Big Echo

Critical SF

The Negation of the Negation of the Negation

by Vajra Chandrasekera

This is a response to and reinterpretation of The Nine Billion Names of God (1953, Star Science Fiction Stories). You should probably (re)read that one before reading this, which exists only in the negative space around it.

Chuck left the room and Gyatso Jonathan Reid managed to hold his nervous sigh until the wooden door clicked shut. The other technician George Hanley was already out on the parapet and it was a safe assumption that Chuck couldn't resist going directly to his partner to tell him the story about the names of God. That should keep the Americans preoccupied for a while. Now that he'd finally delivered the punchline, Reid wished once again that London Controlling Station had come up with a more plausible cover story—still, it only had to hold water for a few days longer.

Reid slipped down the corridor, feet soft on the stone floor and careful to avoid the thick cables that criss-crossed it. He still wasn't used to the lama robes—his bare right arm felt permanently frozen, and his elbow was stiff when he rummaged in his pouch for the key to the downstairs laboratory—but in three months the Americans were yet to notice his discomfort. Either those two technicians really were poker-faced CIA agents in deep cover, like Guthrie suspected, or they were exactly what they seemed to be: civilians so preoccupied with keeping the Mark V Automatic Sequence Compiler operational that they didn't even realize they were inadvertently helping Her Majesty's Government run the most strategically significant codebreaking programme since the Enigma, much less that what they thought was a lamasery was sitting atop the biggest scientific-military experiment since the atom bomb.

Deep beneath the Mark V chamber, past a few locked doors and down a winding stair that the Americans had never seen, Reid let himself into the Project Younghusband headquarters, which hosted the second wondrous machine on this mountain: the gleaming, atom-powered TENZING.

This room was inaccessible to outsiders so it wasn't necessary to pretend that it was part of the lamasery, but the TENZING team didn't wear uniforms or indications of rank and it was unclear if they were MI6 or some other, more specialized agency. Their leader, Guthrie, was nominally in charge of the entire project, including Reid's joint LCS-GHCQ team upstairs, but Guthrie eschewed military formality. This would have been nice and chummy if he didn't treat Reid with undisguised contempt, as if he were not a colleague but only a cover story—and as an afterthought, a source of signals intelligence and computational resources.

“Ah, Gyatso. Anything on?” Guthrie always emphasised the foreignness of Reid's name. Three months ago, the first time it happened, Reid had diffidently pointed out that he preferred to go by his English first name, Jonathan, but Guthrie had just laughed in his face. And he hadn't divulged his own first name in turn. He was just Guthrie, which in any case was probably a false identity that he would shed the moment he left Tibet, if Project Younghusband failed.

“More PLA troop movements, largely as predicted,” Reid said. This was a major part of the work his team had been doing for the last three months, intercepting and decrypting PLA transmissions to try and predict when exactly the Chinese would invade Tibet. If Chinese troops were in country before Project Younghusband launched, they would have failed and would have to extricate the entire apparatus as quietly as possible. “Worrying, but unclear. One of the lads will be down in a couple of hours with the fresh decrypts. Based on the most recent intercepts, my analysts are thinking we might have perhaps a week, with the first attack focusing on Chamdo.”

“TENZING just needs a few more days and then it won't matter,” Guthrie said. “Your codebreakers can take the night shift off, we need the Mark V for another simulation series tonight once your Americans have gone to bed. I just hope to God they aren't CIA, because if they are—”

“I'm quite sure they're not.”

Guthrie and Reid had both opted for the parapet, while their respective teams were hard at work with the launch sequence. They'd need to go back in soon, but it was too tempting to come outside and see it happen. Their eyes were on the sky, occasionally flicking down to the valley: the two Americans on their mountain ponies were still visible, just barely, far below. Reid had wanted to let the Americans get clear before launch, but Guthrie had overruled him.

“That last maintenance shutdown was sabotage,” Guthrie said. Despite the tone of this, the man was visibly in a good mood. His moustache was stiff, almost quivering—that meant he was trying not to smile. “I'm almost positive. I told you they were CIA.”

Reid didn't argue with this. He still didn't believe it, but it was too late for Chuck and George now. They would never reach the transport, and even if they did, the transport would never take off. They were a part of Project Younghusband now, part of the future.

“Anyhow, bygones,” Guthrie said, magnanimous in victory. “I wish we'd a bottle of something celebratory. It should be kicking in any minute now.”

“Don't you need to go press a button?” Reid said. He suspected his tone was a little too dry, but Guthrie wasn't going to notice right now. And their relationship was suddenly, violently, different now, Reid realized—it would have to be different, along with everything else. They were peers now, if only because they were both going to be equally far from home.

“I signed the authorization forms five hours ago and the rest is all staring at dials and worrying,” Guthrie said. “If the timing's wrong I'm blaming your lot for—ah, never mind. I just saw the first one go.”

“I bloody well hope the timing's right,” Reid muttered. In the end, the last-moment failure of the Mark V had meant that they didn't know for sure if the PLA was moving yet or not, and the Americans' abrupt attempt to exfiltrate meant that the CIA might be making a move too—or not. It was too dangerous to wait any longer. “All this preparation and we end up making our move in the dark.”

They watched the stars vanish from the sky in companionable silence for a little while.

“The Tibet Exclusion-Negation Zone Initiation Nuclear Generator,” Guthrie said, savouring the syllables, “is now successfully operational. From the outside it'll look like a giant black bubble while Tibet is rotated out of phase with the parent temporal regime. In the internal frame of reference it'll be almost six months before it rotates back into phase, so we just need to lie low until then and defend this location if necessary.”

Six months without a sky, Reid though. No sunrise, no moonrise, no stars to dot the black. Six months of hiding while the country descended into chaos, panic, and starvation. “And on the outside?”

“231 seconds, give or take,” Guthrie said. “About sixty-eight years. Assuming nothing goes wrong, it should be 2019 on the outside when the bubble pops. Since Her Majesty's Government will be the only ones on the outside who know the exact time in advance, they'll have troops waiting on the border when it does. And then it's just mopping up.”

Reid nodded. He had understood the broad strokes, but operational security protocols had restricted his need to know the details of the project that didn't involve his team. Now those protocols belonged to the past. Now they had nothing but time to wonder about the world: six months to imagine what might be happening in nearly seventy years of history whizzing by outside. The Empire's return to prominence as the world's only great power—the reclamation of the colonies cowed by the threat of exclusion-negation—rival powers held hostage by the terrifying knowledge that deep-cover teams could at any time launch their cities far into the unknowable future. “They won't wait until we're out of here before they use it again, will they?” he asked, testing the new openness between them. “I can't imagine that they'd wait seventy years.”

“No, Tibet is a demonstration,” Guthrie said. “If our bubble seems stable, in a few days on the outside they'll make a formal announcement claiming responsibility and explaining the Empire's new capabilities. Then they'll confirm that claim by bubbling Hong Kong. Or perhaps Ceylon. After that the ultimatum alone should be sufficient—bend the knee or we will thrust backwardness upon you. That's the idea. One does look forward to seeing what glories half a century of that sort of power can achieve.”

“As long as nothing goes wrong,” Reid said. It still felt risky to expose his inner pessimism. At some level he still feared being rebuked for lack of school spirit. “As long as the bubble doesn't pop early and kill us all, or throw us into a future so distant that everything's changed again—”

“Nearly all our simulations on the Mark V were very encouraging,” Guthrie said, and Reid could almost believe the tone was meant to be reassuring—surely this fraternity was fragile. “Exclusion-negation is the perfect weapon: unlike the atom bomb, it doesn't cause more devastation than necessary, nor render territory unproductive. It's almost impossible to imagine it going wrong,” Guthrie said, looking up at the unbroken black sky. “Of course, there's a first time for everything.”

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