“But where did you find them?” Gavin asked again.
“They were just sitting in the alley in a box. Someone must have been throwing them out.”
“How do you know? Maybe they were just keeping them there for safekeeping?”
Curtis shook his head. “I doubt that. But if you’re so worried, then you don’t have to be a part of it.”
“Well I wasn’t saying that…”
“Good. Help me get these sorted then.”
The two brothers worked side-by-side at the bedroom desk. The old box was tattered and warped on one side where the rain had fallen on it. It was dotted with black mold spots and smelled quite musty. But for how decrepit and trashy the box appeared, its contents were anything but.
Inside the box were two stacks of white…somethings. They were sturdy, very precisely shaped, and looked expensive. It was hard to say exactly what they were made of, plastic or painted metal it seemed to be at first glance. They were hard, heavy, and cold to the touch…or at least, cold at first. That was why the exact material was hard to guess, because the longer one touched the items’ surfaces the warmer the material got…warmer and warmer until it became uncomfortably hot and one had to draw their hand away! What sort of material behaved like that? And that wasn’t all. There was a strange tingle on the fingertip when touching them as well. Not like electricity, but almost as if it was sending microscopic waves through the skin.
One stack of the items was round, thin, disc-like. They were not quite perfect circles, each one of them had many notches and grooves cut into them. They were clean and precise excisions, with no stray fibers or detritus. The other stack was more rod-like in shape. Some were round, some were long, rectangular prisms, some were curved on one or two sides, and the opposite on the other ones. They were of inequal lengths, and some ended with a flat plane while others had slanted angles. Across all of the piece in both stacks there were intricate patterns of lines etched here and there. They were straight, with sudden right-turns like the traces on a circuit board.
Last of all, there was a single note included with the equipment, a small piece of paper on which someone had written “Some Assembly Required.”
The two boys had all of the equipment out of the box now, and handled one piece after the other, turning them over and over, trying to make sense of it all.
“What do you think it’s for?” Gavin asked.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t look like I’ve anything I’ve seen.”
“Some of the pieces fit together,” Gavin observed, slotting one of the rods into a disc’s hole.
“Yeah, so I guess you build something. Only…it’s weird.”
“There’s no screws or anything to keep it together. If we start stacking them together then pretty soon they’ll just fall apart.”
To demonstrate he flicked at Gavin’s rod, but to their surprise it didn’t topple over. He hit it harder with the back of his knuckles, still it didn’t fall.
“Hey, let me see that,” Gavin said, gripping the rod and trying to pull it out of its perch. It slid out easily.
“How did you do that?”
“I don’t know…it just came out.”
A few more minutes of experimentation and they determined that once two pieces locked together they could only be pulled apart at the exact angle they had slid together at. Any variation from that degree and they would feel like they were welded together instead. Thus they could be freely handled as one piece without fear of their falling apart.
“It isn’t magnets doing that,” Gavin said in bewilderment.
“No, never seen anything like it. Let’s see what other pieces we can fit together.”
After a quarter hour they had all of the most obvious connections sorted out. Rods had been slotted into about all of the holes that ran through the middle of the discs. Each of them connected at the rod’s end, so that it stood upright with the disc at its base. All of the notches along the edges of the discs were unfilled, though, and these were proving to be more difficult to solve.
“This notch looks like it should fit,” Curtis said, holding a rod against the edge of a disc. “But it isn’t locking in place like before.” He pulled his hand away and the rod clattered noisily to the table.
“Hmm,” Gavin said, picking the rod up. “Well, that notch is only encasing two of its sides. I’ll bet it goes between two discs, each covering half of it, and you need to put all three pieces together at once before anything will lock.”
“That’s a fascinating theory,” Curtis said with a yawn. “No, actually it is. But I think my curiosity’s run out on this.”
“What? You don’t want to keep playing with it?”
“What’s the point? It’s clearly not coming together into anything cool. It’s just some abstract art piece or something. No wonder it got thrown out!”
Gavin looked the pieces over. It was true that there was still no rhyme or reason to what they might be forming. They had just gone from random piles of discs and rods to a random pile of flagpoles. It clearly wasn’t going to come together into something cool like a toy or a radio…yet still…
“I want to keep working on it,” he declared.
“Great…over on your desk, I need this space for homework now. And you better get that ratty cardboard box out of here before Mom sees it.”
“Sure, sure.” Gavin knew Curtis felt pleased for having pawned all the junk off on his brother to take care of, but that didn’t matter. He dutifully moved all the pieces over to his side of the room, smuggled the box into the outside garbage bin, and then came back to work on the pieces.
He thought that finding the third piece for the rod and disc would have been simple. He systematically went around each disc, testing any groove that remotely matched the exposed edges of the rod. None of them were a perfect fit. He went through them all a second time just to be sure. No dice.
He shook his head in confusion, then decided to leave that particular rod for the time being. Instead he started finding all of the other partial fits that were possible. Fifteen minutes went by and the mystery thickened. Nearly all of the edge grooves had been accounted for: 47 out of 61. All 47 had a different rod that connected to them, meaning there weren’t enough remaining grooves to complete the fits.
“Great…there’s parts missing.”
He could hear his mother calling for dinner, so Gavin rubbed his eyes, flicked off the desk lamp, and left the room.
With homework and school the next day it wasn’t until the next afternoon that he sat back down at his desk and was reminded of the pieces. He frowned at them as his disappointment resurfaced. He really had been curious to see what they made, even if it was nothing more than some weird, abstract art-piece.
His mind wandered absently as he picked up on piece after another, feeling their weight and running his fingers along their lengths. For a moment he was lost in the sensations they made against his skin: the rippling, the heat. When he tapped them they made so muted a noise it was almost inaudible. That was strange, too. Sometimes they caught the light in a strange way, shimmering so brightly it seemed almost as if the illumination was being amplified.
He leaned in and looked at them even closer. It started to dawn on him how remarkably smooth they were. The rippling sensations on his skin had made it seem like they were textured but they weren’t. Not even a little bit. Smooth as glass, yet not made of glass. Even the lines etched into the sides were unbelievably uniform and straight. Not a single ding in any of them. The grooves which ran the full length of some of the discs never varied in depth or breadth. They just–
Gavin started with a shock. There were grooves cut down the middle of the discs! He had already seen them, of course, but had just dismissed them as just yet another oddity that couldn’t be accounted for. Now though he realized that they were the right length to hold a rod…when it was laid sideways.
Trembling with excitement he found the partially-enclosed rod he had been experimenting with the night before. One-by-one he fit it length-wise into the grooves running across the surfaces of the discs. As he did so he held the first disc firmly against the already-matched sides of the rod. He made it through eleven discs without finding a perfect horizontal fit. And then…
The three pieces locked into place. Two discs propped up at right angles to one another and the rod fusing them together at the corner. As with before, they stuck together as if welded. In fact undoing that weld was more difficult, because he couldn’t remove just one disc from the rod, he had to do both at the same time and still at just the right angles.
The epiphany made, it didn’t take him long to get all of the other partial-fits sorted out. Less than an hour later and he now had 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and 12 cobbled-together “islands.” Several of the islands had formed enclosed spaces, like square tubes that were open at two opposite ends. Well, usually square tubes, there were a couple where the discs did not actually meet up at exactly right-angles.
These new formations came with their own unique properties. When Gavin placed his ear by one of the openings he was able to make out a faint humming that emanated somehow from its center. Passing his hand into the disc-tunnels created even stronger skin-rippling sensations, powerful enough that he could see the skin rolling with little waves.
His next experiment was to hold a plastic toy soldier in his hand, reach to the center of the tube, and then let it go. The toy fell to the bottom, but it moved very slowly, and shook the whole way down like it was being buffeted by a silent wind.
Gavin looked around, trying to find something even lighter, something that might be able to float. He ripped off a small corner of notebook paper and it did indeed float lazily within the tube, never touching any of the surfaces, yet never coming to a rest either. It would follow a straight line, come close to a disc or rod, and then make a sudden hairpin turn away. Gavin tried to pick out a pattern to its movement, but it was much too complex.
Gavin grabbed Curtis’s hole puncher and emptied its contents into his hands. He dropped the whole pile in the middle of the tube all at once and watched as the cluster of paper pieces scattered in different directions. They tumbled around aimlessly for a moment, then slowly began to file into a line. Gavin could see now that their movement was not random, each paper’s turn was consistent with all the others. They made a sort of train, bouncing away from each surface at just the same angle, twisting and turning within the tube. Gavin fumbled through the supplies on his desk for a paper, pen, and ruler then he began to draw out the pattern he was seeing.
But the pattern never stopped. It just keep going and going, never repeating itself, until soon he had line-by-line drawn one massive dark splotch on his page.
A few more experiments followed, by which Gavin ascertained that each of his disc-tubes had distinct patterns from the others. Even the ones that weren’t fully enclosed would float the pieces of paper endlessly through their half-pipe or trench shapes. He also verified that he could lift up, rotate, and even shake the tube but the papers would continue unhindered. They wouldn’t even wiggle in their paths, as if all earthly forces such as gravity and air resistance simply did not apply within the tube.
Gavin made a note of these facts on a piece of paper.
The plastic soldier sunk to the bottom, he wrote, so I guess things have to be beneath a certain weight and then the tube takes them over entirely…
He paused and bit at the end of his pen.
What would happen if I were to step into a giant one of these tubes?
Would he be forever cut off from the rest of the world, unable to be pulled out by gravity or any another force? Well…he could still reach in his hand in and pull the pieces of paper out after they had been surrendered to the tube. And maybe that was because his hand was anchored to his arm which extended out of the tube. So as long as there was something that existed outside of the tube that could reach into it, it could alter things. But otherwise anything enclosed in the tube forever belonged to it. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought.
Unless…paper was dumb and it couldn’t move itself. What about something alive?
Gavin stood up from his desk and began scouring the room for the fly. When he couldn’t find one, he expanded his search to the whole house. Of course now when he actually needed a flay there was none to be found. So he went outside and found a few, but he knew he’d probably end up just squashing them if he tried to catch them. Instead he went back inside and looked up online how to make a simple fly trap with a mason jar. He modified the instructions a little. He didn’t add any dish soap to the sugar-water solution at the bottom of the jar so that the flies would avoid drowning. He needed them alive. His trap prepared, Gavin left the jar out on the porch and called it a night.
Gavin had a hard time paying attention in school the next day. He had wanted to check his fly trap first thing in the morning, but knew it would have been miserable to start his experiments and then leave them unfinished.
He only half listened to the teachers in class. In his notebook he kept scrawling different ideas of things to try with a fly, complete with a flowchart of what test should follow which results. At the very top he had “Put fly in tube, see if it just dies right away.” If it did that was the end of the flowchart, so he hoped to at least get further than that. Next was to observe if it tried to fly, and if so whether its wings were able to beat. If so, were they able to move it. Even a little bit? If he wedged a stick inside of the tube and the floating fly came near would it grab the stick and move along it? What if he blew a fan through the tube? Would it be able to push the things? Or what if–
“Gavin, are you paying attention?”
“Yes.” Very close attention…just to other things.
That afternoon Gavin dashed through his front door, the mason jar already clutched in his hand. He bounded up the steps to his room, turning sideways to avoid knocking over his mother. “Hi! Back from school. It was fine, nothing to say about it. I’ll be in my room, okay?”
He bolted into his room and took his seat at the desk. Taking a few calming breaths he carefully removed the saran wrap from the jar and placed one of the strange tubes over its opening. There were three flies buzzing above the sugar-water at the bottom of the jar, and Gavin watched breathlessly as one of them buzzed closer and closer to the tube. It decided to stop to rest right at the lip of the jar. Gavin frowned and tapped twice on the glass. The fly darted into the tube…and froze.
Gavin put the saran wrap back over the jar and picked up the tube, peering through its center. As soon as the fly had crossed the threshold into its domain it had gone completely lifeless, not so much as beating a wing as it floated through empty space. Curiously, though, it had not curled its legs to its body. It really was frozen as if in a singular moment of time, its legs still extended and wings still raised. Was it dead then? Or just frozen?
Gavin reached in, curled his fingers around the fly, then drew his hand back out. Immediately he felt the creature buzzing against his palm. He extended his hand back in, the buzzing still continued, but once he opened his fingers the fly snapped back to its frozen state and floated listlessly.
“Well that’s interesting,” he muttered, pulling over his notebook and jotting down the results of the test.
So the fly couldn’t move. Could it think? Was it aware that it was motionless and confused about that? Or was it unconscious while in the void? He couldn’t think of a good way to test that.
So instead Gavin went through a few more experiments. It turned out that wedging a stick between the walls of the tube did not give the fly a way to escape floating. In fact, it couldn’t because the fly never touched it. The path it floated along would always push away from the stick whenever it got too close, just like how it did when avoiding the walls. Apparently the stick, being in direct contact with the wall, was now an extension of the wall. Gavin hadn’t expected that, given it was comprised of an entirely different material.
That suggested another experiment to Gavin. He reached in, cupped his hand around the fly, drew it out and listened for its buzzing, then put his hand back in the tube and opened it. But this time, as he did so, he pressed the fly against the wall of the tube, rather than dropping it into open space. This time the fly did not freeze. It crawled across the surface, moving at a constant high speed, and making sudden direction changes as if drawing out a pattern. It looked nothing like how Gavin had ever seen a fly move. Also it never flew. It never did anything to risk losing constant contact with the surface, even when Gavin poked at it with the end of his pencil.
Gavin introduced the other flies one at a time to the tube, all with the same results. If released into the air they became immobile and floated, if pressed against the tube wall they danced out strange patterns on its surface.
Next came water. Gavin angled the tube downwards and slowly tipped the mason jar until the water ran out of it. When only the first part of the water stream entered the tube it continued to fall as normal, but once the last drop was contained within the tube it lost its connection to the outside world and suddenly froze. It behaved like videos Gavin had seen of astronauts playing with liquids in a Zero-G environment. The water stream didn’t break apart, it just shimmered as one, long, snaking body in the middle of the tube. As with everything else, it began zigzagging from wall to wall, never touching them, never slowing in its ordered dance. As expected it never touched the stick or the flies as well. It did not act entirely as a single body, though. For example when it neared the stick it would sometimes split into two streams that would go around it. Sometimes those streams would rejoin, other times they would break off into their own entities. Once the two streams were completely separated they would never join again, they would each follow different patterns that seemed forever destined to to never intersect again.
“But how long could you really go without touching?” Gavin wondered aloud. He picked up the tube and walked with it to the bathroom. What if he tried to put more water into the tube than it could keep separated?
He turned the sink on and filled up a cup with water, then poured it into the tube. The stream floated around inside, continuing to split when it approached the stick head-on, continuing to avoid any contact other water streams. He filled up the cup and poured it in again. And again.
He couldn’t want to hold the tube directly under the faucet, because then it would be an unbroken stream of water that extended out of the tube’s confines. It was a very strange feeling, pouring cup after cup into the tube and not a single drop spilling out from the bottom. A faint inkling occurred to him that the physical properties of this tube went against everything he’d learned in school, and would therefore be of significance to other people…but at least for now he wanted to keep it only to himself.
As Gavin continued entering cupfuls of water the threads of water begin to divide and shrink to such a degree that they looked like tendrils of glass, each as thin as a spider’s thread. They criss-crossed and filled the space so completely that they almost appeared to be one volume. Yet still he could see the tiny glints that betrayed their separate edges, and knew that the threads still refused to touch.
Finally he reached the moment he’d waited for. As he poured in one more cup the water began to spill over and flow down the edges of the tube. The tube could not accept anymore volume without merging its streams of water, and so it rejected any further material.
Well, that was that then. Now Gavin wanted to get the water out and verify that not even a drop of it all had touched the flies or stick either. As he couldn’t pour the water out he would just have to scoop it the same way he had put it in. He grabbed the cup and began the long process. A vague thought occurred to him that the flies had probably died even if the water hadn’t touched them. He doubted the gaps between the water streams would have been able to hold enough oxygen to sustain them.
The thought then occurred to him that the flies had probably had just as little control on the edges of the tube as they had floating in the air. Their movement had been extremely similar to the floating movement, just projected onto the surface. It was the same pattern! He supposed that meant if he covered the walls with flies they would dance around and never touch? If he put a spider in with them would it just ignore all of the free food? He could–
Gavin had reduced the amount of water so that he had a clear view inside of the tube again. He had been waiting to see the flies, but now he realized they weren’t in there anymore! Neither was the stick. There were instead four black marks smeared across the inside of the tube in their place. Had they been crushed by all the water? But why?
Gavin turned the tube over in his hands, angling it so that the bathroom light shone more clearly on one of those dark smudges. No…it wasn’t just squashed fly guts there. It was something pure and shiny black, like tar. Although as he looked closer he saw it actually wasn’t a single goo, it was a thousand tiny strings, like millimeter-long strands of hair. And they were mobile, doing a sort of a waving gesture where they folded at their midpoint and then stood erect again.
Three flies, a stick, and a liter of water had gone in…these things were what came back out. The tube must have broken everything else down to create this. But what exactly were they? Tiny little strings of…organic sludge?
Gavin walked back to his bedroom and put the tube back on his desk. Then he strode back out with a purpose. The rest of the afternoon Gavin collected anything small and interesting he could find around the house and the alley outside, then he brought them back to his room. A few ice cubes, some small rocks, a piece of brick, ants and beetles, apple juice, a jug of water, rubbing alcohol, small pieces of glass, plastic, an old rag, a cigarette butt, a ping pong ball, bread, a strip of wood, some small weeds, a few metal screws, and a handful of dirt. He lined all the items up on his desk, right in front of his “islands.”
He pulled out his notebook and wrote down Tube #1. This was the one he had already been experimenting with. He wanted to continue to work with this one, following the same sort of structure it had already been on. Water and living tissue. He placed the beetles against the inner surface of the tube and released them to perform their erratic dances. The ants he dropped in the middle to float around. He added the weeds to this one as well, and finally filled it up with water. Done.
Tube #2. For this one he wanted to experiment with the natural materials. He put the ice in it, the small rocks, the strip of wood, and the dirt. Finally he added in the apple juice to fill up the rest of the space.
Tube #3. Here he would try the more synthetic things. The brick piece, the glass, a corner of the rag, the cigarette butt, the ping pong ball, the bread, and the metal screws. Then he poured in the alcohol. He had selected this particular tube because it was smaller, small enough that he didn’t need a whole liter of the alcohol to fill it up.
Of course some of the things had been too dense for the tubes to handle. The metal screws, the piece of brick, the rocks, and the glass. They had each just fallen to the bottom and stayed there. When he shook the tubes those pieces slid around and even fell out of the tube if tipped too far. Curiously, they were completely absent any residue of alcohol or water or anything else when they emerged. Still, the stick wedged into the tube yesterday had been similarly dense and it had decomposed, so perhaps that didn’t matter.
In any case, now there was nothing to do but call it a night and wait for tomorrow. It would be hard to be patient, but at least tomorrow was the weekend.
The next morning Gavin’s alarm had barely sounded a single note before he was on his feet and gathering up the tubes from his desk.
“What are you up so early for?” Curtis groaned from his bed but Gavin ignored him.
With the tubes tucked under his arms he marched to the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He plucked a fresh cup from the mirror cabinet and began to scoop out the water, then the apple juice, and finally the alcohol.
“Obviously they haven’t had as long to grow stuff as the first batch…but that’s alright, now I’ll know whether I get more or less depending on the amount of time it cooks for or not.”
No sooner did he say so than he found his answer. He had emptied enough of Tube #1 to see the dark splotches on its surface. The amount that had been there before was almost exactly doubled. Did that mean the amount of material mattered more than the length of time?
Tube #2 came next, the one with bits and pieces from nature. The black spots seemed to be made of the exact same black, miniscule threads as the first one. The amount produced also seemed similar, perhaps a bit less, but also the volume of material he put in had been less as well.
Unsurprisingly Tube #3 maintained the pattern. Black spots of the same sort of material, less in total surface area, because it had had the smallest volume of them all. Gavin also noticed that the rocks, glass, and brick had all dissolved, but the metal screws had only partially done so. He could still make out their shape inside of the third tube, though they looked worn and eaten away, as if they had been subject to decades of rust. Coating their broken surfaces were those same black, little strings. As the densest material, he supposed it made sense that they hadn’t been able to disintegrate entirely.
Gavin scribbled all this information into his notebook and then paused. What came now? For the first time in a while he wasn’t sure. He could produce patches of strange, black fibers, but where was he supposed to go from there? He was sure he could probably come up with other experiments related to feeding the tubes, but that could only be interesting for so long. He wanted something new to pursue.
He flipped back through the pages in his notebook and saw his old notes about fitting the pieces together. He had stopped pursuing that avenue for a while, and now it seemed interesting to him again. He could hear the noises of his family waking up, so he didn’t feel bad relocating back to his bedroom.
“You were up so early for that dumb puzzle?” Curtis grumbled.
Gavin ignored him and sat down, taking summary of the remaining rods and discs. He was quite sure he had fit together every piece that he could, yet there still remained 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and even his “islands” still had an unfilled hole or two. None of these pieces fit together, so he was back to the assumption that some pieces were missing from the set.
One of the holes in Tube #1 didn’t even look like it could take a rod. It had an obstruction in the middle of it, and was wider both above and beneath that protrusion. Thus there was no way for any solid material to slide all the way into it, unless perhaps the rod’s end had some spring-loaded mechanism to let it compress and then expand. None of them had any such setup.
Gavin open the drawer on his desk and sifted through his various supplies until he found his modelling clay. He took a handful and smashed it into the hole, prodding with his fingers until it filled every nook and cranny inside. Then he pulled out the top and bottom halves separately, reconnected them on his desk, and peered closely at the model.
It looked like a slightly misshapen cube with a bite taken out of its side. It was a little wider at the top than at the bottom, with a slanted edge causing the difference between them. Those same precise, right-angle lines had been molded into its side, which seemed a bit odd, because Gavin had not noticed them inside the hole when he had been peering into it.
He checked again, even felt the surface of the hole with his finger. No lines anywhere, yet somehow the clay had still been imprinted with them. Curious, Gavin took the clay and pushed it back into the hole. This time he would let it sit for longer, so he set his watch for five minutes and drummed his fingers impatiently on his desk.
“Seriously, why are you still playing with that stuff?” Curtis asked as he changed out of his pajamas.
Gavin shrugged. He hadn’t been going to any special lengths to hide his discoveries, but he also didn’t feel like sharing them either.
“It’s just something fun to do. Why? Does it bother you?”
“Only when it has you waking me up early on a weekend,” Curtis rolled his eyes, then made to leave the room. “Hey, don’t stay cooped up for too long, it’s a beautiful day out there.”
“Sure Curtis, I’ll come play soon.”
Curtis nodded and walked through the door. As soon as he was gone Gavin grabbed the tube. He turned it over in his hands while waiting for his watch timer to run out. He pressed his palm against it and paid close attention to the way it made his skin ripple. Could those ripples be what made the lines in the clay? But the ripples moved across his skin and the ones on the clay had seemed stationary. Still, the distance between each ripple seemed about the right size. Or maybe–
Gavin froze. He had been turning the tube over, and while doing so had glimpsed the inside. And in that brief moment he had seen those strange, black fibers from the previous experiment moving, crawling up the sides of the tube. He looked closer, and sure enough they really were moving. Not in the strange, sudden hairpin way that the bugs had done, but in a constant line, converging towards one common destination: the hole he had stuffed with the clay.
Gavin looked closer at the individual fibers that made up the dark splotch. They hand deepened their bowing motion, allowing them to touch their upper ends all the way to the surface of the tube and then slide their bases forward so that they step-by-step marched towards the foreign object. Once they reached the clay they began to prod themselves into its soft form, poking through it like thousands of little hairs on a white scalp.
Gavin’s timer went off, startling him. He dismissed it, and watched patiently until every last fiber had reached the clay and burrowed itself deep into it. Then he tried to remove the clay, which proved a great deal more difficult than before. It was far less pliable now, and as he pulled the top and bottom halves apart there was a strained cracking noise from its center.
At last he got it out and placed it on his desk, where he could see that the clay had been being transformed. It looked marbled, divided between two materials. About three-fifths still just ordinary clay: soft to the touch, gray in color, covered in fingerprints. The rest of it was white, glossy, just like the material that the discs and rods were made of. It even had those same strange properties of heating and rippling his skin when he touched it.
“So…these are changers,” he said slowly. “It eats stuff, and turns it into those black splotches, and then it uses those to build new parts…” he smiled broadly. “I’m not missing any pieces after all! I can make as many as I need. As many as I want.”
He still didn’t know why that was significant. None of these discoveries were actually useful to him in any practical way, yet it felt like it mattered even so.
Holding the tube under one arm he dashed down the stairs and out of the house. Once there he found the nearest patch of dirt and began shoveling it into the opening of the tube.
“It doesn’t seem too picky about what it eats, so I’ll just give it what I can get the easiest: dirt and water. And maybe play with the ratios. A bit more dirt and a bit less water. See if it makes more of the black stuff that way.”
He finished with the dirt and ran over to the spigot sticking out of the side of their building. He turned the water on and began transferring it by the handful into the tube.
“Hey, are you finally ready to play?” Curtis asked, tossing a football up in the air and catching it. Gavin hadn’t noticed him here in the yard.
“Yeah…almost…I’ve just got to run this upstairs and I’ll be right down.”
Curtis was looking at him with a bemused expression. Gavin was sure his manner of filling this tube up looked pretty strange, but he still wasn’t going to address it right now. He would probably have to explain things to his brother sooner or later though.
Gavin tipped in one more handful of water and the tube overflowed. He dashed back inside the building and up to his room. He grabbed another chunk of the clay and began to fashion a rod from it. He was trying to imitate the general dimensions of all the other rods he had, then he stuffed its end into the hole he had been experimenting with before.
Now there was nothing left for it but to wait…and this would probably take a while. So he might as well go and play with Curtis in the meantime, even though his mind wouldn’t really be on it. This afternoon he’d come back and see how far things had progressed, feed it more dirt and water if it needed it. Probably he would be feeding the tube for a few days before it could transform the entire rod, and he would have to think about buying more clay, too.
It did take a while for the rod to fully form, though not as long as Curtis had feared. He had been correct to increase the amount of solid material, and after a few more “feedings” he found the ideal ratio to be 80% solid and 20% liquid. With that the rod was completed in three days.
While it was growing Gavin set up a series of experiments to conduct with his other islands, so that he could test the limits of their abilities. From his first trial he established that the tube could not grow a rod in just any shape. He had filled the hole flush with clay, and then put another misshapen lump on its end that didn’t resemble any of the actual rods. The part in the hole transformed as expected, but the lump remained entirely clay. Bit-by-bit he prodded the lump closer to the shape of the rods, at each step pausing to look at the black splotches inside to the tube, waiting to see when they would begin moving towards it.
In the end the splotches activated before the clay was shaped perfectly. Apparently it just had to be close enough. Not only that, but the “close enough” clay ended up being altered during the transformation into the exact form it was supposed to be. That was how all the little lines ended up being etched into its sides.
So evidently there was a way that the rod was generally “supposed” to be…but now Gavin wanted to see whether there was any leeway allowed in that. He started by making a proper, straight rod, and it grew in just fine. Next he tried to do the same thing, but smoothly curved it to one side as it extended. The new rod grew in, and did so without straightening the piece out. He tried it again, bending it back the other way, and it also worked. So long as he didn’t try to have it zigzag back-and-forth, or make too sharp of a turn, he could fashion a wide array of possible rods.
Next Gavin experimented with the endpoint. After a few experiments he found that he could cap off a new rod with any of the already-existing slot-shapes and it would be accepted. Not only that, but he could also fashion it into entirely new shapes, so long as they were “similar” to the already-existing ones. Though if he tried to mold anything dramatically different, like a sphere shape at the end of the rod, it would be rejected.
Gavin tried growing a rod that was short and then capped off, and then he grew another that went for three times the length before being capped off. Both worked.
Gavin grew two incomplete rods that weren’t capped off at all. Then he put their incomplete ends together with a little clay in between, and inserted the whole contraption into one of his “growing islands.” The clay turned into the same rod-material, and it fused the two parts into one perfect piece without so much as a seam.
So I have to follow the fundamental shapes of the already-existing pieces, Gavin wrote in his notebook, but then I could really steer these into any setup that I want.
He paused to bite at the end of his eraser. What exactly did he want? He could join all of the tubes into one larger piece to see if there were any new properties there. He could try building a disc now instead of more rods. If he could accomplish that then he could make a dozen copies of the same tube, but each with slight variations to see if that influenced their behavior at all. Or maybe–
“So when are you going to tell me what you’re doing with all this stuff?”
Gavin jumped in surprise. He had been so lost in thought that he hadn’t noticed Curtis standing behind him.
“Curtis! You scared me. I–uh–I’m just still playing around with it. I still don’t know what it was meant to be. There’s not much to say, really.”
“Uh-huh,” Curtis raised an eyebrow. “Why are you lying?”
“Look, little bro. I included in you that stuff from day one, didn’t I?”
“Well yeah, but…”
When Gavin didn’t continue his excuse Curtis sighed in exasperation.
“You know what, if you don’t want to share, then fine.” He turned to go out the bedroom door.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly. “I’ll show you, come here. I just–I guess I just liked having my own little thing for a while. But you’re right, you shared with me first.”
Curtis smiled and sat back down, then patiently waited for Gavin to talk him through it all.
“So…it’s pretty weird actually,” Gavin said. “But if you don’t believe me about any of it I’ll show you and you can see for yourself.” He flipped his notebook back to the first pages and began from the last progress Curtis had seen.
He told him everything. How he figured out how to put the pieces together into islands, about how things floated in the middle of them, about reducing material down to the black splotches, about putting clay into the holes, about making new pieces, and even about all of the questions he had for where to go next with it.
Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.
“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”
“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”
“No…does it matter though?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”
“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”
“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.
“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”
“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.
“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”
“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”
“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”
“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.
“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”
“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”
“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”
The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.
Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.
It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built. He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.
Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.
Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.
Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.
In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.
High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.
Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.
There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.
Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.
Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.
Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.
Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”
But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.
The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.
Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.
“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”
“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”
Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.
What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.
“It’s the same material,” he frowned.
“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.
“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.
“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.
Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.
“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.
“But it’s all of our work!”
“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”
Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.
From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.
“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.
“You think they’d be here for anything else?”
“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.
“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.
“Then…we gotta run!”
“They seem to have accounted for that.”
Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.
Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.
“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.
The trucks were upon them now. The winged discs stopped shooting from the back of the first, the engines sputtered out, and the doors opened. Out stepped eight men, all dressed in jeans and dark-grey jackets. They were uniforms, and each of their shoulders bore the name “Clecir.” Two of the men were carrying large briefcases, and four of them had sidearms on their hips. They didn’t draw their weapons, though, instead all eight slowly walked towards the two brothers, fanning out to keep them contained.
“Hello, boys,” one of them said. He had curly, white hair and dark sunglasses on. He grinned broadly. “My name’s Maxwell. Please don’t be alarmed, we’re not here to cause any trouble. Just to take back what is rightfully ours.”
“Yours?” Gavin asked. Curtis frowned at him.
“Yes, the beacons.”
It took the boys a moment to realize that “beacons” must be the men’s term for the strange materials.
“You’re the ones who left the box of them out?” Curtis asked, anxious to take over the conversation before Gavin could try to argue about ownership.
“That’s right. A careless mistake.”
Curtis nodded. “Well they’re in that storage shed over there.”
Now it was Gavin who frowned at Curtis. To him it seemed like a betrayal. But really the mass of “beacons” still hanging off the sides of their shed had already given that information away. It was just about appearing accommodating.
Maxwell smiled, then nodded to the two men carrying the briefcases. They broke ranks and made their way to the shed. One of them came back a moment later and tossed one of the rods to Maxwell. Maxwell caught it and peered closely at the grooves on the rod’s side. He smiled.
“Batch 18, confirmed.”
The two men filed back into the shed, opened their briefcases, and began filling them with the brothers’ work.
“How long ago was Batch 18?” Maxwell said to no one in particular. “Twelve years now?” He turned back to the brothers. “Did you two work them this whole time? You said you found them in a cardboard box?”
Gavin’s frown deepened. “You didn’t misplace them at all! You planted them.”
Curtis elbowed his brother, but Maxwell seemed pleased by the insight.
“How perceptive of you,” he smiled. “And an excellent choice of words, we call it ‘seeding’ ourselves. I’m sure you’ve found that the secrets of the beacons are extensive. Infinitely so. Some of us even think responsively so.” Maxwell’s voice grew low, reverential. “Whichever way you push it, it discloses new truths. And so it is all the better to find curious minds that think differently from our own. We let them work uninterrupted, and sometimes they come up with the most novel inventions.”
The two men returned. They had selected the most complex examples of the brothers’ work and held them up for Maxwell to see. He looked them over one-by-one.
“I see. Crude clothing applications…but you’d run into trouble once you tried to make a full body-suit of course,” he chuckled. “You’d lose the wearer inside!”
Maxwell paused to look closer at the tunic, his brow furrowing. “Still…the fact that you’re using linked pieces instead of plates…how did you get them so small?”
“Perhaps this one sir?” One of the men held forward a piece fashioned by Gavin. It was the one where he had discovered how to create increasingly larger or smaller components.
Maxwell frowned in concentration as he turned it over until understanding set in. “But of course,” he gasped. “We’ve been blind all these years!” He turned it over more quickly now. Hungrily. “And it’s dual-ended! You can scale up or down with it! And I’d guess that this node-centric approach amplifies the resultant power!” His fingers clenched against the piece and a shudder passed through his body. A moment later he relaxed, and gently returned the piece to the briefcase. “Keep that one, get the bin ready for the rest.”
“Why take it all away?” Gavin asked before Curtis could stop him. “We’ve put so much of ourselves into it!”
Maxwell turned to Gavin and took off his sunglasses, looking him eye-to-eye. “It’s too risky to leave any developers operating outside of the organization, this stuff is just too powerful. Not to worry, though. We aren’t merely seeding new beacons, we’re seeding talent. The two of you have definitely proven yourselves ingenious and persistent….”
“You’re–you’re offering us a job?” Curtis cocked his head.
“So much more than a job,” Maxwell extended his hand. “I want you to be a partner to the future.”
The two brothers paused and looked to one another. Unspoken meaning passing between their eyes. They looked back to Maxwell.
“With all due respect,” Curtis said slowly, “we don’t like your style.”
Maxwell forced a smile. “Our way is necessary, but we know that it doesn’t appeal to all. Still boys, I like you. So just make sure you stay out of our way, and we won’t need to discuss the matter any further. You’ll do that won’t you?”
The two men with briefcases had finished hauling the rest of the brothers’ work outside. They had even brought all of their notebooks, clay, and graph paper, as well as all the winged discs that had slammed into the side of the storage shed. Another two men lifted a large “tube” out of the bed of one of the trucks. It was far cruder than Gavin’s solution for making larger structures. This tube had been fashioned by simply taking hundreds of the normal-sized discs and angling them to form pointy rings. Those rings were staggered so that they could slide over one another like some sort of giant telescope. The tube was capped at both of its ends.
Without a word the men opened a hatch on the side of the tube, put all of the brothers’ things inside, then closed the hatch and pushed the ends together. The overlapping flaps slid across each other, compressing down like an accordion until the two caps clanged against one another.
Gavin gasped as understanding set in. They had made the space inside too small to hold all of their things. With an open tube that had always meant the things would just spill out. In a capped one like this, it must mean that the items were obliterated into nothingness. Just like that, all their work was destroyed.
“You boys sure you don’t want to reconsider my offer?” Maxwell asked. “There are no second chances.”
Curtis shook his head.
“Suit yourselves.” He turned to the rest of the men and nodded, then they all filed back into the trucks and drove away.
Gavin and Curtis walked in silence back to their shed and stepped inside. They already knew what they would see…nothing. The men had been thorough. All that remained were two empty chairs and desks, the power generator, the lights and the fans.
“So that’s it,” Gavin said flatly.
“Yeah,” Curtis said, walking over to the power generator. He unplugged it and waited a few seconds for it to wind down. “Or at least it would be if they weren’t so stupid.”
He ran his fingers along the generator’s cord until he found a bump in the sheath. He felt out a slit in the rubber and peeled it back, revealing a microscopic tube that they had wrapped around the electric cable.
“I forgot about that!” Gavin said, clapping his hands to his head. “From when we were trying to get an electrical charge inside of a tube. We never took it out?”
Curtis shook his head. “Sounds like they aren’t accustomed to their ‘beacons’ being so small. They didn’t even think to check.” He unclasped the tiny tube and pulled it off the cord. “Of course those winged discs of theirs were able to hone in on us once…it’s a safe bet that they’ll realize they missed something sooner or later.”
The two brothers looks at one another, silently weighing their options.
“I say we don’t give it back,” Gavin finally said. “I say we run with it and start building again. Prepare for their return.”
Curtis grinned from ear to ear. “I was hoping you’d say that! Let’s go. I’ve got a lot of new ideas.”
The two brothers slapped each on the back and hurried over to their parked pickup truck. Curtis hopped into the driver’s seat and started the ignition while Gavin went around to the passenger side. He had just stepped up onto the running board when he froze.
“Uh-oh,” he said, and Curtis looked up to where Gavin was staring.
The two black trucks had turned around and were making their way back up towards the brothers and their storage shed.
“They figured it out already,” Gavin said.
“Yeah…do you still want to run?”
Gavin grit his teeth, then swung into his seat and pulled the door closed.
Curtis pressed the pedal to the floor and spun the truck out in a wide arc. They turned 180 degrees and moved off the road, pounding across the rough desert ground, kicking up a tall plume of dust as they fled from their pursuers.