Chapter Zero


January 1st, Year 0

Diced calendar confetti covered the ground of every major city on Earth this morning as the Great Embassy of Nations (GEoN) officially announced the beginning of a new era of humankind.

Heralded by a worldwide choir singing an original collaborative masterpiece, “Shine Anew,” the GEoN Secretary of Ceremonies announced,

“This moment ushers a sunrise for every nation on every planet united as one human race.  Today’s dawn will be one for all humans to share in harmony, every heart bursting with hope for the future.  This is the day when we travel freely from planet to planet, associating fraternally with all of our kind.  This is the day when the starving satellites receive nourishment from their mother planet to match the warmth from their father sun.  This is the day when the human family reunites, never to be divided again.”

The Secretary referred to the debut of the hypertorus travel gate, known as “the HyT” (pronounced “hit”) developed by GEoN and MegaJoule, Inc.  The HyT allows instantaneous travel from planet to planet at certain times when the gate’s termini are aligned.  Daily service to the moon, Mars, and Venus are officially in service starting today.  Advance tickets have been purchased for the next six years.  Service to Io, asteroid digesters, and other satellites are planned within the next four years upon delivery of their respective terminus rings by conventional rocket.

Celebrations are especially fervent on Venus where the arrival of much needed cooling equipment through the HyT will immediately solve a decades-long abandonment of all surface dwellings.  Starved and scorched refugees already have returned to the planet’s surface to receive goods at the moment the HyT’s Venus terminus activates.

GEoN advises travelers to continue using conventional space travel for nearer planets as a courtesy to those who must book the HyT for emergency use and satellite aid.  Tickets are sold openly and without question, but GEoN requests public compassion from individuals in this respect.

Chapter One

Copernicus had written more than he ever cared to about the inter-hive social habits of bees.  His dissertation was sitting on his desk, staring back at him with the most solemn expression imaginable.  The hand-sized control panel of his holopad sat as patiently as any rock, awaiting commands.  Copernicus knew he would have to read through it again a dozen more times, watching that endless parade of paragraphs fly toward him, each one dissipating to reveal the paragraph advancing behind it.  This wouldn’t be the final draft, nor would the next.  The monotony of it bruised his pride; he was a thinker, not a re-thinker.

Copernicus had never been good at rephrasing or correcting his thoughts–he dreaded revisions from editors only slightly more than those he made himself–but there was never a dull moment when he was in a creative flow, authoring theories as quickly as he could think.  He had built a strong relationship with his holopad, phrasing his thoughts as best he could so the thought-interpretation software in his “little rock,” as he called it, would interpret them swiftly and correctly.  His apiologist colleagues had noticed that his word choice became increasingly peculiar in person after long sessions with the ’pad.  He avoided homophones so consistently in his writing that common words like “where/wear,” “due/do”, and even “too/to” rarely escaped his lips.  Their replacement phrases, such as “in what place/apply,” “owing to/perform”, and “also/unto,” were so odd in speech that his classmates had taken to calling him “holo-head.”  His holopad seemed allergic to homophony, which he thought an odd hang-up for a device that didn’t even have a microphone.  (But it was his fault: he had programmed it.)  Still, his thoughts were bound to words, and the device could only interpret thoughts he was deliberately projecting in a verbal format.

Copernicus lost his thoughts again, terribly bored with yet another chapter on drone defense contingency plans, and only noticed when his holopad projected an orange, wavy line–the symbol for “thought stream lost.”  He was daydreaming.  He ran a quick tally in his head: sixth time today.  Copernicus’ personal rule was that any day with seven orange squiggles meant a forced day off from study, so he decided to take a bike ride to the municipal park.  Later he would return to focus and finish.  Now was a great time to socialize.

Copernicus mounted his bicycle and rode down the plywood ramp from his second-floor condominium balcony.  He felt the wind rush through his prematurely gray beard while his golden, twenty-six-year-old face and Hollywood-white teeth shone with glee in a rapturous moment of daredevil daydream.  He loved to get up to a good pace at the beginning of his ride, and since most of the other tenants had moved out of the complex, he had a very easy time convincing his seven remaining neighbors to let him build this incline on a framework of salvaged rough lumber.  He was the only one left in his building, and the opposite building that faced his scaffold was completely empty.

He rode past the beige stucco buildings of his complex, nearly the last of their kind.  They all were property of an energy company now.  The remaining tenants were clearing out gradually, each with a different excuse for sluggishness.  Copernicus knew he had the least reason to stay–only sentiment–but some of the other families in the development had been there for generations.  One woman, a struggling comic, was very obviously too poor to move, but could barely afford to stay, either.  One elderly gentleman made a living growing rare flowers in a patch of dirt he had been amending for decades.  The deadline was coming; in 17 days Copernicus would have to find a new home.  As with most decisions, he was putting it off as a low priority.  He had already done his thinking about this and was emotionally disinterested in re-thinking until after the last revisions to his dissertation.  Fortunately, he was certain it would be complete before the week was out.  Then eight years of careful study would be behind him, and he could stop getting stung four or five times a week.

By the time Copernicus was done convincing himself to procrastinate finding a new place, he was already at the park.  The first things he saw were his friends, Sanjit and Rajeev, a couple of boney bachelors sleeping face-up on a very worn orange and yellow quilt beneath a cottonwood tree.  These two brothers had been cramming for their most final of final exams, and must have been exhausted, Copernicus assumed.  He bent over them to yell in their ears.

“I should steal your wallets!” he barked as they awoke flailing from their rest.  Neither brother had a good sense of spatial direction.  They spent most of their time in low-gravity situations, and often seemed confused that objects they placed in the air did not float as they would in space.  So when these two woke up, they did not jump up like normal people do.  Instead, their startled reaction was to grope for an electrical conduit to hold, which is the next best thing to gravity.  Sanjit grabbed an exposed tree root; Rajeev grabbed Sanjit’s backpack strap.  When they finally realized which way was up, they raised their eyes, then lowered their eyebrows at Copernicus, who was completing a mighty chuckle.

Sanjit asked, “What you doing out here, B student?  You should be writing love poems for you teachers!”  Sanjit was new to English, but Copernicus assumed that gibe was very clever in Hindi.

“I’m taking a break because I’m toast.  Can’t relate?”  Copernicus gestured with an open hand to their ratty but comfortable-looking blanket.  “Really though, guys, you should take turns snoozing.  One of you should keep watch.  Some loafer will come and snatch your stuff; I’m serious.  You should see the squatters in my complex right now.”

Rajeev scraped the unwelcome topic with his perfect English.  “Nick, when in the world are you going to find yourself a new place, for goodness sake?  You can stay with us!  Mata delivers food every evening.”  Rajeev knew he had hit a favorite point and coaxed further, “I know you like the South Asian food,” smiling and nodding.

Copernicus loved it.  He could imagine the smell of coriander being ground with a mortar and pestle for curried potatoes and cauliflower, and sweet mango chutney on cardamom cookies for dessert.  He wanted to smell spices in his whiskers in the morning.  More important, he also wanted to get familiar with the brothers’ sister, Pritika.

He started considering the offer but caught himself.  “I’m not thinking about it until I take the drones’ battle contingencies beyond scrutiny.  It’s all on the pad.  I’m past revisions and into crossing Ts.  And no one on this hemisphere is qualified to edit me.”

The brothers knew he was right, but they also knew someone in Godavari who would be able to help.  They had told him before, and it was plain that Copernicus was making excuses to avoid delegation.  They looked at each other and silently agreed not to bother Nick with a tenth referral.

The sun was low and the late-Spring flowers started to take turns subtly glowing.  Copernicus loved this time of the evening, and suddenly became energetic.  He always took the opportunity to show anyone the change in radiance that flowers exhibit during the setting phases of the sun.  He explained that the colors of the clouds in a sunset shine on all the earth before they show in the sky.  “You can see them, if you’re aware, even on clear days by the way they make flowers glow.”

“First the red flowers glow, see?” he said, pointing to a far off rhododendron overflowing with blossoms.  “Next you’ll see the orange early roses take life while the red-hued flowers start to lose their color, or at least their radiance.  Everything in this park will turn gray in an hour.  The red flowers will gray before the purple.  Watch.”

Copernicus’ prediction came true as the orange blossoms of a beautiful early rose turned nearly incandescent and the red rhody paled.  “What color is next, scholars?” asked Copernicus.  His friends answered by turning their eyes to a beautiful sweet broom shrub with sun-yellow blossoms like a million golden teardrops falling upward.  They were bright as usual, but the orange roses were still brilliant and the red flowers had not lost all their flavor quite yet.

Copernicus took this moment of distraction to ask about Pritika.  “So your sister is graduating next week, right?”

Rajeev responded, “Who wants to know? Do you ask on behalf of a 22-year-old graduating with honors?”

Copernicus tried not to look too interested, knowing these brothers had run off many suitors.  “I thought I heard something about it when Mata came to your dorm last week, that’s all.”

Sanjit’s sarcasm rang with a sing-song quality:  “That’s all.  Sure.  Of course.”  He eyed Copernicus, sizing him up.  Sanjit was a foot shorter than Copernicus, but had moxy, a brother, and a culture of sister protection.

Copernicus decided to change the subject again.  He pretended to be surprised at a bee in one of the nearest flowers, an Aaron’s Beard he had been watching for some time.  An apiologist cannot help but recognize them everywhere.

“Let me show you what this bee is looking at.  See the lines of paler yellow in the center of this blossom?” Copernicus asked.  “It’s pale because the flower is using less yellow pigment there and more ultraviolet pigment.  Look.”  He took out a tool from his pocket that looked like a thin scroll, unrolled it, and placed it between the flower and himself.  It was a clear film bound between aluminum dowels.  Looking through it, all three of them could see purplish-white, arrow-shaped patterns pointing toward the middle of the flower.

“You can’t see them with the naked eye, but there are ultraviolet arrows pointing to the bee food in flowers.  As you can see, this is a very basic, very by-the-book arrow shape.  It’s the same sign we humans have used in almost every culture to indicate direction.  A flower invented that symbol to direct bees, who easily understood it.  You’ve been seeing these subconsciously all your life, and now you see them with your very eyes.  Pretty interesting, huh?”

Rajeev was nodding off, but Sanjit was interested.  By now all the yellow flowers in the park were shining.  Sanjit asked why there’s a green hue in the rainbow but not one in clouds at sunset.

“I don’t know, Sanjit.  I’ve asked quite a few professors that one myself.  You know, it was Einstein who finally answered the question, `why is the sky blue?’  The truth is, the question all along should have been, `why isn’t the sky black?'”

Sanjit asked how long it would be until the blue and purple flowers started glowing.  Copernicus said it would be “about thirty more minutes, but I have to get back to work.  Oh, and if you see red flowers glowing at the end, it’s because they’re purple too.  Rusty reds and purple reds look totally different after sundown.”

Satisfied with his successful socialization break, Copernicus left well before the blue phase.  He rode back home by the same route, once again ignoring the landscape, lost in thought, this time about his thesis.  Tomorrow he would have to ask for preliminary approval from a professor of his choice.  He had decided at the beginning of the quarter to choose Dr. Bienfang, the entomology lecturer.  They had the most in common, he figured, and Dr. Bienfang would appreciate the bees’ wartime tactics because of a side-interest in ancient weaponry.

Chapter Two

The blinding spring dawn met Copernicus at the closed door of the deep lecture hall of Dr. Bienfang.  The smell of dawn’s earliest blossoms and the buzz of their favorite insects gave Copernicus the courage to enter despite rumors that the doctor was not a morning person, on top of which Copernicus knew he would be interrupting preparations for a dissection lecture.  The deep lecture hall seated 2800 students, and was raked very steeply to fit entirely within the footprint of the thin, fourteen-story biology building.  Every year, a freshman or two would fall half a flight of steps onto one of the few narrow landings.  Knowing he was quite nervous, and not wishing so to injure himself, Copernicus took three deep breaths through his nose, each time detecting a familiar pollen to accompany him in his descent.

He opened the door and looked down to the lectern.  Dr. Bienfang was preparing a specimen on the table to the left of it, which was otherwise perfectly clean.  He called down to the professor in a voice much louder than he had intended.

“Doctor!” he screeched, cringing at the echo, then holding his forehead in dismay.

“Oh my… who is up there?  I can’t see you!” yelled Dr. Bienfang, squinting at the backlit student and wondering who’d been shot.

“I’m sorry to yell,” Copernicus continued, this time sheepishly quiet.  He breathed deeply again to regulate his nerves and his tone followed.  “Dr. Bienfang, it’s Copernicus Schrader.  I’m here to speak with you about my dissertation on hive defense.”

Dr. Bienfang smiled and replied, “were you just stung or are you afraid of falling down the stairs?”

Copernicus chuckled courteously and made his way carefully down the stairs, holding the rail tightly with his right hand and placing his holopad in his trouser pocket with the left.  Dr. Bienfang recited his instructions to “take your time; it’s not worth risking a limb” for the however-many-th time.  Copernicus made his way to the floor while Dr. Bienfang washed his hands with bar soap and the deionized water from the sink next to his dissection display.  He greeted Copernicus with a wet handshake and a strange welcome, “Let’s take… a moment to get acquainted.”

The doctor asked how much Copernicus knew about his work.  The response was encyclopedic; Dr. Bienfang had to stop him halfway through.  The doctor thanked him for all the unintentional compliments and humbly credited his co-authors from the numerous published works that had been mentioned.  Then he surprised Copernicus with a list of the student’s own best papers from every semester.  “I’ve enjoyed reading your papers, Master Schrader.  You always have a smashing thesis and you defend it well.  The way you write, it almost seems like you have a two-phase, valence-shell contingency battle plan.”  He winked, and Copernicus was dumbfounded.

“Yes,” said the doctor, “I’ll approve your paper.”

A wave of inexpressible gratitude swept over Copernicus’ mind.  At the same time, he was disoriented by the doctor’s foreknowledge.

“Now for something more important,” continued the doctor.  “Your name, is it really Copernicus?”

“Yes, Copernicus Schrader.”

“That’s not a pen name or anything?  Who named you that?”

“My parents, of course, Dr. Bienfang” replied Copernicus, smiling and expecting a joke.  “You know, I get this all the time.”

“Who were your parents, Copernicus?  What were their names and what did they do?”  The doctor asked this question with very a deliberate and professorial inflection that made Copernicus wonder if he already knew the answer.  He also wondered why this was more important than his dissertation, but then remembered it was as good as signed, and relaxed.

“I grew up with my father.  My mother died when I was little.  I was six.”

“And what did they do for a living, son?  Doctors?  Lawyers?  Astronomers?”

Copernicus said that his father was and is a metallurgist and he never knew whether his mother worked.  “Why, did you know them?”

Dr. Bienfang ignored the question.  “You have a love-hate relationship with monarchy.  It’s all over your thesis: phrases like, `risking life and limb for their mother-queen’ and `bearing no identity outside of the hive.'”

Copernicus liked getting back on track.  He had a thousand questions for Dr. Bienfang.  Unfortunately, the doctor interrupted.

“Have you ever lived in a kingdom?  You know all those words: kingdom; dominion from the Latin domini, a lordship with one ruler; region from the Latin regis, king.  It’s all the same thing.”

“Where are you going with this?” asked the frank and focused Copernicus, avoiding the word “babbling.”

Dr. Bienfang took a breath and responded, leaning back on the prep table with his elbows and folding his hands in front of his fatless tummy, “You have a peculiar position on things, a noticeable position.”  The doctor pointed one finger almost accusatively at Copernicus and furrowed his brow.  “Your prose is dripping with it.  You have a conflict.  I bet you wonder if kingdoms are better, don’t you?  Say it straight.  I won’t tell anyone.”

Copernicus was more confused, but after a long pause he cocked his head to the side, narrowed his eyes, and shared his wonder: “Why is the al Saud family doing so well after all these centuries?  Why is their kingdom doing better than so many democracies, so many nations, syndicates, and collectives?”

Dr. Bienfang issued a grin that bubbled from his chin to his scalp—one Copernicus thought rather excessive.  “That is what I wanted to hear,” the doctor revealed.  “But they’re not doing the best, are they?  They’ve been doing well for a long time, but they’ve never been the most productive or happiest or freest people, have they, in Saudi Arabia?  They’ve been stable, selling oil then electricity, then light, then education, always something.  But other countries have taught them everything they know, haven’t they?  And some countries come and go in a flash where everyone goes from rags to riches to rags in… two generations!”

Copernicus still didn’t know where the doctor was taking this, but he started to catch the doctor’s enthusiasm.

A student walked in the door–the same door Copernicus had entered.  The doctor realized his lecture was about to start but that the scalpel set he needed was still out in his car.  He commanded Copernicus, “Stay here.  Talk about the evolution of arthropod vision in the ultraviolet spectrum.  You were spot on about that from your first quarter.  Relate it to composite eyes, too,” he said, “I’ll be back in five,” and promptly bolted through the supply closet door, which Copernicus had learned has a passage to a staff elevator.

Students began flooding in through both upper doors, a thousand or more of them moving slowly but steadily into the chairs.  Copernicus looked at the clock: two minutes to six.  Zero-hour lecture was starting for all the overachievers in the most acclaimed biology school on Earth.  Copernicus had never lectured before, but he was certain Dr. Bienfang would be back soon with a box of knives and his part of the lecture would last two minutes at most.

Obediently, mock-professor Schrader began his lecture right on time with no introduction, speaking about the earliest arthropods yet discovered to have rudimentary ultraviolet eyesight.  After two minutes, the doctor had not returned but Copernicus was speaking fluidly and competently about a subject the students appeared to find worthy of several pages of notes each.  Having no idea when the doctor would return, Copernicus hit the most important points first, returning to fill in the most relevant details.

After what seemed like five more minutes, Dr. Bienfang appeared in the audience, raising his hand.  Copernicus nearly choked on his tongue.  He was not an awkward person by nature, but this was a very important day and it was not going at all according to plan.

“Professor Schrader,” taunted the real professor, in an obnoxious Poindexter tenor.

“Yes…” Copernicus choked up the last threatening spittle that had arrested his speech a moment before and blinked eight times. “Yes, Dr. Bienfang?”  He was not enjoying this prank.

“Professor Schrader, your line is terrible.  Where are the connections between UV-sensitive spider eyes and UV-sensitive bee eyes?  There’s no connection!  The intermediary forms are UV-blind!  How do you explain this?  Did they evolve separately, or from some form you have no record of?”

Mock-professor Schrader was habitually bored of this line of discussion, which was one that came up in every biology class at least once, and always from someone who got a C in the prerequisite course.  “Doctor, I’m sure you are only asking me to prove to the class that this line of discussion is played out, annoying, and redundant, but I will humor you.”  Copernicus cleared his throat one last time and gave the rote answer:

“Fossils are only created when the ground rises above something to preserve it.  As we all know, dirt very seldom escapes the pull of the Earth unassisted.  So soil is either rising up above an object, or the object deteriorates into dust itself, which is washed or blown away.  These objects that exist during times of waning landscape never enter the fossil record unless they’re buried suddenly.  Depending on the plates, the sea level, the exact location of an object, and numerous other factors, millions of years of evolutionary proof simply vanish.  Therefore we do not have proof of every living creature, nor every phase of evolution, including–quite significantly–the origin of quadrupeds.  This has been likened by anti-evolutionists to the excuse `my dog ate my homework.’  The response with which evolution proponents sometimes rebut is, `it’s not our fault the dog ate our homework.’  Others are looking for a way to decode air- and water-borne fossils.”

Dr. Bienfang stood up and began to clap.  Students who enjoyed the response joined him, followed by students who didn’t want to fall out of favor with the teacher, followed by students who were not paying attention but knew they had better stand and clap.

The doctor stepped out into the aisle and started down the steep steps toward the lecture floor.  While descending carefully but without the rail, he happily shouted, “Okay, everyone, did you hear that?  That was someone besides me explaining the gaps in the fossil record.  I will not answer that question again this semester.  You are free to share notes with the snoozers when they awake as always.”

Taking over, Dr. Bienfang gestured to Copernicus to have a seat in the front row for the dissection.  He obeyed and learned quite a lot, which need not be detailed here.

After the lecture Dr. Bienfang dismissed the class, taking questions from a few students on the lecture hall floor.  Then he arranged for office-time discussions with a few more of his students.  Copernicus waited around in case the doctor had time for a few words about his dissertation, but time was scarce.  When Copernicus finally regained the doctor’s attention, all the man had time to say was, “Son, do you like pot lucks?  Here’s the invite.  I’ve got to go.”

Copernicus watched the doctor leave out the back, and only afterward noticed a business card in his hand with a code matrix on it.  He retrieved the holopad from his trouser pocket and used it to read the code: “Saturday 6pm Majors Cafeteria Bring Dish Preferably Pine Themed.”

Copernicus took the code to the computer lab to make sure he was reading it right.  A pine-themed dish was indeed requested.  He enjoyed pine nuts, and decided a rich pesto would be the way to go.  If others brought one, too, he assumed they would forgive him.  This was, after all, his first pot luck at the school, and he didn’t know whom to ask to avoid duplication.

Chapter Three

Hoping for a lengthier conversation with the doctor as he pedaled his bicycle up the hill that Saturday to the University, Copernicus lugged his backpack full of pestoed bowtie pasta, which filled all the sealable containers he owned.  “If I had a larger backpack,” he thought while riding, “I suppose I would feel obligated to buy more or larger containers.  But when do I ever feed anyone?  Usually people feed me.  I can’t wait to see who’s there.  Hopefully no one who wants to monopolize Dr. Bienfang’s time.”

The Majors Cafeteria was always full of adult students on weekdays, but Saturday night usually cleared the hall.  Fortunately, that made the potluck very easy to find.  It was dark out, and only two lights were on in the glass-pane building, so Copernicus walked straight through the closest door and onward to the gathering of only seven people.  “Not much of a pot luck,” he said under his breath.

The first thing he noticed was the scent of pine.  This cafeteria smelled so strongly of pine sap that it confused his senses.  He couldn’t tell what he was smelling until he was ten feet away from the pots.

The second thing he noticed, which he thought should have been the first, was Pritika.  She was there in plain sight, even visible through the windows.  Copernicus hadn’t noticed, which was not like him.

“Pritika,” he said as he approached the group.  Then he remembered she didn’t know him very well.

“Yes, you’re… I met you,” replied the pretty young woman.  Her name sounded like “pretty,” but like so many other feminine names, meant “beloved.”  He imagined calling her that to her beautiful, golden-umber face.  Then he snapped out of it.

“Yes, I’m your brothers’ friend, Copernicus Schrader.  I study bees.  I’m bring my dissertation doctor, uh…” his speech was getting a little off.  In his defense, he hadn’t spoken much lately.

The third thing he noticed was the doctor, who kindly finished his broken sentence for him.  “Bienfang.  Yes, Copernicus, thank you for coming.  I’m so glad you could make it.  Could you smell the pine from outside?”

“No.  In fact I couldn’t recognize what it was, because it was so strong, until I was right here.  But now I think I’ll smell like pine for the rest of my life.  I can barely think with this… this cacophony of scent.”

Dr. Bienfang explained, “We’ve turned pine sap into food.  It’s just like applesauce for digestion and energy, but it still tastes like pine.  Jeremy over here ate some the other day and felt fine but couldn’t get the scent off him for four days.”

Jeremy joined the conversation.  “Feelin’ fine; smellin’ pine.”  He was a scrawny lad with computer-interface wristbands and pale green monitor spectacles that seemed to glare regardless of their position in relation to a light source.

“Interface development?” asked Copernicus.

“Yup,” replied Jeremy, lacing his hands behind his head and reclining in a soft leather chair that was obviously not from the cafeteria.

“And please meet your peers,” announced the doctor, “Miss Martha Feinmann, Master Bints Daar, Mister Wangiss, and Hary.  Everyone, this is Master Copernicus Schrader, an apiologist.  Hary, that means he studies bees.”

They all raised a hand of welcome.  Copernicus looked at them for about two seconds each.  They all were wearing their crests, which meant they must have been expecting a newcomer.  Mister Wangiss’ crest stood out–Copernicus had seen it before, or one like it.  The four-centimeter disc displayed two overlapping hexagons, with a ring layered between them, over which was written a line of text, something in Roman letters.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you all.  Do you do this regularly?”

“Every week,” a few replied, though Hary didn’t seem especially conversational.

“With pine, or what?  I brought pesto farfalle.”

A cheer went up from the tiny crowd and Hary tugged just once on Copernicus’ backpack at the perfect angle to bring it into his own custody.  Hary then unzipped the sack and distributed its contents in an instant along with forks he seemed to produce from under the table.

“This is the only real food we’ll have tonight, friends, thanks to Copernicus Schrader,” announced Pritika.  “Perhaps we should enjoy it after the pine, though, you think?”  Hary was already eating pasta.

Bints waved a serving spoon full of pine sauce in front of Copernicus’ face and leaned forward in anticipation.  After obediently tasting a half-teaspoon of pine sauce, he wretched for a moment and then cleaned the inside of his mouth with his tongue before coming to terms with the flavor.  “What is this for?” he asked no one in particular.

“Hungry people… on Mars mostly,” replied Jeremy.  “They can grow pines and little else in the old abandoned domes.  The new domes are great, just like Earth, but that doesn’t stop them from running short.  If they could eat pine, there would be no shortages for maybe two hundred years, maybe never.”

“That’s brilliant,” replied Copernicus, wincing and still wiping his teeth vigorously with his tongue.  He thought about how much the HyT had helped the solar system since it started operating 41 years ago.  “So are you going to send some of this through the HyT?”

“No,” replied Martha, Pritika, and Bints simultaneously.  There was an awkward pause, and Copernicus decided not to ask why just yet.  He was more curious about Mr. Wangiss’ crest anyhow.

“Mr. Wangiss, why do I recognize your crest?” he queried.

Mr. Wangiss was staring off and seemed not to hear, but the moment before Copernicus asked the question again he replied “It’s on the HyT.  My grandfather invented it…”   After another moment of distant reflection, he met eyes with Copernicus for the first time and clarified, “Helped to invent it.  You saw it in the textbooks in grade school.  You see it on important packages, that sort of thing.”

“That’s it!” Copernicus rejoiced, as though Mr. Wangiss would be just as excited, and continued, “Wasn’t he a doctor of social something-or-other, too?  I always thought that was odd, a sociologist working in physical sciences.”

“Yes.  And I’ll explain why that preconception is antithetical to his entire revolutionary work and borderline offensive.”  The words of Mr. Wangiss’ response sounded terse, but he didn’t emote any further, so Copernicus relaxed.  After a moment, Mr. Wangiss continued speaking, sounding more like he was pleased to find an opportunity to tell a tale.  The others got nostalgic looks on their faces, got comfortable, and leaned in as children do for a favorite story.

Chapter Four

My grandfather, Dr. Orenthal Wangiss, believed in a rounded education.  He studied the arts and became an accomplished sculptor, studied music and became an in-demand harpsichordist, studied falconry and kept a marvelously nimble and clever trained hawk.  He seemed never to waste a moment, always driven to find out something new or to perfect another talent.  His academic accomplishments focused on the limitations of learning.  You see, he had accepted nature’s challenge to make himself more than an animal, the challenge nature offers all men.  That’s how I feel about it, anyway.

Grandfather Wangiss learned about learning and relentlessly sought its barriers—to break them.  That’s not a strong enough word.  He wanted to obliterate them: obliterate means to destroy something out of remembrance.  He realized there must be others studying this, so he checked up on different advances that had been made in years, decades, and centuries past.  He had a lot of work to do finding out which documented achievements were true and which were false.  He was meticulous in this, spending a decade or so testing out different methods to learn faster and more thoroughly than people generally do.  He studied geniuses and found very few similarities outside of congenital brands of madness.  What he learned was that if he were to bring his life’s work to greatest effect, he would have to find out all the methods to boost learning that anyone could assimilate.

Starting in the earliest years of development, he investigated the methods by which almost any child can learn to read at an early age—how they work, how they fail.  They have been around for generations, and some parents use them; some parents don’t.  But almost any child can learn by this method.  He set out to figure out why, and did, as you will see.

In his association with hundreds of learning professionals, he heard of a twentieth-century Dr. Kawamura who had trained hundreds of average people to concentrate on multiple foci at once, watching two, three, or more data streams with equal and unabridged attention.  Surely if a child or adult can learn three logical skills at a time, one will have more time for play, which builds the other side of the brain.  But children did not bear enough interest for grandfather as they do not make their own decisions.  Grandfather did not want to raise a generation of revolutionaries anyhow, which he opined was the only purpose for changing children’s education radically.

He was primarily interested in changing the way entire societies, cultures, and nations learned together.  His vision was to break the chains of ignorance that have thwarted us again and again.  He wanted to save the world from the next inevitable Dark Age.  What a pity it would be—to lose everything we’ve worked so hard for, over and over as a race.  If we could break that cycle we would be able to keep this renaissance.

After everything, what he found was that our thinking, our reasoning and our logic, is bound by language.  Now, this is no novel discovery.  Hundreds of philosophers small and great have said so.  But never had a scientist dedicated his life’s work to quantifying it.  You won’t believe this at first, but there is a constant, inexpressible by numbers, that holds back a man from thinking past his language.  In truth, an individual can only out-think his peers by a certain factor because he is bound by his words.  Even if he does have a novel thought, to whom can he express it?  How many saviors have died with inexpressible, world-changing thoughts?  And even then, they could only be one or two steps more advanced than what we’re all thinking.  You could think of it as a percent, but that would be inaccurate.  Indeed, my grandfather’s own great out-thinking was to create nomenclature and a sort of verbal mathematics capable of describing this phenomenon, and that is where his expertise ended.  But the Wangiss constant, at least to the highest echelon of theoretical linguists, is the greatest achievement of thought since the dawn of man.  There is a solid case to be made for this.

Since Dr. Wangiss discovered how far past the rest of us our greatest geniuses can think, we have accomplished an explosion of scientific feats.  That is because he also figured the number of standard deviations from the general populace a properly trained specialist in his field can be reasonably expected to learn, and how much farther a true genius can surpass his specialty’s peers.  Terribly sorry about not using the proper terminology here; neither you nor I would understand it anyway.  But what I’m saying is that since Dr. Wangiss discovered our possible advancement of potential–the second derivative of our learning–who here is a mathematician?–anyway, now that we know how fast we can learn, we shoot for that.  Instead of trying for high marks versus the other children, vanguard schools are teaching children to learn what they can at their own pace.  That pace, for each child, is always very fast in at least one subject, sometimes many.  Now that scientists know that they can learn so much more than they did before, they are outpacing the past generation by half in their will to achieve and therefore their achievements.

You must understand.  Do you know the game fourdraughts?  It’s a four-dimensional board game.  It was invented by Dr. Wangiss as an educational tool–not just for students, but for teachers.  It exists as an example of how you can teach much more than what is known.  You can invent new ways to teach and learn and make it fun, even thrilling, and really expand the minds of not just individuals but the entire populace.  Sometimes all that is needed is a term people can attach to a feeling or notion they already have felt or experienced.  Then motivated people will learn when they are inspired, once they feel it, and go on to create more learning and more potential for learning.

My talk about it is awfully muddy, but that is the theory, with proof in the pudding, that my grandfather came up with.  That is why it is silly, though I mean no offense, to say that it is strange for a sociologist to enter the physical sciences.

Not to go too deep, but my grandfather helped design the HyT–though I’d rather you not call it that–for the same reason he wanted to teach people to learn.  He knew that the beautiful renaissance we’re in would be damned eventually by some unsightly asteroid.  We’ve had so many near misses that we never even detected until a couple hundred years ago.  Thousands of times since radio we’ve been missed by an astronomical hair’s breadth by some civilization-threatening space rock, sometimes seven or ten at a time.  If we don’t get enough humans off this planet, there will be no one left to colonize our beautiful Earth once the dust settles.  And you know the colonies are doing terribly–those “starving satellites” as the GEoNs famously said.

Without my grandfather’s help, scientists would never have stopped thinking in three dimensions and the manipulation of gravity necessary to transport via the HyT would never, ever have happened.  He taught them how to stop thinking so narrowly.  He started with fourdraughts and helped them all teach each other.  You probably were taught in school Einstein’s Lie that space “bends” around mass’ gravity holes.  What a preposterous notion.  Not only is it false, but they know it’s false and they still teach it just like that “flavor patches of the tongue” canard–just a mistranslation from old German!  You have centuries of flawed programming that was all caused by poor language and it is not your fault.

But thanks to the elevation of truth we can all keep teaching nature that we are the stewards of the animals, not to be counted among them.  We build planets now, we eat asteroids and drink sunshine.  Not gods, but kings every one of us, clothed in the choicest of nature’s humble offerings.

Chapter Five

Other than that very strange last part, which seemed to enrapture the other pot luck attendants, Copernicus was very impressed with a useful history lesson told in a singular fashion by a real survivor.  Copernicus could see Mr. Wangiss’ living memories of a venerable hero in the expressive face that retold the story.  And he could see the story would be told again to pot luck organizers for decades to come.

Pine.  Oh no, not the pine.  It was back, now that Copernicus fell from his story-time trance.

“What are we going to do about our clothes with this pine scent?” Copernicus asked.  “And doctor, I mean Mr. Wangiss, what am I supposed to call the HyT then?”

Dr. Bienfang fielded the first question.  “You wash it in kerosene.”

Copernicus was not amused.

“He’s kidding.  Just wash it in soap and water,” corrected Martha. “It will still smell like pine, just not so bad.  Pine smells good, you know?”

“It’s not a hypertorus,” said Mr. Wangiss, rubbing the edge of his crest with his thumb.  The crest was pinned to his lapel.  Mr. Wangiss always dressed in a rather old fashioned way; today it was a tweed blazer and gray linen pants.  “It’s a neutronium ring jacketed with a gravity-shielding toroid hyperprism.  You have no idea how much progress is hindered by that terrible GEoN press release from four decades ago.  People think it’s magic.  They are utterly convinced that only the greatest minds can build rings.  Do you know who built them?  A shipload of thirty-somethings.”

Copernicus wanted to listen, but his left eye kept catching Pritika gesturing in conversation with Jeremy.  She was very distracting.  He had never seen a golden from South Asia before.  Unlike her brothers she had a local accent, but she still spoke Hindi with native fluency.  He wanted to hear her speak it, and kept thinking she was.  She wasn’t.

“Copernicus,” Mr. Wangiss interjected, acknowledging his former listener’s disinterest.   “I don’t believe we all know your story.  Who are you, and who invited you—the doctor, right?”

All eyes turned to Copernicus.  All conversations halted naturally.

“I’m native to here; I grew up here.  I just speak English and I’m not political.  I’m an apiologist, which… I think someone already said that.  You?” he asked, pointing to Dr. Bienfang.  He was especially at ease in small groups, and was used to giving presentations and introducing himself.  He liked to ask, “Who has a question for me?”

After he did, Pritika raised her hand, exaggerating the gesture somewhat comically.  “I have a question.”  She paused for eye contact.  “How did you like the pine sauce?”

Everyone laughed loudly, including Copernicus.  They had all seen his face twist at the first and only spoonful.

“Is that your bike out there?” asked Jeremy.

“Yes, it’s mine and I designed it.  A couple of my friends in mech put it together… well, cut it, really.  It’s one piece of aluminum, except the wheels.  Well, and the steering.  You know, it’s a cut frame, not welded.  That’s what I mean.”

Jeremy’s face lit up a bit, beyond the normal glare from his spectacles.  “Mine is a tree,” he said.

“Excuse me?” replied Copernicus.

“I grew it on an arbor and it’s hydroponically sustained.  The water weighs a lot, but it’s fun to say I’m riding on a tree.  Just the frame, of course.”

Copernicus doubted.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.  Is it here?”

The others had their questions, too.  Mr. Wangiss asked, “Is your name really Copernicus?  I mean since birth?”

This was such a common question.  No culture had used the name for several centuries.  The stock answer came out again: “Yes.”  Just yes, a yes of boredom.

Martha wanted to know, “Is that why you got into science?”

Names aren’t prophetic—at least Copernicus didn’t think so.  He replied, “No, but my parents did what they could to fill my life with mystery, curiosity, and wonder.  My father was a theoretical physicist turned metallurgist, and my mother, I’m not sure, but I’ve heard she was at least interested in science as well.

“What’s your last name?” asked Hary.  The expressions on the faces of the group seemed to indicate they did not expect Hary to speak.  Ever.

After Copernicus gave himself a moment to take in that response, he replied, “Schrader.”

Hary looked thoughtful for a moment, then returned to eating pasta, now with a dollop of pine sauce.  He ate very slowly and deliberately, but the dedication with which he ate still left one to wonder whether he ever stopped to breathe.

Mr. Wangiss asked Copernicus if his father was still alive.

“Yes, alive and practicing.  He’s working on some sort or supercompression right now to reduce the surface area of hypercooled metals.

Mr. Wangiss and Dr. Bienfang laughed.  The doctor realized something he hadn’t before.  “Your father is Serge Schrader,” he said with a smile that tried to laugh.

“Yes.  You know him?  He doesn’t work anywhere around here.”

“In academia we publish,” retorted Mr. Wangiss, whose credentials had not been discussed.  The implication was that anyone worth knowing was known by their by-lines.

Bints piped up.  He had been sitting, watching, amused at the developments and flow of the evening.  “Your father, he held the Lucasian Chair and abandoned it.  That doesn’t happen.”  It sounded like Bints had a cold, and he cleared his throat after he spoke.

“That was ages ago.  He never really talks about that.  Mostly he likes to work in physic, not theory.”

“He named you Copernicus, young sir,” stated Bints, who did not appear any older than Copernicus himself.  “Do you know why?”

He did not know why.  He also did not know why it had become such a keen point of interest of late.  He bit, “Why?”

Bints began with a sentence, but it seemed to turn into prose.  “Aristotle was wrong.  Ptolemy was wrong. Copernicus was wrong….”

Martha began to recite with him.  “Brahe was wrong.  Galileo was wrong.  Kepler was wrong.”

Mr. Wangiss and Dr. Bienfang joined in.  “Newton was wrong.  Einstein was wrong.  DeBeers was wrong…  Gonzales was wrong.  Mercy was wrong.  Stamenkovic was wrong.”

Copernicus was unnerved by six people chanting.  It didn’t set well with him.  He politely waited for them to finish.  They were already done.

“What was that?” asked Copernicus, disappointed he didn’t ask a question with a more intelligent tone.

“Your father wrote that,” replied Bints.  “He used to say it all the time.  He liked to talk about the scientist worship that stained his throne.  He had a name for each of the previous holders of the chair, always a demigod from some ancient mythology.  I wasn’t surprised when he left the Lucasian chair at all.”

“I was!” hollered Martha, eyes wide and shaking her head side to side theatrically.  Martha didn’t look old enough to have been interested in academic oligarchies of decades past.  She had a bright face with still a little baby fat in her cheeks.  Her eyebrows were unaltered, defying the crescent-shape trend of fashionable women, and she wore patchwork pants, which were more of a middle-school thing.

“What? I’m surprised, Martha” stated Copernicus, “that you would have even been able to read 22 years ago.  I don’t mean to be rude, but are you even 20 now?” asked Copernicus, not quite smiling.

Martha didn’t reply directly, but her expression of boredom with the question so reminded him of inquiries about his own name that he dropped the subject.  He chewed on his name for two more seconds then spoke his mind: “So my father was famous enough for saying this that you can all quote it, and yet he named me for a fellow who was just as famously wrong.”

“Not quite,” retorted Dr. Bienfang.  “We all know they were wrong, and we all know that they were right.  It seems more like a warning to Icarus, if you ask me.”

“I see,” reflected Copernicus, who was at once amused, exhausted, and beginning to become ill at the smell of pine.  “Can we get out of here?  Is there any point to this pine anymore?  It’s my first time and I think Hary ate all the pasta.”

Chapter Six

Everyone had come to taste piney foods, and no one seemed to second his motion toward the exit.  The only one who wasn’t actively invested, since she hadn’t brought a dish, was Martha, and Copernicus didn’t feel inclined to invite her to dinner after their most recent exchange.

“You’re welcome to try the anti-fragrances if you would like, and maybe your stomach will settle a bit,” Pritika generously offered.

That sounded like a very good idea when she said it, so Copernicus held out his hand expecting someone to fill it with an inhaler.  Instead, he watched as Mr. Wangiss pulled out a little metal case from his sport jacket and opened it to reveal in its interior a grid of satin-lined recesses with an assortment of tiny fruits.  “These are miracle berries and such.  It was an early attempt at pine-based sustenance to simply eat miracle berries before pine needles and inner bark.  I still keep some with me, and I always restock before a pot luck.”

The berries looked familiar.  “Did my bees fertilize those?” Copernicus asked.

“Yes, in fact that’s when Dr. Bienfang took an interest in your work.  The way you led the bees was intriguing.”

“It was very intriguing,” interrupted Dr. Bienfang.  “I had never seen an apiary beacon in use.  I didn’t know we even remembered the technology since the extinction watch.”

Copernicus was once again happy to be back in familiar conversation.  “I had to reinvent it based on anecdotes and a schematic I found on an old hard drive.”

The talk continued, rife with nomenclature, and Copernicus got to know everyone a little better.  Copernicus was determined to learn at least one new thing about each member of the pot luck group.  He learned that Dr. Bienfang’s war history enthusiasm extended to reenactments of ancient Asian battles.  He learned that Mr. Wangiss’ family also invented the modern crest.  Martha was an accomplished horticulturist and entrepreneur.  Jeremy was indeed an interface expert, focusing on systems simplification and intuitive process.  Pritika was a composer inspired by the ancient music of her ancestral home, Dabra, in South Asia.  She sang the high-pitched music that Copernicus always mistook for a violin’s attempt at a piccolo.  She was fluent in seven languages and was working on some sort of linguistic experiment with Mr. Wangiss.  Bints Daar was really Vincenzo DaLara, but a failed surgery on his deviated septum altered his speech to sound as though he always had a cold.  He had a good sense of humor about it, thus he was Bints Daar to his friends.

Hary’s turned out to be the most interesting story, and not only because it proved he could talk.  It came about when Copernicus was asking a few of the group—those who were not actively engaged in tasting piney things—a standard question in modern times, “who does your security?”  Dr. Bienfang’s answer was, of course, “University.”  Mr. Wangiss said, “I have a government detail left over from a project ages ago that I’m not allowed to talk about,” and winked.

Hary spoke, startling Copernicus, “I am security.”  He showed Copernicus his knuckles.  They were huge.  They looked augmented.  “They’re not augs.  Born and raised security,” Hary volunteered.

“So you’ve been a guard all your life?”

“Since seven.  I watched and sounded alarms from a vid desk at a low security prison.  I was the sharpest snitch in Irkutsk.”  His face made more sense now.  He had Asian eyes, but a light complexion.

“That’s a young age to be in charge of criminals.”

“No,” replied Hary, not elucidating further.

“Well, when did you leave the prison, Hary?”

“When I was nine.  They couldn’t bump me anymore.”

Copernicus figured that by bump he meant promote.  “So you outgrew the prison and then what?”

“I retired for a couple years, lived with my parents.  When I was twelve I took a job securing a dig.”

That sounded impossible.  “You lived on an asteroid digester when you were twelve?”  Copernicus’ voice rose in pitch and volume.  “I couldn’t even get a job doing entomological tests last year and I’m a grown man.”  Copernicus realized it was evident that he was jealous, and he was distracting the other pot luckers, so he decided to cool it.

“If your bugs shot debris out the sky at a quarter mile, they would let you up,” stated Hary, quite correctly.

“That’s amazing, Hary,” replied Copernicus, at a refrigerated vocal temperature.  Copernicus had always wanted to go on a dig.  He knew there wasn’t much economic incentive to allow a glorified beekeeper up.

Hary asked, “who does your security, Master Schrader?”

“Please, call me Copernicus, or even Nick.”

“Who does your security?” Hary asked again.  He was never comfortable with familiar terms.

“No one.  I haven’t earned a University detail yet, and I can’t afford private since I’m not working.”

Hary seemed concerned.  “There’s a lot of bad guys out there, Master Schrader.  Have you ever had a detail?”

Copernicus thought back.  He was sure he had had one at some time or another.  “Yes, I did.  I remember now, it was my father’s detail before I moved out.  It’s still with him.  No, I’m thinking of an old one.  Anyway, I know he has one now because the metallurgy firm he’s working with provides one.  I know he has a few automated features in his house, a vault, and a share in the company bunker, not that he’d ever have to use that anymore.”

“You’d be surprised,” contended Hary, too knowingly.

The thought made Copernicus uncomfortable, and he turned his attentions back to the rest of the group.  Pritika, mostly.

“So I think everyone has had a bowl of pasta.  I don’t need the containers back.  Is there anything I didn’t taste?  I think I have one more minute left of that miracle berry.”

“Better not,” said the doctor, frowning and scrunching his lips in a sour expression.  “You’ll get a tummy ache from this one.”  He held up a ladle full of yellow-green goo and shielded a burp.

The idea of eating more did not appeal to him anyway.  “I’d like to see you all again,” he said, looking only at Pritika.  “Is there somewhere else you meet?”

“Just here,” was the response.  They would assemble again every week at the same time to benefit the starving satellites.  Pritika didn’t seem too eager to make a personal invitation of any kind, but he always had an “in” with the brothers, and their mother, who wanted him to join the family anyway.  She already had him calling her “Maataa.”  Maataa seemed to like his golden complexion, which was no surprise since she had married a golden herself.  Copernicus thought about little three-quarters-golden babies bouncing on Pritika’s golden-umber knee, and decided he should leave before outing himself with a blush.

“Alright, folks, in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m leaving now.”  Copernicus picked up his bike so as not to leave a track, and saluted his new friends in parting.  They waved back and gave him the strangest parting phrase.  “Let’s take care of each other,” the seven said in unison.  He had never heard that parting pleasantry before, and had no idea where it came from, what language it must have been translated from.  But it was immensely welcoming to hear it.  Welcoming even as he left, so much so that he wanted to go back and give everyone a hug.  What a delightful sentiment, he thought: let’s take care of each other.  And as he exited the glass door and mounted his bicycle to ride into the night, he felt so welcome that he promised himself he would come back the following week.

Chapter Seven

After two minutes of riding through the campus’ widely varying architecture and flora, Copernicus heard a loud yell, ahead and to the left, behind an oversized, experimental fern in the museum courtyard.  It took him a moment to figure whether it meant anything, since he was still enraptured with the vivid events of the pot luck.  He decided it was just someone yelling, “hey!”, so he determined to slow down and see if someone needed help.  He could see a man just younger than himself in a white, collared shirt and boxer shorts.  That was uncommon enough that Copernicus stopped completely, and asked “Hey, are you alright?  Do you need to make a call or something?”

The young fellow smiled and paused for a moment, then yelled, “Get him!”

Copernicus was alarmed, and looked around to see who was coming, meanwhile trying to mount his bike.  He heard running feet and his heart started to race.  The sound of his pulse in his ears blocked out the first and fifth tenths of every second.  He couldn’t focus on his surroundings in the moment but got his feet on his pedals as quickly as he could and started to pedal.  In an instant, he found he was on the ground, his right leg hurting.  He hadn’t turned intentionally, but he could tell he was facing in a new direction.  He saw another young man in a darker shirt and pants—color had ceased hours ago—who had evidently kicked him off his bicycle.  The bulky assailant’s neck was almost as thick as his head, and another, scrawnier fellow was running a curve to get behind the bicycle next to Copernicus.  He took stock: he was aware of three men, two of them stationary, one swift approaching, and he didn’t have any sort of escape plan.  In a flash, he decided to abandon his bicycle and get to higher ground.  There were little hills here, and some even met the low rooflines of buildings.  Perhaps if he knew the campus better than these thugs, he could slip away and recover the bicycle later.

So he ran up a dirt path on a small mound covered in aloes, and turned his head slightly to gauge his attackers’ distance.  None of the three had approached him.  He didn’t stop to wonder why but continued to run, taking a tack toward a low-roofed building.  He considered that his bicycle was likely worth an impressive amount of money with its filigree-cut solid frame, continuously variable transmission, carbon fiber fenders… this was a glorious bike.  Copernicus steeled his heart and clenched his fists.  He slowed down, turned around and checked for nearby enemies.  None.  The element of surprise would be a bosom friend right about now, he thought.  So he scanned for the miniature mob and followed their sound back to where he came from.  He had run farther and faster than he realized, and past more obstacles as well.  When he finally got back near that fern, he hid behind one of the museum’s Doric columns.

He could hear them hollering at each other.  It sounded like they were mocking him in his absence, gloating over their loot.  He peeked from behind the pillar and saw the truth.  They were not gloating at all.  The two who assaulted him were having their heads bonked together by Hary, who held them both with his enormous hands by the hair.  They were screaming modern expletives and begging for release.  Hary screamed back, “not ‘til Copernicus comes back!”

The sight of the two suffering hurt Copernicus’ humanity.  He yelled immediately, “I’m back, Hary!” from his position in front of the museum.

Hary dropped the two thugs and they scrambled to their feet.  Hary pointed at Copernicus and yelled his name.  Copernicus didn’t understand why.

Hary again yelled, “Copernicus, that guy has your pad!”

Turning to the left—the side with the pocket that had held the holopad—Copernicus saw the boxer-clad young man darting off very quickly.  He was holding the holopad.  Copernicus had been pick-pocketed.  He ran after the thief, but was not quick enough.  Hary followed after on Copernicus’ bicycle, quickly passing him at a speed the bike had never even considered.

The two combatants took their opportunity to flee the scene.  Neither Copernicus nor Hary took a second thought for them.  That holopad was Copernicus’ most valuable possession, and the bicycle was his second.  His only interest now was that the two would meet again and soon.  He kept running, but the recent excitement had taken all the zip out of him.  After a minute, he could neither see nor hear Hary nor the thief.

The university was a maze, but a very familiar one.  Thoughts of where to head them off bubbled up in Copernicus’ head, and he chose the closest probable exit point in the interest of energy.  Jogging around a curve, he heard Hary yelling something in an East Slavic language.  Before he could figure Hary’s location, they were reunited.

Hary jumped off the bicycle and apologized, “Master Schrader, I’ve lost your holopad.  I am so sorry.”

Copernicus objected very strongly. “Sir, you have rescued me, my bicycle, and bruised a couple of bullies.  That is a commendable night’s work.”

“There is still a way to find this criminal,” counseled Hary.  Copernicus noticed that every time Hary used a word of three or more syllables, he emphasized it acutely.  Hary continued, “I can pull up the school security.”

“How can you do that?  Why are you… wait, are you school security?”

“No, but I have a contract.”

Copernicus did not understand, and raised wrinkled his brow to complete a puzzled face.

“I have a contract with the school to use their passive systems.  We can watch him—can’t zap him, but we can watch him.  I mean I can watch him.  You can go to bed.”

Copernicus liked this idea, except for Hary putting himself out for no reason.  But Hary had something to say about that.

“You’ll have to pay, of course.  I’m not authorized to pay for others’ security.”

Copernicus didn’t understand this, either, but figured it had something to do with licensing and accountability.  Unfortunately, Copernicus didn’t have much money, and furrowed his brow this time to affect a pitiful expression.

“You broke?” asked Hary, expecting an affirmative.

“Yes, I’m sorry.  I’m just going to have to call the police.”

“You can pawn something.  Give me your bike for the week and raise some funds.  I do this all the time.  Strict collateral deal, no resell privileges.”

Copernicus knew time was waning.  He had never done business in this fashion before, but he also never had to deal with the criminal element before.  He knew that if he had to rewrite his dissertation again it would take months he couldn’t afford, so he said yes.

“Good.  Sign this,” responded Hary forthwith, handing Copernicus a holopad.  “It’s been recording this conversation.”  The holopad projected a signature prism.  Copernicus placed the tip of his finger within it and signed his name in the air.

“Great,” said Hary, “I’ll patch into the system and monitor this dog.  He’s not out of bounds yet, and I know I’ll catch him.  I don’t know how much this will cost, but I have to accept something.  It’s part of my private limitations.  It’s up to me how much I charge, but I have to charge something.  I’ll keep it low—something I’m sure you can pay—plus expenses, which should be dirt cheap.  I’ll call you if it looks like it’s going to get pricey.  You can have your bike to ride, but it’s mine until you pay.”

Hary handed over the bike.  It looked so small in Hary’s hands, but so big in Copernicus’.  There seemed to be nothing to do but trust Hary and call it a night.  So he rode home in a funk, wondering whether he would ever see his life’s work again.

Chapter Eight

The next morning, Copernicus awoke to a knock on the door.  He was not used to visitors on Sunday, and still less used to visitors in the morning of any day.  He reached for his holopad to patch into the door camera, and was reminded of his terrible night.  He got up, walked to the door, and looked through the peep hole.  Dr. Bienfang was standing at the door, waiting for a response.

“Are you there?  Master Schrader?” he bellowed, knocking again.

“Yes, just a minute,” replied Copernicus, taking personal inventory.  He had slept in his clothes, too tired after the adrenaline high to change.  That made things easier.  He licked his teeth and decided a breath mint was in order.  He kept a bowl of pillow mints on the key shelf by the door.  Munching three, he unlocked the door and opened it.  Dr. Bienfang walked in uninvited and clearly preoccupied.  He was looking down at his feet, holding his mouth with his left hand and pointing vaguely upwards with the index finger of his right.  He said nothing but slowly shuffled around.  He was quite evidently thinking of something to say, so Copernicus just waited.  After about 20 seconds, he asked, “Doc, are you okay?”

“Your work is gone.  I mean it’s missing.  You know that; you were there.”

“Yes, sir.  And Hary said…”

“Hary is missing, Copernicus.  His holopad was sitting near a vid screen with his fingerprints on it.  There’s no way to know if the footprints stepping out were his.  At least not right now.  They’re checking—the police—they’re checking his apartment for a shoe print match.  Otherwise, he was carried out.”

Sunday.  “Something always happens on Sunday,” thought Copernicus, almost audibly.  Then he retorted, “Hary was just surveilling the campus trying to catch that pickpocket.  What happened with him?”

Dr. Bienfang started to answer, but realized he didn’t have an answer.  Then he realized that he had just explained he had no answer, and mentally filed Copernicus’ response under Initial Reaction.

The two paused in near-silence; the only sound was a demolition crew starting on the first condo.  Neither Copernicus nor the doctor felt compelled to speak.  After a long, unmeasured moment, a suited man with a badge-shaped crest on his lapel came into the room, a tag-along of Dr. Bienfang’s, and broke the silence with an obligatory double knock on the door.

“Master Schrader?” he queried.

“Yes sir.  May I help you?”

Entering the room, he declared, “As I’m certain your friend has informed you, we are investigating the whereabouts of Hary.  I must ask for your account of the events of last night, up to the last moment you saw him.”

“Certainly,” obliged Copernicus.  “We were in the pine sauce potluck—did the doctor tell you about that?”

The doctor was wrinkling his nose and shaking his head tightly in a deterrent fashion from his position next to the inquirer—outside his peripheral vision.  Copernicus couldn’t imagine why the doctor would have him avoid the topic, but he fast-forwarded the story anyway.

“After I left, a guy in boxers called out `help’ or something from the bushes and I stopped to help.  These two goons popped out of nowhere and knocked me off my bike.”

The suit was paying attention most of the time, except for the moment after the pine reference, when he had taken a pointed sideways glance, shooting a look of suspicion at Dr. Bienfang.

Copernicus continued as the suit scribbled notes on a scrolling flat pad.   “I ran off, assuming they wanted my bike, and they didn’t follow me, thank goodness—it would have been three against one.”

“Facts, not hypotheticals, thank you,” advised the man.

“Excuse me, sir,” apologized Copernicus, determined to be helpful. “They weren’t following me, so I thought I should return and do what I could to retrieve my property.”

“Anything beside the bicycle, Master Schrader?”

“No, sir. All I had with me was my holopad and the bicycle, plus a backpack that had been full of…”

The doctor fluttered his face again.

“I had eaten my dinner already.”  Copernicus was really unnerved by the doctor’s aversion to discussing the potluck.  His curiosity—one of his strongest instincts—was chattering so loud in his head that he couldn’t hear the officer’s next question.

“I’m sorry, officer, what did you…”

“You may call me sir, Master Schrader, but I may not allow you to call me an officer.  I hold no office; I am an agent.  I am employed by the state of Washington under the Intelligence Partnership to locate Hary.  So far you’ve been assaulted and battered by a trio of hired men, am I right?”

“Hired men?  Are you joking?  Two of them were narrower than I am.  There was one bruiser: the guy who kicked me.  I can’t imagine the other…”

The agent interrupted him again.  “Hary patched into the school cameras.  We know all three were hired.  One is a pickpocket; the other two are trained fighters.”

“That’s funny,” chuckled Copernicus, “Hary made short work of the two in pants.  Were they the fighters?”

“Yes.  The pick-pocket was hired—we don’t know yet by whom—and he hired the thugs below him.  I’m telling you this because I want to know what was so important that they would ignore your filigree-cut bicycle, which they had in hand, and go straight for the holopad.  What was on the holopad?”

Copernicus knew his rights.  He was secure in his documents.  Having never seen this “agent” and also not owning a crest reader to verify the man’s identity, he replied only thus: “You are welcome to serve process.  I will comply.”

The agent suppressed his frustration but offered a brief, cruel stare for good measure.  “I’ll be back this evening.  Is there anything else you want to tell me before I go?”

“No,” replied Copernicus, “but I would like to know what you last saw of Hary.”

“You’re welcome to serve process, Master Schrader.”

“Right, thank you, agent.  You don’t need to know anything more about what I saw of Hary—to the last moment I saw him?”

“Like I said, schoolboy, I’ll see you this evening.  Good day.”

Copernicus couldn’t wait to shut the door and pry a secret from Dr. Bienfang.  The suit couldn’t leave fast enough.  After a few very long seconds, the door was shut, latched, locked, and air-tightened.  Copernicus closed and air-tightened the windows, too.  The room was practically soundproof.

“What’s up with the potluck?!” Copernicus demanded in his loudest whisper.

“Did you see the way he looked at me, Master Schrader?”  The doctor was speaking in a hushed but brisk tone.  “That agent will nose around for something and get a warrant.  I will be questioned.  Maybe not, but we’re inches from it.”


The doctor realized he hadn’t answered the question.  “Sorry.  I’m not well liked by the… anybody, really.  They call me an anarchist. They say I’m trying to turn the planets against each other.  They say I eat pine trees.  Alright, I’ll give them that one.  But I’m not a bad guy and I wish they’d leave me alone.  You don’t know how handy it is to be a professor.  You’re allowed to be a little crazy.  The public gets that we have to have some people on the fringe to push the limits.  They don’t want to do it.  Well, most people don’t want to do it.  That’s where I get into trouble.”

The doctor’s tone got less defensive.  “You were at the pot luck.  First time.  You had a good time, right?”

“Yes,” replied Copernicus, truthfully.

“I get people involved in things; I can’t help myself.  We get into some pretty bizarre situations and the things we come up with are pretty amazing.  Sometimes entertaining, too, and I can already feel an invitation coming on.  I was just about to invite you to an event just now when I’m trying to explain myself.  Remind me of that.”

Copernicus nodded.

“Anyway, people get active and fly to the moon.  They invent new plants.  They grow bicycles.  They start communes.  They do all sorts of crazy things because they always wanted to, but didn’t feel like they could.  That disrupts the social order.  But it’s not my fault.  Or at least I can’t help myself.  I want people to have fun and be as crazy as they want and experiment with things.”

Copernicus cautioned Dr. Bienfang, “You are starting to sound like a fanatic.”

“Well,” replied Dr. Bienfang with a pause, “It’s a problem when you start a new government.”

Copernicus was shocked.  The muscles in his scalp went slack and he lost feeling in the lower half of his face.  He wasn’t quite sure whether or not Dr. Bienfang had just revealed that he had started a new government.

The doctor continued, “Well, not one, but sort of…”

Copernicus didn’t know why this affected him so much.  He had never established a government himself, but surely every government that had been established had one progenitor or several.  His mind hastened back to their conversation about Saudi Arabia and monarchy.  He became suddenly very uncomfortable.  He noticed Dr. Bienfang’s lips moving again and figured he better listen.  Already a sentence or two surpassed Copernicus’ cognition.

“…Sort of a mélange of competing models, really.   But it was all operating within the law.  Everyone paid their taxes; they were just happy to be doing something novel.”

“Excuse me,” interrupted Copernicus, “Do you mean to tell me you started a country inside another country?”

“No.  No… No, I didn’t.”  After a moment clearly spent thinking out his phrasing, Dr. Bienfang qualified his negative.  “They were sociological experiments.”

“You’re an entomologist.”

“Because I like insects.”

Copernicus laughed in the doctor’s face.  “Yes, Dr. Bienfang, because you like insects.”  Copernicus’ mood turned instantly to pure amusement. He smiled, shook his head slightly, and awaited another absurdity from the doctor.

“I study insects and their social habits.  I study people and their social habits.  But we choose, you know, the habits we want.  Bees, by hive—do they have any choice, do you think?”

Copernicus replied with an emphatic wag of the head and wide-open eyes.  He knew they were nothing if not creatures of habit, and that, in fact, habit was their strong point.  In his own dissertation he had written:

“More autonomous creatures who must make choices on the run (or on the fly, if you’ll forgive the pun) {edit out?} cannot defend with any approaching degree of accuracy.  The worker bees’ layered, rank-ordered swarm defense followed by the drones’ two-phase contingency is the most advanced defense stratagem in the known universe.  Not one strategist, even given an hour to think for every real-time second in the encounter, has succeeded in a hive war simulation.  Apis mellifera’s unfailing obedience to the master plan written deep beneath its carapace eclipses even the cleverest of humans.  Creatures of a habit this strong gain by their mindlessness.  They conquer by it.”

Dr. Bienfang knew exactly what Copernicus as recalling.  “But you choose, don’t you?  You don’t have to buzz this way and zoom that.  You can structure your hive any way you want.  I think you should.  I think everyone should.”

Copernicus was already getting ideas.  Maybe he could have a treehouse and live with his South Asian friends with their mom to curry things.  If they never bothered anybody, why not?  Copernicus wasn’t used to thinking like this, and recognized that the doctor was the differentiating factor.

“You’re a rabble rouser,” he informed Dr. Bienfang, in a painfully unoriginal manner.

The doctor heaved a sigh and set his distant gaze low.  “Yeah.”

Copernicus remembered.  “You were going to invite me to something?”

The doctor brightened up.  “You’re a good person, Copernicus Schrader.”

At that moment, the conversing scientists heard stomping in the hall outside.  It sounded like running, and it was getting louder.

“What do you suppose that is?” asked Dr. Bienfang.

“I have no idea.  It must be heavy or we wouldn’t be able to hear it with the airlocks.”

An enormous triple knock on the door hurt Copernicus’ and Dr. Bienfang’s ears.  It must have been quite a knock to pressure their eardrums so.  Copernicus approached the door as another trio of knocks hammered in their heads again.  He unsealed the door and looked out the peephole.  The doctor watched his face turn from pain to delight.

Copernicus unlocked the door and swung it open, yelling, “Hary!”

Hary walked in, carrying a very heavy-looking canvas bag and apologized for the hard knocking.  “I didn’t know you were sealed.  I knock real hard.  I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

Before the two could finish gesturing their forgiveness, Hary looked each of them in the eye in turn and stated, very clearly, “We have to get away from here.  I mean now.”

Chapter Nine

Exiting the apartment with no thought to ask questions, Master Schrader and Dr. Bienfang followed Hary, whose stomps indicated something very heavy in the bag.

“Don’t look around,” Hary instructed.  “Don’t waste time talking, waiting, anything.”

Copernicus trusted Hary from the night before, and he also trusted Dr. Bienfang’s apparent trust in Hary.  Hary’s heavy feet smashed the pile carpet flat.  It seemed like he must be carrying solid lead in the bag, but it didn’t look strong enough to hold anything heavy enough to make that kind of mark.  This was all too curious.  Copernicus had so many questions on the tip of his tongue he was literally salivating.  He imagined he had a whole lime in his mouth.  Then the questions started to itch his tongue; then they burned.

“Capsicum anuum” he said under his breath, releasing a solitary strand of drool.  It was an accidental recitation of the genus he imagined tasting: the jalapeño.  He used to play a game with an old botanist girlfriend recognizing covered spoonfuls of different plants by flavor.  He noticed he was slowing down escaping into this memory and chose to remain in the moment.

The doctor looked back to shush him with a silent finger to the lips and down-slanted eyebrows.  They were marching down a hall in Copernicus’ all-but-abandoned building that ended in a window ahead and a stairwell to the right.  Hary motioned to his two followers to crouch as they approached the window.  Hary unrolled and placed a screen in front of him that looked like Copernicus’ own ultra-violet screen.  He crouched, held it before the window, and looked out from the bottom-right corner, then the bottom-left corner.  He stood up a bit and looked out from the center of the screen through the center of the window.  He stood up the rest of the way to evaluate the remainder of that vantage, then beckoned Copernicus and the doctor to follow him down the stairs.

Copernicus was, in his own estimation, an extremely inquisitive person.  Not asking questions was anathema.  He felt so damned by this silence that he overtook the doctor and got second in line, inches behind Hary.  If he had to be quiet, as Hary despite his bulk somehow managed to be, he would at least ask questions with his eyes.  Hary was causing a footprint slightly larger than that which his foot should naturally make.  It was as though Hary was wearing a shoe with a glass sole—completely transparent.  When Hary moved, he looked a little blurry.  Copernicus likened this in his mind to a video stream update algorithm that cleans up the most active part of a hologram first and then fills in the blocks of missing, but less significant, detail.

Dr. Bienfang must have known what was going on, because when Hary stopped to listen at the door one flight down, the doctor turned to Copernicus and smiled (with eyebrows now higher than most can possibly go) and pointed to Hary.  “Cool suit!” he mouthed in scientific glee.  This didn’t clear much up for Copernicus, but at least he didn’t have to wonder if he was crazy.  Copernicus decided that a fellow walking around half blurry is enough to make one squint and blink for a while, but affording no explanation is an expression of contempt.  Even so, he knew something was up and that Hary was motivated to protect.  After all, Copernicus’ bike was in hock.  Going so far as don some sort of heavy, invisible suit, however, seemed pricey.  At least he would be able to say he didn’t ask for help this time.

Hary opened the door to the ground floor slowly and, taking a mirror out of his pocket, began to check the next hallway without exposing his eyes.  This made Copernicus very nervous.  Listening at doors is old hat by the age of five.  Scoping around corners…

Hary pulled out a revolver.  Copernicus felt a tyrannical lump in his throat.  There was very little light in the stairwell, but the light flooding in through the crack in the door seemed rather bright after a slow and cautious descent down the two flights that comprised a story.  It was enough to illuminate Hary’s left arm as it slowly raised the gun to level.

A swift and graceful motion opened the door and placed Hary in the middle of the hallway, crouched and brandishing.

Copernicus watched him place the bag on the floor with his right hand, pull out a black dish with the diameter of a baseball, and place it next to his ear.

“No one is breathing,” said Hary.  “I mean, no person is in this building that shouldn’t be here.  I checked the upstairs before.  I just got the downstairs now.”

Copernicus and Dr. Bienfang heaved sighs of relief.  That initial choice of words had made them keenly aware that they hadn’t been breathing either.

“We can talk now.  A little bit.”  Hary put the little black disk back in the bag and asked how his companions were holding up.

“I am very interested to know in what sort of danger we find ourselves,” demanded the doctor.

“I want to know where you were last night,” requested Copernicus.

“Well, I did like I said.  I went to the camera room to watch the feeds.  I saw those pathetic loser amateurs doing their thing.  I thought I knew the pantsless one’s MO from a police report.  I started to look it up and this guy comes into the admin building right on camera clear as day.  You saw him.  The suit.”

Dr. Bienfang asked, “is there someone following us now?”

“Sorry to alarm you,” answered Hary, “but no; there is no one tailing you right now.  It was important for me to make sure.  You’re safe as far as I know.  What I don’t want to happen is you two get pulled into a room.  I wasn’t you two on the lam so as not to get caught up with the fuzz, period.  You should skip like little schoolgirls.  I got some chalk.  You wanna make a hopscotch?”

Copernicus sifted through his feelings for a speck of humor.  Nothing.

Dr. Bienfang began to show signs of anger.  “You brought us through this miniature spy novel wielding deadly force so you could make a schoolyard joke at our expense?”

“Sorry,” responded a suddenly sullen Hary.  “People tell me I shouldn’t make jokes.  I got you secure first.”

“It’s alright,” said Copernicus in consolation.  “It’s dark humor and we’re really uptight right now.  I bet you’re having a great time with this.  It’s not the same for us.  You understand.”

Hary abandoned that line of thought.  “You two are going to be investigated.  You don’t’ want that.  You have rights, sure, but your first defense is distance.  You have nothing to hide, at least as far as I can tell…”  Hary looked into their eyes in a deep way that made them both uncomfortable.  “Right, you guys are clean.  But they don’t think so, and their opinion is all a judge needs.  It’s better to vanish until things blow over.”

“Until what blows over, Hary?” demanded Copernicus.

“What is going on?” added the doctor.

“I can’t tell you without a touch more security.  Hold on.”  Hary picked the black thing back up to his ear.  “There are robots around.  I don’t know who’s recording.  Talking this much is okay.  I’m not going any further into this until we’re under concrete and lead.”

The academics peeked at each other’s faces for clues but each only saw his own thought’s reflection: Lead?  Really?

“It’s not far,” said Hary, pragmatically.

The ground floor exit was close at hand.  Hary put his gun away before exiting.  Nobody could see where it went.

“Hary,” Copernicus inquired as they moseyed out the door.  “What is going on with that suit?”

“It’s old tech.  It’s just a screen with little cam’ras on it.  I can go purple.”  Hary moved his wrist a little and produced a little panel with some strange writing.  He drew a squiggle on the panel and his suit turned a little bit purple than it was.

“I can go clear.”  He drew another squiggle on the screen and he became more transparent and more blurry than before.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s nice in a bind.  Heavy, though.  You couldn’t lift it, but it’s fun in front of a mirror.  I can put you through a workout that’ll get you strong enough to carry it in…”  Hary sized up Copernicus.  “…Five weeks.”

The suit turned back to the near-normal view of Hary in street clothes.  Copernicus was impressed, but reasoned that this sort of technology had been around for centuries.  Just because he had never seen this application didn’t mean he needed to marvel too much.  The doctor seemed impressed but also not overenthusiastic.  Copernicus wondered if Dr. Bienfang was trying as hard to suppress excitement as he was.

“So, you’re into some pretty deep security, then, right?” asked Copernicus, genuinely interested.


“Why do you have a chameleon suit?”

“This is old tech.  This isn’t like what they could make now if they wanted.  You could really bend light now.  This is nothing but a hopped up Farnsworth, and heavy.  I got it on a trade from collateral I got in a job.  Failed job, too, but I did the best I could.  I’m not in security right now except by contract.  I keep sov’reign, and that means I have to defend myself.  It also means we have to sleep in the trees tonight.  That is… if you’re coming with me.”

They had been walking already for a while, well past the exit door on the first floor and along the cement path toward the parking lot.  The path dead-ended up ahead in a fashion accentuating the repetitive monotony of the complex.  Someday, a developer may have wanted to plop down another row of buildings.  This was the path that would connect to it, bringing another identical set of boring stucco tenements into being.  The buildings were over 130 years old, and it was time for them to go.  Time to put a big hole in the ground and make some energy.  Copernicus was thinking about all of this to avoid the topic—the question, really—of whether or not he should go with Hary.

“Are you going, Doctor?  With Hary, I mean?”

“Yes, I will be,” replied Dr, Bienfang, pealing a loud vote of confidence.  “I’ve been to Hary’s before.  You’ll like it.  They walked off the path and into a small grove.  The grove didn’t really provide any cover, but the live oaks’ shade split the meridian sunbeams pleasantly.  This grove attached to a great woods off to the right, and, as Copernicus predicted, they turned and moved toward the woods, finding their way into a creek bed just at shoulder level, which got deeper.  He had played at water fights in this creek bed in his earlier days of school.  He was old enough to live away from home, but not nearly old enough not to miss his father.  He made a preponderance of friends to overcompensate, but it was of course never enough.  He noticed popped water balloon remnants from newer classes.  He realized he hadn’t played any sort of game out of doors since he acquired his most recent queen bee three years ago.  Taking an excursion to Hary’s to “sleep in the trees” for a night sounded like a welcome adventure.