The Practice Effect sample chapters
Sooee Generis: 1
The lecture was really boring.
At the front of the dimly lit conference room, the portly, gray-haired director of the Sahara Institute of Technology paced back and forth -- staring at the ceiling with his hands clasped behind his back -- while he pontificated ponderously on a subject he clearly barely understood.
At least that's how Dennis Nuel saw it, suffering in silence in one of the back rows.
Once upon a time, Marcel Flaster might have been one of the shining lights of physics. But that had been long ago, before any of the younger scientists present had ever considered careers in reality physics. Dennis wondered what could have ever have converted a once-talented mind into a boring, tendentious administrator. He swore he would jump off of Mt. Feynman before it ever happened to him.
The sonorous voice droned on.
"And so we see, people, that by using zievatronics alternate realities appear to be almost within our reach, presenting possibilities for bypassing both space and time...."
Dennis nursed his hangover near the back of the crowded conference room, and wondered what power on Earth could have dragged him out of bed on a Monday morning to come down here and listen to Marcel Flaster expound about zievatronics.
His eyelids drooped. He began to slump in his seat.
"Dennis!" Gabriella Versgo elbowed him in the ribs, whispering sharply. "Will you straighten up and pay attention?"
Dennis sat up quickly, blinking. Now he recalled what power on Earth had dragged him here.
At seven a.m. Gabbie had kicked open the door to his room and hauled him by his ear into the shower, ignoring his howling protests and his modesty. She had kept her formidable grip on his arm until they were both planted here in the Sahara Tech conference room.
Dennis rubbed his arm just above the elbow. One of these days, he decided, he was going to sneak into Gabbie's room and throw away all the little rubber balls the redhead liked to squeeze while she studied.
She nudged him again. "Will you sit still? You have the attention span of a cranky otter! Do you want to find yourself exiled even farther from the zievatronics experiment?"
As usual, Gabbie hit close to home. He shook his head silently and made an effort to be attentive.
Dr. Flaster finished drawing a vague figure in the holo tank at the front of the seminar room. The psychophysicist put his light-pen down on the podium and unconsciously wiped his hands on his pants, though the last piece of blackboard chalk had been outlawed more than thirty years before.
"That is a zievatron," he announced proudly.
Dennis looked at the light-drawing unbelievingly. He whispered, "If that's a zievatron, I'm a teetotaler. Flaster's got the poles reversed, and the field's inside out!"
Gabriella's blush almost matched the shade of her fiery hair. Her fingernails lanced into his thigh.
Dennis winced, but managed an expression of lamblike innocence when Flaster looked up myopically. After a moment the director cleared his throat.
"As I was saying earlier, all bodies possess centers of mass. The centroid of an object is the balance point, where all net forces can be said to come to play... where its reality can be ascribed.
"You, my boy," he said, pointing to Dennis. "Can you tell me where your centroid is?"
"Umm," Dennis considered foggily. He hadn't really been listening all that carefully. "I guess I must have left it at home, sir."
Snickers came from some of the other postdocs seated around the back of the room. Gabbie's blush deepened. She sank into her seat, obviously wishing she were elsewhere.
The Chief Scientist smiled vaguely. "Ah, Nuel, isn't it? Dr. Dennis Nuel?"
Across the aisle, Dennis caught a glimpse of Bernard Brady grinning at his predicament. The tall, beagle-eyed young man had once been his chief rival until managing to have Dennis completely removed from the activity in the main zievatronics laboratory. Brady gave Dennis a smile of pure spite.
Dennis shrugged. After what had happened in the past few months, he felt he had little left to lose.
"Uh, yessir. Dr. Flaster. It's kind of you to remember me. I used to be assistant director of Lab One, you might recall."
Gabriella continued her descent into the upholstery, trying very much to took as if she had never seen Dennis before in her life.
Flaster nodded. "Ah, yes. Now I recollect. As a matter of fact, your name has crossed my desk very recently."
Bernard Brady's face lit up. Clearly, nothing would please Brady more than if Dennis were sent on a far-away sample-collecting mission... say, to Greenland or Mars. So long as he remained, Dennis presented a threat to Brady's relentless drive to curry favor and climb the bureaucratic ladder. Also, without really wishing to be, Dennis seemed to be an obstacle to Brady's romantic ambitions for Gabriella.
"In any event. Dr. Nuel," Flaster continued, "you certainly cannot have 'left' your centroid anywhere. I believe if you check you'll find it somewhere near your navel."
Dennis looked down at his belt buckle, then beamed back at the Director.
Why, so it is! You can be sure I'll keep better track of it in the future!
"It's disappointing to learn," Flaster said, affecting a hearty tone, "that someone so adept with a makeshift sling knows so little about center of mass!"
He was clearly referring to the incident a week ago, at the staff formal dance, when a nasty little flying creature had come streaking in through a window, terrorizing the crowd around the punch bowl. Dennis had removed his cummerbund, folded it into a sling, and flung a shot glass to bring down the batlike creature before it could hurt someone seriously with its razor-sharp beak.
The improvisation had made him an instant hero among the postdocs and techs and got Gabbie started on her present campaign to "save his career." But at the time all he had really wanted was to get a closer look at the little creature. The brief glimpse be caught had set his mind spinning with possibilities.
Most of those present at the dance had assumed that it was an escaped experiment from the Gene-craft Center, at the opposite end of the Institute. But Dennis had other ideas.
One look had told him that the thing had clearly not come from Earth!
Taciturn men from Security had quickly arrived and crated the stunned animal away. Still, Dennis was certain it had come from Lab One... his old lab, where the main zievatron was kept... now off limits to everyone but Flaster's hand-picked cronies.
"Well, Dr. Flaster," Dennis ventured, "since you bring up the subject, I'm sure we're all interested in the centroid of that vicious little varmint that buzzed the party. Can you tell us what it was, at last?"
Suddenly it was very quiet in the conference room. It was an unconventional thing to do, challenging the Chief Scientist in front of everybody. But Dennis didn't care anymore. Without any apparent reason the man had already reassigned him away from his life's work. What more could Flaster do to him?
Flaster regarded Dennis expressionlessly. Finally he nodded. "Come to my office an hour after the seminar, Dr. Nuel. I promise I will answer all of your questions then."
Dennis blinked, surprised. Did the fellow really mean it?
He nodded. Indicating he would be there, and Flaster turned back to his holosketch.
"As I was saying," Flaster resumed, "a psychosomatic reality anomaly has its start when we surround a center of mass by a field of improbability which..."
When attention had shifted fully away from them, Gabriella whispered once more in Dennis's ear. "Now you've done it!" she said.
"Hmm? Done what?" He looked back at her innocently.
"As if you don't know!" she bit. "He's going to send you to the Qattara Depression to count sand grains! You watch!"
On those rare occasions when he remembered to correct his posture, Dennis Nuel stood a little above average in height. He dressed casually... some might say sloppily. His hair was slightly too long for the current style -- more out of a vague obstinacy than out of any real conviction.
Dennis's face sometimes took on that dreamy expression often associated either with genius or an inspired aptitude for practical jokes. In reality he was just a little too lazy to qualify for the former, and just a bit too goodhearted for the latter. He had curly brown hair and brown eyes that were right now just a little reddened from a poker game that had gone on too late the night before.
After the lecture, as the crowd of sleepy junior scientists dispersed to find secret corners in which to nap, Dennis paused by the department bulletin board, hoping to see an advertisement for another research center working in zievatronics.
Of course, there weren't any. Sahara Tech was the only place doing really advanced work with the ziev effect. Dennis should know. He had been responsible for many of those advances. Until six months ago.
As the conference room emptied, Dennis saw Gabriella leave, chattering with her hand on Bernard Brady's arm. Brady looked pumped up, as if he had just conquered Mt. Everest. Clearly he was crazy in love.
Dennis wished the fellow luck. It would be nice to have Gabriella's attentions focused elsewhere for a while. Gabbie was a competent scientist in her own right, of course. But she was just a bit too tenacious for Dennis to relax with.
He looked at his watch. It was time to go see what Flaster wanted. Dennis brought his shoulders back. He had decided he wouldn't put up with any further put-offs. Flaster was going to answer some questions, or Dennis was going to quit!
Sooee Generis: 2
"Ah, Nuel! Come in!"
Silver-haired and slightly paunched, Marcel Flaster rose from behind the gleamingly empty expanse of his desk. "Take a seat, my boy. Have a cigar? They're fresh from New Havana, on Venus." He motioned Dennis to a plush chair next to a floor-to-ceiling lavalamp.
"So tell me, young man, how is it going with that artificial-intelligence project you've been working on?"
Dennis had spent the past six months directing a small AI program mandated by an unbreakable old endowment -- even though it had been proved back in 2024 that true artificial intelligence was a dead end field.
He still had no idea why Flaster had asked him here. He didn't want to be gratuitously impolite, so he reported on the recent, modest advances his small group had made.
"Well, there's been some progress. Recently we've developed a new, high-quality mimicry program. In telephone tests it conversed with randomly selected individuals for an average of six point three minutes before they suspect that they're actually talking to a machine. Rich Schwall and I think..."
"Six and a half minutes!" Plaster interrupted. "Well, you've certainly broken the old record, by over a minute, I believe! I'm impressed!"
Then Flaster smiled condescendingly. "But honestly, Nuel, you don't think I assigned a young scientist of your obvious talents to a project with so little long-range potential for no reason, do you?"
Dennis shook his head. He had long ago concluded that the Chief Scientist had shoved him into a corner of Sahara Tech in order to put his own cronies into the zievatronics lab.
Until the death of Dennis's old mentor, Dr. Guinasso, Dennis had been at the very center of the exciting field of reality analysis.
Then, within weeks of the tragedy, Flaster had moved his own people in and Guinasso's inexorably out. Thinking about it still made Dennis bitter. He had felt sure they were just about to make tremendous discoveries when he was exiled from the work he loved.
"I couldn't really guess why you transferred me," Dennis said. "Umm, could it be you were grooming me for better things?"
Oblivious to the sarcasm, Flaster grinned. "Exactly, my boy! You do show remarkable insight. Tell me, Nuel. Now that you've had experience running a small department, how would you like to take charge of the zievatronics project here at Sahara Tech?"
Dennis blinked, taken completely by surprise.
"Uh," he said concisely.
Flaster got up and went to an intricate espresso urn on a sideboard. He poured two demitasses of thick Atlas Mountains coffee and offered one to Dennis. Dennis took the small cup numbly. He barely tasted the heavy, sweet brew.
Flaster returned to his desk and sipped delicately from his demitasse.
"Now, you didn't think we'd let our best expert on the ziev effect molder in a backwater forever, did you? Of course not! I was planning to move you back into Lab One in a matter of weeks, anyway. And now that the subministry position has opened up..."
"The subministry! Mediterranea's government has shifted again, and my old friend Boona Calumny is slotted for the Minister of Science portfolio. So when he called me just the other day to ask for help..." Flaster spread his hands as if to say the rest was obvious.
Dennis couldn't believe he was hearing this. He had been certain the older man disliked him. What in the world would motivate him to turn to Dennis when it came to choosing a replacement?
Dennis wondered if his dislike for Flaster had blinded him to some nobler side of the man.
"I take it you're interested?"
Dennis nodded. He didn't care what Flaster's motives were, so long as he could get his hands on the zievatron again.
"Excellent!" Flaster raised his cup again. "Of course, there is one small detail to overcome first -- only a minor matter, really. Just the sort of thing that would show the lab your leadership ability and guarantee your universal acceptance by all."
"Ah," Dennis said. I knew it! Here it comes! The catch!
Flaster reached under the desk and pulled out a glass box.
Within it was a furry-winged, razor-toothed monstrosity, rigid and lifeless.
"After you helped us recapture it last Saturday night, I decided it was more trouble than it was worth. I handed it over to our taxidermist...."
Dennis tried to breathe normally, The small black eyes stared back at him glassily. Right now they seemed filled less with malevolence than with deep mystery.
"You wanted to know more about this thing," Flaster said. "As my heir apparent, you have a right to find out."
"The others think it's from the Gene-craft Center," Dennis said.
Flaster chuckled. "But you knew better all along, right? The lifemakers aren't good enough at their new art to make anything quite so unique," he said with savor. "So very savage.
"No. As you guessed, our little friend here is not from the genetics labs, nor from anywhere in the solar system, for that matter. It came from Lab One -- from one of the anomaly worlds we've latched onto with the zievatron."
Dennis stood. "You got it to work! You latched onto something better than vacuum, or purple mist!"
His mind whirled. "It breathed Earth air! It gobbled down a dozen canapes, along with a corner of Brian Yen's ear, and kept going! The thing's biochemistry must be..."
"Is... it is almost precisely Terran." Flaster nodded.
Dennis shook his head. He sat down heavily. "When did you find this place?"
"We found it during a zievatronics anomaly search three weeks ago. After five months of failure, I'll freely admit that we finally achieved success only after returning to the search routine you first designed, Nuel."
Flaster took off his glasses and wiped them with a silk handkerchief. "Your routines worked almost at once. And turned up the most amazingly Earthlike world. The biologists are ecstatic, to say the least."
Dennis stared at the dead creature in the glass. A whole world! We did it!
Dr. Guinasso's dream had come true. The zievatron was the key to the stars! Dennis's personal resentment had disappeared. He was genuinely thrilled by Flaster's accomplishment.
The Director rose and returned to the coffee urn for a refill. "There's only one problem," he said nonchalantly, his back to the younger man.
Dennis looked lip, his thoughts still spinning. "Sir? A problem?"
"Well, yes," Flaster turned around, stirring his coffee. "Actually, it has to do with the zievatron itself."
"What about the zievatron?"
Flaster raised his demitasse with two fingers. "Well," he sighed between sips. "It seems we can't get the darned thing to work anymore."
Sooee Generis: 3
Flaster wasn't kidding. The zievatron was busted.
After most of a day spent poking through the guts of the machine, Dennis was still getting used to the changes that had been made in Laboratory One since his banishment.
The main generators were the same, as were the old reality probes he and Dr. Guinasso had laboriously handtuned back in the early days. Flaster and Brady hadn't dared tamper with those.
But they had brought in so much new equipment that even the cavernous main lab was almost filled to bursting. There were enough electrophoresis columns, for instance, to analyze a Bordeaux bouillabaisse.
The zievatron itself took up most of the chamber. White-coated technicians moved across catwalks along its broad face, making adjustments.
Most of the techs had come down to greet Dennis when he came in. They were obviously relieved to have him back. The backslapping reunion had kept him away from his beloved machine for almost an hour and had irritated the hell out of Bernald Brady.
When, finally, Dennis had been able to get to work, he concentrated on the two huge reality probes. Where they met, deep within the machine, there was a spot in space that was neither exactly here nor quite elsewhere. The anomalous point could be flipped between Earth and Somewhere Else, depending on which probe dominated.
Six months ago there had been a small port through which samples could be taken of the purple mists and strange dust clouds he and Dr. Guinasso had found. But since then it had been replaced by a large, armored airlock.
Working near the heavy hatch, Dennis realized that all a person had to do was walk through that door to be on another world! It was a strange feeling.
"Stumped yet, Nuel?"
Dennis looked up. Bernald Brady's small mouth always seemed to be slightly pursed in disapproval. The fellow was under instructions to cooperate, but that apparently didn't extend to being civil.
Dennis shrugged. "I've narrowed the problem down. Something's cockeyed about the part of the zievatron that's been pushed into the anomaly world -- the return mechanism. It may be that the only way to fix it is from the other end."
He had come to realize that Marcel Flaster would exact a price for putting him in charge of the lab. If Dennis wasn't able to figure out a way to repair it from this end, he might have to go through and fix the return mechanism in person.
He hadn't yet decided whether to be thrilled by the idea, or petrified.
"Flasteria," Brady said.
"I beg your pardon?" Dennis said, blinking.
"We've named the planet Flasteria, Nuel."
Dennis tried to work his mouth around the word, then gave up. The hell you say.
"Anyway," Brady went on, "that's no great discovery. I'd already figured out it was the return mechanism that had broken down."
Dennis was' starting to get irritated with the fellow's attitude. He shrugged. "Sure you knew it already. But how long did it take you?"
He knew he had struck home when Brady's face reddened.
"Never mind," Dennis said as he stood up, brushing off his hands. "Come on, Brady. Take me on a tour of your zoo. If I'm expected to go through and visit this place, I want to know more about it."
Mammals! The captive animals were air-breathing, four-legged, hairy mammals!
He looked over one that resembled a small ferret, going through a short mental checklist. There were two nostrils above the mouth and below forward-facing hunter's eyes. There were five clawed toes on each paw, and a long, furry tail. A tomography chart in front of the cage showed a four-chambered heart, a rather Earthly-looking skeleton, and apparently all the right sorts of viscera in all the right places.
Yet it was alien!
The creature stared back at Dennis for a moment, then yawned and turned away.
"The biologists have checked for bad germs and such," Brady said, answering Dennis's next question. "The guinea pigs they sent through aboard one of the exploring robots lived on Flasteria for several days and came back perfectly healthy."
"What about the biochemistry? Are the amino acids the same, for instance?"
Brady picked up a large binder, about five inches thick. "Doc Nelson was called away to Palermo yesterday. Part of the government shake-up, I suppose. But here's his report." He dropped the heavy tome into Dennis's hands. "Study it!"
Dennis was about to tell Brady where he could put the report for the time being. But just then a sharp, snapping sound came from the far end of the row of cages. Both men turned to witness a stout wooden crate begin shaking and rattling.
Brady cursed loudly. "Hot damn! It's getting out again!" He ran to one wall and slapped an alarm button. At once a siren began to wail.
"What's getting out?" Dennis backed up. The panic in Brady's voice had affected him. "What is it?"
"The creature!" Brady shouted into the intercom, hardly encouraging Dennis. "The one we recaptured and put in that temporary box... yes, the tricky one! It's getting out again!"
There was the sound of splintering wood, and a slat fell out of the side of the crate. From the blackness within, a pair of tiny green reflections gleamed at Dennis.
Dennis could only presume they were eyes, small and spaced no more than an inch apart. The green sparks seemed to lock onto him, and he could not look away. They stared at each other -- Earthman and alien.
Brady was shouting as a work gang hurried into the room. "Quick! Get the nets in here in case it jumps! Make sure it doesn't let the other animals loose, like the last time!"
Dennis was growing increasingly uneasy. The green-eyed stare was disconcerting. He looked for a place to put down the heavy book in his hands.
The creature seemed to come to a decision. It squeezed through the narrow gap between the slats, then leaped just in time to escape a descending net.
In a glimpse Dennis saw that it looked like a tiny, flat-nosed pig. But this pig was one of a kind! In midleap its legs spread wide, snapping open a pair of membranes, creating two gliding wings!
"Block it, Nuel!" Brady shouted.
Dennis didn't have much choice. The alien creature flew right at him! He tried to duck, but too late. The "flying pig" landed on his head and clung to his hair, squeaking frantically.
As Dennis let go of the biochemistry tome in surprise, the heavy volume landed on his foot.
"Ow!" He hopped, reaching up to grab at his unwelcome passenger.
But the little creature peeped loudly, plaintively. It sounded more frightened than angry. At the last moment, Dennis restrained himself from using force to tear it off. Instead, he managed to peel one webbed paw away from his eye -- just in time to duck beneath a wrench swung by Bernald Brady! Dennis cursed and the "piglet" squealed as the bludgeon whistled just overhead.
"Hold still, Nuel! I almost had him!"
"And almost took my head off, too!" Dennis backed away. "Idiot! Are you trying to kill me?"
Brady seemed to contemplate the proposition syllogistically. Finally, he shrugged. "All right, then, Nuel. Come out slowly and we'll grab him."
Dennis started forward. But as he approached the other men, the creature squeaked pathetically and tightened its grip.
"Hold off," Dennis said. "It's just frightened, that's all. Give me a minute, I may be able to get it down myself."
Dennis backed over to a crate and sat down. He reached up tentatively to touch the alien again.
To Dennis's surprise the shuddering creature seemed to calm under his touch. He spoke softly as he stroked the thin, soft fur that covered its pink skin. Gradually its panicked grip eased. Finally he was able to lift the creature with both hands and bring it down to his lap.
The men and women in the work gang cheered. Dennis smiled back with more confidence than he felt.
It was just the sort of thing that could become a legend. "... Yes, boy. I was there the day ol' Director Nuel tamed a savage alien critter that had him by the eyeballs...."
Dennis looked down at the thing be had "captured." The creature looked back at him with an expression he was sure he had seen somewhere before. But where?
Then he remembered. For his sixth birthday his parents had given him an illustrated book of Finnish fairy tales. He recalled many of the drawings to this day. And this creature had the sharp-toothed, green-eyed, devilish grin of a pixie.
"A pixolet," he announced softly as he petted the little creature. "A cross between piglet and pixie. Does the name suit?"
It didn't appear to understand the words. He doubted it was actually sentient. But something seemed to tell Dennis that it understood him. It grinned back with tiny, needle-sharp teeth.
Brady approached with a gunny sack, "Quick, Nuel. While it's passive, get it into this!"
Dennis stared at the man. The suggestion wasn't worthy of a reply. He arose with the pixolet in the crook of his left arm. The creature purred.
"Come on, Brady," he said, "let's finish the tour so I can get my equipment list together. Then I've got some preparations to make.
"You may thank our extraterrestrial friend here for making up my mind for me. I'11 go through the zievatron and visit his homeworld for you."
Sooee Generis: 4
The zievatron had become a one-way road. Anything shoved through the airlock would arrive on the anomaly world, as planned. Robots could still be sent through, as had been done for almost a month. But nothing came back.
Enough faint telemetry came back to show that the machine was still linked to the same anomaly world -- the place the flying piglet creature had been taken from.
But the zievatron was incapable of sending even a feather back to Earth.
All machines fail sooner or later, Dennis realized. Undoubtedly the problem could be solved simply by replacing a burned-out module -- maybe two minutes' work. The rub was that it would have to be done in person. Somebody would have to go through the zievatron to do it by hand.
Of course, a manned expedition had been planned anyway. These weren't exactly the best circumstances for such a first visit, but somebody would have to do it, or the world they had found would be lost forever. Dennis had seen pictures taken by the exploring robots before the failure. They might search for a hundred years before stumbling onto another place so compatible with human life.
Anyway, he had made up his mind.
The equipment Dennis had asked for lay in stacks just outside the airlock door. The speed with which the list had been filled showed how anxious Dr. Flaster was to have results soon. Sending Brady after the supplies had also kept the fellow out of his hair while he triple-checked his calculations.
He had insisted on a long list of survival supplies, not that he expected to need them on this first outing. Even replacing every module in the return mechanism shouldn't take more than an hour, but he wasn't taking any chances. There were even cases of vitamins in case he was stranded for a while, and the biology report had missed a decimal point in its compatibility rating of the anomaly world.
"Okay, Nuel," Brady said. He addressed Dennis from the left side. The pixolet rode Dennis's other shoulder, surveying the preparations grandly, hissing whenever Brady approached.
"You've got almost enough gear to build another damned zievatron when you arrive on Flasteria. You should be able to fix it in five minutes. You'd think you were the Admirable Bird, lugging all that survival junk around, too. But that's your business."
The fellow actually sounded jealous. Still, Dennis hadn't noticed him volunteering to go.
"Just remember to fix the machine first!" Brady went on. "Then it won't matter if something eats you while you're trying to talk to all the local animals."
Richard Schwall, one of the techs who had worked with Dennis back in the early days, looked up from checking a schematic and shared a look of commiseration with Dennis. Everyone at S.I.T. appreciated Brady's sunny attitude.
Gabriella Versgo's valkyrian figure wove toward them through the crowd of technicians. When one tech was slow to get out of the way, he was swept aside by a well-swung pelvis.
Brady beamed as she approached, looking much like a lovestruck puppy. Gabbie gave him a brilliant smile and then took Dennis's right arm in a grip that partly interrupted the blood supply to his hand.
"Well, Dennis," she said, sighing happily, "I'm glad you and Bernie are talking to each other again! I always thought it was silly of you two to feud so."
Actually, she sounded as if she thought it was delightful. Dennis realized that Gabbie was under the mistaken belief that his enmity with Brady was over her. If that really were the case Dennis would have run up a white flag and surrendered long ago!
"I just came ahead to warn you two boys that Dr. Flaster's on his way down to see Dennis off. And he's bringing Boona Calumny with him!"
Dennis looked blank for a moment.
"The new Science Minister for Mediterranea!" Gabbie cried. She tugged his elbow sharply, accidentally thumbing his ulnar nerve in the process. Dennis gasped, but Gabbie went on, oblivious to his momentary agony.
"Isn't it wonderful?" She exclaimed. "Such an eminent man coming down to watch the first human set foot on an anomaly world!" In her final sweeping gesture she released her grip. Dennis stifled a sigh and massaged his arm.
Gabriella cooed at the pixolet, trying to chuck its diminutive chin. The little creature bore it for a few moments, then erupted into a tremendous yawn, revealing twin rows of needle-sharp teeth. She quickly withdrew her hand.
She went around to Dennis's other side and leaned up to kiss him primly on the cheek. "Gotta run now. I have an important crystal in a float-zone. Have a good trip. Come back a hero and we'll celebrate special, I promise." She winked and nudged him with her hip, almost knocking the pixolet from its perch.
The scowling Brady brightened suddenly when Gabriella gave him a peck as well, for equality. Then she sauntered away, doubtless aware that half the men in the lab were watching.
Richard Schwall shook his head and muttered. "... woman could upstage Lady Macbeth..." was all Dennis made out.
Brady snorted indignantly and stalked off.
As Dennis returned to his calculations, checking one last time to make sure he had made no mistakes, the pixolet launched itself in to a low glide to land on a perch overlooking Richard Schwall. It peered over the balding tech's shoulder, watching as he adjusted a portable electronic drafting tool for Dennis to take along.
For two days, ever since Dennis had declared the creature tame, the technicians had routinely looked up to find those tiny green eyes staring down at them. Uncannily, the pixolet always seemed to choose the trickiest adjustments to oversee.
As the preparations progressed smoothly, the creature became a status symbol of sorts. The techs used bits of candy to attract it over to their stations. It had become a good luck charm -- a company mascot.
When Schwall looked up and saw the pixolet, he grinned and picked up the little alien so it could get a better look. Dennis put down his notes and watched the two interact.
The pixolet appeared less enthralled with what Schwall did than how the tech felt about it. When his face showed pleasure, the creature looked back and forth quickly, from Schwall to the sketch pad and back again.
Although it was clearly not a sentient being, Dennis wondered just how intelligent the little alien really was.
Hey, Dennis! Schwall grew excited. Look at this! I've made a real neat picture of the launch tower in Ecuador! You know, the Vanilla Needle? I've never really noticed how good I am at this! Your little friend here really is lucky!"
There was a commotion at the back of the lab. Dennis nudged his associate. "Come on, Rich," he said. "Get up. They're here at last."
Escorted by Bernald Brady, the lab Director approached the zievatron. With Flaster walked a short, stubby man with dark, intense features, who Dennis realized must be the new Science Minister of Mediterranea.
As he was introduced, Boona Calumny seemed to look right through Dennis. His voice was very high.
"So this is the brave young fellow who's going to take over your wonderful work here, Marcel? And he's starting right off by stepping through into that wonderful new place you've found?"
Flaster beamed. "Yes, sir! And we certainly are proud of him!" He winked conspiratorially at Dennis. Dennis was starting to realize just how badly Flaster wanted a success to show for his tenure at S.I.T.
"You'll be careful in there, won't you, my boy?" Calumny's finger pointed at the airlock. Dennis wondered if the man really understood what was going on.
"Yessir, I will."
"Good. We want you to return hale and hearty!"
Dennis nodded pleasantly, automatically translating the politician's remarks from Executivese to English. He means that if I don't come back there'll be some nasty paperwork to fill out.
"I promise, sir."
"Excellent. You know, bright young men like you are hard to find these days!" (Actually, you squirts are a dime a dozen, but you're helping my buddy out of a jam.)
"Yessir," Dennis agreed again.
"We have a real shortage of daring, adventurous types, and I'm sure you'll go far," Calumny went on. (We're a bit low on meatheads this month. Maybe we can use you for a few more suicide missions if you come back from this one.)
I expect so, sir."
Calumny gave Dennis a very democratic handshake, then turned to whisper something to Flaster. The director pointed to a door, and the minister waddled out of the lab. Probably to wash his hands, Dennis thought.
"All right, Dr. Nuel," Flaster said cheerfully, "hoist your little alien friend and let's be off with you. I expect you back in under two hours... less if you can control your inclination to explore. Well have champagne chilled by the time you return."
Dennis caught the pixolet in a midair glide from Rich Schwall's hands. The little creature chirped excitedly. After all the crates were loaded ahead of him, Dennis stepped over the airlock's combing.
"Beginning closure procedure," one of the techs announced.
"Good luck, Dr. Nuel!"
Schwall gave him thumbs up.
Bernald Brady came forward to guide the heavy door. "Well, Nuel," he said lowly as the gears slowly turned, "you checked everything, didn't you? You poked through the machine from top to bottom, read the biology report, and didn't need to consult me at all, did you?"
Dennis didn't like the fellow's tone. "What are you getting at?"
Brady smiled, speaking softly so only Dennis could hear him. "I never mentioned it to the others, since it seemed so absurd. But it's only fair to tell you."
"Tell me about what?"
"Oh, It could he nothing at all, Nuel. Or maybe something pretty unusual... like the possibility that this anomaly world has a different set of physical laws than hold sway on Earth!"
By now the hatch had half closed. The timer was running.
This was ridiculous. Dennis wasn't going to let Brady get to him. "Stuff it, Bernie," he said with a laugh. "I don't believe a word of your blarney."
"Oh? Remember those purple mists you found last year, where gravity repelled?"
"Those were different entirely. No major difference in physical law could endanger me on Pix's world -- not when the biology is so compatible.
"But if there's something minor you haven't told me about," Dennis continued, stepping forward, "you'd better spill it now or I swear I'll..."
Strangely, Brady's antagonism seemed to fall away, replaced by apparently genuine puzzlement.
"I don't know what it is, Nuel. It had to do with the instruments we sent through. Their efficiencies seemed to change the longer they were there! It was almost as if one of the thermodynamic laws was subtly different."
Too late, Dennis realized that Brady wasn't just egging him. He really had discovered something that honestly perplexed him. But by now the hatch had closed almost all the way.
Which law, Brady? Dammit, stop this process until you tell me! What law?"
Through the bare crack that remained, Brady whispered, "Guess."
With a sigh the seals fell into place and the hatch became vacuum tight.
In the zievatronics lab, Dr. Marcel Flaster watched Brady turn away from the closed hatch of the anomaly machine. "What was that all about?"
Brady started. Flaster could have swore the fellow grew even paler than normal.
"Oh, it was nothing. We were talking. Just something to pass the time while the hatch closed."
Flaster frowned. "Well, I hope there won't be any surprises at this late stage. I'm counting on Nuel to succeed. I need Flasteria badly with my confirmation hearings coming up next month."
"Maybe he'll manage to pull it off." Brady shrugged.
Flaster laughed. "Indeed. From what I've seen around here, he's sure to succeed. In the last few days he's really got this place humming. I should have brought that young fellow back into this lab months ago!"
Brady shrugged. "Nuel might succeed. Then again, maybe he won't."
Flaster smiled archly. "Ah, well. If he fails, we'll just have to send somebody else, won't we?"
Brady swallowed and nodded. He watched the lab Director turn and walk away.
I wonder if I did the right thing? Brady thought, giving Nuel the wrong modules for fixing the return mechanism.
Oh, he'll figure it out eventually and fix them up. All he has to do is swap the right chips around. I made it look like a factory error so they'll never trace it to me -- though he'll probably suspect.
By the time he's fixed the modules, I'll have had time to work on Flaster. And Nuel's stock won't be so high when the delay stretches into weeks, whatever his excuse!
Brady felt a little guilty about the stunt. It was kind of a nasty trick to play. But all indications showed that Flasteria was a pretty tame place. The robots hadn't seen any big animals, and anyway, Nuel was always talking about what a champion Boy Scout he had been. Let him camp out in the wild for a while, then!
Maybe he'd even figure out what had been happening to the robots, too... that strange alteration in their efficiency profiles.
Oh, Nuel would come back in lather, all right. But by then he, Brady, would have had a chance to win his way back into the Director's good graces. He knew, by now, what buttons to push.
Brady looked at his watch. Gabriella had made a luncheon date with him, and he didn't want to be late.
He straightened his tie and hurried out of the lab. Soon he was whistling.
Continue reading The Practice Effect.