Pi-Sigma Avalon sat on a tool rack, arguing with himself.
Technological breakthroughs were like impulses: one could have them without necessarily acting on them. History taught that to act in haste often meant a bitter and leisurely repentance-except when disaster was so swift and utter there could be no repentance at all. The project had been taken as far as was safe and they had triumphed. The triumph of any one citizen was a triumph for all Thalesians.
So why did he feel so defeated?
Years ago the seed had germinated during a hypothetical discussion with an acquaintance at the Academy. What if one could travel back to Old Earth and see what it really was like?
Pi Bourbaki, a mathematics student with a degree in Philosophy, had replied, "There is nothing in laws of metarelativistic calculus that says you could not."
"Then, why," Avalon asked, "Have we not done it?"
The answer, it proved, was that no one had tried. Maneuvering through the folds of the spatial membrane to reach distant points was difficult and hazardous enough. It required massive amounts of highly focused and tightly contained energy discharges. The Scientific Council had gotten the Philosophical Council to approve several experimental trials, which had been immensely profitable, yielding vast and exciting new data to study, not to mention contact with other sentient beings. And there had been missions of exploration to Earth, but in the concordant time continuum only.
There was no mathematical reason why the same technology that allowed for movement to different points in space could not permit similar movement through time. Yet there were logical difficulties that seemed insurmountable. Lots of theories had been put forth, none of them testable. At least, not as yet.
Bourbaki fastened himself to it and made it his cause. He teamed up with Eta Alexandra and the two of them came up with ideas for a design that both improved the safety and efficiency of spatial membrane navigation, but would, in theory at least, allow temporal navigation as well. The metalogical equations that Bourbaki came up with accounted for all the classic paradoxes. It took nearly fifty years for their proposal to work its way through the Scientific and Philosophical Councils and win approval, but it finally did.
Avalon was a historian, not a physicist or a technician. He had taken his first degree in the history of their civilization, specializing in pre-Ark. From there he had gone on to study comparative sociology, learning about the evolution of civilizations and cultures on other worlds. Xenoanthropologists considered it essential that they visit the planets and peoples they studied. Would not a historian leap at the same opportunity? Pi Bourbaki conjured the possibility in Avalon's head and he couldn't dismiss it. So when he heard that Bourbaki was working with the renowned engineer Eta Alexandra on just such a project, he immediately winkled his way into it.
He was under foot every minute. He pestered the technicians with questions. He cultivated his friendship with Bourbaki and listened patiently to everything he and Alexandra said. He absorbed and synthesized everything they taught him until nothing about the ST-42 was a mystery to him. As the years passed, Avalon became an unofficial member of the ST-42 Project team. Although he had no real authority, technicians began automatically filling him in on any changes or adjustments made. By the time they finally had a finished product to take to the Scientific Council, Avalon knew blessed near everything about the ST-42 that Bourbaki and Alexandra did.
The completed device was a grey-green box with smooth edges. It was large enough to accommodate its two most critical components: the vastly intricate particle guidance unit which, placed on end, was as tall as an average person; and the massive twin microcollider/compressors, which took up the entire lower quadrant of the vehicle. There was some storage space, fully stocked with emergency supplies, assorted instruments for gathering environmental data, a level G shipboard computer plus a detachable bubble unit with a fully expandable memory for portable research work. The pilot's compartment was constructed to comfortably accommodate two, if a bit cozily. It was ingeniously designed, cunningly crafted, manufactured precisely down to the tiniest detail, a masterpiece of Thalesian technology.
Efficient, compact, and self-sufficient, the ST-42 was the ultimate research and exploration tool. In it, one could theoretically travel to any calculable point in the time/space continuum. The very concept was astonishing. It marked the beginning of a new era in physics, a monument to Thalesian science, an achievement to stagger the imagination of any intelligent creature. It was a door to anywhere. It was magnificent.
And it was going absolutely nowhere.
When the moment approached to get approval to test it, members of the Philosophical Council blocked it. Yes, Bourbaki's model of the nature of Time accounted for all the paradoxes, fit all the metarelativistic equations as well as all observable physical evidence. However, if he were wrong, unthinkably dire consequences could result. Use of the ST-42 had the potential to catastrophically warp, or even completely collapse, the entire space-time continuum.
Avalon's people were very cautious. Their curiosity and creativity were critically tempered. If an invention seemed too potentially hazardous, they left it on the shelf, meticulously documented. This was how the Thalesian civilization accumulated vast stores of knowledge, but managed not to destroy itself, as so many other advanced civilizations had.
And so Pi-Sigma Avalon sat on a tool rack staring at his beloved ST-42, trying to let go of the ambition that had obsessed him for the better part of his life. Both Pi Bourbaki and Eta Alexandra had moved on to other projects, building on their work, enjoying the notoriety earned from their contributions to the ST-42 project. It was time he did the same. But there was nothing he wanted to study, no place he wanted to go.
Except to Old Earth. Pre-Ark Earth. It was all he cared about; it was all that mattered to him. It was what he'd worked towards for the last hundred and fifty years.
Of course he was being irrational. Given all the facts, the Scientific Council made a wise and prudent decision. Granted, it would have been a marvelous, historic journey which would have been immensely valuable to the scientific community. And no flaw could be found in Bourbaki's calculations, no matter how rigorously examined. Still, to risk the end of everything?
As was standard protocol for such controversial research, the Philosophical Community took over jurisdiction of the project from the Scientific Council. Debate would remain open pending new relevant discoveries. Not until the philosophers gave their approval could the ST-42 be put back on track for active experimentation. That could take centuries. Avalon probably wouldn't see the ST-42 used-by anyone-in his lifetime.
His door to anywhere. His path into the past, to the legend-haunted planet of their origin, that mythical paradise called Old Earth. It hung tantalizingly before him, closed and locked.
Never mind. He was still young. He could get involved in something else. There were still a great many mysteries in the universe well worth solving.
So, why did he feel as if his life was over? What was wrong with him? Why couldn't he deal with this rationally?
To go to Old Earth. To see it all. To smell the air and hear the voices of the ancient creatures who were the source of Thalesian life. And to think that it was possible, and so easy. He knew it would work. He knew it was safe. It would be quite simple to conduct a quick, unobtrusive test. All he had to do was walk into it, close the door, fire up the converters, set the coordinates, wait for it to warm up, and then touch a single panel. Instantly, Old Earth. So simple. He could do it right now. He could just walk over and do it.
If it worked, he could return within seconds of the time he left. A certain gap had to be left for safety's sake; an overlap would be catastrophic. But he knew that, and would make sure of it. He could do it so quickly that no one would be the wiser. No damage done. Just a glimpse of Old Earth. Just enough to affirm that the experiment was a success. Certainly that couldn't cause any harm.
Great wet Thales! What was he thinking? He was a Thalesian citizen, his life guided by law and reason. What he was contemplating was dishonest and disharmonious, a violation of his principles as researcher. Besides, what if he made a mistake? He could trigger apocalypse. No, it was against the law and that was that. He should get up and leave, try to get over this futile obsession and devote himself to something else. Get on with his life. That was the mature, rational thing to do.
He stood up, firmly concentrating on walking out of the port. He'd go and talk to Kappa Fidel. Fidel had an interesting proposal. Something to do with religious practices in primitive cultures. Fidel was speculating about how religion might have developed in humans based on its development in other known cultures.