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Threshold: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Friday, April 9, 2010 21:32 EDT



    Anthony pushed back his hair, muttering, and then sighed, undid the ponytail, and shoved the escaping and offending strands back into it, tying it tighter. Ceres’ gravity was enough to keep most items in one place, but had little effect on hair or other very light materials. "Larry, this plaque, it is for the linguists, not us."

    Larry Conley glanced in his display, seeing the image Anthony was sending him. "Oh, yeah. About an acre of text and one little diagram that looks like it might be something astronomical. Maybe. Or it could be a Bemmie mating dance diagram. They loved those little sketch-thingies. Maybe they were just better at figuring out each others’ chicken scratches, I dunno. Send that one to Rich and Jane, that’s for sure." Larry shook his head. "I swear, it’s so totally frustrating. We know a lot of this is astronomical data, or maybe astrogation stuff, but anyway it has to do with the actual solar system and the stuff they did in it, but we can’t read it. That damn ‘Rosetta Disk’ is taking them a hell of a long time to crack."

    "We are better off than we were before, at least," Anthony pointed out, stretching a bit before going on to the next image of a noteplaque. There were literally thousands of the devices to go through. Why the aliens had chosen to stack that many of them in the one area was yet another mystery. A.J.’s best guess was that it was a repository for spare noteplaques—a place where you’d dump them for reuse by someone else. Why none of them were wiped off—blank—was somewhat confusing, though.

    Still, no one was complaining, least of all Jake. This was a treasure trove and he’d been spending the last few weeks carefully excavating the room, cataloguing each plaque’s relation to all the others around it, and with Rich and Jane’s help sorting them into likely subject categories. Apparently, if A.J. was correct, there had been a lot of work done involving astronomical/solar system navigation or surveying early on, and they were going through the discarded notepaper.

    Both Larry and Anthony’s initial enthusiasm on the vast number of potentially useful plaques had… well, not exactly vanished, but become dampened as it became increasingly clear that it was going to take weeks to go through them and even decide which ones were worth more study by them, rather than by dumping them on the increasingly overworked linguists. Xenolinguistics was a new field with several universities trying to produce graduates soon, but it would be a while before real help arrived in that area.

    Anthony blinked, then grinned at the new image. "The Great God Bemmie is once more on this one."

    Larry laughed. "I wonder if they were really religious?"

    "Who knows? Maybe that was one of their debates. Wasn’t something like that in one of the books A.J. mentioned?"

    "Oh, yeah, a classic. The Mote in God’s Eye. There it was a nebula that looked like a hooded man, though."

    "The Great God Bemmie" was Jupiter. Apparently, while the Great Red Spot had not existed sixty-five million years ago, similar semi-permanent storms had; three of them, to be precise, apparently connected to something on Jupiter’s quasi-surface thousands of kilometers below the cloud tops. The three rotated along with the planet and maintained a relationship which was geometrically very similar to the trilateral structure of the Bemmies themselves, and several sketches had indicated that whatever else the alien’s perceptions might be like, they could, like human beings, see similarities between themselves and even astronomical phenomena. They often represented the giant planet as having three eyes, and there were sketches of Jupiter as the front end of a gargantuan Bemmie with a fully functional third eye.

    Exactly what it all meant, of course, they might never know. But it was an amusing thing to find one of the cartoony sketches; some of the Bemmie scientists or researchers actually used the symbol for one of their people as the symbol for Jupiter, along with a symbol meaning "very large"—leading Joe to say, "Ah, yes. The alien timekeeper of the system."

    "Huh?" A.J. had replied.

    Joe had given one of his fiendish grins. "Obviously, Jupiter was Big Bem."

    This had resulted in Joe being hounded from the room.

    Aside from Big Bem and a few notations on what Anthony thought might be Io, there wasn’t much on this plaque, so he went on to the next.

    Several hours went by. Larry finally got up and stretched. "Well, Anthony, I know you’ve got more endurance than I do, but I’m going to get myself some lunch."

    "Oh, is it that time?" Anthony looked at the clock. "I suppose it is. But I started a little later than you, and I want to at least get through this set."

    "No problem. Just flag anything you think might be worth looking at."

    "Of course."

    More plaques. More cryptic sketches and acres of wavelike Bemmie text flowing from outside in, to meet in those upward-sweeping curves.

    "Oh, there’s something…" Anthony said to himself as the next noteplaque image appeared. Pictures of Saturn weren’t nearly as common as those of Jupiter, but the few they had found had sparked rather acrimonious debates among the astronomical community, with even Larry and Anthony exchanging some pointed words occasionally on the subject. The famous rings had existed back then, but the sketches indicated some differences. That the number of clear ring segments would vary wasn’t surprising. In fact, depending on exactly how one imaged the rings, from what angle, and in what spectrum, the visible number of segments in the modern era varied pretty widely.

    It wasn’t the fact that the rings appeared to be separated into three clear sections that was the problem, though. The problem was that several of the discovered sections—including the new one he was looking at—very clearly seemed to indicate that the rings were divided vertically as well—into three or four distinct layers, with clear spaces between. If that were to be interpreted literally, there were a number of models that would have to be totally revised.

    Most of the rest of the plaque was text, though it appeared that one of Saturn’s moons was also marked near the planet. The Bemmies did appear to read from top-down, as did humans, and near the bottom was a symbol crossing the centerline which the linguists had said indicated something like a dash or "continued on next page." Of course, in many cases they were not able to find the next page. Knowing the pattern Jake had excavated in, though, Anthony decided to scout through the ones that were physically nearby this plaque, just to see if the continuation was obvious.

    Upon viewing the noteplaque found just below and slightly to the right of the first, Anthony suddenly stopped. The top center column contained the inverted symbol, meaning "continued from," and just below this was a large sketch of some celestial body, a circle with various other symbols on and around it. He looked back at the first one, and saw small symbols next to the marked moon—symbols repeated next to this large sketch. A moon of Saturn, then. Or probably so. Which one? Titan would seem to be the obvious target of interest for anyone in the solar system. A moon with a thick atmosphere and all sorts of activity. But…

    No, even displaying Titan’s known characteristics in what Bemmie’s range of vision would have given didn’t seem to produce a correspondence with the markings. The symbols weren’t too much help, either. While they’d determined a number of simple symbol conventions that allowed Anthony and Larry to read parts of the astronomical diagrams, too many things were still obscure.

    Still… that set of symbols, there, towards—he checked the symbology—what would likely be the moon’s southern pole… that set looked familiar. Very familiar.

    Anthony became aware that he needed to breathe, took a deep breath, realizing that he must have been staring without even breathing at that image for a long time. This was it.

    His first impulse, surprising him, was to call in Larry. He got a grip on himself, already feeling guilty. But this was the reason he’d been brought along. Quickly he checked Larry’s status in the on-duty tracker. Still at lunch. He uploaded the application Horst had given him, the last update being only a few days ago. He’d practiced with it many times, but for a minute he froze, unable to remember what he had to do. Then he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.

    He was feeling intensely guilty. Focus. Focus. It is not as though we will really be hurting anyone. He felt bad that he would have to mislead them, but they already had three Bemmie bases. Besides, this new one was so distant that only Odin could possibly reach it anyway.

    Just a little tweaking. No real erasure. Just some confusion.

    Erasing data from the systems being used was an extremely difficult task. There were backups that even Horst’s slow-viral approach probably would never reach, unless someone were foolish enough to mount them to the same system they were checking on. So the key was to make it so that they wouldn’t bother to check correspondences with the backups until it was far too late. Just a minor transposition of relationships and a very small image edit. The tough part, handled entirely by Horst’s app, was making sure that the check data was appropriately modified, so that any examination of the image would not indicate that any modification had been made. In essence, the internal "watermark" had to be modified and the records of the authentication data modified as well, so that all aspects of the system agreed that the modified image was, in fact, the exact original image that had been in the system from the beginning.

    If someone were sufficiently suspicious and had access to the backups, of course, they could find the modification easily enough. But with luck, no one would be until it was too late.

    Anthony sighed. It was done. He got up, just as Larry came in. For a moment Anthony froze, certain that guilt was written all over his face, that Larry knew he’d been tampering.

    "Anything interesting?" the big astrophysicist asked.

    "Nothing, really." Anthony’s voice sounded strained and flat, totally artificial in his ears. "Time to get something to eat myself, I think."

    If his tone was different, Larry didn’t appear to notice. "Have fun. Back to the salt mines for me. See you later."

    Anthony left quickly, almost bouncing into a wall in his hurry. He had to get this to General Hohenheim immediately.

    Then, at least, the rest would be out of his hands.

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