On the south side of the city, inside a series of large warehouses, were contained thousands of precisely stacked plywood crates containing thousands of identical tubes, manufactured to three-decimal-place precision of length and diameter and sealed at one end. Conrad Lightner, the facility’s director of engineering, strode along a central corridor inside Warehouse 14 and led a group of foreign businessmen past the ends of the long rows of crates; he held one of the tubes in his hand as he conducted the tour.
One of the businessmen stopped and sighted down one of the long rows–the group continued for some distance until one of his colleagues noticed, turned, and spoke to him sharply in a language the Conrad speculated might be Akkadian–or Turkish. His ear was not good with such things. He stopped and backtracked to see what the holdup was.
The businessman who had delayed was moving forward again by the time Conrad reached the colleague who had spoken to him. “Question?” Conrad asked, his eyebrows raised.
“No, no, no question,” the colleague said nervously as the one who had paused at the end of the row joined him. Each visitor had a nametag–the nervous man’s nametag said ‘Arthur’ and the other’s said ‘Hamil’ Arthur spoke sharply, sotto voce, to Hamil, who did not respond. Conrad was conscious of a rising suspiciousness about this group generally and about the businessman Hamil, which had been growing as he continued to conduct these visitors through his facility. But he also knew very well that the tour group route on which he had been leading them as he’d led scores of similar groups during his tenure contained no security-breachable areas or information. The tour had been designed that way. As for Hamil’s interest in tubes, well, he was welcome to come to whatever conclusion he wished. His guess would be as good as anyone else’s.
“Am I to understand, then,” Arthur said, stepping off in the direction the group was headed before Hamil caused the delay, “that even you who make these, ah, these….”
“Tubes, we call them,” Conrad said. He got the distinct impression that Arthur was attempting to smooth other Hamil’s distraction, but he allowed Arthur to lead him forward, and the rest of the group followed, some of them chattering quietly in Akkadian–or Turkish, if that was what it was.
“Yes, tubes.” Arthur reached for the demonstration tube that Conrad had been carrying and which he had used as a sort of training aid during the tour. It wasn’t an aid–it was the real thing. It was so simple that there was no reason not to use one of the actual tubes. It was so simple that there was no reason to hand it over, which Conrad did.
Arthur’s eyebrows raised slightly in surprise that Conrad would allow him to touch it, to handle it, and he immediately started collecting and registering data on the device. Weight: 348 grams. Major axis length: 441 millimeters; outer diameter: 37 millimeters; inner diameter: 33 millimeters. The thickness of the cap on the end: 2 millimeters. Arthur wasn’t directly conscious of these dimensional and elementary statistics; the electronics in his hand assessed them automatically and registered them in a sliver of gold in his forearm that would be removed in the home ship. He was conscious of the compositional analysis, as that was slower and took more of the chemical energy resources in his muscles. He smiled slightly as he felt that analysis finish and be written to the gold sliver.
Conrad allowed him to carry it as the group proceeded. “Tubes. Am I to understand, then, that you don’t actually know what this thing is intended to do?” Arthur completed his thought.
“That’s correct,” Conrad said. Arthur must know this, Conrad thought. Everyone knows it. But he played along. “We receive the specifications for manufacture from the Hive, and we make them and store them here, as you see,” he gestured to the ocean of plywood boxes on either side of them as they walked.
A voice sounded from the rear of the group. “How do the Hive take their delivery?” It was Hamil, bringing up the rear. Arthur’s head swiveled around and when it returned, Conrad saw he was frowning, almost grimicing, but he made no objection.
“Ah, well,” Conrad said, stalling to see what reaction there might be to his speaking to Hamil directly, but there was none, so he proceeded. “The Hive give us instructions on how to stack the boxes you see here, and then at a prearranged time, they use their own devices to retrieve the boxes. From our point of view,” he continued, “they simply disappear, and then they Hive report that they have received the items.”
“Disappear,” Hamil repeated.
“That’s correct,” Conrad said, feeling a little silly. “The instructions dictate that no humans be present here on the floor when the transfer is made, but our camera record the entire transaction. There’s not much to report. The boxes are here, and then they aren’t. We’ve analyzed the video and we can determine based on the video frame rate that the transfer takes place in something less than the time between adjacent frames. Beyond that, we know nothing about the mechanism of the transfer.” Conrad suddenly realized that he had taken his eye off Arthur. He turned and saw that Arthur had stuck the open end of the tube onto the third finger of his left hand and was carrying it that way, his hand held at an odd angle.
Conrad made eye contact and tilted his head, communicating that he saw what Arthur was doing and that it puzzled him. Arthur’s reaction was to remove the tube and hold it out. “Oh, please excuse me,” he said. “I was simply, ah, gauging the inner diameter of the device.” Conrad couldn’t tell if his embarrassment was feigned, and he also noted that Arthur had referred to it as a ‘device’–an odd word to use for something as simple as a plastic tube sealed at one end.
He took the tube back and said nothing, turning to lead the group on toward the outer door and the waiting bus beyond.