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"Scuba gear," says Josephine Baird, whirling around in her swivel office chair to face Mitch as he comes through the door.

Mitch stops dead in the doorway, stressed and slightly damp from drizzle. He's not very tall; he is carrying a hefty backpack into which he could probably fit, which is full of schoolchildren's marked homework books. "Josephine, traffic getting here was extremely-much worse than I anticipated. They're tearing up the road, for whatever arcane reasons. Got stuck at the railway crossing. If getting back is going to be equally bad, then I need to be leaving in about ten minutes' time. So, if you can not just assail me with non-sequiturs and get to the, like, point, I have lessons to give this afternoon."

"We could have rescheduled--"

Mitch waves a hand, dumps his backpack in the corner, plonks into another chair and scoots over to Seph's desk. "I'm here now. Whatcha got?"

It turns out to be a local newspaper. The story Seph is looking at concerns the mysterious disappearance of some two thousand pounds from a local bank. The theft occurred in the middle of the night; no alarms were tripped, no fingerprints or clues were left, and no security cameras detected anything out of the ordinary. A sealed metal box alongside a few hundred others had contained fifty thousand pounds in the form of thick wodges of twenties one night. The following morning, a single wodge had evaporated. There's a sub-headline:

Police Baffled

Mitch doesn't need to read the story. He knows the story; he has a copy of the same paper.

"You can't breathe when you're completely phased," says Josephine. "To stay completely invisible for long periods of time, you need breathing apparatus. There is only one shop stocking diving equipment within three miles of where you live, and, as it turns out, you have indeed visited them and rented stuff there. Congratulations, Mitch Calrus, you are the world's first supervillain."

Mitch has the expression on his face of a child who has been Caught. He avoids Seph's steely glare and leans back in his chair to put some distance between them. "Haaah. God damn it."

"You are also a terrible, as in ineffective, supervillain. I am the world's laziest amateur detective. I asked literally one question of one single store clerk and I knew it was you."

Mitch still hasn't just run away. He actually looks embarrassed as opposed to defensive. Seph was banking on this. "You do have the advantage of knowing what I can do," says Mitch.

"I know a lot more about what you can do than you do, when it comes down to it. And I'm the only one who knows anything about you. Right now, anyway. Without that extra knowledge, this is an insoluble locked room mystery. On the other hand, I could just tell the police that I have this sensational man here who can see through walls and walk through walls and you'd be going to prison. You wore scuba gear to get into the bank, right? Probably stopped your car around the corner, walked a hundred feet in, a hundred feet out, easy. Have you touched the money yet? With your bare hands? As opposed to through the dry suit."

"Huh, yeah, yeah, I think so..."

"Okay. Have you got a criminal record?"

"No!"

"So if you return the cash tonight, you probably won't get caught by the fingerprints."

Mitch looks stunned. "Look, the diving equipment wasn't cheap..."

"Mitch! Mitch! Look at me! You're a teacher! Of kids! You're supposed to be a role model! What does this say? Crime is bad, except when you can absolutely, positively get away with it? Consider this an expensive mistake. Consider yourself lucky I don't just pick up the phone and turn your expense into jail time."

"They couldn't hold me in jail."

"They can't hold you, but they can make your life unpleasant. You start phasing through police officers, you're resisting arrest. You leave your prison cell, that's much more illegal than stealing cash." Mitch could even kill someone instantly just by materialising his hand in their brain. Seph is extremely confident that Mitch would never do this, but even so, she leaves this part out of her prepared speech. "Follow that path to its logical conclusion. You can't erase a criminal record by being intangible. Living inside the law is comfy. There are nice people here. And from the last however many months, I know you well enough that I know you like doing the right thing. You are a nice person, not a supervillain. This isn't some comic book one-hundred-and-eighty-degree good-to-bad overnight flip. Why did you pinch the money?"

Mitch starts and stops talking a few times as a few emotions - guilt, resentment, defensiveness - clamber over his face. "Well, I'm a teacher. A relatively new one. I don't get paid a huge amount and I have a five-figure student loan. You name it. You're still studying, for your PhD. You know how money goes."

"I do," concedes Seph.

"Well then. And my two housemates got married and moved out. Haven't found anybody to move in instead. It's difficult, you know?"

Seph doesn't know if this last piece of information is true or just something Mitch made up as an additional excuse. "Drugs?"

"Oh, for God's sake." Mitch stands up and stomps angrily away from Seph a step or two.

Seph holds her hands up. "Sorry. Fine. Sorry I asked."

"Have some faith in me for a change."

"I'm trying!"

Mitch folds his arms.

"Okay," says Seph. "Here's what we can do. You take the money back. It reappears as miraculously as it disappeared. Put it back in the same box, ideally. Or somewhere nearby. Make it so it looks like a simple clerical error. So everybody forgets about it ever happening and you get away with it. In return: I will tell you all the amazing breakthrough facts which I have deduced about your mysterious abilities. I'll continue to work with you to figure out the full extent and nature of your powers. And, for your protection, we'll sit on any kind of announcement for at least a year. I'm sure I can think of a year's worth of tests so the time isn't wasted. Sounds fair?"

Mitch glowers a little. "Fine," he says.

"Ten minutes, you said. So that's more or less your time up. Go on, get out of here."

Mitch grunts, picks up his bag and leaves. Seph turns back to her work and giggles at the mental image of assigning a school teacher detention.

 

< Two killed in "transporter accident" | Fine Structure | Crash Zero >

It took me to a while to realise where this 'Internet' thing comes from. After I first managed to decode the signal and connect, I thought it was a signal from the civilisation of some species I hadn't heard of before, and hoped it might be new to everyone. Then when I looked more closely I thought it was a clever fake: an easy mistake to make given all the references to three-dimensional space spread around it. Everyone knows that life in three dimensions is impossible, and intelligent life even more so. But then I couldn't find any mistakes in the presentation of 3D life, so now I think I may have found a leak from some kind of parallel universe or from a civilisation confined to a three-surface in this universe. Of course, that is even more interesting than a new species, so I am about to become famous for this discovery, and very possibly rich and blessed with many offspring. So as an expression of my gratitude, let me introduce myself and tell you a few things about life in my world:

I suppose that from your point of view the most striking difference between your world and mine is that mine is a 'star' and not a 'planet.' Given the inverse-cube law of gravity that applies 'here,' orbiting planets such as the one on which you live are not possible. Conversely, gravity at the surface of a body large enough to sustain nuclear fusion at its core is not as crushingly great as it is in your world, and the heat the fusion generates is also dispersed more quickly, since the size of the volumes it propagates through as it moves towards the surface is proportional to the cube of the distance from the centre, rather than the square of it as in your sun, since they are the 3-dimensional surfaces of 4-dimensional spheres rather than the 2-dimensional surfaces of 3-dimensional spheres. So the surface of Uniworld is a pleasant temperature and gravity does not flatten us.

You will have noticed my misuse of your words 'universe' and 'world' to translate the name of my world. I think this is the best solution to a difficult problem, given that nobody here knows if there are any other worlds like it. Or to put it another way: as far as I know, no-one has even thought about whether there might be. Meteors sometimes fall from the sky, but that has never led anyone to think that there might be something as big as the world out there. When we look up into the sky we do not see the 'stars', if there are any: the light from their surfaces would be too dim to start with, would also get dimmer much quicker than it does for you (another inverse-cube law), and anyway the top layers of our atmosphere are reflective: you could say it's always cloudy. This wonderful new idea of other 'worlds' is one of the things that will draw many females towards me.

So much for cosmology. Before you begin to pity us for the narrowness of of our known unniverse, remember that we have the whole of the surface of a star to call our own, and that this surface is three-dimensional. There is room on Uniworld for as at least as much beauty and wonder as you seem to have found with your telescopes, and it is all accessible if you can afford the plane fare, or if you live long enough to walk, as some species do. And there is another difference between here and your world: intelligent life is abundant on Uniworld, and by that I do not mean that there are many like me (which there are), but that there are uncounted intelligent species. The huge amount of space available to life on Uniworld means that we have uncountably more species than on your Earth, not all of them related to each other, since life has arisen many times. Apart from that, intelligence can arise much more easily here because it is easier to create many complex connections in a small space: remember that the volume of a portion of space (such as that occupied by a brain) varies as the fourth power of its linear dimensions, not merely as the cube of it. So a slightly bigger brain has room for far more neurons (although not all species have brains based on anything analogous to neurons), and each of them is relatively close to far more other neurons.

So we live in what in your terms is a huge world, and have constant dealings with what in your terms would be aliens. And of course we are much cleverer than you. Which brings me to me. It will not be easy to describe my beautiful physique using your language so poor in spatial prepositions, but I will try:

People of my species (there are about three trillion of us) have the trilateral symmetry found in many species in the region around ten million multiples of my body length across where most of us live (we like open spaces, which is why our population is so thinly scattered). In accordance with that I have six limbs in all, corresponding to the six faces of the cuboidal arrangement of the legs of most lower animals in this region. This is a fairly common body geometry for animals with an endoskeleton, although in theory only four legs are required for stability in all three planar dimensions. At some time in the past my ancestors took advantage of this fact to start using two of their forelegs for manipulation of their environment while keeping the other four in a tetrahedrally symmetrical arrangement on the ground. But the mention of the tetrahedron should not lead you to imagine that I have a pointy bottom: everything is gracefully rounded, and my body has a slightly flattened spherical cross-section.

You should imagine my face as more or less a rounded cube (remember the basic trilateral symmetry!) which has been bent around one side of the oblate hyperspheroid of my head, with my three eyes arranged more or less a third of the way to its centre from the centres of three of its faces, and my ears further outwards and towards their rear corners. (Some of what you would think of as hearing is done by my hair, which covers much of my head and my hands and feet.) My mouth is around a quarter of the way from the centre of the cube to the corner of it between my eyes. It has three rather lovely and sensuous lips, one of which flexes in the middle as I open my mouth, which forms a rounded tetrahedral opening for the purposes of eating, and becomes spherical if I am being greedy and open my mouth really wide. Breathing and speaking are carried out exclusively through my nose, with its four nostrils, located on the top of my head. My colouration is indescribable, not just because of its beauty, but also because there is no way to translate between our colour terms. (Presumably the visible spectrum to which our eyes are sensitive would correspond to your infra-red light, since we see heat and the reflection of heat.) My skin features an attractive cubically-repeating pattern of spherical spots, darker on the outside than the inside, with a thin light and dark hexagonally tiled outline. In the expectation of the pleasant activities resulting from my forthcoming fame, the contrast of the pattern is increasing.

On another occasion perhaps I will tell you more about our art, our architecture and our literature. But I must go forth and achieve fame and fortune, and think I have given you quite enough to consider for the moment, given how slowly you think. Maybe by then I'll have thought of some way to tell you my name. Your musical notation just isn't fine-grained enough.

Nice troll guys, very imaginative. But life on disks of dirt dark on one side? You can't seriously expect anyone to swallow that. Still: I have to admit the AIs you have writing this stuff are pretty endearingly thick.

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