THE GREATER GOOD
Another day began for the one inhabited world of the tiny, two planet System Zed- Alpha plus One. The small globe was mostly ocean with a solitary, richly blessed equatorial continent. Today would be its last. As the pinkness of dawn softly colored the sky, it suddenly blazed to a dazzling brilliance. Every eye jerked upward to witness a monstrous piece of cosmic matter streak overhead and collide with the sun. The tightly balanced system blew apart violently.
For an instant the cosmos filled with outcries of immense suffering, then all was still but for a few fragments of hot, glowing rock that spiraled aimlessly through the remaining void.
Tellinga Thool pulled back from the viewport in horror. He watched ZA +1’s remains flash by obliquely as his transport heeled over and sped away from the deadly shrapnel. A day sooner and he would have been part of it. His mind filled with a bitter mixture of gratitude for the unexpected day’s layover at the last planet that had saved his life and grief over what he’d just witnessed. His destination was gone. Obliterated. How? Why? The was nothing to do but go back home and try to determine what happened.
Several days later, still searching for answers, he walked rapidly across campus to his office, oblivious to the midday bustle of students as he studied a communiqué in his hand. One paragraph held his attention.
“six days ago System Zed- Alpha Plus One, in the fifth Transference cycle, blew apart causing complete extinction of life. Total damage is unknown at this time. Although it has not been confirmed, it appears that a renegade sun section from an unknown source collided with the ZA sun causing the disaster. All UES First and Second level personnel are, hereby, put on alert.”
“A renegade sun section?” he muttered in horror. His worst fears were confirmed. Stepping aside just in time to avoid walking into a light pole, he collided with a short, auburn-haired student instead.
“Oof! Pardon me,” he grunted upon impact.
The student staggered back, grabbing at her once neatly stacked pile of books. “Why don’t you watch…,” she snapped, then stammered, “Uhh… pardon me, Dr. Thool,” as her cheeks turned pink.
He forced a smile, helped her reposition her books, and turned to resume his hurried pace.
“Sorry about this morning,” she said timidly.
He stopped and looked at her in earnest and smiled again. She was the saucy redhead in first period class who always cut to the heart of the matter and always seemed to question everything. Prime emphatically stated in the Universal Educational System procedures that every question would be answered and she took advantage of each opportunity.
“I have a question,” she had said, her words ringing louder in his ears now than ever before.
“Have you ever wondered if there are universes other than ours?”
Thool remembered his response. “Why do you ask?”
“You just said that our universe is so symmetrical and singular? It made me wonder if, perhaps, there are others that are not? Other galaxies, I mean.”
“No, there are not,” he had replied a bit too sharply. “Universes cannot exist without order. The interchange of planets wouldn’t be possible. There would be no Transference. Planets stuck rotating around one sun? A stagnation of growth. An unthinkable condition. Chaos! This is the only universe.”
She had winced at the chastisement for questioning galactic doctrine and remained silent for the remainder of the class as did everyone else.
Her reaction had made Thool regret his lack of self control, making it even more difficult to deal with the ZA+1 disaster. He tightened his grip on the communiqué and put his free hand on her shoulder. It was hard to smile but he forced himself to.
“I’m sorry, too. My answer was given in haste.” he said gently. “Your question caught me off guard.” He had to be careful. She did not know about ZA+1 yet. No one did except the chosen few in the UES. “We must be careful when questioning The Greater Good. Such concepts as other universes go against its principles and could be considered by some as heresy. The order The Greater Good dictates is all important. I realize it is a hard discipline, but it is necessary. Without order, we could not exist. Do you understand now?”
She nodded, but it was obvious she wasn’t satisfied. “I think so,” she said unconvincingly.
“Good,” he said and resumed walking.
Siezing the opportunity, she added hastily, “I have other questions.”
Thool sighed. He was not in the mood to talk this morning. He felt trapped. “Walk with me,” he responded less than enthusiastically. “We can talk on the way. I need to get back to my office.” They set out at a rapid gait and spent the remaining distance discussing theory while avoiding further talk of other universes. It was difficult because Thool’s mind was still spiraling out with ZA-1.
Thanks to his long-legged stride, they reached the faculty office complex quickly, leaving the student out of breath. She caught her wind and glanced up at the large, brass placard that adorned Thool’s door-
Second Level Doctor
“See you (puff) tomorrow,” she managed as she stepped back into the sea of university life.
Thool stood by the door and watched her ebb away, a young student, Level Nine, maybe, not better than an Eight, a mere freshman, a brilliant freshman. She was just starting her climb through the ten levels of UES collegiate academics. Her breathlessness brought a weak smile to his face. He hadn’t meant to tire her out, but the pace did cut down the conversation. The smile faded quickly as he again thought about their exchange in class. The stock answer he’d robotically dispensed to her didn’t satisfy him either now. He found himself studying other students as they passed and wondered if any of them felt as she did. Did he now? A feeling of emptiness, of unsettling curiosity, needled him and a cold shiver ran down his spine.
The placard shimmered in the morning sun, flashing his prestigious title. Only a handful got to Level Three to become educational doctors. Thool was exceptional- a Level Two and department head at the same time. The glittering accolades seemed to accuse him of heresy now. He shivered again, quickly entered, and closed himself off from the world.
“Perhaps there are others? Other galaxies?”
The question wouldn’t let him alone. Ordinarily, it would have been answered and tossed aside as so many others had, but today, exactly on the heels of his horrific experience at ZE-1 and, now, the unbelievable news from Prime, it dealt him with crippling blow. He honestly did not know what to think anymore.
As his mind worked to unravel the mystery, he absently fingered the communiqué until it was wadded into a tight ball. He studied the small sphere momentarily, then looked up at the map of the known galaxy that made up the wall opposite his desk. The complex holographic display was a massive geometric construct of multicolored lines and tiny white lights representing each solar system, all slowly turning and shifting in the air, all equidistant and symetrical. Each planetary group was assigned a value determined by two factors- its relative position within the geometry and how soon it would move inward by way of a complex yet orderly planetary movement from one sun to another. The entire galaxy moved in the same manner and, over the centuries, each pattern was discovered, plotted and graphically displayed in the three dimensional map with its own particular color.
Thool touched a small glowing spot on the left edge of his desk and said, “Zed Alpha plus one,” hoping that the map hadn’t been updated yet. It hadn’t.
It realigned itself and highlighted Zed Alpha’s last known position. The ill-fated system was located in the remote Fifth Power Transference cycle out on the bitter edge of the galaxy. It had the misfortune of having a bright red line. Thool smiled sadly at the irony. It wouldn’t have rotated in for, perhaps, centuries. A backwards system. No great learning ever passed inward from it, but the loss of life! He looked at the paper ball again, sighed and dropped it into the recycle tube.
The phone chirped and broke his concentration. He touched the receive button.
The screen flickered to life. It was Garsa, a colleague from Transys University, where the Transference Monitoring System was.
“Thool! Have you seen the report yet?”
Thool looked at Garsa’s thin face. “Just this morning.”
“Unbelievable, huh? There’s more bad news. I just heard that Prime determined that it was, indeed, a renegade sun section.”
“Impossible!” Thool blurted, then grimmaced. It was the second time today he had lost control. His impulsiveness frustrated him and his temper flared. “Renegade sun section? Suns don’t just blow apart by themselves,” he snapped as he hit his desk top and rose abruptly to his feet. “Good Heavens, Garsa!”
“I know. I know. Take it easy!” Garsa waved his hands in the air, trying to calm his friend.
Thool regained control and and sat as he shook his head in frustration. “I’m sorry. It’s just that… well… how did they determine it was actually a sun section, anyway?”
“Magnetic signature. Identical to that of a posi-section, yet traveling so fast that no one saw it coming. It not only destroyed Zed- Alpha, but pulled Zed- Beta and Chi 15 degrees out of plane when it passed through.”
“Fifteen deg…!” Thool gasped as the color drained from his face. “It affected two other complete systems that much?” He could feel his insides churn as the specter of where this was leading grew more ominous and clear. “Garsa,” he said slowly, “do you realize what this means?”
Garsa’s face reflected his own anguish. “Yes,” he answered slowly. “I’ve been asking myself that question for the last hour. Where did it come from? I canceled the rest of my classes and went to the Monitoring Center the minute I got the communique.”
“You’re not going to like it.”
“I’ll decide that.”
“None of our suns, not one, is missing a section. Except for the Zed systems, everything is in perfect order. So the problem remains, where did it come from?”
Thool didn’t answer.
“Anyway,” Garsa concluded, “we’re all supposed to get a final analysis sometime today from Prime. Call me after you’ve read it.”
Thool continued to stare at the blank screen. The only thing that hadn’t broadsided him was that Prime, the governing body of all learning, was involved. Consequently, he wasn’t surprised to hear the rapid footsteps of a courier slapping down the walkway and coming to an abrupt halt at his door, followed by an equally impatient knocking.
“Sir, a red labeled transmittal from Prime,” the wide-eyed courier puffed.
Thool took the letter and dismissed the courier. He stood at the door looking down at it, almost too afraid to open it. As ge unfolded the paper the message, he inwardly prayed that Garsa was wrong but, to his consternation, Prime confirmed everything. Closing the door, he walked heavily back to his desk and returned the call.
“Well,” he sighed. “You were right. Garsa, have we been too blind to consider the possibility of other universes?”
“Perhaps,” Garsa admitted. “I’ve been thinking about that sun section since we talked.” He looked intently at Thool, leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Assuming that it came from outside… now that is assuming… I can come up with only two possibilities. Either a great calamity occurred in some unknown galaxy that caused the energy necessary to split one of their suns, sending pieces of it flying everywhere, or…” He paused and drew in a deep breath. “Or else there is a malignant, mammoth power out there that is deliberately blowing up whole systems for who knows what reason and sending pieces of them careening out into space to slam into us.”
Thool gasped. “Premeditated? Why? Garsa, that’s insanity! ”
Garsa leaned back from the screen. “All right, then. You’re almost a First Level Doctor, one step down from the Director. What’s your answer?”
“I don’t know,” Thool responded softly. “I just don’t know.”
Garsa eyed him briefly, then said in conclusion, “well, it looks like some major rethinking will be going on from now on. Talk to you later.” With that, Garsa’s image evaporated along with all of Thool’s beliefs and underpinnings. All that he stood for and had spent the best years of his life shoving down the throats of his students seemed to be nothing but lies now.
He was numb. Only half conscious of his actions, he stood and went outside for a breath of fresh air. He avoided speaking to anyone for the rest of the day and delivered his remaining lectures with detached blandness.
The next morning he received a further shock to find the Dean standing at his door with another bright red envelope in hand. “Prime wants you to go immediately to Council One. Another renegade section destroyed nineteen more systems.”
“Wha… Nineteen? Then you know also?”
“Yes. We have been ordered to cover your classes. Better go. It looks bad.”
Thool took the envelope and turned to leave.
Thool turned back around to face the Dean. “Yes?”
“Speak to no one of this. No one is to know…yet.”
“But my students must…”
The Dean cut his words off with a cold, direct stare. “No one is to know yet. It is for the Greater Good. The Director will tell all of us when to speak.”
Thool nodded in submission. “Then it is bad?”
The Dean nodded and left.
It was bad. Thool had never seen the First Level Directors so agitated. As he entered the vast Council One lecture hall an air of despair and morbidity seemed to seep from every crevice. He pushed his way through the crowd and found a seat down front near the podium.
“Thool!” Garsa strode over and dropped into the seat next to him. “I’d hoped I’d find you before Commencement. Can you believe all of this?”
Thool shook his head. “No. I’ve never seen such a concentration of pure knowledge in all my life. Is it that serious that Prime would assemble the entire top two levels of the UES all at once?”
Garsa had just enough time to open his mouth but no more.
Forgoing all the usual pageantry that preceded his entry, the UES First Level Prime Director appeared at the podium looking worn.
“Please be seated.” His distinctive voice silenced the huge throng leaving only the rustle of seats being occupied to fill the void. “You are aware of the ZA disaster,” he began. “And the one two nights ago.” He paused and took in a labored breath.
“Two hours ago,” he continued haltingly, “another section entered the galaxy and set off a reaction that destroyed an estimated twelve hundred systems.”
The hall filled with gasps.
The Director held up his hand. “At first, we had thought that these were freak occurrences. However, a thorough analysis has proven that the sections are coming from the same general location and in roughly the same trajectories. It is becoming more and more apparent that the sections are aimed at us for some unknown reason and are coming from some source outside of… our galaxy.” He closed his eyes and held tightly to the lectern.
The hall erupted again in protests.
The Director held up his hand. “We have called you here to form a brain trust in hopes that, united, we can discover a way to either fend off these attacks or save enough of our civilization that our accumulated knowledge will not be lost.”
Thool’s heart pounded. He stood to gain audience.
“Yes?” The Director acknowledged.
“Yes, Thool. Speak.”
“Am I hearing Prime correctly, sir? Aimed attacks from outside our galaxy?”
“That is correct,” the Director replied in flat tones.
“That admits to alternate universes. It flies in the face of our fundamental doctrines. How can this be?”
The Director’s shoulders sagged and he stared the top of the lectern. “I know. It goes against all we’ve taught for a thousand transferences, but the facts are clear. The sections are coming from an outside source. We have, at least, been able to determine the general location of that source.” He shifted his eyes to the hall’s vaulting ceiling. “It would seem that The Greater Good wants us to alter our doctrine. We are forced to accept the existence of not only other universes, but universes that seem to be deliberately destroying their own suns and sending the resulting sections into our galaxy. Universes that are unbelievably aggressive and hostile.”
Thool glanced down at Garsa who sat completely still and blank-faced, shocked by the profound accuracy of his own deductions. Turning back to the Director, he asked, “How do you propose that we combat such attacks?”
“I don’t know. Prime doesn’t know. That is why you are here.” The Director opened his arms to encompass all present. “Please, Doctors, we need answers or we may all be vapor before the month is over. Please!”
The hall was dead quiet for the first time that morning. Then, slowly, small groups formed and ideas passed until it refilled with the noise of a concerted effort to find salvation.
The next several weeks were nightmarish. No matter what was tried, the attacks continued. Finally, in futile resignation, all realized that defense was inpossible and made plans to flee.
Thool’s part done, he went back home to collect his family and prepare to leave to somewhere. He didn’t know where, but to stay was certain death. He grieved for his friends, for his students, for his civilization. Only those in the UES with vital knowledge, and their families, would flee aboard a hastily prepared gigantic trans-galactic ship. There was only one ship—no room for anyone else. The rest would be sacrificed for The Greater Good.
As he took his seat in the ship, clutching his little girl tightly, Thool’s heart ached for the billions of people who didn’t know and never would. Without warning, the memory of the clean, young student who had, not two months ago, wondered about the universe tore at his soul. He could control himself no longer and buried his face in his daughter’s shoulder and sobbed.
As the ship cleared the atmosphere a cry of alarm suddenly rang through it. Thool looked up in time to witness the sky turn to a piercing brightness, a brightness he had seen before. His heart flew to his throat and he grabbed the rest of his family, closed his eyes tightly and waited for the inevitable. A heartbeat later his own sun exploded.
* * *
Dr. Sharon Hamilton rocked back from the cyclotron’s inspection port. “Looks like we’ve got a good beam, Gene.”
“Finally,” Gene agreed. “It took four tries before it focused, but it was worth it.” He patted a piece of the superstructure.
Hamilton smiled, picked up some photographs made of the target material by a scanning, tunneling microscope, and was suddenly melancholy.
“You know, I never get tired of looking at the target’s atomic structure, so orderly and regimented, electrons moving about it precisely. Seems a shame to vaporize it.” Her eyes took on a far-away look. “It’s almost like a tiny universe of its own. You ever wonder if it could be? Sort of?”
Gene laughed. “Doc’, where do you come up with these concepts? There’s only one universe and you’re in it.” He chuckled and turned back to his work. “You’re priceless. You really are. Atomic sized solar systems? Little bitty green men?”
Hamilton sighed softly. “I suppose you’re right. All the same, it still seems a shame to destroy such a perfect, beautiful structure.”
“Maybe, but it is for the greater good, right?” Gene turned to see his instruments register the trajectory of an extremely small particle shooting off in a totally unexpected direction and into eternity. “Doc’! Look at this! Is that a gluon?”
Hamilton smiled again, a little less enthusiastically than she should have. “Possibly.”
* * *
Griff-2 grumbled under its breath as it struggled to focus the tiny plasma beam on a section of unstable target material. The organic walls of the laboratory flexed and changed hues with Griff’s moods. Suddenly they heaved out and flashed a brilliant red- purple.
“Stinking, erratic piece of junk!” Griff-2 screeched as it threw its adjustment node across the laboratory and into the opposite wall. “No order at all. Can’t even get a single atom to stand still.”
It looked at the node dangling from the lab wall, still vibrating from the impact. Several of its eyes did an odd movement that was equivalent to a frustrated head shake and it retrieved the node. The irridescent tool pulled free with a soft sucking pop.
After several minutes Griff-2 finally got a small nine-electron atom to center in the matrix. With a swift lash of its third anterior tentacle, it hit the firing cartilage but was not quick enough. The beam went wide. It sighed, pushed away from its work and floated down the corridor to go outside and get a breath of fresh methane.
* * *
A flash of light momentarily illuminated the laboratory. Hamilton glanced up, then at Gene.
Gene shrugged. “Lightning?”
Hamilton sighed, stood and went outside to get a breath of fresh air. Once outside she looked up into the night sky. It was completely clear. “Hmmph,” she muttered. “Wonder what that flash was?”