The Rats In The Walls

By Bill the Butcher

“You’ve not come down here,” the colonel said. He keyed in a code into a panel set in the wall, and the armoured door swung open. “You have never been here, if anyone were to ask you. This place does not even exist. I hope that is clear.”

The astrophysicist was small, grey-haired and more than slightly overweight. He glanced at the officer from the corner of his eye. “Nobody’s actually told me anything. So I have no idea why you thought fit to order me here.”

“You’ll find out.” The colonel waited for the armoured door to swing shut behind them. The corridor was stark white and brilliantly lit, without a scrap of shadow. “Before we go any further, let me inform you, officially, that you’re now under military jurisdiction. Anything and everything you see or do here is classified, and any violation attracts punishment.”

“Oh?” The astrophysicist raised one eyebrow, a skill of which he was secretly rather proud. “What are you going to do? Rap me on the knuckles? Stop my magazine subscriptions?”

The colonel didn’t even blink. “Oh no. You breathe a word of this, and we are going to shoot you.”

The astrophysicist didn’t have anything to say to that. He followed the officer down the corridor until they reached another door. The colonel opened it and stood aside. “There you are,” he said.”Go in.”

“Aren’t you coming?” Suddenly, the tall colonel in his green uniform seemed to be an old friend, an anchor to the world outside.

“No. The general’s waiting for you. He’ll brief you himself.” The colonel inclined his head, smiled slightly, and closed the door behind the astrophysicist.

It was quite an ordinary office room. The carpet was green, and on the wall behind the desk there was a flag with a golden emblem which he didn’t recognise, but apart from that it was an ordinary office, with a computer monitor on the large desk and filing cabinets along the walls. There were no windows, of course, but then it was all far underground.

“Welcome, professor.” The astrophysicist was startled by the voice. He turned quickly, and found the speaker standing near the door with a file in his hand. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”

“No, it’s all right.” The astrophysicist studied the general. He seemed surprisingly old, with a deeply lined face and unmilitary-looking grey hair. His eyes were bloodshot and tired. “Could you explain what this is about?”

“Yes. Sit down, please.” The general motioned towards the chairs set before his desk. He casually slapped down the file in his hand on the desktop, turned so that the scientist had no difficulty reading his own name on the beige cover. “You’ve been told, of course, that this has to stay completely secret?”

“I have.” The astrophysicist eyed the file as though it was a possibly dangerous animal. “What is so important about this?”

The general said nothing for a moment. His fingers clicked away at the keyboard of his computer, placed on a recessed shelf below the scientist’s view. A picture appeared on the computer monitor. “You know what this is, of course?”

The astrophysicist glanced at the screen. The bat-like shape on it was midnight black, its edges jagged and irregular. “It’s the hyperspatial craft,” he said. “It’s been all over the news recently. What about it?”

“Yes, it’s the hyperspatial craft, as the media dubbed it. For our purposes we call it the X Craft. You know its significance, of course.”

“I’m not privy to the details,” the astrophysicist said, “but from what I gather it’s meant to create and exploit a wormhole, so that it achieves virtually instantaneous transport across space. We’re told that it holds out our only hope for reaching the stars.”

“That’s right.” The general seemed agitated. He stood up and began pacing behind his desk, his hands making odd spasmodic movements. “The media do indulge in a lot of hyperbole, but they’re probably telling the truth when they claim it’s the most significant revolution in transport after the wheel.” He turned to the astrophysicist suddenly. “You know about the successful test, of course.”

“Yes.” The astrophysicist nodded. “That’s what the media’s talking about, that this was the first ever test, and it went off splendidly. And after a couple more trials, apparently they’ll try it with an astronaut inside.”

The general cocked his head slightly on one side, like an aged but still attentive bloodhound. “That’s right,” he repeated. “That’s what the media say. But what the media don’t know is that this wasn’t the first trial of the X Craft. It was the fifth.”

“The fifth?” The astrophysicist frowned. “Does that mean – there was someone aboard?”

“Oh yes.” The general smiled bitterly. “There was someone aboard. That’s why you’re here.”

****************************

“The X Craft, you realise,” said the general, “isn’t just a transport. It’s a military weapon.”

They were going down the same white corridor, the lanky officer walking so quickly that the tubby little scientist had to trot to keep up. The floor, covered now with black rubber matting, sloped gently downwards, and the air was cool and dry.

“It is?” The astrophysicist shook his head. “I didn’t know that.”

The general glanced at him with some contempt. “If it had no military application, do you think it would’ve got any funding? Who has the money to spare for space travel, and experimental space travel at that?”

“But how can you use it as a weapon?”

“You scientists…” The general sounded exasperated. “The X Craft promises instantaneous transport across space, doesn’t it? It exploits, as you said, wormholes between spatial points. Now, isn’t that a perfect way of bypassing enemy defenses? Once we have a functioning X Craft fleet, not a single nation or coalition will ever be able to stand up to us. They’ll be naked to our attacks. It’s the ultimate stealth weapon, and worth any amount of effort.”

“That’s…a monstrous misuse of science,” the astrophysicist said. “Monstrous.”

The general laughed aloud. “That’s kind of rich, really. The military is the only reason science programmes still get funded, or didn’t you know?” He stopped laughing abruptly. “Of course, the whole thing’s jeopardised now, and I don’t mean the media getting wind of the trial somehow, so we had to announce it.”

“You didn’t want to announce it?”

“Of course not. What use is a secret programme if it’s known to the world?”

“But the trial was a success, wasn’t it? Or is that not true?”

“Oh,” said the general, “the trial was a success, as far as that went. The X Craft created a wormhole, slipped through, and reappeared twenty kilometres away. The damned trial was a success, as far as the machine goes.  It’s what happened on board that’s the problem.”

“What happened on board?” the astrophysicist asked.

“You’ll see in a moment,” the general said. They descended a twisting flight of stairs, and emerged on to a second corridor, lined with identical doors. Several of the doors had armed guards stationed outside, who stiffened to attention at the sight of the general and slapped the butts of their rifles in salute.

“Here we are.” The general stopped in front of one of the doors, ignoring the pair of muscular sentries with their black uniforms and Kevlar body armour. With his hand on the doorknob, he turned to the astrophysicist.

“You are not going to believe this,” he said.

**************************

“She was a volunteer, of course,” the general said. “And she was an experienced astronaut. Of course, it goes without saying that she wasn’t part of the space programme the public knows about.”

“You have a secret military space programme?” The astrophysicist was talking without really thinking, his mind still trying to understand the thing lying on the other side of the transparent wall.

“Well, of course,” the general replied, “space travel’s always been primarily a military controlled programme. Just about all the early astronauts were military people, starting with Gagarin, as I’m sure you know. The difference is that these programmes are directly concerned with the nation’s security, and are beyond top secret. You don’t know more about it than you must. There’s not a single person who knows it all, not even I.”

“And…this test was part of it?”

“That’s what I’ve been building up to telling you, isn’t it?” The general coughed. “The first four tests went off more or less as expected. We had a couple of minor equipment failures, but not much more than that.”

“So you sent her on the fifth.”

“We had to try a crewed flight eventually. She volunteered.” He paused a moment. “We prefer women in this programme because they’re smaller, so they require less air, food and water, and they’re biologically tougher. Almost all our astronauts are women.”

“What’s her name?” The astrophysicist was still staring with fascination at the thing beyond the transparent panel. “Or can’t you tell me that?”

“The names of everyone involved in this programme are classified.” The general tapped the nameplate on his chest. “This isn’t my real name, for example. We’ll refer to her by her code name; Vixen Ten.”

“So you put her in the hyper…the X Craft. She was launched from orbit as described, I take it?”

“Almost exactly as described. The X Craft generated the wormhole, and vanished. A fraction of a second later it reappeared twenty kilometres away, roughly where we expected. But we couldn’t establish radio contact. And when we recovered the vehicle and opened it up, we didn’t find Vixen Ten. Instead…”

“You found that,” the astrophysicist completed.

“We found that,” the general acknowledged.

The thing on the other side of the glass twisted and writhed. It was hard to define its shape clearly. It was rather like mist or cloud, coiling upon itself slowly but visibly. In colour it was mostly orange, red and yellow, but here and there were sparkles of green, blue and brilliant white.

“It was brought down here in the same unit in which it was found,” the general said, leaning his forehead against the glass. “We’ve tried to find out what it is, whether it’s alive or not, what its substance is, all of that. We’ve done our best.”

“And?” The astrophysicist looked as though he already knew the answer, and was not anxious to hear it confirmed.

The general swallowed, visibly. “No part of it can be separated from the rest for analysis. We tried to cut away a piece with a remote-controlled knife. The substance of it seemed to pass right through the material of the blade, without leaving a mark. We can move the whole of it, along with the unit, but that’s it.”

“Any sign of life?”

“It’s not eating or excreting anything. We can’t try it with physical stimuli because of the same reason that we can’t cut into it – its substance goes right through any needle or probe. We can’t communicate with it in any way – we’ve tried visual, auditory, radio, you name it, we’ve tried it, without any response. The only thing about it…”

“…is the radiation,” the astrophysicist remarked. “You’re detecting X rays and radio, aren’t you? Some background gamma radiation as well? It will all be very faint, though.”

The general stared at him. “How do you know that? Who’s been leaking information? That’s what I want to know.”

“Nobody’s been leaking information,” the astrophysicist said. “It’s obvious from what you’ve told me. I’m surprised none of your own scientists reached that conclusion. Perhaps they’re too close to the problem to step back far enough for an overview.”

“What conclusion?” the general demanded. “What are you talking about?”

“Your wormhole.” The astrophysicist sighed. “Your military programmes always need immediate results, don’t they? You can’t afford to have the scientific parameters properly explored, the problems detected, and solutions, if there are any, found. You wanted a wormhole created, you created one, and that’s all you cared about.”

“What has that to do with anything?”

The astrophysicist shook his head slightly. “We don’t really know a thing about wormholes,” he said. “We don’t know what creates them, or how they work. We just know that they exist, for infinitesimally small instances of time, and that anything that goes through them materialises some distance away. Beyond that, we know nothing. We don’t even understand the physics behind it.”

“So what?”

“Because of the implications,” the astrophysicist explained patiently. “Did you send anything alive on the earlier test flights? Seeds? Cockroaches? Rats? Anything?”

The general frowned. “We sent a monkey on the third flight. Its life support failed somehow, though it shouldn’t have. I told you we had minor equipment failures. It died. We sent mice on the fourth flight. They came through…well, five of them came through. Three…disappeared.”

The astrophysicist snorted. “Just disappeared? And you didn’t have a problem with that?”

“The five that remained were fine, all right? And we can’t keep a programme costing trillions hanging for three miserable missing mice. What do they have to do with anything, anyway?”

“If you had only taken some time to think about what had happened to them,” the astrophysicist told him, “you might have stepped back and then you wouldn’t have this…problem.”

“With that?” The general pointed at the writhing orange cloud. “What is that thing, anyway?”

The astrophysicist looked at him. “You have an entire Universe in there.”

*********************************

“No wonder you couldn’t cut into the cloud,” the astrophysicist said. They were back in the general’s office, but they weren’t alone. The colonel was there too, and he and the general were both looking faintly green. “Each particle of it must be a galaxy, held together by gravity. Can you imagine the density of the entire mass compared to your blades and probes? They must have pushed aside the molecules of the metal and simply passed through.”

“But how could it have happened?” the general whispered.

“I told you, we don’t understand wormholes. All we do know is that while transfer through them is almost instantaneous, it isn’t actually so. There’s a measurable gap. How long did your X craft take to reappear? How long was the time lag?”

The general and the colonel looked at each other, and the general nodded.

“Just under one second,” said the younger officer. “Zero point nine five seconds, approximately.”

“There you are, then,” said the astrophysicist. “For that period of time, your X Craft was somewhere else. It wasn’t in our Universe.”

“So where was it?” the colonel asked.

“I told you, we can’t know. There’s absolutely no way of telling. It was just…elsewhere.”

“I don’t understand,” the colonel said.

“I’ll try and explain. Think of a room, like this one, with rats burrowing in the walls. Now, in order to go from that wall to this, the rats have to scurry along the burrows, inside the wall and round the corner. Of course, if there are no burrows from that wall to this, they’ll have to dig one, and they can’t get from one wall to another faster than they can dig. You get me so far?”

“Yes. And?”

“Now, if one of these rats decided one day that burrowing through walls was simply too much trouble, and tried to go directly from that wall to this, it would have to come out of a mouse hole and run across the floor, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose so,” the colonel said reluctantly.

“But these rats have never tried this before. Our pioneer rat, who’s eager to visit his lady friend, has no idea of what’s in this room. It could get eaten by a cat, or stepped on by the general here, or trapped under a wastebasket, or lose its way and run out of the door…anything might happen to it. And its lady friend, who’s waiting for it inside the wall, wouldn’t – couldn’t – know what had happened to it.” The astrophysicist paused. “If she opened a hole on her side, and the cat pushed its paw into the opening, would she – who had never seen a cat before – have any idea what it might be? And would her seeing the paw explain what had happened to her missing friend?

“We are the rats in the walls,” the astrophysicist continued. “And we don’t know what’s there on the floor. Even if we manage to cross it safely once, twice, thirty times, we don’t know what’s out there, and we have no way of predicting what might or might not happen the thirty-first time. That just might be the time the cat has come into the room.

“And so there’s no way of telling what the universe you captured might mean to us, or what dangers we might have let ourselves in for. There’s no way of telling what happened to your X Craft while it was crossing the floor – or to your Vixen Ten.”

“Vixen Ten.” The general buried his face in his hands. His body seemed almost to crumple, as though overcome with grief. “Oh my god.”

“Of course,” the astrophysicist said, “from your point of view, it’s not yet a disaster. You can still use it for your military, I suppose. Only, it’s going to be a mechanised mission, without any crew to bring it back. And even then all your infallible equipment will fail, sooner rather than later. You understand?”

“It’s you who don’t understand,” the general

The astrophysicist studied him curiously. “I thought she was a volunteer who was aware of the risks? It’s not as though she was an uninvolved onlooker, was she? I mean, with all the other dangers your universe there has brought upon us, why are you so exercised over a single volunteer? You were perfectly ready to shoot me, so it isn’t as though you value life overmuch, is it?”

The general looked up at him, his eyes swimming with tears.

“Vixen Ten is my daughter,” he said.

*************************

“You understand,” said the astrophysicist, “I can take no responsibility for this. I can’t predict what’s going to happen – and I certainly can’t guarantee you’ll get your daughter back.”

He stood beside the general at the back of the huge control room. Before them, at least fifty men and women in uniform sat at computers, watching data scroll on their monitors. Directly across the room, on a set of large screens, satellite cameras showed the bat-like black shape of the X Craft, silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean. The space-suited figures of a few attendant astronauts could be seen, making last-minute adjustments.

“You didn’t prohibit it though,” the general reminded him. “In fact, you strongly urged us to go ahead.”

“I did,” the astrophysicist acknowledged. “I did, not because of your daughter – I’m sorry, but I couldn’t really care less about her – but because the universe you’ve captured is incredibly dangerous. Our own universe is a closed bubble of spacetime, as you’re aware…” He glanced quickly at the general, gauging if he really was aware. “Now, we have two separate and distinct universes occupying the same space. Can you imagine the energy levels building? I’m only surprised we haven’t had a rupture of spacetime yet.”

“So you’re doing this only to get rid of the universe you say we captured?” the general asked. He was grey-faced, and seemed to have aged a decade in the last week. “And even then…”

“Even then,” the astrophysicist completed, “I can’t say that we will get rid of it. I just think it’s essential that we try.”

A screen cut to a camera inside the X Craft, focusing on the writhing cloud, still in its unit.

“It seems to be growing,” the general remarked.

“You noticed it too?” The astrophysicist was silent for a bit. On the other screens, the attendant astronauts moved away on backpack motors. The X Craft was on its own.

“It must be gaining energy,” the astrophysicist said at last. “Either sucking it in from our universe, or channelling it from somewhere. Either way, we have to get rid of it…send it home.”

The tall officer and the short scientist watched the action on the screens. The men and women at their stations clicked diligently away at their computers, and the X Craft turned itself around slowly as it was remotely oriented towards the point where the wormhole would be forrned.

“We’re trying to replicate the conditions of the original test as exactly as possible,” the general said, “in accordance with your instructions. Of course, we can’t do a perfect match, because there was no reason to record the exact spatial co-ordinates and orientation, but we’re doing the best we can.”

The astrophysicist nodded, watching the screens with keen interest. He had never seen a wormhole before, and though he knew enough not to expect a Hollywood-style special effects spectacular, he felt the excitement rush through his veins. “It can’t be helped,” he murmured, imagining the machines at work, twisting at the fabric of space and time. “How long till the hole’s generated?”

“Now,” said the general.

There was no drama, no flash of light. The X Craft simply disappeared.

“It’s in the hole,” the general said.

The screens shifted views. Again, below them was the Pacific Ocean, but from the cloud patterns, slightly shifted. “It should appear there,” the general said.

Nothing happened. The men and women looked up from their computers at the screens, worried frowns on their faces. A few of them looked back at the general questioningly.

The astrophysicist glanced at the general too. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know! The damn thing hasn’t exited the hole.”

The satellite cameras began to sweep across an arc, slowly, but all they showed was the sea and cloud, with a few glimpses of land. There was no sign of the X Craft.

“It’s gone,” one of the men at the computers said.

“I told you,” the astrophysicist murmured to the room at large, “we don’t know what happens inside the room. We’re just the rats in the walls.”

The general rounded on him. “Shut up. You’ve just lost us the X Craft, and ruined the whole damned programme. You just shut up and wait while I decide what to do about you.”

“Oh,” the astrophysicist told him cheerfully, “I don’t think you’ll be doing anything about me. I told you, didn’t I, that we can’t predict anything that might happen inside the wormhole or what its effects might be? Well, you people had to monkey around with what nobody understands, didn’t you? Now, look.”

The general glanced up at the screen at which he was pointing. Beyond the achingly lovely blue-white globe of the earth, space had been a featureless black void. It was a featureless black void no longer.

“It’s ripping apart,” the astrophysicist said, still pointing. In the time left to him, he wondered what would come after this, and wished he could have some way to know.

Like a rotten curtain falling apart at a touch, the fabric of spacetime came crumbling down.