The room had been prepared at the last minute, each detail according to the unusual requests of the professor. However, even though it was hastily done, it was finished to perfection. The assembled dignitaries were, after all, complete professionals.
The council members and aids entered from the two side doors and seated themselves quietly and without confusion as to who went where. This particular committee was old and well established. The member's pecking order had been worked out years before. They all looked around at the quaint paneled walls and electric lighting fixtures in the ancient council room. Some of the council members appeared uncomfortable in such a setting as this and these held to themselves, some sitting down with looks of near hostility on their faces. Several more gregarious dignitaries took hold of this first time, person to person meeting and exchanged handshakes and soft words of greeting with those around them. Aids to the various council members scurried about, completely out of sorts as they tried to make sure everything was prepared. They made several humorous attempts to lay out, of all things, papers and briefs for their employers. For most it was the first time they had used actual paper.
Representative Vale Talith, the chairman of the Energy committee approached the center table where he was to sit and saw the ancient ceremonial hammer lying there. Talith picked up the hammer, which he seemed to remember was called a gavel, and hefted its comfortable weight. Though conducting the meeting in this fashion instead of using psyfaxes was an utter hassle, it did have a certain charm. He smiled and swung the head of the gavel onto the surface of the antique mahogany table. The large crack it emitted nearly shocked a few of the members into heart attacks, but it had the desired effect in that everything was quiet and all attention was focused on him. He dropped his smile and spoke in a voice that needed no amplification, "Thank you for adhering to the instructions you were given and arriving promptly. I realize that all of us actually meeting together like this is an unprecedented occurrence in this day and age, but it was at the request of our speaker today, a distinguished gentleman whom our government owes a great debt. Dr. Crufeld gave no indication as to why we were to meet in this manner, but I am sure that we all agree that doing this for him is the least we can do for such a great man. I admit that I am just as ignorant as you are as to the purpose of our meeting. Dr. Crufeld only asked that we all be here in person and that we bring no Kernel powered devices with us and he said that he had to discuss a matter of great importance with us. We have done as he asked and the sooner we begin, the sooner we can hear him out. If you would all have your seats, please." The council members, nearly one hundred in number, sat with a chaotic scrape of chairs on the tiled floor. When all the dignitaries were seated, Talith nodded to his aid who stood by the main doors at the far end of the chamber. The aid opened the massive oak doors and Stane Crufeld entered.
He was an unusual sight in most respects. The professor was garbed in a worn tweed jacket and dark corduroy pants. A brown knit tie was knotted expertly under his collar. His attire was of a lost age, from the time before sentient fabrics and holographic garments. His clothes lay easily over his spare frame, as if he and his clothing had grown old together. Dr. Crufeld wore wire rimmed bifocals and leaned heavily on the wooden cane that he carried in his right hand. His wrinkled hands, face, and his lame right leg were a silent testament to the age that was the natural final state of humanity. The council members, by contrast, were the picture of health, youth, and vitality, gifts from the swarms of nanotech bions that flowed through their veins. Stane Crufeld looked as if he belonged in the ancient council chamber, while the council members themselves looked alien with their false youth and their hastily tailored, plain cloth suits.
Dr. Crufeld grinned lightly when he saw the room and the assembled representatives. Things were just as he had requested. He looked sharply at the camera globe that floated at the rear of the chamber, but then breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the mess of wires where its power supply had been. Now an extension cord ran into it, giving it whatever power it needed. The orange cord fell to the floor and then ran out into the corridor through a small service entrance to the chamber. The camera's Kernel was more than far enough away for his purposes. He walked into the chamber and to his table facing the committee persons. Talith's aid followed right behind him, carrying the large circular, white plastic disc and tape measure that the professor had brought.
Dr. Crufeld sat down into his chair slowly, arthritis slowing his movements. A few of the less tactful representatives shook their heads in dismay, and a few with outright disgust. How could anyone let themselves go as Crufeld had, they thought. Vale Talith saw their derisive expressions and noted that one of the more hostile councilmen, Representative Banes was chief among them. Talith cleared his throat loudly to admonish them and then smiled at Crufeld. "Professor Crufeld, it's an honor to meet you and to have the chance to speak with you. I admit that all of us are a bit off balance about this whole thing. Usually it's the Energy committee that calls people to speak, not the other way around, but we are all happy to oblige you."
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman." Crufeld's voice sounded like someone shaking a tin can full of rocks. "I apologize for interrupting the normal routines of the esteemed council members, but what I have to discuss today is of such importance that it could not be trusted to the judgement of your personal psyfaxes which you normally use for council matters. What I have to tell all of you could very well change our whole society and you all must decide the course of humanity when we are finished here today."
Talith raised his eyebrows and said, "Sounds rather grave indeed, Doctor. Perhaps you should begin."
"Well, let's see," he said. "I've been preparing for our meeting about as much as possible, but now I don't quite know where to begin."
"Please, Professor, take all the time you need," Talith said with a gentle smile. Banes groaned rudely.
Crufeld looked down at his hands, gathering focus, and then looked back at the Energy committee with steely resolve. "Some of you may remember an old fable from when you were children about a greedy farmer who found a large hole on some of the land he was going to plant on. Rather than fill it in with more of his precious soil, he decided that he would simply dig the hole up out of the ground, as if it was a thing that could be extracted from the pristine earth. Well, the farmer jumped down into the hole and began to dig it out of the ground. He toiled day and night, and at the end, naturally, the hole was still there only now much larger. A ludicrous tale for certain, but its core message is valid. You can't get something for nothing."
"And if you try you just wind up deeper in the hole."
"This silly little fable is an accurate portrayal of humanity's efforts to energize itself. Down through history, man has looked for better, cleaner, safer, more powerful sources of energy, invariably making life more complicated for himself and causing more problems than he solved. He first emerged from the forests armed with the gift of Prometheus: fire. He burned both wood, flesh, and his enemies, gaining mastery over bronze and his own innate savagery at the same time. Soon wood was not enough to provide for the growing needs of the tiny, primitive empires. Then we turned to burning the flesh of a distant age, and the various fossil fuels such as coal and oil provided for our needs and expansion. Organic fuels carried us through the Dark Ages and the Industrial Age, but after that, after we had built smokestacks on every street corner, it was both not enough and too much."
"We were deeper in the hole. We needed more energy but wood was not powerful enough, fossil fuels were not plentiful enough, and it was all too damn dirty." Crufeld paused for breath and looked at his audience. He was losing some of them but he had to make them understand. He had to go on. "In a burst of insight in the twentieth century, man unlocked the powers of the nucleus. Fission became a tool first, but it was a two edged sword. It gave us an alternative to fossil fuels but it was even more controversial than they had been. It appeared to be clean, but it had the potential to be even more dirty than coal ever thought about being. While the debate raged, humanity's need for clean energy continued to increase."
"In the early twenty-first century, break-even hot fusion was achieved and mankind let out a collective sigh of relief. They thought that the Holy Grail of energy had been achieved, but they were wrong. Hot fusion was a delicate and hard to implement source of energy. It never gained a wide use and man stuck with the tried and true methods. The skies and waters of the Earth grew more polluted and radioactive and brownouts became a daily routine as the energy need became more dire. Man turned increasingly to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. However, these were always inconvenient and finicky power sources, taking up a great deal of land and being subject to the whims of the weather."
"Fifty years after break-even hot fusion was reached, the greater understanding of the fusion process resurrected cold fusion, now known by the more appropriate name of matrix fusion. Matrix fusion was relatively clean, safe, and powerful. Our reliance on fossil fuels, uranium, and solar farms waned, though they continued to be used."
Banes had sat quietly through the professor's speech, with only a deep frown belying his impatience. Talith was amazed and pleased. Even Banes' psyfax was ruder than this. At that moment, however, Representative Banes decided to speak. "Dr. Crufeld, excuse me, but is there a point to all of this? You must get bored now that you've retired, but was it necessary to call all of us together to subject us to yet another lecture on energy? We didn't pay to take a course, after all. I could have sent a psyfax if all you are going to do is drone on and on."
Talith slapped the gavel onto his table. The polished wood cracked slightly with force of his blow. "Representative Banes, you will remain civil to our guest."
"Guest? He called us together, Talith! We're a captive audience and we have a right to expect more than just a college lecture."
"I'm warning you, Banes. I've erased your psyfaxes more than once for obstructing proceedings. Don't make me do it to the real article."
Banes was about to pop back at the chairman, but Crufeld broke in. "Stop bickering! Representative Banes, there is a point to my reminding you all of the history of energy development. We have always made the same mistake and now we're doing it again, but this time we've compounded our error and it may very well end up killing us all."
That silenced everyone. Talith stared Banes down like two boys in a schoolyard and then said slowly, "Please continue, Professor."
Crufeld breathed slowly, trying visibly to calm himself. He licked his lips but his mouth had gone dry. Talith's aid saw this and poured him a glass of water from a crystal pitcher on the table. The water was cool and every swallow slowed his heart to a safer beat. Finally he said, "Mankind just kept going deeper in the hole. Matrix fusion kept us empowered for centuries. We made brief forays into the solar system, but we seemed destined to stay attached to Mother Earth's purse strings. Matrix fusion was too good a power source for us to be concerned. Half a millenium slid by with population and energy needs still rising. Poverty was gone and all the peoples of earth needed cheap electricity. However there is an upper limit to how much power a given size matrix can produce. Power plants began to crowd together to make up for this. People began to be crowded and some began to worry. Helium levels were rising, there was a shortage of matrix materials, and old matrices were quite radioactive. People started burning more fossil fuels, fissioning more uranium, and producing more solar cells. But we all knew that the same old problems were coming up again. Pollution. Blackouts. Chaos. We needed a new solution."
"I was a young man of 24, one hundred years ago. I was working on my doctoral dissertation on exotic matter physics. Using matter with a negative energy density, I captured one of the miniscule wormholes in the spacetime foam that exists at the Planck length scale of the universe. I expanded the wormhole to be one micron across each mouth. It was the triumph of my career."
Talith smiled and saw a chance to smooth over the unpleasantness of the previous moment. "It was an amazing accomplishment, Dr. Crufeld. A feat for which you won the Nobel Prize that year."
Crufeld returned Talith's grin. "It was a good year. We thought that the next year was even better. A colleague of mine, Dr. Palla Banes, your mother, Representative Banes, was conducting an experiment in which she sent one mouth of one of my wormholes into the other mouth. She expected the wormhole to simply evaporate. Instead . . . serendipity."
Banes nodded. "I know. The first Kernel was created. Most of us should know this, Professor." His voice hinted at his increasing exasperation.
He just ignored the representative. "The snake eating its own tail did not simply disappear. Instead it formed the world's smallest, safest, most useful energy source, one micron across. The Kernel just emitted energy from nowhere, violating the first law of thermodynamics with abandon. It could be biased to produce any voltage, any wavelength of EM radiation, or gravitic bosons. Whatever kind of energy you desired, it could produce safely, stably, and cleanly. The first law of thermodynamics was revised to include alternate universes from which, it was hypothesized, the Kernel was drawing its energy." Crufeld nearly glared at the Energy committee now.
"The Kernel was distributed widely. Each device now had its own power supply, with no need for generator stations or distribution lines. Matrix fusion plants, fuel burners, and fission reactors were all dismantled. The market fell away for solar cells and wind farms. For the last one hundred years, the Kernels have been our sole source of power. We have returned to exploring space and the stars in gravity drive ships. Any given person on the street might have up to a hundred Kernel powered devices on or about his body at any given time. Pollution and poverty are things of the past. In a society where there is a surplus of free energy, how can it be anything but a utopia?"
Crufeld said his next statement slowly and menacingly. "It all must stop."
The committee was completely silent, as if waiting for the much anticipated punchline of a long joke. Crufeld's eyes conveyed anything but humor, though. Finally, Banes just started laughing uncontrollably. Talith was too numb and confused to quiet him. Eventually, Banes stopped and asked in a breathless voice, "What do you mean 'stop'?"
"I mean that all use of Kernels on Earth must stop within the next year and that the use of them everywhere else must stop within the next five years." Once again, the council was deathly silent.
Talith was no longer smiling when he spoke to the professor. "Dr. Crufeld, on what do you base these demands?"
"My research, Mr. Chairman. I always thought that the revision of the first law of thermodynamics was sloppy science promoting an explanation that had no basis in evidence. No one knew where the energy being emitted by the Kernels was coming from, so they just avoided the issue saying it came from an infinite number of unavailable, invisible universes."
Banes was turning red. "My mother's revision of the first law is accepted by every university and research group on this planet!"
"Yes, because they were unable to test or think of any other possibility. Dr. Banes' revision was only a tentative hypothesis, but everyone accepted it without question because they were so anxious to use the Kernel as a power source."
Banes looked as if he was about to explode, so Talith cut in, saying, "You mentioned research, Professor."
Crufeld nodded. "Thirty years ago, after I retired from the university, I moved to the peace of the country. Everything in my house was powered by Kernels, so I lived in relative luxury. One day, about three years ago, I decided that I wanted to build a cabin out in the woods, far from my regular home. It was just a project to occupy the time of an old man who had too much of it on his hands."
"I admit to being a sort of latter-day Luddite. I am not against technology, but I like doing things the old-fashioned way at times. I have only undergone minimal anti-aging treatments, and never had any bions installed in me such as you council members have. The cabin was to be built with unpowered hand tools, which are quite rare these days. I bought lumber from a forest preserve and moved it to my sight, far from civilization. The plans were all worked, all the board lengths calculated. Then I began building."
"Things ran against me from the very first day. The perfect lumber which I bought from the preserve was warped. None of my carefully calculated angles looked correct and all the boards that I cut were either too long or too short. However, I am a stubborn man, so when things went awry, I fixed them. Makeshift braces sprouted all over the cabin. My beautiful project was becoming a trial of Hercules."
"One day the whole thing just collapsed on top of me. My leg was broken and I had to be transported into town. It never has healed right. My nearest neighbor helped me by taking holograms of the debris for the insurance company and then moving everything off the mountain with his forklift. When he visited me in the hospital to bring me the holos he said that he could not understand why the cabin fell apart. The lumber was straight, unwarped, and seemed to be cut right."
"The pictures supported what he was saying, so I knew that I was either going insane or there was something going on that I did not understand. Pride prevented me from thinking that I was insane so I tried to figure out what was different about when I was at the cabin and when he was at it. Eventually I realized what it was: his camera and forklift were powered by Kernels, while I had brought none with me."
"This discovery led me to deeper research on the Kernels. You see, Kernels don't withdraw energy from a panoply of universes. Instead they draw energy from our own universe, burning spacetime like a furnace burning coal."
There were puzzled and thoughtful expressions on the council members now as a slow murmur grew to an excited muttering. Talith slammed down the gavel to maintain control. He said, "Elaborate, Dr. Crufeld."
"Alright. Imagine a flexible mirror in a funhouse. If you distort in the proper manner, just as the mirror distorts then your reflection will remain the same and someone looking at your reflection will not realize that there has been a change at all. The universe is the person being reflected. The spacetime in the vicinity of the Kernels is the mirror. We are all the observers."
"The first law of thermodynamics is not violated by the Kernels and there was never really a need to revise it. The Kernel doesn't create energy, it just pulls it from a source that we cannot see. It uses a fuel that permeates everything, so we never noticed that anything was missing. But as the Kernels convert the spacetime of our finite universe into usable energy, the spacetime far removed from the Kernel distorts and stretches to make up for it. As the structure and shape of global spacetime changes so do the physical laws and constants of the universe. Local spacetime around the Kernels remains normal, so our energized society does not notice that the rest of the universe is being bent out of shape."
Banes looked incredulous. "Do you have any proof, at all, about this insane hypothesis?"
"My cabin fell apart because the Pythagorean theorem no longer applies away from Kernels."
"You could be an exceedingly bad carpenter. I already think that you're senile." Talith would have censured Banes then, but he was too caught up in his own thoughts.
"Look at the briefs that I had passed out! The speed of light in a vacuum is now only 2.73x10^8 meters per second. That's a decrease of over nine percent for one of the most fundamental constants in physics!"
"You were a scientist." Banes threw the briefs into the air. "You know that those don't mean a thing until they are verified by an independent lab."
"Why don't we all verify something right now then." Crufeld stood up shakily and picked up the white plastic disc from the table. "This is a rigid plastic disc, completely circular and perfectly flat on its face. Can we all agree upon that?"
Talith looked thoughtful at Crufeld while Banes buried his face in his hands. He motioned for his aide, who still stood behind the professor, to examine the disc. The aide took the disc from him and rolled along the tabletop. It rolled smoothly, without wobbling, just as a circular disc should. Then he laid it on its face and gazed along its edge. The surface of the disc touched the table's surface at every point. The aide nodded to Talith, who then nodded to the professor.
Crufeld placed the tape measure across the face of the disc. "The disc is half a meter in diameter. Pi has a value of approximately 3.141593, so this disc's circumference should be about 1.57 meters around. Let's see." He wrapped the tape all around the outer edge of the disc. Frowning, he said, "The disc is only 1.46 meters around, giving a non-Kernel value for pi as 2.92."
The Energy committee was silent and then exploded into shouting and arguing. Talith pounded his gavel on the table repeatedly until the noise finally shut everyone up. His tabletop was ruined.
Crufeld jumped in before he could speak. "These changes are only going to get worse unless the Kernels are dismantled back into wormholes and allowed to collapse back down to the Planck length. If we continue burning spacetime, then within a year we will see orbital mechanics begin to change. We could lose our tenuous grip on the habitable zone of the sun. Portions of spacetime could begin budding off of our universe, taking with them whole planets or galaxies. The masses of particles could change such that fusion is no longer possible in the core of a star. The damage is increasing at an exponential rate, and if we don't stop immediately, then we will all die."
"Dr. Crufeld," Talith asked, "if what we have seen here today is to be believed, then the damage is already done, isn't it? How are we to survive in this changed universe?"
Banes butted in. "I see now! You come back from the depths of obscurity to show us the light. The has-been leads us to the righteous path and shows us the miraculous cure! My fellow council members, I feel a punchline coming, one that will make our dear Dr. Crufeld the center of the universe again. Well, Doctor, you've duped the Chairman, but I'm not so easily fooled. Let's hear your perfect solution to this 'problem' so everyone else can understand your little ploy."
"Banes you really dislike me, don't you? You never could get over me living with your mother, could you?"
"This has nothing to do with my mother! This is about this insane proposition about shutting down all the Kernels."
Crufeld shook his head and moved on. "Well, you are wrong, Representative. I wish that you were right and that there was a miraculous fix, but I'm afraid that's not the case. The damage is done and there is no undoing it. When the Kernels are done away with, then we will have to rediscover over 5000 years of mathematics. We will have to rebuild structures that break when the rest of space warps to a relaxed state. We will endure new periods of tectonic instability and altered seasons. It will be the most challenging of mankind's ages and we will have to tackle it from scratch. No, Banes, there is no easy fix, only a slim hope for survival."
The representative made as if to speak, but he just closed his open mouth without uttering a sound. There was a nervous rustling of paper as men and women shuffled in their seats. These people were used to handling the energy needs and issues of the world, but everything about this issue made them feel out of their depth. Matters were usually investigated and deliberated upon by artificial copies of the delegate's personalities called psyfaxes. The psyfax's digested findings were downloaded to the representatives who then made the final decision. Now they were assailed with the weight of the decision making from the very first moment. Plus, this was no ordinary matter. The doctor's statements threatened to irrevocably change, and very possibly end, all that mankind had achieved. This was no matter of brownouts and fuel shortages, which no longer existed, or a problem with Kernel distribution, which because of their ease of manufacture was no real problem either. They were at a complete loss.
Talith ran a hand over his face and closed his eyes. If Crufeld was correct then they had an infinite number of obstacles to overcome. This decision would be the first. He opened his eyes and focused on the professor. "Dr. Crufeld, what course of action are you recommending?"
"In order to stay within the tolerances for survival, we must act quickly. The first step is to cease all Kernel production immediately, or at most in a few weeks. Then, dismantle all Kernels on Earth within a year. This will prevent any fatal damage occurring to spacetime's structure."
"What of the Kernels in operation off of Earth?"
"Due to the smaller number of Kernels in operation in the solar system and other systems, and because of their distance from us, their effect is not as pronounced. The operation of these Kernels does not become deadly for another five years. We must convert all of these facilities to alternate power sources or recall them to Earth. For stations greater than five light years from Earth, who would not receive the message in the time allotted, then some extra time is allowable, but they must be recalled to Earth immediately. In the meantime, we need to begin reconstructing the matrix fusion plants, solar power satellites, and electrical distribution systems. These need to start being operational well before we finish dismantling the Kernels, so we must work with the utmost haste. The longer we wait, the more change will occur to the fundamental constants and the less likely it is that physics will allow things like matrix fusion and the photoelectric effect to take place. This also means that we need to begin studying how the universe is changing so we can anticipate how things will have to be done differently."
Talith began writing down all the things that Crufeld told them, but Banes just tapped his pen on his table with an annoying tap-tap sound. His irritating cadence continued as the others wrote down plans, questions, and stratagems. Finally he stopped and said, "Do you really believe that we can rebuild the all the power assets of a century ago in under a year?"
The professor shook his head, saying, "Of course not. There is no wiring in our buildings or homes, not to mention landlines or generator stations. The retrofit of our world will take decades and I have no doubt that times will be very hard for the foreseeable future, especially with our current population of nine billion. But at least we will be alive."
"And what exactly will happen to us if we decide not to heed your wise and excellent advise, Professor?"
Crufeld's face darkened, his white eyebrows lowering in a scowl, "After the end of a year, so much spacetime will have been burned away by the Kernels that readily noticeable effects will take place. Though unknown to us, spacetime far removed from us and the Kernels will rip completely apart, spawning a swarm of black holes and supernovae. Closer to home, orbital momentum won't mean the same thing anymore and we will begin to move from the habitable zone of the Sun. Our water will either freeze or boil away, depending on which way we move. This will be a slow change though. It will take at least forty years to move from our safe orbit to one that will kill us. It will take about that same amount of time for the moon to crash into us. Flip a coin as to which you prefer. Before that, small changes in the strength of the strong nuclear force may make nuclear reactions impossible. The sun will go cold and dark and our time will be up. The time estimate for that is from twenty-five to thirty-five years. If my calculations and theories are correct, and you don't do as I recommend then our universe has only one more generation left."
"If you are correct," Banes said with a sudden light in his eyes.
Crufeld straightened his back, feeling a challenge. "Stop looking for an inner ploy, Representative Banes. I'm not happy about what I have found, but I did my research well. We are burning spacetime, and this will destroy us."
"So you say. Didn't you state that spacetime was normal around the Kernels?"
"Yes. They anchor the hypersurface into normality by pulling spacetime and converting it to energy. The spacetime far from the Kernels is flattened and stretched, changing the fundamental constants there."
"So if we just continue to use the Kernels then we won't notice any changes."
"Not for twenty-five years anyway. Then the changes will make themselves readily apparent."
"Once again, so you say. But do you deny the possibility that spacetime will correct itself. Perhaps these changes are mediated by the laws of physics themselves. For every change there may be another change that makes the net effect on physics zero."
Crufeld slapped the table. "There is no evidence for that!"
"Neither is there evidence against it. You have offered us conjecture in the name of evidence and asked us to throw civilization away in favor of it. You've shown us one anomaly and expected it to sway us. Well, I won't have it!"
Crufeld started to argue with him, but this time Talith cut him off. "And what do you propose as an alternative, Representative Banes?"
"Don't be dense, Chairman! We investigate. We brainstorm and work up a list of possible solutions, some that don't require burning down the barn with the horses still inside." The other council members began making quick notes and murmuring in agreement.
Dr. Crufeld was incredulous. "There's no time! If I had discovered the debilitating effects of the Kernels years ago, then there would be time to make your committees and action groups. You could be wined and dined by your lobbyists and then make a decision that your constituents will unilaterally hate. We don't have that luxury though. We have to act now or it'll all be over! You must-"
"Please, Doctor!" Talith saw the color rising in his face, along with the volume and feared for the old man's heart. "Representative Banes raises a valid point. You insist on urgency. He insists on prudence and surety. Do you have any further physical evidence or information?"
The council chamber was deathly quiet. Crufeld bore his gaze into Vale Talith. "You're as big a fool as Banes is." The Chairman did not respond to the remark. Instead he said, "Then I recommend that the council recess for now, and meet again in the virtual chamber for debate on this very grave issue. Doctor, we are eternally in your debt for bringing this matter to our attention. We will contact you when we have decided on a course of action."
Crufeld swept his hand violently across the table, knocking the disk, pitcher, and glass to the floor with a shattering crash. His face was crimson. "You're all fools! Banes, if this council decides not to heed my advice and the world dies for it, then its fate lies on your head. Remember that!" The old scientist rose, spun, and hobbled to the door. Its slam echoed over the dignitaries like a cannon shot.
Banes mouth turned up in the hint of a smile, and he shook his head, triumphant.
The limousine floated silently down to the street and swayed slightly as its gravity equalized. The rear door faded out and Banes emerged. His face was grizzled with stubble, ruining the Adonis-like appearance that he and his contemporaries cultivated. The neighborhood was affluent and quiet, but the wealth of the environment went unnoticed by Banes. He stalked from the car to the largest of the houses and pounded on the door which swung wide open.
Banes walked in tentatively. All the lights were off and the house was completely quiet. There was no hum of power anywhere. "Vale Talith?" he called.
"In here, Banes," came a weary voice from within a library to the right. Banes walked in and stared at the chairman. The man looked as haggard as he did, lying back in a deep chair, cradling a bottle of bourbon. The room was dark and Talith's eyes were specks of fire.
Banes looked around. "Why do you have all the lights off?"
"I shut down all my Kernels."
Banes cast his eyes down. "Then you've heard the news."
Talith laughed. "Which bit? The part about the perturbation in our orbits, or the part about the sudden rash of sunspot activity? Or were you referring to the news about Dr. Crufeld killing himself?"
Banes collapsed to the floor with his back to the wall. "Why did he do it?"
"He wanted to wait. To wait and see if all of our committees and research groups would prove him wrong. I think he hoped that we would come up with a better solution before it was too late, or that you were right and the problem was no real problem at all. But when the news about the orbital shift and the cooling Sun hit the streets, he knew that it was all over. He was right and we were wrong. We dawdled and now we're doomed. He just decided that he didn't want to wait to see if we were to be damned by fire or ice." Talith paused. "I almost put a gun in my mouth, too."
Silence reigned for a long time until Banes said, "I hated him. My mother left my father for him before she died. When he walked in there that day, my mind was made up against him before he said a word." Talith said nothing. He knew. "This is all my fault, just like he said."
Talith shook his head, unseen. "No, the blame belongs to all of us. Our pride in our civilization was too great to give it up and see our faults. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. We tried to get something for nothing and learned an ancient lesson: Something given for free carries the heaviest price of all." Talith looked through the window at the setting sun, which seemed to be a tiny bit duller. "Now the bill has come due."