the Committee hearing floor, I don’t dislike Nepo and Tallyberg. They are both staggeringly vain men, though very much different in temperament. Nepo fancies himself a visionary, an inspirer of others, the ‘ideas man’ of the universe and is often irritated by detail. He always gave the impression the Committee hearings were a nuisance, as if they were preventing him from moving on to his next, even greater mega-project. Aloof, untouchable, I think he mistakes his single-mindedness for genius. Tallyberg by contrast saw himself as the architect, the man who ‘designed’ the universe. To this day, he has never admitted responsibility for a single one of the flaws of our space-time fiasco. When pressed, he vaguely hints of others tampering with his ‘perfect’ designs, but he has never once provided any proof of such tampering or named any suspected party. Despite their egos, which in the end required a whole universe to contain, they are not particularly unlikeable men. They simply should not have been in charge of such an important project.
Horvath, on the other hand, and I’ll say this openly, is dangerous; a frighteningly ruthless and capable person with no conscience to hold him back in anything he does. This isn’t just my opinion. When informants insisted that they would meet me only behind obscure derelict quasars or in the distorted warped space around some forgotten neutron star, it was Horvath they were worried about. Joseph Horvath was an unlikely third to the two dreamers. He was a doer, a real nuts and bolts guy. “The Fixer”, they called him. And he was prepared to ‘fix’ anything and, as we found out, anyone.
I don’t want to exaggerate my role in the investigation. Admittedly, I had a hand in many of the revelations that rocked the Committee hearings, but that was only because people chose to tell me things. I attract informants. I don’t know why. Without them, I wouldn’t have been much of an investigator. Lena Tempobroth was the heart of our prosecution team. She was the one to grasp the subtleties and implications of the testimony and she was the one who guided the ever-broadening scope of our investigation.
People forget that, originally, we weren’t set up as an investigative committee. We had simply called a public information meeting. All of us were having difficulties coping with the universe. We were holding a meeting to allow citizens to put questions to Nepo and Tallyberg. People wanted to find out more about just what it was, what kind of universe, we were in. Horvath, as was usual in those days, was in the background, out of the limelight.
If there was one day since the origin of time that Nepo and Tallyberg would like to have over again, I bet it would be the day of that information meeting. But there is no going back with time, as we all know. Those two were so out of touch that they had no idea of the strength of feeling that had built against the universe and the troubles people were having coping with it. They were unprepared for what happened that day. Tallyberg, opened by reading a speech many had already heard before. It was little more than a lyrical eulogy of the perfection of the universe, the magnificent nature of creation.
No one in the audience had come to hear poetry. The universe had been expanding for six billion years and it was becoming more and more difficult to get around in it as each thing in the universe raced further and further away from its neighbouring thing. It’s true some little bits had coalesced into galaxies and what not, but overall, the universe was getting to be a damned awkward place. Some at the meeting that day were recommending abandoning whole sections of the universe so we could cluster together in one small region. “Where will all this end?” asked one exasperated questioner. “When do you plan to stop this insane expansion?”
I wasn’t so experienced with Tallyberg and Nepo back then and I hadn’t yet learned to read their expressions. Both appeared composed. Tallyberg did most of the talking. He was lecturing us, his tone academic, about several possibilities, a universe that was “infinite and bounded” or a universe that was “infinite and open” and a third possibility, I think tossed in to placate the audience, of a universe where the expansion would eventually stop and then reverse. His talk had an elusive, condescending quality to it and it was difficult to understand precisely what he was saying. Fortunately, I was sitting next to Lena Tempobroth. At one point, she turned to me, a look of incredulity on her face. “He doesn’t know,” she said. “He doesn’t know!” “He doesn’t know what?” I asked. “He doesn’t know whether this universe of his is going to keep expanding or not,” she hissed back. “He supposedly designed the bloody thing and he doesn’t know how it works!”
For some reason, I was the one who got to my feet. I think possibly Lena was simply too taken aback. I didn’t put a question. “You don’t know,” I stated, interrupting Tallyberg’s monologue. “The pair of you,” I declared indicating David Nepo beside him, “are unable to tell this forum whether the universe will go on like this forever or not. You have no idea! Your ‘Enlightenment’,” I paused, I admit with some dramatic effect, “is nothing more than a Big Bang that blew up in your faces!”
“You have no idea!” was the headline in the papers and there I was and there were David Nepo and Titus Tallyberg, looking, for the first time, not quite so self-satisfied. It was a picture that was to appear again and again over the next eight billion years. The ‘Big Bang’, a phrase I recall just coming out of my mouth, was a bit of derisive inspiration. The term was gleefully adopted by the media. I don’t think Titus Tallyberg, as architect of the universe, ever forgave me for the invention of that demeaning term.
To have accused them of incompetence in such a public forum had been an uncalculated move. It was difficult to predict how the public would react. To some, Nepo, Tallyberg and even Horvath were sacred cows. The three were people normally deferred to, not challenged. No one was used to seeing them roughly handled. To others, the idea that the three founders of the universe were such monumental bunglers, was, justifiably, rather disconcerting. It stood to reason that if the designers of the universe didn’t know what they had been doing, we were likely in a fine mess. Others though, had already realized that we were in a fine mess. It was from them the clamour came for an official public enquiry.
Our Committee did not form without opposition. The main thrust against holding the official investigation at all was a bit of legal obstruction thrown up by the hand of Joe Horvath. Nepo and Tallyberg had not yet realized just how much trouble they were in. Horvath began his campaign to cover up the scandal the moment the first demands for a public enquiry started. The argument put forward ran roughly that no one could be held accountable for the creation of the universe. Whatever we were before the beginning of time and space, we had been it together, one in an infinitely dense dimensionless point. If the universe was a mess, we were all guilty, all responsible. No one could judge anyone else about it. That interpretation found a certain despondent resonance in those pessimistic times. Many accepted the reasoning.
That argument however, had obvious flaws, not least of which was Nepo and Tallyberg’s public basking in presumed glory during the early days of the universe when they had been prepared to take credit for everything. Not knowing how the winds had changed, they came to the first hearings decked out in the very medals they had issued themselves for ‘Excellence in Creation’. Such was the identification each man had with the Big Bang that I think both were relieved when Horvath’s machinations failed to stop the Committee getting off the ground. They would rather have gone on trial than have the ‘credit’ for the Enlightenment taken away from them.
Horvath’s argument failed for another reason. Prior to it all, we may have been unified in that infinitely dense point where even identity could not exist—but the Bang had shattered that forever. When we hurtled into existence in that rush of photons, we also hurtled apart. As we separated, it became apparent that we were now different; that Nepo, Tallyberg and Horvath were the parts of that former unity that were responsible for having engineered the Big Bang; that Lina Tempobroth was a part that had been opposed to the whole idea, and that I was a part that was an ‘hack, guttersnipe muckraker’ as Horvath was later to call me. It was their own fault. If any of them had had the faintest idea of what they had actually been doing, maybe the symmetry of the universe wouldn’t have smashed to bits some 10(-34) seconds into the show.
The first full battle that played itself out in the Committee hearings was the ‘State of the Universe’ question. Was it ‘Bounded and Infinite’ or ‘Unbounded and Infinite’? Would gravity slow the expansion and cause a later Big Crunch, reverting us to our earlier dimensionless point? Or would the Big Bang go on forever, rushing the particles senselessly into infinity?
When pressed, Tallyberg admitted that he did not know, but he soon claimed that this was deliberate. The gravitational forces in the universe, he argued, had to be delicately balanced near the point between the Bounded/Unbounded barrier. Too little gravity and the explosion of the Big Bang would be too violent, too fast for anything ever to form. Too much, he said, and the Bang would collapse back into a Big Crunch too quickly. He had struck just the right balance to allow us a universe with both “elbow room and leisure time.”
This was utter sophistry. He was making a virtue of calamity. The ‘Too Much Gravity’ scenario was exactly what he had originally promised us. The universe was supposed to have been a brief bubble that would have inflated and deflated and given us a risk-free taste of the dimensions of space-time. Now, after either accidentally or deliberately botching the vital calculations, he was pretending before the Committee that a universe where we didn’t even know where we stood and might be stuck in forever, was a desired and masterful stroke on his part.
So Tallyberg pretended, but behind the scenes it was a different story. Their legal help (for they soon realized they needed lawyers and needed them fast) had scores of researchers working round the clock trying to find the answer to the question. So did our side for that matter. It was, as all things are, a race against time. In the backrooms of the Committee in those days, you could stumble over someone trying vainly to weigh neutrinos or others pouring over gravitational charts of super-clusters and often not even knowing whose side they were on. It was all very exciting, but the answer was still not forthcoming.
Then I got the call. It was the first time we had spoken. Could I meet behind a certain quasar at a certain time? Quasars, thank goodness, were nearly finished. They had cropped up in the early history of the universe and seemed to serve the same purpose as your neighbour who plays the radio too loudly, only this neighbour had an unlimited number of radios all tuned to different stations. It was as inconvenient a place to meet as I could imagine. I didn’t fully realize how deliberate that was.
I arrived late. As I’ve said, I’m no good with time. He was already waiting and appeared tense. “I thought something had happened to you,” was all he said at first. I asked what he wanted and he obviously had been giving the matter much deliberation. He laid out the ground rules for our relationship. We would arrange a system to contact each other when necessary. He would feed me information that our side could use. He would answer questions but wasn’t going to say anything if he thought it could be traced back to him. I, of course, would never reveal who he was, not to anyone, not even Lena Tempobroth, the head of the Committee.
It all struck me as odd, but I agreed. He had arranged this first meeting it seemed, to give me advice. “Forget about the Bounded/Unbounded question,” he told me. This surprised me as the Committee considered that a vital issue. “What went on was much bigger than one stuffed-up calculation. There is more than incompetence involved. There is corruption—on a staggering scale. You don’t have any idea of how bad it is in there.”
I very surprised at his vehemence. “What are you telling me?” I remember asking.
He laughed, a soft snort. “I’m not telling you anything.” He appeared to consider his next words very carefully. “Ask them about the mass,” he said at last.
“What about the mass?”
“Just ask them.”
We left separately as he had stipulated. Before he left though, he offered me one more piece of advice. “Get yourself a bodyguard,” were his last words to me that day.
When I got back, Lena and Dag Morphee, her research assistant, were poised over some gravitational charts plotting the rates of de-acceleration of a small group of galaxies. I could tell they had not been making progress. I waited for a suitable lull and soon got one. “What do you think about the mass?” I asked.
Lena looked up, surprised. I’d never before shown much interest or ability in the scientific side of things. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Maybe we shouldn’t concentrate so much on the gravity,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t be asked to elaborate. “Maybe we should look at the mass.”
Lena merely scoffed but a week later, Dag was back in my office, a furious Lena Tempobroth at his side. “Who put you onto this,” Lena demanded. I tried to act innocent but it was no use pretending I’d reasoned the matter out. Still, I didn’t reveal my source. I merely told Lena that I had one. Dag had looked into my suggestion very thoroughly. His research into it led him to an astounding find, so astounding he’d checked his figures several dozen times before feeling confident enough to show them to anyone.
The galaxies and everything else were slowing down. Everyone knew that. The rate at which they were slowing down was the contentious issue as it would reveal the fate of the universe down the road. Since this rate of de-acceleration was being caused by gravity, and gravity is directly related to mass, it was therefore possible to know the mass of the entire universe. There was no problem with this approach. What had caused Dag to recheck his work so often was when he compared the calculated mass of the universe to the observed mass of the universe, it didn’t match up. “A few percentage points different,” Dag said, “I would accept as calculation mistakes, but this . . .”
Lena prepared for battle. I thought at the time that her tactics were unusual. I would have gone right at Tallyberg. Instead, she unveiled Dag’s findings while interrogating Gaussfield, a minor official connected with Tallyberg’s department. Gaussfield was a timid, worried man and the exchange between the two started on a tense note, but Lena appeared at pains to put the man at his ease. First, she sounded him out on what the mass of the universe was and Gaussfield came up with an orthodox figure, very close to Dag’s calculations. Then in a virtuoso performance, she led him through a series of questions. I don’t think Gaussfield himself sensed where his own calculations were taking him. He gave an estimated size of the universe at that time. He calculated the mass of galaxies, of superclusters, of an observed quadrant of space. He appeared to warm to the topic and seemed flattered that Lena acknowledged his expertise. He described the mass of the universe as being homogeneously distributed. Lena moved in for the kill. “Then we can calculate the mass of the universe,” she said.
“We’ve already calculated the mass of the universe,” Gaussfield answered.
“Yes, but by using gravity,” Lena replied. “However, we could calculate it a different way by looking around us at the mass we see. Since the mass is pretty well evenly distributed and since we know the size of the universe, we could easily figure out its total mass simply by assessing the mass in a small region of space and then working it out for the whole universe.”
With the exception of Dag and I, and I think by now Gaussfield, no one in the room had any idea of what she was getting at. I’m sure Tallyberg didn’t. Gaussfield hesitated. “In theory,” he answered after a long pause.
“Have you ever calculated it that way?” Lena probed.
“Yes.” Gaussfield was as honest as they came among that shifty Big Bang crowd. He didn’t exactly offer information—but he wouldn’t lie to you either.
“And what was the result of that calculation?”
I still remember Gaussfield’s emotionless face. It was as if he had stepped outside himself and was an impassive viewer to the scene. The figure he said was five per cent of what the mass of the universe should have been!
“Where is the rest of the mass, Mr Gaussfield?” Lena demanded. “Where is it?”
The voice in reply, was a whisper. “Missing,” he said, then, knowing Lena would ask him to repeat it, he said it again, louder and clearly enunciated, “Missing.”
All hell broke loose. Ninety-five per cent of the mass of the universe was missing, completely unaccounted for. It was the first time Tallyberg and his cohorts seemed to panic. First, they claimed neutrinos had mass no one had ever noticed before. Then that they had a lot of mass. Then that only some of them had mass. None of the ones anyone could actually get their hands on ever did though. A few days later, another theory was issued in an official press statement read by an aide. Almost the entire universe was made up of ‘dark matter and dark energy’, Tallyberg and Nepo announced. This newly invented dark mass had the convenience of being undetectable. It hardly got them off the hook. The universe had been made out of rubbish or rather it had been designed to render itself into untraceable, undetectable, completely unusable rubbish. Someone had been profiteering big time, offloading the worst sort of theoretical junk at premium prices while Tallyberg and Nepo were masterminding the creation. Joe Horvath’s name started to crop up more and more often in Committee hearings.
Nothing quite equalled the fall from grace over the missing mass. David Nepo was crucified in the press. Tallyberg became the butt of lightbulb jokes. I suddenly had more informants than had time to meet them. The unravelling of the scandal of creation was underway.
What emerged was that Nepo and Tallyberg, with their lack of attention to detail, had unwittingly presided over a thoroughly corrupt organization. As we probed into the who did what and when did they know they had done it, of that vital first 1.09 seconds of time, the events themselves revealed monumental incompetence of a scale bordering on criminal neglect.
Flushed with these early Committee hearing victories, I met with my main inside source again. He was more nervous than before. He described to me the disarray of the first moments of time. “The whole thing was out of control, right from the beginning,” he told me bitterly. “There was massive inflation. Nobody knew what was happening. It reached a point where it just literally blew up.” He laughed sardonically. “But you don’t know half of what you are after.”
An inflated bubble that had blown up accidentally. That was what our creation was. No wonder it was a mess with time that ran only one way, missing mass and a hodgepodge of matter trying to rush away from itself like a man on fire. The loss of symmetry became a key point. As I said before, this happened, give or take a minus power, at 10(-34) seconds after it all began. “Who was in charge at that point in time?” was demanded again and again on the Committee floor. By then, Nepo and Tallyberg were covering themselves. They tried to set up poor Gaussfield as the fall guy, but I’m told that he threatened to reveal everything he knew and they backed off. Tallyberg himself claimed to have been on “a coffee break” at the crucial moment, an unlikely explanation as not even protons had formed at that point, let alone espresso machines. The argument over that devolved into a peculiar philosophical debate. Could the idea of a coffee break exist independent of the existence of coffee? Curiously an examination of the earliest recorded Trade Union contracts indicated that it did. I felt we were off the topic. Besides that, I prefer tea.
Entropy, how heat flows and the tendency of the universe to greater disorder, was argued back and forth before the Committee. Some thought entropy predicted a particularly cold and dismal fate for the universe. I was never worked up about entropy. To me it was just the reason why you didn’t leave your hand on the stove grill.
I got leaked something else. It turned out that Nepo and Tallyberg had originally commissioned a universe with ten dimensions. Personally, I had trouble enough with the four we had and shuddered to contemplate what the other six might have been like. Lena pounced on the information and destroyed another Tallyberg functionary, Vitus Lidcombe, on the question. “What happened to the other dimensions?” she demanded of Vitus on the stand. Vitus bravely maintained that there were, in fact, ten dimensions. “Then where are they, Mr Lidcombe?” she demanded again. “They’re there,” Lidcombe explained, swallowing. “It is just that . . . they are spherically closed and . . . uh . . . perpendicular to the other four dimensions.” Nepo and Tallyberg had masterminded a universe where ninety-five percent of the mass and energy had gone missing and six of the dimensions had sealed themselves up and disappeared into the void never to be heard from again.
Fundamental forces came next. This time Tallyberg had a go at defending himself. The forces were a mess but he still claimed they were a unified perfection. Only trouble was, unless he could jam everything back together again and raise the temperature over one hundred billion degrees, no one would ever see this beautiful unity again. Tallyberg paraded increasingly convoluted equations before us, inventing unfindable particles at whim and for all intents and purposes looking as though his equations were being held together with little bits of string. It was a hollow show.
The particles turned out no better than the forces. Trying to work with particles singly, you never could tell where they were or if you did find one, you couldn’t tell where it was heading. I don’t know who invented the term ‘Uncertainty Principle’ but it was soon applied to Tallyberg’s testimony in general. He was never sure of anything. He couldn’t explain how all his particles dissolved into waves or waves back into particles the moment one’s back was turned. The testimony descended into absurd vaudeville with Tallyberg demonstrating some bizarre concept by nailing a remote-controlled cat inside a trunk saying he couldn’t tell whether its batteries had run down without opening the lid. People were beginning to think that he’d lost it.
Horvath’s top henchman, Lenny Sudler, tried to defend time itself. Self-righteously decked out in his military uniform and medals, he told the Committee that despite everything we’d gone through to the contrary, time actually did work both ways. I remember his gibberish clearly. “The motion of an electron forward in time is mathematically identical to the motion of a positron backward in time.” He presented a “beautiful” equation to prove it. I told him that his equation wasn’t much good for someone standing with a throbbing foot who would like to have his toe unstubbed. But it was Dag who finished him off. “I can’t help noticing that in your equations,” he observed ever so helpfully, “that you’ve put down the value of pi as three.” Sudler’s face went a shade that I didn’t think existed on the electro-magnetic radiation range. Then he gave his hollow fake “Ah, ha, ha,” laugh. “Yes, yes. My secretary prepared these slides.” That night, every document in Sudler’s office was shredded. A source informed me that Dag’s comment was the first time anyone among that crew learned that pi wasn’t three! Tallyberg, I was told, was livid. That pi was 4.7% off from what it was supposed to be accounted for a lot of the problems we were having in the universe and said a fair bit about the allegedly best-and-the-brightest crew behind it.
It was not all fun and games. There were two attempts on my life. No arrests were ever made. Still, I thought the worst was passed, that the profiteering, the incompetence and the corruption had all been confined to the first moments of the universe. Tallyberg had withdrawn into himself and only Nepo’s aloofness and detachment from the very reality he’d created, seemed to keep him going. Joe Horvath, on the other hand, was still very much in the game.
We thought we were pretty well mopping up the Committee hearings when the biggest shock of all came. Dag Morphee was doing the questioning. I don’t even recall if Lena was there that day. Dag was probing David Nepo about the galaxies and the stars. As features go, the stars were still regarded as one of the, forgive me, bright spots of the universe. Nepo was taking the opportunity to speak of their beauty, their diversity, and so on. Now, stars are great things. They help you find your way around and they are nice to curl up by, but the picture Nepo was painting wasn’t quite the whole story. Unlike the Bang, the idea behind the stars was that they would be a subdued, but relatively long lasting, display. They work by fusing hydrogen into helium which was fine by everybody as we had ended up with rather a lot of hydrogen after mass started to form. When their fuel was used up, the stars were supposed to collapse into states of extreme density, eventually into a black hole. It is rather like a self-cleaning oven that implodes afterwards. The idea was fine in principle, though peppering space with black holes, like it was some sort of Jarlsberg cheese, did not appeal to everyone. Despite this, the stars were still generally admired. The problem turned out to be that not all stars disposed of themselves so tidily. Some became so unstable in their later stages that instead of neatly imploding, they blew up in spectacular supernovas.
Dag was asking David Nepo about the supernovas. Nepo admitted that the phenomenon did sometimes occur, but added that eventually, the particles scattered around by a supernova would cluster together elsewhere leading eventually to the formation of another generation of star. Things might supernova a few times but in the end, the matter would end up neatly tucked away in black holes.
“Now in the later stages of a star’s fading life,” Dag probed, “there is more than just hydrogen and helium around. Other elements form.”
“Several others,” Nepo agreed. “nitrogen, lithium, iron.”
“Oh certainly,” Nepo replied, pleased to rattle off what he knew. “Oxygen, carbon.”
Dag cut him off. “Carbon,” he repeated. “Oxygen, nitrogen, carbon . . . The new stars that form after a supernova has scattered itself around, contain more complex elements. Including carbon.”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what Dag was on about but I remember Joe Horvath’s face at that moment. He was sitting just behind David Nepo. And he looked like death. It was only later that I found out what had shaken him so was actually life.
I got a hold of Dag in the hallway at a recess. “What was that all about?” I asked.
“We’ve got to call a press conference right away. Something terrible is probably happening out there. It could be anywhere out there!” Dag despaired.
“Out where? What are you talking about?” I asked.
He drew something on a pad. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“A hexagon” I said, hoping I had counted the sides correctly.
“It is also a benzine molecule,” Dag informed me. “Carbon can arrange itself in many ways, particularly if there is oxygen and nitrogen around.”
“So what?” I said. “It will go down a black hole when the second star collapses. Besides, who cares about trace amounts of carbon.”
Dag exhaled. “When the second generation of stars forms out of the gunk blown around by these faulty supernovas, there is going to be carbon in them, not just in the stars, but in the planets around them.” He could tell I still didn’t understand. “There is going to be life,’ he moaned. “Organic life. Not everywhere perhaps, but there are enough bloody stars out there that it is going to happen somewhere.”
We had landed in the primordial soup all right. It was one thing for us to blunder about in this universe banging our heads on kitchen cupboard doors. Now, we had inadvertently set up a universe where poor little organic beings would creep into existence on planets orbiting volatile, doomed stars. This ‘life’ was going to be entirely dependent on a star that was either going to blow itself to smithereens or suck the planet into a gravitational collapse. Either way, the ethics of being responsible for this was shattering. For the first time, some of the heat actually came off Nepo and Tallyberg. Everyone felt a burdensome responsibility over the ‘Organic Life Dilemma’.
Organic life had, at that point, only been predicted in theory. If we were going to do anything about the moral obligation we had to whatever life forms were out there, we had to find them. It wasn’t easy and we had no success for the longest time. I would have given up but Dag Morphee insisted we continue the hunt. “They’re out there,” he would insist. “That’s the thing about infinity. Anything that can go wrong, will. You can depend on it.”
Many people became involved in the search for sentient life though no one had a clear idea of what we were going to do when we found it. Some proposed getting a consent form signed by any organic-based species we turned up. The idea was that they would authorise our having created the conditions that had led to their evolution. This only revealed the kind of muddled thinking we still had about time. A consent form needs to be done, Lena informed me, before an act, not after.
We did find life but there were problems. A petri dish of E. coli from some backwater planet was brought before a general assembly. I don’t like to sound prejudiced, but I was not impressed with them. Despite three weeks of patient effort on his part, all Dag got out of them was their near orgasmic enthusiasm for replication. They seemed to have no opinion about the Big Bang or give a single thought to the ethical questions of organic life and death. Nepo and Tallyberg’s side accused us of leading the witnesses but what can you do with beings who only engage in stimulus response. The testimony was a farce and it made us look ridiculous.
A lot of theories were put forward about the forms organic life could take. What was generally agreed was that to keep a biosphere going, everybody, all the species in it that is, were pretty well going to have to end up eating each other. We were responsible for having set up who knows how many of these ‘Eat Your Neighbour’ horror planets. When we did encounter a species capable of a little more profundity than “Eat/Replicate” they likely weren’t going to be too impressed with us.
We did find them. Given what later happened, I still feel personally responsible. Dag wanted to bring them before the assembly right away, but after the humiliation we’d experienced over those bloody bacteria, I was opposed to rushing things. I suggested to wait a bit, say six or eight hundred million years or so. Let the species develop a little more eloquence. Give them time to kick around the meaning of life and think it through. After all, “Why are we brought into this world only to struggle and die?” was a question we couldn’t answer and we were the ones who had set it up that way for organic life. They needed time, I said. Lena supported me and Dag reluctantly went along with us.
Was I motivated to wait because of the jibes thrown my way over the E. coli‘s failure to philosophize? I admit that was a big part of it. We had located about a dozen planets with some fairly sophisticated life forms. There was real promise there. We kept tabs on the species we’d found, but unfortunately, not closely enough. The star of the Rutherfiordals, an introspective wispy species, suddenly went supernova. The Salterians perished when their planet passed through a previously unnoticed cloud of carbon monoxide. When every last one of the Helfraziers keeled over from eating tainted fish, we woke up. Someone was going around exterminating every species of note we’d found!
Information about the whereabouts of all our evolved species, could only have come from inside our organization. There was, to use organic terms, either a plant or a bug. I had no doubt that Horvath was behind what had been happening. Fortunately for us, his henchmen had been sloppy. Detonators were found near the former site of the Rutherfiordal’s star. A service station attendant recalled heavily laden, official-looking vehicles moving into the area around the Salterian’s planet just before the appearance of the killer cloud—though later he clammed up and denied having ever said anything to us. Horvath had obviously been moving too quickly or perhaps he didn’t have firm control over his thugs. Some of their work was very slapdash. On Earth, they took out a flourishing dinosaur culture by crudely slamming a couple of comets into the planet. Finally, the Committee made its first bust. Five of Horvath’s men were caught pushing the moon of the planet Durian into a lower orbit where it would have been ripped apart by gravitational forces. Two more Horvath goons were picked up on nearby asteroids where they had been standing lookout. Fortunately, the lovely Clavelcups of the planet Durian suffered no lasting harm.
I have never been quite so angry. None of the Horvath thugs would admit anything and the highest priced legal help suddenly materialized at their side. Dag was broken by it all. He had grown so found of the Salterians. I was furious but of no particular use. It was Lena who stepped in. For sixty-five million years she argued it out, tripping up each one of the Horvath men every chance she could. I don’t know how she kept it all straight. She had an unerring ability to pick out a contradiction in someone’s testimony from ten million years earlier in the court transcripts. I scrambled, making the rounds of my informants but they were either too scared or simply didn’t know anything that could help me nail Horvath. Even my old reliable, whom I met, appropriately enough, in the nebula of the Rutherfiordals’ late star, could offer me no help. “Keep at it,” he encouraged. “That bastard gave the orders. I can’t prove it and you may not have the goods on him yet—but I can tell you this . . . Horvath is scared.”
The break came. Out of the blue, one of the moon-boys asked to see me in his cell. As I’ve said, people like to tell me things. Given that Lena had browbeaten him on the stand for so long, I almost felt guilty he couldn’t bring himself to sing his tale to her. He told me the money for the Moon-over-Durian job had come from a special fund handled by Lenny Sudler, Horvath’s lieutenant. It was a crack, but it was exactly what we needed. We let the word circulate the prison grapevine that “others” were talking and soon everyone was, except T. Turner Capcan, one of the lookouts on the asteroid. Capcan stonewalled to the very end to protect those above him.
The events after that came fast. The moon-boys implicated all the lower rungs of Nepo-Tallyberg’s administration. A general rout ensued. No one was prepared to take the fall for anyone else. Lidcombe told all he knew. Even the quiet Gaussfield came forward and presented a towering mass of information that on its own could have condemned everyone involved in the Big Bang. Lenny Sudler, named as paymaster to the moon-boys or ‘The Terminators’ as The Sun papers called them, fluffed himself up in his military uniform again but he couldn’t carry off the ‘man of duty and honour’ routine this time. Lena Tempobroth was masterful, cutting through Sudler’s self-righteousness with devastating simplicity. “And where are the Rutherfiordals now, Mr Sudler? Where are Salterians?”
Everything pointed to Joe Horvath but no one expected what happened next. Here was Horvath, the man who had ordered the exterminations, a person who had caused six of the most advanced organic species to be wiped out. Here he was about to testify and what did his lawyers manage to come up with? During the Committee hearings, I had dealt with just about everything that could possibly be dreamed of: mass that went missing, dimensions that disappeared, philosophical arguments over the existence of coffeeless coffee breaks, cats in boxes . . . but this I could not believe.
The defence said that this cold-blooded murderer was actually a hero to the carbon creatures. They claimed that the accidental creation of organic life contained no ethical dilemma. Indeed, the species were nothing but ecstatic and profoundly grateful for the life they had and for the universe, the universe of the visionaries Nepo, Tallyberg and Horvath. I was absolutely stunned at what happened next. The pair of comets that had slammed into the Earth may have effectively prevented any allosaurus from ever testifying before the Committee, but the Terminators had botched the job. Some rodent-like creatures that had never amounted to anything while the dinosaurs were around, had crawled out of the dust left behind by those comets. While we were painstakingly picking off Horvath’s underlings for sixty-five million years, these rodents had evolved into Horvath’s trump card. The defence lawyers paraded in two of them who, after the passage of all those years, had learned to walk upright. They no sooner glimpsed Horvath though, than they fell to all fours on the floor at his feet, grovelling and praising him, thanking him and murmuring over and over “Joe Horvath! Joe Horvath! Joe Horvath!” I could think of nothing to say. It was the first and only time I ever saw Lena Tempobroth standing on the middle of the floor, her mouth hanging open, speechless.
The defence was positively crowing. The universe was a triumph! Organic life was triumph! The species of the universe were one in their praise for the creators! I was practically sick to my stomach. I rushed into the corridor and was beset by journalists. I don’t know how long I was jostled about or how I answered their questions, but suddenly I was taken by the arm and yanked out of the throng. There, to my disbelief, was my contact, standing right in the middle of the foyer for all to see! “Get your arse over to the Earth,” he hissed. “Don’t let that thug Horvath get away with this.” I don’t know if anyone recognised who it was who had spoken to me, the hubbub was so great. I clawed my way out of the building and commandeered the first vehicle I could to get me to Earth.
What I found there I think shocked me even more than the exterminations. Horvath had known he was in trouble and when he found that some puny mammals on Earth had survived the comet crashes, he kept a close eye on them. The grovelling performance of those two men at the Committee hearings had been no spontaneous outpouring of gratitude for the universe and life. Horvath had been terrorising the poor sods. For centuries he had been tormenting this one region of the planet in utterly sick and twisted ways. He had annihilated two cities because he hadn’t liked their inhabitants’ sexual practices, pelted another country with frogs for some reason, carried out selective infanticide, erected a causeway over a major local sea only to collapse it on the second lot who tried to use it. In a bizarre slight-of-hand, he had pulverized some poor woman whose only ‘crime’ had been to turn around when he had said not to, and then slipped into her place a pillar of salt. No wonder the locals were agog. There had been one message loud and clear throughout all these horrors. He’d even carved it onto some stone tablets for them: “Worship me or else!” Anticipating the splash they could make at the Committee hearings, he’d had those poor humans rehearsing their reverent use of his name for a thousand years.
I couldn’t find anyone amongst the poor wretches reckless enough to say a critical word of Joe Horvath but I gathered what evidence I could and hightailed it back to the Committee. Fortunately, Nepo and Tallyberg were so glorying in their vindication that they were keeping the hearings extended. Lena had collapsed and a dispirited Dag was keeping the prosecution going, but only barely. I burst in and demanded that the two men from Earth be brought back before the Committee.
You would think I’ve now reached the dramatic moment of this story and I suppose it was. After all the years building up to it, I had my showdown with Joe Horvath. Those grovelling prostrate men confirmed everything I had learned about Horvath’s atrocities. Such was their fear of him, they praised even his most appalling crimes. He had somehow convinced them that anybody he did a number on deserved it. The shattering of Horvath was all the more striking coming, as it did, so closely after his moment of apparent victory. Writing about this now though, I can’t get excited about it.
Horvath went to jail. He wrote a bestselling book and two years later he received a pardon. Eight billion years it had taken me to put him away and two years of string pulling by Nepo gets him out free as a bird. The Committee issued a report on its investigation into the Big Bang. Nepo and Tallyberg were roundly criticised for incompetence, though my attempt to include a charge of criminal negligence was dropped from the final version. I heard that Nepo told reporters the other day that he hadn’t yet had time to read the report. I only fear, that now that I’m off his back, he is dreaming up some other mega-project. Tallyberg the architect, armed with the corrected value of pi, made a grand announcement the other day that he has determined the universe is indeed bounded and infinite—but either no one believes him or no one cares anymore. The lesser lights of the administration are all on the lecture circuit. Horvath’s chief goon, Lenny Sudler, is apparently in high demand, still the most dashing of the lot. Lena Tempobroth, turned bitter and reclusive for a while but she may have come out of it a little lately. The last I saw her, she was pawning her integrity to do commercials for Mesoncard. Dag collects butterflies.
With the exception of Titus Tallyberg, no one seems to bother much about the universe anymore. It is only me, the one who was the least scientifically inclined, who has kept up an interest in where it is all heading. I’ve also been watching what the species have discovered on the subject as well. The Clavelcups of the planet Durian were making what I thought was real progress on the universal questions—but they are an obsessive species. Their quest on the subject became so all-consuming that now it has been turned into a popular nightly TV quiz shows and a home board game called Cosmological Pursuits. I’ve become particularly fond of those former rodents on Earth who prospered after the Terminator’s saurocidal comets, though I don’t think the species has ever recovered from the psychological damage done by Horvath’s atrocities. They have shown themselves very concerned with both the big and little issues of cosmology in a crude sort of way. They’ve recently taken to smashing Tallyberg’s particles together at such high speeds that they shatter. They keep doing this convinced that the next smaller splinter will prove to be the ‘fundamental particle’ of the universe from which all else is derived. I wish them well, but knowing Nepo and Tallyberg’s handiwork as I do, I am not optimistic. I fear they are going to continue to find smaller and smaller bits of matter until one day they realize that there is nothing there at all.
Oh well, what does it all matter? I have finished my story. For me there is still the odd kick around of the soccer ball, the occasional bottle of chardonnay and . . . who knows what else? The universe, and I will say this for it, goes on.