Doctor Osto Hyle walked calmly into the laboratory complex. The message that had summoned him had been urgent, but years of experience had taught him that urgency was often a relative matter, determined more by the excitability of the person involved than the actual situation.
"Ashford!" he called.
The object of Hyle's attention looked up from where he and a tall woman in the flowing gown of a Force were discussing the figures on a datapad with a short, broad-shouldered android.
"Dr. Osto! I'll be there in a moment!" He said something to the other two and then hurried over. The two men were dressed alike, in their white lab coats, but other than that they were almost completely dissimilar. Hyle was of middle height, with short brown hair and the weathered, lined face of a man in his sixties. Dr. Ashford, on the other hand, had long blue hair pulled back in a ponytail, was as tall and broad-shouldered as a Hunter, and had a handsome, open countenance. Ashford looked nothing like a scientist, but despite his youth he had a keen brain that was not to be overlooked. Hyle would never have assigned him to this project, otherwise.
"What is it, Ashford? Your message said that it was an urgent matter."
"It is, sir--a new discovery! We happened across it while experimenting with Sample DA-604, though, so I thought we should tell you at once."
"You're quite right."
Ashford led the senior researcher through the complex towards one of the subsidiary labs.
"Incidentally, Dr. Osto, I really want to thank you for picking me to work with these classified samples. I know I don't have the experience of some of the other researchers here, and I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your confidence in me."
"Not at all, Ashford. Your work has been excellent thus far."
The younger man shot him a grin full of barely repressed excitement.
"Well, I hope to reward that confidence in a second."
They stopped in front of a large, sliding door, which Hyle knew was double-layered for additional security. Ashford input a code into a touchpad on the wall and showed his ID badge to the reader. With a cheery beep, the door slid open and admitted them to the subcomplex.
"As I said, we were working with Sample DA-604," Ashford said, striding across the room to a computer console. Above the console, a plastiglass window looked into a ten-foot by ten-foot cubicle. "We'd kept it in a secure area to begin with, until we could determine any secondary effects that might be associated with it. The problem with these archaeological samples is that they could have any kind of contamination brought forward from the past."
"I remember the Meridian Plague from my lessons as well as you, even though it has been a few more years since I was in school," Hyle said tartly. Fifteen-hundred-year-old spores had been brought out of a sealed tomb by an archaeological expedition; in the open environment they had turned into a global pandemic.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Osto; I didn't mean to imply..."
Hyle waved it off.
"It's nothing. Go on."
"Well, luckily there was nothing of that nature, but there was some very unusual Photon energy inherent in the sample. I presume this is why it was classified by the military?"
"It could be," Osto said, "though I don't presume to guess what the soldier boys are really up to." He was lying, of course. He knew exactly what Sample DA-604 was--indeed, all the classified samples under the general heading of Project Code Delta Millennium--including its origin and just who had labeled the project files Eyes Only. That, however, was none of Ashford's business.
"Well, as I'm sure you know, the containment area is also insulated against Photon energy, in case of accidental discharges or, in the case of a living sample, attacks." He stopped, then said, "I'm sorry, Dr. Osto. It would be much easier if I just demonstrated."
Ashford tapped a button on the console and opened an intercom link.
"Reina, please proceed."
A door in the wall of the isolation cubicle opened, and a slender Newman female with bobbed hair and a short skirt entered the chamber from the airlock. The door shut behind her almost instantaneously. From her outfit, it appeared likely although not conclusive that Reina was a Force, one of those trained in the use of techniques, the act of controlling Photon energy with a living person's will.
Hyle's supposition was proven accurate as Reina raised her hands, concentrated, then thrust both palms forward in a sharp, aggressive gesture. Lightning bolts exploded through the cubicle, summoned forth by the Razonde technique, an area-effect lightning attack. Hyle had seen this demonstrated many times, and yet something seemed different to him. The fury of the lightning had seemed more intense, the bolts more ferocious.
"Ashford, that technique..."
The younger scientist grinned, and had the computer call up a display of what the sensors had seen in the chamber.
"Take a look, Dr. Osto."
"This says that the sensors measure the technique's effect as being an estimated Level 16. Ashford, there is no Level 16! Techniques are measured on an effect scale of one to fifteen."
Ashford was grinning like a schoolboy who'd just won first prize in some contest, or had told a very, very good joke.
"I know, sir, but the power level of Reina's technique exceeds what has been designated as Level 15. At first we thought it might be the isolation chamber itself, the enclosed space reflecting back the Photon energy, but repeated attempts were at Level 15, as they were supposed to be."
"But it just achieved Level 16 again."
"And did so on four separate occasions before this. I didn't call you until I knew I could repeat the experiment."
That was good thinking. At the heart of scientific training was the need for repeat effects. If X, then Y: an effect which could not be repeated implied that the theory explaining its cause was wrong or at the least incomplete.
"So, what explanation did you come up with for this phenomenon?"
"Well, we ran a number of tests, and I'll show you the data"--Two screens began to scroll test results, graphs, and charts.--"but as far as we can tell it's directly attributable to the sample. You remember how I said that it had unusual Photon energy?"
"Well, a side effect of this energy is that it seems to 'leak' into the environment."
Hyle raised an eyebrow.
"You mean, it generates it?"
"Well, no, that would be impossible, wouldn't it? But it does seem to draw the power from somewhere. In the shielded chamber, rather than dissipating into the environment, that power builds up. Since techniques employ the energy around the user as well as within, this Photon-enhanced environment appears to augment the power of the technique, permitting a higher level of effect than would be possible under normal conditions. It takes about six hours for the energy level to 'recharge,' as it were."
Hyle nodded sharply.
"This is an astounding find. Transfer your accumulated data on the phenomenon to my computer--and I do mean transfer, not copy. Use the highest level of security available. Remember: Eyes Only, Ashford!"
"Don't worry, Dr. Osto. I know how touchy the military can get about even innocuous matters, and this appears to have real potential."
"I'm glad you understand."
An hour later, Hyle sat at his desk, reviewing some of the data Ashford had forwarded to his unit. Idly, he inputted the request to open a secure audivis link. It took nearly ten seconds to set the protocols, but eventually a window opened, displaying the face of a military officer.
"Leo, I'm glad to catch you in."
"Did something happen, Hyle?"
"Yes; young Ashford came up with some very intriguing results from Sample DA-604. Interesting and provocative ones."
Hyle summarized Ashford's findings, then added, "As you can see, this also tends to support my theory that these samples were once part of a life form. Objects do not generate Photon energy, and the samples don't appear to have any storage or absorption capacity, either in the form of energy cells or in the more primitive, 'enchantment' fashion."
"I'll have Grave examine certain of the samples."
"In the meantime, we'll have to ask our...friends...if they can guide us to the Source. If the news about the environmental control system we've been receiving proves to be accurate, I'm sure we can shape things to our liking. An exploratory or colonization mission, perhaps."
The officer signed off and Hyle leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. His deep-set blue eyes focused on the image of Sample DA-604: a long, saber-like blade, its edge as keen as a Photon weapon's, made apparently of one single piece of grayish-black stone. There was something about the shadowy blade which some said felt wrong or even malignant. Hyle felt none of these things when he looked at it, though. He felt only the presence of untold power. It was a fragment of destiny.
A destiny in which he would play a part.