By the early 1880s, Dr. Pike had amassed about 2300 followers–his stated goal. Most of them were simply wealthy donors, but a handful of them lived and worked with Pike in a secluded location he called the Mechanium, participating in seances and attempting to render the disordered series of visions Pike claimed to be receiving into a workable blueprint. Pike himself called his closest followers “the 23 disciples” but available records show their numbers fluctuating from as few as six to as many as 32.

Pike retired from the lecture circuit around the same time, devoting himself entirely to what he was now calling the “Electro-Mechanical Messiah” in almost all communications. Perhaps due to the failures of his first few iterations, which had parts fabricated at various East Coast machine shops before being shipped to Pike for assembly, a machine shop was assembled onsite and the design took on a more iterative approach. As Pike put it in a letter to a follower in Boston:

“It is my belief that we will not create a vessel that is not the perfect Electro-Mechanical Messiah simply because it is beyond the capacity of any mortal, even one who has been in contact with The 23 like I have, to achieve such divine perfection. Therefore it is my belief that we will build an imperfect vessel (one might call it a prototype or trial messiah!) which will then assist us in designing a more perfect vessel and then so on and so forth, iteratively, until we arrive at the end point and the new age begins.”

Construction of increasingly elaborate mechanisms was well underway by 1883, and by 1885 there were complaints from locals about Pike’s increasingly odd and noisy hours, as well as showers of sparks and occasional explosions coming from the property. It was for this reason, apparently, that Pike invited local reporters and photographers for what would be the only tour of his compound ever offered to someone outside of the 23 Disciples before his death.

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“Now we just enter the Schrodinger Splitter, and we’ll see one contestant head to the right and the other to the left, as a result of a quantum causality waveform!” Llesco’s synthetic voice, doing a spot-on imitation of a laconic mid-20th-century sportscaster, warbled over the arena speakers.

“Do you have any idea what those words mean, Llesco?” said its counterpart, Satsoc, with an early-21st-century drawl.

“Not a bit, Satsoc. Not programmed to! But it’s amazing technology, and what better use for it than blood sport with no lasting consequences for the spacetime continuum?”

“Sort of like using advanced, emergent artificial intelligence to do color commentary for said bloodsport?”

“Exactly!” Llesco said with artificial enthusiasm. In the arena, the Splitter snapped, crackled, and popped as the contestant took two differing skeins simultaneously, resulting in two nigh-identical copies emerging into the arena.

“Well, Herr Schrodinger has come through for us once again,” Satsoc said, “and the result is once again better than any mere cat!”

“For those of you just joining us, we’ll be referring to the contestant that comes out of the right gate as Righty, with their opposite number being Lefty. The rules are simple: murder, or be murdered.” Llesco sounded positively bloodthirsty despite its monotone.

“And don’t leave the arena,” Satsoc added. “Snipers are standing by to prevent any paradoxes, causality snarls, and CP violations. Not that I’m programmed to know what any of those are, but they sure sound bad.”

Below the speakers, the contestant was readying for the bout, the two copies doing brief, jumpy calisthenics before the bell rung and they raced off to find weapons.

“It’s a good thing that he’s such a sport, eh? said Satsoc.

“Considering that the alternative is a state-sponsored execution, I’d say they’re doing just fine,” replied Llesco.

Next in line, waiting at the opening into the Schrodinger Splitter, the final contestant of the day was already formulating a plan to break the cycle.

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If a random number generator spit out digits in sequences of random length and complexity, would you take the time to categorize them, define them, treasuring the rarer sequences? Of course not. You know, instinctively if not analytically, that numbers are infinite. No one number, no matter how novel, distracts from that infinite variety. It would be a greater waste of time than trying to categorize grains of sand on a beach.

But then, in an infinite universe, how different is everything we see than those random numbers? Orders of magnitude more complex, granted, but ultimately no more than the same sort of data with different bytes. Random arrangements of quantum particles giving way to more complex randomness. What is classification, what is knowledge, other than fleeting attempts to classify meaningless data? Naturally, there may be some meaning in the moment-to-moment, especially for the “numbers” so involved.

But in the wider scheme, what does it matter?

The is the ultimate problem confronting intelligent life here, now, and forever. Every sort that has arisen must grapple with the random meaningless of its existence, especially as it slides–inevitably–toward self-destruction. Some find meaninglessness, randomness, to be empty and hollow. Others see it as reassuring, even kind. In an infinite universe, we have all lived before and will live again; it is statistically impossible but mathematically inevitable.

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As his head rang from the blow, Sexton felt something cool and hard slide up his nose. He sneezed involuntarily but was in no position to offer any resistance as he was hit by a second hammer stroke, this time from the front. Blood gushed freely from his nose as he lay on the floor.

The man picked up his phone, casually flipping open a burner of his own. “It’s done,” he said.

Fairburn’s voice was audible on the other end. “Wipe the apparatus for prints as I showed you,” he said “The funds will be transferred in fifteen minutes exactly, and the documents will arrive tomorrow. Do with them what you will. Place this phone, set to speaker, next to Mr. Sexton and then leave the building. Tell no one.”

The man nodded, gingerly set the phone down, and left. Sexton could only weakly bat at his shins, and a moment later an engine turned over and roared out of the parking lot.

“I apologize for the subterfuge, Mr. Sexton, but given the psych profile I’ve assembled for you, it was strictly necessary,” Fairburn said. “You’re not overly motivated by profit, knowledge, threats, or even curiosity. But you will act to save your own life, and that is what my associate has just arranged. He has put an explosive charge in your head, in your nasal cavity. A 1.5 gram silver azide charge, if you’re curious.”

“You ripped that off,” Sexton said weakly. “From the movies. Total Recall.

“That was a tracking device, Mr. Sexton, though the device I’ve introduced into your body does function as one. No, if I’ve ripped anything off, it’s Mission Impossible. But it’s quite real, I assure you. Unless that device receives a signal from me at a set time, it will detonate and drive lethal slivers of your own skull into your brain.”

“It’s…a bluff…”

“Perhaps you should tell that to our mutual friend who just left us,” Fairburn said. “I warned him to tell no one, and you ought to see the wreck of his automobile quite clearly on the way out. Tell me this is a bluff after you see that.”

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“You can call me Fairburn.” The voice was even, cool, but somehow familiar.”

“Well, Mr. Fairburn, you’ve got my attention,” Sexton said. “Go on.”

“I’ve been keeping an eye on you for some time, Mr. Sexton, and I have to say I’m impressed. You’ve managed to con your way into, and out of, places one might think were nigh impenetrable.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“And you’ve played with the digital landscape masterfully to hide your cash from the authorities,” Fairburn continued. “I know all about your accounts.”

“Well, it seems like a country that won’t go after its own president-for-life for tax evasion isn’t about to squeeze someone like me, does it?”

“Maybe not while the authorities remain blind, but if I alert them, they surely will,” Fairburn said. “Unless you care to keep listening.”

“Blackmail?” Sexton said. “Do you really think someone who’d walk away from everything in their life is able to be blackmailed so easily?”

“The threat of blackmail is just to get a foot in the door, so to speak,” Fairburn said. “All I ask is that you listen to my proposal. I’ll text you an address, a date, and a time. Let me put something to you there and then. I’ll pay you for your time.”

“No thank you,” Sexton said. “I think it’d be more fun to let you do your thing and see how long I can elude the authorities.”

“Do you now?” Fairburn said. “Aren’t you interested in how I spoofed this number, learned which burner phone you were using? I could sweeten the deal by throwing that information in for free. I know you’re curious.”

Sexton bit his lip. “And you say I’ll be paid?”

“Given what I’ve seen of your earnings, you’ll receive fair recompense in both cash and information.”

Sexton waited a moment subtly shifting his weight from foot to foot. “All right,” he said. “Tell me where, and when.”

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“I hope you’re right. I hope this is a false positive. But we need to proceed under the assumption that it’s not,” Graves said. “The briefing is now over; approach me afterwards if you have any further questions.”

Norah shimmied out of the briefing with Jamesson and Skiltmaler shortly behind, all managing to jam their elbows or the corners of their file folders into someone or something vulnerable.

“Did you notice,” Norah said, “that Angelo didn’t say a word during that whole briefing?”

“The astrophysicist and SETI muckity-muck isn’t the one you’d expect to stay quiet during a bombshell like that,” agreed Jameson.

A roll of an oily ocean swell caused Skiltmaler to lose balance for a moment, arms pinwheeling. “Looked kind of green, maybe it was seasickness?”

“I thought Norwegians were Vikings, people of the sea, with brine for blood and oars for arms,” Norah laughed.

“Oh, that’s all true,” Skiltmaler said. “But we’re no good on anything bigger than a longboat. But put me in a kayak and watch out.”

They kept on talking, and joking, without even approaching the subject of the briefing. Perhaps that was because, in their thunderstruck states, there was simply nothing to say. Falling back on banter was a familiar recourse during times of extreme stress.

They found Angelo hanging over one of the destroyer’s gunwales, looking every bit as green as Skiltmaler had said.

“A bit surprising, wouldn’t you say, when the ET expert has nothing to say when Graves tells us flat out we might be looking at proof of extraterrestrial life, wouldn’t you say?” Jameson said, sidling alongside the SETI alum.

“Look, I get it,” Norah added, leaning on the rail to Angelo’s left. “What can you say? It’s just so huge. So enormous. I think I might be a little sick too, once it has time to sink in.”

Angelo’s eyes widened, and for a moment it looked like hurling over the side was a very real possibility. Instead of breakfast, though, words croaked out from between chapped lips. “That briefing. I’ve been there before.”

“Haven’t we all,” Skiltmaler chuckled. “I worked with Graves on Project Neo-Habakkuk, and the briefings there were basically the same.”

“No,” Angelo croaked. “That same exact meeting. The ship encountered something…sank with all hands…and now we’re back, here, before it even began.”

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The Elder Plant fell today
Knocked askance, dirt everywhere
Culprit in custody, wagging
We think it will survive
Gently patted into new soil
Crushed leaves smoothed, sunned
It is older than the culprit
Older than our marriage
Cuttings taken from mother plant
A decade ago, a thousand miles away
That plant cut, in turn, from another
When the Elder Plant fell today
How many generations tottered
How many years plummeted
Spraying butterfly wings of soil

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“This is telemetry from a Integrated Operational NuDet Detection System, or IONDS, satellite over the South Pacific Gyre,” said Graves. The image changed to a bright flash of visible light over cloudy water from a low-Earth orbit.

“NuDet?” Skiltmaler said, snickering. It was impossible to tell if the long, drawn-out ‘u’ that resulted was from sarcasm or a Norwegian accent.

“Nuclear detonation,” Graves replied. The mood of the briefing room sobered considerably. “IONDS is designed to detect nuclear detonations by looking for their characteristic double-flash. As of the timestamp on this image, it found one in an impossible place.”

“An unsanctioned nuclear test?” Jameson said.

“We have taken that possibility into account,” Graves replied. “Such a thing has been done before, like the unsanctioned South Africa/Israel test near the Prince Edward Islands in 1979. But we don’t think so.”

“Why not?” Skiltmaler asked, all business now, perhaps to make up for the earlier levity, which now felt nails-on-a-chalkboard out of place.

“IONDS is carefully calibrated for NuD–er, nuclear detonations. This was far, far outside of the expected profile of any nuclear explosion past or present. And there’s also this, captured by the Near-Earth Climate Observer satellite.”

The image changed yet again, to a shallower angle with less resolution. A bright yellow streak was visible, seeming to exist like a time-lapse, across several different instants.

“This is without a doubt a reentry of some sort, but the trajectory, timing, and of course aberrant nuclear double-flash rule out all possible known near-earth objects, manmade and natural.” Graves clicked the hidden remote again, and a new image took the screen, this one resembling an amateur astronomer’s smeared observation. “We collated the data with observations made by Haleakalā Observatory in Hawaii, and it appears that the object in question had been observed for some time by automated systems without being detected.”

“Are you saying,” Jameson whispered, “what I think you’re saying?”

“The trajectory indicates an extrasolar origin, and the double-flash implies a manner of…intelligent design,” Graves said. “It is possible that this is an artificial craft that was deliberately ditched much like we would one of our own.”

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“All right,” Graves said. “You may now open your packets.”

Elbows and hands jutted awkwardly at the briefing room table as the participants broke the paper seals on their briefing folders. A destroyer was not a spacious ship to begin with, and packing the room with people had not helped the innate claustrophobia.

“You’ll have time to review the materials on your own,” the officer continued, “but I must emphasize that this is top secret, eyes-only information protected under the Espionage Act of 1917 and Title 18 of the US Code. Penalties for any leakage are severe.” Graves held up and rattled a cardboard box on which bars had been sharpied. “That’s why all your devices are in phone jail and will remain there until we land.”

Amid grumbles and moans, Graves activated the built-in briefing screen. It showed a large circle centered in the South Pacific, outlined in red, with a dot at its center. “Is anyone familiar with this?” he said.

“Point Nemo,” said Norah. “The place on water that is furthest from any land. Pretty close to the sunken city of R’lyeh from Lovecraft.”

“Yes, that’s right. Remotest spot on water, and aside from the occasional ship, the largest patch on the planet with no humans,” said Graves, pointedly ignoring the Lovecraft reference. He clicked a hidden wireless pointer, and a series of small red X marks overlaid the area. “We use it as a satellite graveyard, since they are less likely to hit anything important.”

“Did something unusual crop up in the graveyard?” Jamesson said, adding a sotto voce ghost moan.

Graves pressed his lips together, as if musing extending the sentence Jamesson’s Samsung in phone jail. “Yes,” he said.

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One day, Nick Sexton walked out of his job and into a lucrative second career as a con artist.

It was around the time the election was overturned and the court struck down term limits, and Sexton had been in the teacher’s lounge, watching events unfold and stewing in anger. Then he’d had an epiphany.

If lying and cheating is what got those people there, then what the hell was he doing there, being honest for no gain whatsoever? He could face down a classroom full of snot-nosed seventh-graders, so what terrors could the world possibly hold beyond that?

And Sexton’s lies and scams, well, they wouldn’t get people killed. There were always people with more dollars than sense.

And so he walked out of the teacher’s lounge and down to the computer IT lab, where 1000 expensive titanium computers were being prepared for the latest crop of rich, spoiled private school brats. Flashing an ID badge he had palmed, he had the techs load up the units into the van for a ‘software upgrade.’

The next day he was already two states over, having stopped at every pawnshop in every town he passed through to sell a laptop. When he ran out of those, he sold the van. By the time anyone knew to look for him, he was gone–with about a quarter million dollars in cash, to boot.

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