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Published: 31 January 2024.

by Gerry Gaffney

This story contains swearing and a threat of global destruction.

Line drawing of a rubbish skip

Henry Scanlon tilted his chair backwards and put his feet up on the desk. Outside, he could see a line of trucks waiting to unload.

It was easy money. Each truck represented several thousand dollars of income, depending on the weight and nature of its cargo. Most of the assessment was automated, so the need for hired labour was minimal.

When it came to their turn, each trucker drove into the waste terminal, dumped their load in the chute, and drove out the other side. No mess, no clutter, no drama.

It was Friday afternoon and Scanlon was looking forward to the weekend. He’d go to the casino, blow some of his money, smoke a couple of cigars. Maybe meet up with a girl, get a nice room. Have few drinks and generally relax.

His screen pinged. A message from Dr Eggimann. He sighed. Wormhole Lady. Sylvie Eggimann was a pain in the ass. Typical scientist type, all big ideas and theories, no commercial sense. Always with the warnings and caveats and what-ifs and buts. But he couldn’t get rid of her. And she couldn’t get rid of him, so he guessed it was kind of stalemate. And he didn’t have to see her very often.

The message was flagged urgent. At this time on a Friday afternoon, he thought, it better be urgent. She wanted to meet in the boardroom in ten minutes. He looked at the time on his screen. He had no real reason not to accept. As usual, his diary was clear. He accepted her invitation.

He strolled through the labs towards the boardroom. People in white coats stood around in various rooms gossiping or arguing or poking things. Occasionally someone appeared to be actually working at a screen or a centrifuge or laser array. He didn’t really know what any of them did all day. After all, the wormhole was open and the company was turning a very handsome profit. If it was up to him he’d close down the labs, minimise labour costs, automate the entire waste disposal facility, sit back and let the money roll in.

But head office had other ideas. Probably they wanted to open more wormholes for waste disposal or use them for teleportation or time travel or something fancy. Good luck to them, there was plenty of business out there, no shortage of crap to get rid of. And if head office wanted to keep on all these expensive PhD types then so be it. As long as Scanlon didn’t have to manage them or deal with them. Live and let live.

He wished he didn’t have to deal with Eggimann either, but they were both at the same level on the corporate hierarchy so he couldn’t just ignore her. If he tried, she’d just whine to head office and someone there would bite his head off, make his life miserable. Better to just go along and see what was on her mind this time.

Eggimann was already in the boardroom when he arrived. They greeted each other politely and Scanlon took a seat.

“What can I do for you, Doc?” he asked. He knew she hated being called Doc.

“You can close down the waste stream through the wormhole, for starters.”

Scanlon raised his right eyebrow. It had taken him years to perfect this after he’d seen Spock do it in Star Trek as a kid. But the effect seemed to be lost on Eggimann.

“Why would I do that?” he asked. “Do you have new information?”

“It appears that the wormhole opens onto an inhabited planet.”

Scanlon was too surprised to raise his eyebrow again. Besides, his eyebrow muscles needed recovery time.

“You told us that the wormhole went into empty space,” he said.

“No. We told you that it was highly probable that the other end of the wormhole was in empty space.”

Scanlon noticed that Eggimann was saying “we.” That meant she was worried and trying to distance herself from direct responsibility. A bad sign.

“I’d have to refer back to the transcripts,” he said. “But I believe you said words to the effect that there was no chance that the wormhole went anywhere other than empty space.” And he would check the transcripts, by God. As soon as he got back to his office he was going to set up a search and find the meeting when she’d told them all the wormhole went nowhere. Empty space. Totally harmless.

Of course at that time nobody had thought of using the wormhole for waste disposal. In fact, head office was mad keen to use it for transportation. When word got out about the possibility of wormhole travel, stocks in transport, shipping and aviation crashed. The smart money snapped them up and within a few weeks, when it had become obvious that the wormholes were not going to replace buses, the smart money laughed all the way to the bank.

And, Scanlon reflected, I was the one who actually found a use for that wormhole. That must still rankle with the eggheads like Eggimann. Joe Schmo here, without a degree to his name, threw a banana peel into the wormhole and started a billion-dollar revenue stream. Suffer in your jocks Eggimann, he thought.

But since she hadn’t thought up the idea, she’d been against it from the start. She’d tried to block Scanlon at every turn, but she’d lost the battle. It was just too attractive for head office to ignore.

And now she wanted to kill it. Good luck with that, he thought, head office will can you and your lab rats before they’ll shut down the waste disposal and its revenue stream. Maybe you’ll be able to find someone else to buy you shiny equipment and give you all your little perks and toys.

Scanlon was relishing the thought of Eggimann’s comeuppance but he dragged his mind back to the business at hand. Eggimann was staring at him, as if she could read what was in his mind. Maybe he’d been grinning like a fool. He rubbed a hand across his lips and chin. No drool. Good.

Eggimann tapped on her tablet and a still image appeared on the boardroom screen.

It was a photograph, apparently, and showed a huge dumping ground, full of assorted rubbish.

He started to get a bad feeling.

“Where’s that?” he asked.

Eggimann didn’t answer. Instead she did something on her tablet and the image zoomed in to show what looked like a small group of people on horseback at the edge of the dump.

“That’s where your wormhole goes,” she said, “and those are the people affected by it.”

“It’s not my wormhole, Doc,” he said. “If anything, it’s your wormhole. The one you promised was connected to the vast emptiness of space. What happened, did you and your boffins misplace a decimal point?”

The look on Eggimann’s face made Scanlon think that that was probably precisely what had happened.

“We’ve been refining our models,” she said. “It seems that there may be quantum effects that cause wormholes to have a tropism for geomechanical similarity.”

“Right. In other words, wormholes go to planets. Not empty space, after all.”

“In a manner of speaking,” she said.

Yeah, he thought, in a manner of speaking called plain English. You screwed up. We’re dumping our rubbish on some planet. At least it looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn’t great news, but it didn’t really change anything. The people on that planet, if they were really people, weren’t shareholders and they didn’t vote. So they didn’t matter.

Unless they could block the wormhole.

“Could they block the wormhole?” he asked.

“We’re still modelling that.”

“When will you have an answer?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe you should get some more of your boffins out of Friday afternoon mode and set them to work.”

A thought occurred to him.

“Can you shift the end of the wormhole to somewhere else?”

“Not without collapsing it.”

Another thought occurred to him.

“Wait a minute, you told us that the wormhole was strictly one-way. No information coming back. How did you get that image?”

“Well, we couldn’t get any telemetry back. No radio signals, for example. No device we sent through was able to return a signal. Then we had the thought to send through a tethered camera. We did that several times today and got a series of images each time before the tether collapsed.”

Wow, thought Scanlon. A whole year of operation before somebody thought to send in a camera with a piece of string and a wire attached.

“Whose idea was that?” he asked. “Just out of curiosity.”

She hesitated. “I don’t know specifically,” she said.

Sure you don’t, he thought. He could see that the question made made her uncomfortable. Probably someone’s kid suggested it, or one of the slobs on the guided tours. The boffins had spent millions of dollars on fancy cameras tricked out with an array of telemetry devices, but someone’s kid, or maybe a janitor, had suggested the tether. But it didn’t matter how they’d got the images. What mattered was the reality.

Eggimann wanted Scanlon to support her in her effort to close down the waste transfer. He could see that. But as far as he was concerned he’d operated in good faith on the information presented to him. By Eggimann. She could fall on her own sword, he thought, but he wasn’t going to go down with her sinking ship.

“I think you’re going to have to take this to the board,” he said. “Convene an emergency meeting for tomorrow. Make your case.”

“Will you support me in calling for a shut-down?” she asked.

He looked at her and thought for a while.

“I won’t sabotage you,” he said. “Make your case, see what the board says. But I’ll tell you right now, they don’t like losing revenue.”

“There’s something else,” she said.

Here it comes, he thought. He did the eyebrow thing again.

“Quantum entanglement means it may be possible for wormhole traffic to be reversed by the recipient.”

“You didn’t think to mention this before?”

“We didn’t know, we’re still working our way towards fully understanding the phenomenon.”

“So you built something you said was one-way, but now it isn’t, that went harmlessly to empty space, but now it doesn’t.”

Eggimann was silent.

“Good luck with the board presentation,” said Scanlon.

He stood up and began to walk back towards his office. It looked like his weekend was turning to shit.

*** ***

Councillor Lianna was on an inspection tour of the emanation zone. This was her second visit, and it was just as disturbing as it had been the first time, several weeks previously.

In her entourage were various advisors, junior councillors and support staff.

About an hour from the emanation zone the landscape began to change. There were strange smells in the air. The forest path was strewn with dust and fragments.

The horses had been re-shod in solid iron to protect their hooves from the debris. Their heads were masked with light cotton to provide some protection from whatever airborne toxins they encountered. The entourage also wore some protection. Their advisors had reminded them to touch nothing in the zone, to keep their masks on and wear their goggles at all times. The weather was cool and calm, which was a blessing. The last time Lianna had been here it was hot and windy, with poisonous dust swirling and the constant discomfort of sweat under her googles and mask.

Soon after the smells began, the noise became noticeable. It increased in volume as they approached. Thunderous crashes and clangs, unlike any naturally-occurring sounds.

They passed the inner checkpoint, armed soldiers saluting and waving them through. The sight was a sobering one. The People did not normally have any need to arm themselves. But it was conceivable that an invasion force could enter through the wormhole. Indeed, one theory initially proposed was that the purpose of the zone was to soften up an enemy, to intimidate and poison them in advance of an attack. The armed guards could hope to at least delay any incursion and sound a warning.

Finally they were in sight of the epicentre. A vast area was covered as far as the eye could see with debris, both artificial and organic. Scientists had identified many of the objects. There were devices for heating or cooling, using rudimentary heat pumps. Engines and motors. Vehicles, damaged or destroyed either prior to arrival or as a result of crashing to the surface from a height. Glass. Steel. Various alloys. Liquids, either in containers or flowing freely. Huge quantities of paper, bound into books or elaborately folded, or torn and shredded. Many documents bore text, and linguists had partially deciphered several different languages.

There were swathes of coloured materials. Some were made from organics. Others were based on synthetic polymers. Many were items of clothing, worn or damaged or apparently pristine.

The People were familiar with synthetic materials but used them sparingly and with caution. Seeing them in such vast quantities was disturbing. It was estimated that the synthetics in the emanation zone were already at least a hundred times greater than the entire quantity ever manufactured by The People themselves.

Some items were noxious or lethal. People had sickened, and some had died, when they came in contact with these in the first days of the emanation, before the danger was fully understood. Some items were radioactive. Others were chemically toxic. Some were unsavoury or disgusting to various degrees but were purely organic and unlikely to be particularly harmful. These included materials covered in faeces.

The river that ran through the valley was filthy. It was mostly yellow and brown, with oily patches that shimmered with rainbow colours in the sunlight. Downstream the water was unsafe for drinking or swimming. No fish remained.

When they were as close to the epicentre as they felt they could safely go, they stopped and watched as all kinds of objects appeared, apparently from a single point in the sky, and fell or floated or poured down to join the piles of debris below. There seemed to be no system, no obvious grouping. A large white box followed by two wheels. A box made of carded paper. Empty glass containers. A stream of black viscous liquid. A metal cask. Then a pause. Then a flurry of uncountable pieces of paper. Dust.

Councillor Lianna was here because Council had decided, based on the advice of scientists, that the extent and rate of the disgorgement was untenable and had to be stopped before it poisoned the ecosystem throughout the archipelago, perhaps even across the entire planet. She wanted to see, and have her entourage see, the nature and extent of the problem. The visceral sense of degradation and defilement would help Council push through whatever measures might be necessary.

It was impossible to distinguish a precise point of origin of this vast stream of material. Something was not here, then it was, as if willed into existence by a malevolent force.

After watching for several minutes, Lianna called the group together.

“Is there any value in staying any longer?” she asked. “I propose we return to the city and convene the day after tomorrow to decide on what action to take.”

There were no objections. Judging from the looks of relief they would be glad to turn their backs on the abomination.

The horses too were obviously glad to be leaving, and had to be reined in to prevent them from galloping away from the zone.

*** ***

Councillor Lianna had the floor.

She looked around the table. The twenty-five representatives in this room were empowered to make decisions on behalf of the People. Sometimes discussions during assemblies could be heated, but it was usually possible to reach a consensus fairly quickly.

Today’s session was of more import, and she expected that it might take some time to reach an agreement.

After greeting the assembly, she told the members that the purpose was to decide on what course to take in regard to the emanation zone.

She described the fact-finding mission she had made two days previously. Several of those in the assembly had also been there with her. She described, briefly, the scientific evidence supporting the need to take action to halt the dumping.

“Are we sure that the process constitutes dumping?” asked one of the delegates.

This question had come up several times since the beginning of the emanation zone phenomenon.

“The clear scientific consensus is that this is a stream of waste. I know it would be nice to think it’s some sort of attempt to communicate or share technology, but it’s simply not the case.

“The source is a planet (most likely) or system inhabited and probably dominated by what the xenoculturalists refer to as a ‘technically proficient/systemically deficient’ species.

“Essentially, such species apply technological reasoning. They are tool-makers and experimenters. They will uncover various fundamental laws and forces. However, they are insufficiently organised or intelligent to control or manage their own use of these tools and forces. Apparently such species would not have a high probability of long-term survival. The very existence of the emanation zone indicates that they’ve explored fundamental particles and have some sort of understanding of quantum mechanics. The content of their waste stream, if sustainable, would require that they have access to almost infinite raw materials. However, the writings we’ve deciphered make it clear that they do not in fact have unlimited resources, and their history is full of stories of extensive fighting and warfare over access to land and minerals.

“It may well be they are unaware of where their waste stream emerges, and it’s been suggested as you know that we send a message back through the wormhole alerting them to our presence and the damage they are causing. However, there is a risk that they would perceive such a message, or even our existence, as a threat. In which case their response could be to send through a weapon of some sort. Probably fission-based. Potentially devastating.

“The closest thing to a consensus proposal is to reverse the waste stream. Because of quantum entanglement, initiating any reversal of the flow through the wormhole would result in everything that’s been sent through so far being returned to its point of origin. To me, that seems like a fair and equitable solution. It’s not without technical difficulty.”

“Would this course of action close the Monkeys’ wormhole?” asked a councillor.

“I suggest we avoid the term ‘Monkey’,” said Lianna. “It may lead us to underestimate their abilities. But yes, this might destroy the wormhole. It would most likely cause major inconvenience, and possibly some death and destruction, if any of the originators are in the path of the returned material.”

There was discussion about other approaches but within a relatively short period of time the Council had agreed that the waste stream should be reversed. They also agreed the matter should be treated as urgent.

“Should we warn the Monk… sorry, the Originators about what we’re going to do so they can avoid harm?” asked Councillor Rory.

The scientific advisor answered. “Ideally, yes, but if we warn them, they may close the wormhole. This would still leave us with no easy way to get rid of the material that’s poisoning our world.”

“Couldn’t we build our own wormhole?”

“Yes, we could divert some of our scientific endeavour and do that. But where would we send the material? We’d have to send it to a planetary body of similar mass, unless we want to undertake more extensive fundamental research to overcome that restriction. We could choose a planet that matches our mass, and hope that we were not interfering with any life forms. But realistically the only real solution is to return it to the source.”

Lianna let the discussion finish.

“Let’s begin the process,” she said. “Essentially, it means building a catapult to accelerate small amounts of matter towards the centre of the point of emanation. It may take some time to score the direct hit we need to return some material to its origin and trigger the reversal.”

*** ***

The board had agreed to an emergency meeting at Dr Eggimann’s request. There were twelve people in total at the meeting. Four were present in person, and the rest had called in from various locations. Some looked business-like, and others looked like it was the middle of the night wherever they were. Jane Cannon had apparently forgotten she was on video. She was at what looked like a hotel room writing desk. On the bed behind her a shape was moving languidly. Scanlon was trying to figure out who it might be when her image suddenly swung around. Clearly she’d either noticed her own video feed or someone had messaged her. Her cheeks were very red. Scanlon managed not to laugh out loud. Video call meetings 101, he thought.

Through the large picture window the waste terminal was visible, several hundred metres away.

Eggimann was looking nervous as she called the meeting to order.

“Thanks for attending at short notice,” she began.

Over the next several minutes, she told the board what she’d told Scanlon already. They’d managed to get some images from the wormhole terminus. The terminus was on a planetary body. The planetary body was inhabited. It was theoretically possible the waste stream could be reversed, meaning all the material dumped to date would be dumped back at the facility and surrounding area. She showed some pictures of the people on horseback.

“They look pretty primitive,” said Jane Cannon. “On horseback. Not a technically advanced civilisation.” She glanced to her left when she said “horseback.” Scanlon wondered if anyone else noticed. “They can’t represent any danger to us.”

“Not yet,” said Hiro Takada, “but we didn’t filter the material we’ve dumped there. We’ve basically sent them a ‘how-to’ guide for our entire technological base. I told you all we should be shredding everything before dumping it. They might not pose a danger now, but give them a few years and they could.”

Nobody liked Takada so they ignored him.

“Could we send through a nuke and sterilise the site?” asked Martina Ellerman.

The rest of the board seemed to be shocked. But it would be a neat solution, thought Scanlon. Good old Ellerman, always goes in hard.

“I think that might make for some bad PR,” said the PR Director. “In fact, the whole thing is a PR nightmare. We’ve told people we have a safe reliable way to get rid of waste and now it turns out we’re poisoning some primitive tribe on a pristine planet. Fuck.” She started to bite a fingernail.

“Maybe they’re not squeaky clean and on a pristine planet,” said Scanlon. “Maybe they’re slave traders who eat their babies.”

Eggimann jumped in, clutching at the straw. “Precisely. We need more data. We can extend our camera capability, do some cultural analysis. Consider what approaches might be available to us. Define a course of action based on further research.”

Exactly, thought Scanlon. Keep the boffins working and don’t touch our research dollars.

“But perhaps we should halt the waste stream while we do that,” she said.

There was a marked lack of enthusiasm for this suggestion. There appeared to be little appetite from the board to reduce the revenue stream.

Suddenly there was a strange sound from the waste terminal. Those present in person swung around to look out the window. A stream of black liquid flowed from the waste terminal. It was fast-moving, sweeping trucks and parts of the facility along with it. As they watched, other material began to spew out of the terminal. A fridge, a rusty I-beam, bricks, all manner of junk and detritus.

A siren sounded. Scanlon could see figures running away from the terminal. Piles and streams of junk were growing rapidly. Scanlon stood up. “We need to evacuate now,” he said. He didn’t wait for the others, but headed for the door. He planned run to his car and get the hell away while he could.

He could hear Takada yelling, “I told you so. I warned you!” Everyone was ignoring him. Nobody liked Takada.

Copyright © Gerry Gaffney 2023