It is a beautiful day.
That was the thought that ran through Ric Graeling's mind as he passed out from under Southpier and into the brilliant sunlight on the beaches of Tranquility Island on the morning of October 9, 2029. He had been jogging along the beach for about an hour, and in another he would complete his morning loop along the island's twelve-mile shoreline. The soft crashes of the waves against the shore a few yards to his left and the muffled sounds of Tranquility City to his right were calming, as was the light breeze that fluttered against him as he moved over the warm sand.
In Ric's apartment in Tower One, a phone was ringing. It toned seven times, then went to voicemail.
"Ric! Ric! Pick up the damn phone. Put down your stupid breakfast and pick up the damn phone!... Ok, maybe you're not there. Maybe I should stop yelling.... But I found it, Ric! After five years, I found it! This is it; this is our moment. Now we are like gods among men!... Anyway, so... call me back...."
Ric waved to the lifeguard on duty as he passed by the chair, breathing in the nice beach air.
"This had better be a good one, Adam. You took Tom and me away from some very important work analyzing the test flight."
"Wait until we get into the room, Ric. You'll get it then."
The elevator came to rest and its shining silver doors slid apart. The three of them stepped out into the top floor of Tower One. At this level, the slanted glass roof was visible, slicing down through the floor about fifty feet behind the elevator tube. Before the trio were three wide mahogany desks, arranged in a circle centered on a gray stone dais. The two near desks were occupied by the other two Triumvirs, Eva Greene and Nathan Keating.
Ric and Tom had been in this room before, they had walked across the deep red stone tiles, passed by the desks, and stood on the dais to speak to the Triumvirate. This was nothing new to them. They had seen it a hundred times before. Maybe more.
But this time they would not stand on the dais. This time they were the audience.
On the dais stood... something.... It was humanoid, which is to say it was bipedal and had the same rough geometry as a human being; but it was foreign, in the truest use of the word to date. Its face was much more triangular than ovoid; its eyes were catlike, compressed to vertical slits in this level of daylight; its hands had only four digits, and presumably its feet were the same; its skin was very light gray, ever so slightly blue, as the clouds sometimes are on a particularly overcast day. But the most striking quality about it was the creature's apparent sense of calm. It did not explore its environment, even visually. At the moment, its gaze was locked on Tom, but there was an aura about it of complete understanding, certainty, perfection. There was also a faint aura of pink.
It immediately put both Tom and Ric ill at ease, and there was the barest flicker of recoil from Adam, as though he had known what was coming, but had failed to be prepared for it.
"What is this?" Tom whispered, at a volume that he assumed was inaudible more than ten feet away, and certainly not at fifty feet, where the dais was.
"I am here to speak about your discovery, Mr. Miyaki," said the creature, in perfectly unnerving English. "You may be unaware of the consequences of your actions. I am here to enlighten you." Its voice betrayed just a hint of warbling, a high-pitched curving to the syllables. That was the only marker that they were not listening to some human voice being played out to them.
"What is going on?"
In seeming ignorance of the question, the creature continued its introduction: "You may address me as Miril. The name I take among those of my race is beyond your comprehension. What I am and where I come from and how I got here are immaterial to this discussion.
"The technology you have invented, the so-called Slipstream Drive Engine, is of particular interest to our people. You can assuredly guess why. We have no need for it ourselves, of course, but we do have an interest in the fate of this galaxy as a whole.
"You are not ready."
"This is absurd. I devoted the last five years of my life to this project--really both Ric and I have devoted even more to it, and you would take it all away because you say we're not ready! What does that even mean!?"
"Humanity is not ready to travel between stars. Look at your world. For your entire history, humans have been engaging in wholesale slaughter of each other. Nothing has changed recently. This is something that cannot be brought to the stars. We will not allow it.
"However, we have great respect for your achievement, and so we will give you a choice. But know that this choice must be yours alone. Whatever you choose, the six of us in this room will always know it.
"This decision is yours: humanity's knowledge of slipstream will be erased or you all will be exiled from Earth."
Tom's face collapsed from astonishment to fear as he realized what he was being told. Clearly whoever--whatever--Miril was, it had the power to make either outcome happen. It also wouldn't make the choice itself. Was it scared? Or was it held in thrall by some higher authority, some sort of alien Prime Directive? Or was it like Daneel, unwilling to take an action, lest it become responsible? Were the aliens--for by this time it was clear that was what it was--cowards?
His eyes darted from person to person in the room, alighting on the three Triumvirs: Slate, Greene, and Keating, in turn, then at last falling to his colleague Ric. All of them stood still, never offering to help. The Triumvirs looked impassive, almost jaded, as though they had known this would happen long ago. Ric, at least, betrayed a sort of painful sympathy. But there was nothing he could do.
"You have until your sun is at zenith over this tower tomorrow. Do not make me come to you."
With those words, the alien's faint aura of pink began to glow more brightly. As it reached the threshold of pain and had completely obscured the alien's body, the field of pink began to rapidly fade, leaving behind merely empty space on the dais. Miyaki discovered, to his astonishment, that it had never moved from its station, though he could have sworn it was speaking to him face-to-face.
He also discovered that he was soaked with sweat and on the verge of passing out. He wobbled backwards ever so slightly and contacted with the smooth, cool surface of the elevator tube. It reminded him that he was still on Earth, still alive, still free.
But for how long?
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