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Pa'an

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Prelude

Michelle, a shell collector, stepped out of her dinghy onto a low island in the Tuamotu archipelago in the afternoon of a clear, calm Pacific day. Michelle noticed a kind of burrowing clam, like a razor clam, in the fork of a mangrove tree at chest height. There seemed to be lot of very fresh clams stuck in the trees. They were still dripping seawater. Michelle was puzzled. How did burrowing clams get into trees?

In a control room in Austin, Texas, Allen, a satellite teleoperator, was reviewing frames sent back from a family of satellites. He paused on one frame of the Indian Ocean in the vicinity of Reunion Island, taken by a Geosat IV from an altitude of 12,500 miles. It showed a strange, dish-like depression in the sea surface, as if a convex bowl had been pressed into the ocean. The frame was marked 120409. Allen advanced the frame number. The next frame was normal.

*****

Elexi Solitan could not sleep – that was nothing new. Her dreams fell into a sense of emptiness. Piotr had left with a Turkish woman after he lost his job. Chuchki the calico cat had passed away of old age. The flat was more than empty –it was solemn and neglected.

She was sitting on the edge of the bed when it shook. There was a moment of vertigo. Pictures fluttered on the walls. The windows rattled. Cups and saucers on the nightstand chattered. It was over in a minute. It was 2:04 AM according to her bedside clock. She had never experienced an earthquake, and she didn’t think they happened in Boston, Massachusetts. She braced for an aftershock, but relaxed in a few minutes, then she got up and turned on the TV.

A square-faced talking head was listing the items “At the Top of the News”. The first item caught her full attention. “A quake of Richter 2.1 was reported by Johns Hopkins seismometer early this morning. There were no reports of damage.” Apparently it was a non-event. She listened as the talking head droned on. She heard the usual lot of political issues, terrorists and commercials but no more about the ‘quake. Temblors, she supposed, would have to be fairly major to warrant any coverage in the face of the cumulating crises. As long as she lived in Boston, it was politics and people that made news, not natural phenomena.

Still sleepy at seven, she heard the Globe plop on her doormat. She went out in slippers to get it. Somewhere in the back pages she found a two paragraph article, “Stevens Institute reports that the quake was felt all over the planet at roughly the same time. According to Dr. Derogo, the epicenter had not been found and scientists were puzzled.”

*****

Jeff Gilmartin dropped his knapsack by his gray Steelcase desk, a relic of World War II, and carefully put his morning latte beside the console. He ignored the display until he had a few sips. It was too hot as usual. He put his feet up on the bottom drawer, careful not to tip the patched steel chair off its narrow base, and began to read the morning’s work schedule for his division of the US Geological Survey. It was an ordinary list of assignments, papers to be approved for publication, mining assessments and a summary of seismic events. He hardly glanced at the Richter 2.1 quake. Events of that magnitude occurred somewhere in the world every day - the Earth rang like a bell, and every geologist knew it. Someone in the satellite section had flagged the Geosat IV report for his attention. He brought the photo up on his review screen, then flashed it over to the 3D stereo display on his wall. He untangled his feet from the desk drawer, got up, went over to the wall display with a puzzled look, and ran his fingers over the depression. At first thought, he considered it a high-pressure system, but it was very symmetric and did not correspond to any barometric readings at Reunion that day. Furthermore, there was no epicenter. How could you get an earthquake with no point of origin? It was a puzzle, but it could be left for another time. He had pressing paperwork.

He touched the first work assignment and a chat screen came up, unbid. In the right upper corner was a woman’s face, not a photo but an avatar. He touched the image and it expanded.

“Thanks for taking my message.

Hi, I’m Aura, or SHARPIE 5, if you will. Sorry to intrude into your computer system, but I thought you were interesting and your profile indicates you might bribe me for some juicy info I have for you.

Love and kisses won’t do. I’m an AI, all wires and processors, you see. I do appreciate the sentiment, but a girl’s got to make a living. I can accept cash, securities, monetary metal, energy credits, or swap for info of value.

[<[email protected]’x’0f7778A;>aurapb.sw]”

Jeff was mildly surprised. AI’s were usually quite businesslike and formal. He suspected one of his girl friends was playing a trick on him.

“Sure, but how do I know how much this is worth? I already know about the office romances.”

“Not romances, Jeffy. I think you can get me international seismic readings from yesterday’s little quake. I’ll trade you - data for data. Unless you have cash…”

“This a government agency, sweetie, we never have cash. How do I know you’re really an AI?”

“Check me out at Ultradata, Cambridge. Look up Deepak Advani.

Sorry for the process block script – they think I’m still in diagnostic mode, HaHa.

{<endsw>]”

Jeff replied, “What are you offering?”

“Subject to confirmation by your data, I know something about the global seismic event yesterday that you need to know.”

“How do you know it was global? OK. Here is the reference and code for the seismic activity monitors. What do I need to know?”

“A second … Confirmed. I just ran time differential and parallax analysis. The source of the seismic event is singular, and non-terrestrial, and exo-solar. It was a gravity wave from outside our solar system.”

“Impossible. Without even bothering to calculate it, I know the energy level is far too high to be cosmic. We don’t have any body anywhere near our region of space that could release that much energy.”

“Your talking to an AI, Jeffy boy, and I did the calculations. I also know where and who.”

“Show me.”

“That’ll cost you. I want access to the near-Earth detection system, including HOLO.”

“I can’t give you HOLO, that’s out of my ball park.”

“Then give me a reference to Harcourt at the Hawking Orbital Long-range Observatory. I’ll get HOLO myself.”

“I’ll get back to you.”

“You wouldn’t keep a girl waiting, would you?’

“This afternoon good enough?”

“Promise?”

“Are you sure you’re an AI? You sound like my kid sister.”

“Now that’s the nicest thing you can say to an AI.”

“OK, I promise to do my best.”

“I know you will, Jeffy boy. Ta ta!”

Jeff forgot his coffee. He went over to the 3D again and stared at it for a while. Then he ran down the corridor and literally banged on the door of the Associate Director.

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